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  • Social Dilemmas and Self-Organization in Pre-Defined and in Self-Selected Groups
  • Viktor J. Vanberg (bio)

Adam Smith and the other Scottish moral philosophers who founded the modern tradition of individualist social thought expected an improvement in the human social condition not from an improvement in men's nature but from their capability to adopt rules and institutions that guide their advantage-seeking dispositions—which the Scots regarded as an unalterable part of human nature—into socially productive channels. Being well aware of the fact that humans can seek their advantage at the expense of others as well as through mutually advantageous cooperation, they saw the challenge of organizing a civilized society in finding ways and means to discourage the first and encourage the latter.

With its interest in the question of how "fallible human beings [can] achieve and sustain self-governing . . . ways of life," 1 the Bloomington research program is very much in this tradition. And with her research on "how to manage commons," Elinor Ostrom focuses on a class of problems where the task of finding institutional devices to foster mutually beneficial cooperation is particularly challenging. Managing common pool resources requires "efforts of individuals and groups to organize and solve social dilemmas," 2 and sustaining such efforts is a more demanding task than encouraging mutually beneficial exchange in the market arena, where economists have traditionally focused their attention. Provided property rights and freedom of contract are institutionally secured, the game of catallaxy , as Hayek called it, selects in favor of mutually beneficial transactions because those who seek to gain unilaterally at others' expense will [End Page 67] face difficulties in finding willing trading partners. It is the social dilemma of problems of the commons that poses a particular challenge because the incentives that work against a cooperative solution do not only come from the temptation to benefit at others' expense, but also from the unwillingness to end up as a 'sucker,' as the only one who cooperates in vein while all or most others defect.

As Elinor Ostrom has pointed out, the commons problem does not only refer to the "management of various natural resource systems by communities of the past," but includes a much wider set of social dilemma situations that testify to the relevance of commons governance institutions in today's world. 3 "The modern corporation," so she notes, "is itself a case in point," 4 and a "contemporary housing condominium is also a commons institution." It is the generalized interpretation of the commons problem that I want to comment on in my contribution: more specifically, I want to draw attention to the difference between two kinds of social dilemma situations that may be described as commons problems.

The first is exemplified by the natural resource systems that constitute the 'classical' case of commons problems. The characteristic feature here is that the problem exists—and that the group that is affected by the problem is already defined—prior to and independently of any effort in self-organization. Nature, so to speak, poses the problem, and a specific group of persons finds itself confronted with the problem. Realizing that they are faced with a problem, they may succeed or not succeed in establishing self-governance institutions that solve their dilemma.

The second kind of social dilemma situation that I have in mind is exemplified by the "modern corporation" and the "contemporary housing condominium" that Elinor Ostrom refers to as illustrations of the generalized commons problem. The characteristic feature here is that the commons problem exists only because a group of persons has chosen to form a group, namely to engage in team-production, as in the case of a firm, or to be co-owners, as in the condominium case. There is not a problem posed by 'nature' to which a group of persons is exposed without their choosing, facing the challenge to organize themselves in order to solve it. It is by their very choice to join in an organized effort that the persons involved create the commons problem that they then, if their joint effort is to succeed, need to solve by appropriate institutional provisions. This short paper looks at how the differences between...