Monday, March 3, 2014

Two Books I Just Read

Paul Aligica's Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond (Oxford 2014) follows up on the author's 2009 book with Peter Boetkke, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School (Routledge). The earlier book was in the nature of a primer on the Ostroms' analytical approach to institutional analysis - including interviews with both of them. Aligica's new book is about the philosophical roots, ongoing research agenda, and challenging implications for social of the "Bloomington School of Political Economy" that the Ostroms developed along with their Workshop colleagues. Needless to say, from a Workshop point of view, the book is a must read. But even for those who are not Workshoppers, Paul's book is a treasure trove of ideas, connections, and insights into the "Ostromian" way of thinking about complex social and combined social-ecological problems. My only substantive nit to pick about the book is that Paul tries to tie the Ostroms more closely to Friedrich von Hayek than seems plausible. In my view, their notion of collective action and "self-governance" may bear a family resemblance to Hayek's notion of "spontaneous organization," but very little about Ostromian "self-governance" is at all "spontaneous." The Ostroms had more in common with the German Ordo-liberals than the Austrian Libertarian tradition. My only other complaint has nothing to do with anything Paul wrote, but concerns the poor copy-editing by the publisher; the book is riddled, start to finish, with typographical errors.

Rebecca Solnit's highly touted A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Penguin 2010) was intriguing, but ultimately disappointing. She makes a (too) simple argument that social and ecological crises do not lead to social panic, but actually bring people together to engage in social welfare-enhancing collective action. I actually believe that, as well as the strong assertion that "elite panic" is a more prevalent consequence of catastrophes than "public panic." The author provides lots of interesting tales to support her arguments, ranging from the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, to Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11. But I had a constant nagging suspicion that I wasn't reading full stories, but only parts that served the author's narrative. Moreover, in telling about vigilante groups after Hurricane Katrina, she did not portray them as engaging in collective action to create their own paradise, nor as artifacts of the kind of "public panics" she discounts throughout the rest of the book. She never stopped to think about why those private citizens engaged in socially-destructive collective action, while others engaged in socially-useful collective action. By the same token, having acknowledged the generally positive role played by government authorities in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, she never contemplates the more nuanced questions about how, when, and why government authorities might respond appropriately in light of social-ecological crises.

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