Common Sense: Order Without Law

Over the week end, I read Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom’s obituary in The Economist. “It seemed to Elinor Ostrom,” The Economist summarized her findings,  “that the world contained a large body of common sense. People, left to themselves, would sort out rational ways of surviving and getting along.” 

Reading about her work on the commons reminded me of Robert Ellickson’s book, Order Without Law, that came out towards the end of my university days (David Friedman’s 1992 review is available online), and a couple of other articles on self-regulating industries such as diamond traders, that I read at the time – empirical studies that were in particular looking at how these groups dealt with disputes. Ellickson’s field work, for example, showed that recourse to legal dispute resolution was primarily for disputes with outsiders, and internal rules would often deviate from the law.

Stuff they don’t usually teach you in law school. At least they didn’t back then and not in this country, and I doubt they do now.  Which is a pity, since this research creates an awareness that non-legal norms are sometimes more relevant, and perhaps even more efficient, than the law, And it is sad and telling at the same time, that The Economist refers to “political science, ecology, psychology and anthropology” as disciplines that were relevant to Ostrom’s work, but there is no mention of the law.

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