Northwood University

In Defense of Capitalism & Human Progress


Vincent Ostrom (1919-2012): Political Philosopher of Freedom and Federalism by Richard M. Ebeling

On Friday, June 29, 2012, political scientist, Vincent Ostrom, passed away at the age of 92. Dr. Ostrom was one of the leading experts on the structure and content of American constitutional federalism. Born in 1919, he earned his PhD in political science at UCLA in 1950. He took up a teaching position at Indiana University in 1964, and co-founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis with his wife, Elinor Ostrom, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 and died at the age of 78, three weeks before her husband’s death.

Vincent Ostrom’s outstanding work on the American constitutional order, The Political Theory of a Compound Republic (1971, 2nd ed., 1987) is a masterpiece of scholarly exegesis in understanding and interpreting the unique qualities and conceptions of a “self-governing” people based on a careful reading of “The Federalist Papers.” The essays in his The Meaning of American Federalism: Constituting a Self-Governing Society, (1991) elaborate and extend this same theme in a variety of directions.

But his true masterwork is The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge (1997). It is a superb interdisciplinary blending of political philosophy, economics, sociology, history and the theory of language in society. What he shows is that if a free society is to be viable it is necessary to go “beyond supply and demand” (to use Wilhelm Roepke’s phrase).

The free democratic society is more than elections, and legislative procedures, or a written constitution (if it is to be more than a piece of paper). It is, as Ostrom liked to quote Alexis de Tocqueville, based upon the “habits of the heart” and the “character of the mind.” That is, it is dependent upon a wide network of “structures of shared meaning” among the members of a society. Self-governance emerges out of and depends upon how individuals view themselves and others around them. They must believe in and share meanings of human worth, the dignity of each individual, a respect for and tolerance of the diversity of men’s dreams, wishes, hopes and values.

And, they must, most importantly, share a belief-system (which Vincent Ostrom emphasized must be embedded in the language that people use so it guides the way they think about themselves and others) that is based on the idea that it is possible and desirable for men to find ways to peacefully and collaboratively associate and cooperate in the pursuit of their common purposes without violence, oppression, manipulation, deceit, or corruption (including the corruption of language in social and political discourse).

What Ostrom highlighted was that the self-governance of the political democratic process is only one element in a wider meaning and setting of self-governance and a “spirit of democracy.” The character and integrity of democratic governance rises and falls with the stability and sustainability of the social sense of cooperative self-governance by free men in a free society of voluntary association.

Among the weaknesses in maintaining such a self-governing social order is that there is no intergenerational “self-governance gene” that can be passed on. It must be learned and adapted by each new generation. And it can be weakened or lost if the required “habits of the heart” and “character of the mind” are not successfully renewed.

Edward Shils, in his book, Tradition, (1981) pointed out that the traditions and customs of society can only be preserved if there is a three-generational overlap — the child, the parent, and the grandparent — through which the wisdom, insights, understandings and beliefs that only experience and reflection provide can be passed on to the young.

It is not that custom and tradition are forever “frozen.” They change and are modified over the generations. But they do so through that intergenerational sharing of those habits of the heart and character of the mind.
Ostrom’s warning cry was that we have been losing those habits and elements of character upon which a society of self-governing individuals may survive and thrive. They have been weakening because of an alternative mentality of political paternalism and social engineering through the growth and controls of the interventionist and welfare state.

The language of liberty — the language of a free, and self-governing people – is being lost. And it is through our language that we think about ourselves, our relationships to others, and the general social order that we share.

Victor Klemperer, a German Jew, who survived life in Nazi Germany, wrote a book after the war called The Language of the Third Reich. He argued that virtually everyone in Nazi Germany was a Nazi – whether or not they considered themselves to be National Socialists, including many of the victims of the regime (including German Jews).

Why? Because they had been captured by and had adapted in their thoughts and beliefs the ideas and ideology of their Nazi masters. They found it difficult to think about life and morality in any other way; that is, to reason in a way independent of the language of words and political phrases reflecting the Nazi conceptions of man, “race” and society. In their minds, Klemperer was suggesting, they were no longer self-governing human beings, but slaves of the regime since they thought and acted in terms of the lexicon and logic of Hitler’s National Socialism.

Ostrom’s works have tried to warn us to not become “other-governed” individuals before it is too late. Too many of our fellow citizens are captives of such mind and language control: “entitlement,” “unearned income,” “social justice,” and a dictionary of similar terms.

Whether we succumb to collectivist paternalism or preserve the language and ideas of freedom will determine whether or not the great American experiment in self-governance, which so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he travelled in America in the 1830s, will endure.

Vincent Ostrom’s writings not only explain the nature and logic and premises of American self-governance. They also direct us to appreciate the uniqueness in human history of this great American experiment of liberty through divided and decentralized political power; and what a tragic loss it will be if American’s give it up.

He leaves a profound legacy of writings devoted to the philosophy of freedom, with his brilliant analysis of the political institutions and socially shared ideas without which liberty cannot endure.

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is professor of Economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education, was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation.