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The Ostroms and Hayek as Theorists of Complex Adaptive Systems: Commonality and Complementarity

The Austrian and Bloomington Schools of Political Economy

ISBN: 978-1-78714-844-4, eISBN: 978-1-78714-843-7

Publication date: 17 October 2017


This chapter uses the theory of complex systems as a conceptual lens through which to compare the work of Friedrich Hayek with that of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom. It is well known that, from the 1950s onwards, Hayek conceptualised the market as a complex adaptive system. It is argued in this chapter that, while the Ostroms began explicitly to describe polycentric systems as a class of complex adaptive system from the mid-to-late 1990s onwards, they had in fact developed an account of polycentricity as displaying most if not all of the hallmarks of organised complexity long before that time. The Ostromian and Hayekian approaches can thus be seen to share a good deal in common, with both portraying important aspects of society – the market economy in the case of Hayek, and public economies, legal and political systems, and environment resources in the case of the Ostroms – as complex rather than simple systems. Aside from helping to bring out this aspect of the Ostroms’ work, using the theory of complex systems as a framework for comparing the Hayekian and Ostromian approaches serves two other purposes. First, it can be used to show how one widely criticised aspect of Hayek’s theory of society as a complex system, namely his account of cultural evolution via group selection, can be strengthened by an appeal to the work of Elinor Ostrom. Second, it also helps to resolve a tension – ultimately acknowledged by the Ostroms themselves – between some of their explicit methodological pronouncements and the actual, substantive approach they adopted in their analysis of polycentric systems.




I am very grateful to Emily Castle, Director of Library and Information Services at the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University, Bloomington, for very kindly sending me copies of some of Vincent Ostrom’s unpublished papers. I am also deeply indebted to Hartmut Kliemt and Jerry Gaus, whose detailed comments on earlier drafts greatly improved this essay. Useful comments were also received from Paul Aligica and Virgil Storr, for which I am also grateful. Needless to say, none of the aforementioned is responsible for any remaining errors and infelicities.


Lewis, P. (2017), "The Ostroms and Hayek as Theorists of Complex Adaptive Systems: Commonality and Complementarity", The Austrian and Bloomington Schools of Political Economy (Advances in Austrian Economics, Vol. 22), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 35-66.



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