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Covenants with and without a Sword: Self-Governance Is Possible


  • Ostrom, Elinor
  • Walker, James
  • Gardner, Roy


Contemporary political theory often assumes that individuals cannot make credible commitments where substantial temptations exist to break them unless such commitments are enforced by an external agent. One such situation may occur in relation to common pool resources, which are natural or man-made resources whose yield is subtractable and whose exclusion is nontrivial (but not necessarily impossible). Examples include fisheries, forests, grazing ranges, irrigation systems, and groundwater basins. Empirical evidence, however, suggests that appropriators in common pool resources develop credible commitments in many cases without relying on external authorities. We present findings from a series of experiments exploring (1) covenants alone (both one-shot and repeated communication opportunities); (2) swords alone (repeated opportunities to sanction each other); and (3) covenants combined with an internal sword (one-shot communication followed by repeated opportunities to sanction each other).

Suggested Citation

  • Ostrom, Elinor & Walker, James & Gardner, Roy, 1992. "Covenants with and without a Sword: Self-Governance Is Possible," American Political Science Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 86(2), pages 404-417, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:apsrev:v:86:y:1992:i:02:p:404-417_08

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