Eyes on the Prize

Next week the 2009 year’s Nobel winners receive their prizes. They include two women who deserved their awards but are not likely to draw cheers from feminist celebrities.

This year, for the first time, the Nobel committee awarded the prize in economics to a woman. Elinor Ostrom was not picked simply because she is a woman. More notably, she did not win the prize for a study of the “wage-gap,” female unhappiness, gender discrepancies on Broadway, or any other “women’s studies” issue.

Elinor Ostrom, who teaches economics at Indiana University and Arizona State, has spent her career studying the way people interact with natural resources such as forests, lakes, groundwater basins, and fisheries. She conducts a great deal of field work in these areas. Some tout her as an opponent of privatization, but it is not so simple. She does not hail the government as the best protector and allocator of natural resources. For that role she favors those actually using the resources because those local experts are best suited to manage them. Bureaucrats not locally based lack the first-hand knowledge and expertise.

She may not be a vocal advocate of the free market but Elinor Ostrom is not a champion of centralized control or government monopoly. That is why those feminists, who favor state control, have not hailed her for winning the Nobel Prize. Neither have feminists trumpeted Herta Muller, this year’s Nobel winner for literature. She is not the first woman to win that prize, but a much better choice than in recent years.

Herta Muller was born and raised in Romania, part of that country’s ethnic German minority. After World War II, the Soviet Union sent many members of that minority, including Herta’s mother, to the gulag. Herta’s primary subject was life under the regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu, Romania’s former Communist dictator. Herta says all her books are about that topic, which she didn’t choose. Rather, it was thrust upon her, another way of saying that writers enjoy few choices under a Communist dictatorship.

Such regimes keep watch on everyone through a secret police force and a network of informers. Herta Muller declined to become one of those and would not cooperate with the secret police when she worked as a translator in a factory. Her reward was to be fired. During the 1970s she joined other writers opposed to the Ceaucescu regime and in 1982 published a collection of short stories.

The Romanian regime suppressed the book, but could not prevent copies from finding their way into Germany. There Muller’s work gained a readership and earned critical success. After a second book, the Ceaucescu regime banned her from publishing anything. So she fled the country and made her way to West Germany, where she could write in freedom.

She outlasted the hard-line Ceaucescu regime, which rejected Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, and which fell 20 years ago. Herta Muller counted the cost of exposing that regime, and was willing to pay it. That explains why feminist celebrities never championed her cause, and are unlikely to do so now.

They remain silent in the face of socialist tyranny and prefer to attack free Western countries as oppressive. That is the preference of writers such as Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2004, a feminist militant who joined the Austrian Communist Party in 1974 and remained in it until 1991.

Herta Muller and Elinor Ostrom are worthy recipients of their respective prizes. That can’t be said of this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. I’ll have to remain a contrarian on that.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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