Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, June 11, 2009

15. The Logic of Collective Action

Note: This post is the fifteenth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

The Logic of Collective Action, by Mancur Olson, is a pretty straightforward book, at heart. There is one primary argument which is at once profound and straightforward:

Almost all group activity has a prisoner's dilemma type structure.

The argument is as follows:
1) People form groups to further their interests
2) The interests that the group is intended to further are non-excludable* in the sense that the benefits will accrue to all group members, regardless of their contribution towards achieving them.
3) People have an incentive to 'free ride' by getting the benefits of group membership while not contributing personally towards the achievement of group goals.

* Olson calls these public goods but acknowledges that the 'non-rival' component of the standard definition of public goods is not all that relevant to his argument

For example:

1) a labour union is formed to further its member's (the workers) interests.
2) the goals that the union pursues higher wages, better working conditions, etc. will go to all union members
3) Maintaining an effective union takes work (dues need to be paid to support it financially, people have to be willing to go on strike and forego their paycheck if necessary, etc.) and workers have an incentive to try and gain the benefits from the union without contributing towards achieving its objectives.

The notion is that if other people are going to cooperate (i.e. contribute towards group goals), then the best approach for a person is to defect or free-ride (i.e. not contribute towards group goals). And if other people aren't going to contribute towards group goals then you are still best off to also not contribute.

This is equivalent to the original Prisoner's Dilemma scenario where regardless of what your fellow prisoner does, the best option is to rat them out and confess.

Olson is primarily arguing against those who assume that group members always have individual interests that are aligned with the group interest.

Olson figures that in small enough groups, the members may each get enough benefit for it to be worth it to contribute (although contribution levels will still be less than the optimal or efficient level) but for larger groups there is unlikely to be any contributions (or any group) at all.

Taking the example of labour unions, Olson notes that historically unions started from small groups and only later merged into bigger organizations.

For large or 'latent' groups, as Olson calls them, to maintain themselves, they either need to make membership in the group mandatory to prevent free riding, or they need to provide a specific benefit to group members that justifies their membership beyond the public benefit. This is why unions want a closed shop and why professional associations (e.g. bar associations) want the same thing.

It is also why small groups of people with a common interest are often more powerful than large groups with a common interest. Olson notes that business lobbyists are effective within a particular industry, where there are typically only a handful of players, but lobby groups that represent business as a whole are weak because the individual members have little incentive to support the general business lobby group.

One way around this dilemma, Olson notes, is for large groups to use a federated structure, much in the way that most large unions are organized with locals and umbrella groups. Another similar option, that Olson doesn't mention, but I want to throw in so I don't forget about it later, is to use a hierarchical structure, where there are small groups that report to a single superior, and then a small group of superiors who report up to another higher superior, and so on.

Naturally, the larger the group, the less likely it is that you can count on everyone else to contribute, which in turn means the less likely you are to contribute so the harder it gets to achieve the group goals as the group gets larger.

On the topic of large groups, Olson notes that even the state, which can appeal to patriotism and which provides large economic benefits to the citizens by virtue of its existence, can not rely on voluntary contributions and instead must compel people to pay taxes.

Unfortunately, Olson does not pursue this further to inquire why, under a democracy where voters could presumably elect those politicians promising to eliminate taxes, taxes still remain, or to consider the possibility that a significant number of people are happy to pay taxes as long as they know that everybody else is paying a fair share as well - meaning that the compulsory nature of taxation might only be down to a small group of anti-social people who would try to free-ride. Or, in other words, the ironic prospect that it might only be due to the presence of libertarians that we need a coercive state.

We can see the limitations of Olson's concerns about the impossibility of collective action in large groups more clearly from a passage on page 64,
"Some critics may protest that even if social pressure does not exist in the large or latent group, it does not follow that the completely selfish or profit maximizing behaviour, which the concept of latent groups apparently assumes, is necessarily significant either; people might even in the absence of social pressure act in a selfless way. But this criticism of the concept of the latent group is not relevant, for that concept does not necessarily assume the selfish, profit-maximizing behaviour that economists usually find in the marketplace. The concept of the large or latent group offered here holds true whether behaviour is selfish or unselfish, so long as it is strictly speaking "rational".


"A man who tried to hold back a flood with a pail would probably be considered more of a crank than a saint, even by those he was trying to help. It is no doubt possible infinitesimally to lower the level of a river in a flood with a pail ... but the effect is imperceptible, and those who sacrifice themselves in the interest of imperceptible improvement may not even receive the praise normally due selfless behaviour."

It's hard to imagine a poorer choice of analogy. Anyone who's ever lived near a river, and even most who haven't, probably appreciates that you don't hold back a flood with a pail (what would you do with the water in your pail?), you hold back a flood with sandbags. I mention the word 'sandbag' and what mental image comes into your head? If you're like me it's the image of a large group of people working day and night often with the help of many selfless volunteers to build walls of sandbags to prevent a river from flooding a community - exactly what Olson is arguing will not happen.

Moving on, there's a very interesting passage on page 100 where Olson quotes at length from Hans Ritschl in 'Community Economy and Market Economy',
"The fatherland and mother tongue make us all brethren together. Anyone is welcome to the exchange society who obeys its regulations. But to the national community belong only the men and women of the same speech, of the same ilk, the same mind ... Through the veins of society streams the one, same money; through those of the community, the same blood...

Any individualist conception of "the State" is a gross aberration ... [and] nothing but a blind ideology of shopkeepers and hawkers.

The State economy serves the satisfaction of communal needs ... If the State satisfies needs which are purely individual, or groups of individual needs which can technically be met otherwise than jointly, it does so for the sake of revenue only.

In the free market economy the economic self-interest of the individual reigns supreme and the almost sole factor governing relations is the profit motive, in which the classical theory of the free market economy was appropriately and securely anchored. This is not changed by the fact that more economic units, such as those of associations, cooperatives or charities, may have inner structures where we find motivations other than self-interest. Internally, love or sacrifice, solidarity or generosity may be determining: but irrespective of their inner structures and the motives embodied therein, the market relations of economic units with each other are always governed by self-interest.

In the exchange society, then, self-interest alone regulates the relations of the members; by contrast, the state economy is characterized by communal spirit within the community. Egotism is replaced by the spirit of sacrifice, loyalty and communal spirit ... This understanding of the fundamental power of the communal spirit leads to a meaningful explanation of coercion in the state economy. Coercion is a means of assuring the full effectiveness of the communal spirit, which is not equally developed in all members of the community.

The objective collective needs tend to prevail. Even the party stalwart who moves into responsible government office undergoes factual compulsion and spiritual change which makes a statesman out of a party leader ... There is not a single German statesman of the last 12 years .. who escaped compliance with this law."

To which Olson comments,

"Ritschl's argument is exactly the opposite of the approach in this book. He assumes a curious dichotomy in the human psyche such that self-interest rules supreme in all transactions among individuals, whereas self-sacrifice knows no bounds in the individual's relationship to the state and to the many types of private organizations."

Personally, I was instantly struck by the echoes of Jane Jacobs 'Systems of Survival' in Ritschl's passage, with his references to an exclusive state sector with a spirit of loyalty, sacrifice, coercion and communal spirit in contrast with a cosmopolitan commercial sector open to all and characterized by pursuit of self-interest. Not to mention Olson's response describing Ritschl's 'curious dichotomy'!

Thinking of Jacobs helps us find the passage in Olson's work that reconciles his views with the 'exactly opposite' views of Ritschl - footnote 17 on page 61, which says,

"In addition to monetary and social incentives, there are also erotic incentives, psychological incentives, moral incentives and so on. To the extent that any of these types of incentives leads a latent [large] group to obtain a collective good, it could only be because they are or can be used as 'selective incentives," i.e., because they distinguish between those individuals who support action in the common interest and those who do not. Even in the case where moral attitudes determine whether or not people will act in a group-oriented way, the crucial factor is that the moral reaction serves as a "selective incentive." If the sense of guilt, or the destruction of self-esteem, that occurs when a person feels he has forsaken his moral code, affected those who had contributed toward the achievement of a group good, as well as those who had not, the moral code could not help to mobilize a latent group.

To repeat: the point is that moral attitudes could mobilize a latent group only to the extent they provided selective incentives. The adherence to a moral code that demands the sacrifices needed to obtain a collective good therefore need not contradict any of the analysis in this study; indeed this analysis shows the need for such a moral code or for some other selective incentive." (my italics)

So on page 100, Olson is baffled by Ritschl's argument that people will abide by a collectivist moral code when working in collective activities and a self-interested moral code when working in market activities, suggesting that this was the opposite of his argument.

But back on page 61, Olson came out and said that one way to overcome the problems of collective action was to employ a special moral code for collective activities which puts the group interest ahead of the selfish interest - something that his theory demonstrates the need for!

I'll close this post with a passage from David Hume's 'A Treatise of Human Nature' that Olson, in footnote 53 (many of the most important parts of the book are in the footnotes), says was pointed out to him by John Rawls,

"There is no quality in human nature which causes more fatal errors in our conduct, than that which leads us to prefer whatever is present to the distant and remote, and makes us desire objects more according to their situation than their intrinsic value. Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because it is easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole
project. But it is very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons should agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and would lay the whole burden on others. Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. Magistrates find an immediate interest in the interest of any considerable part of their subjects. They need consult no body but themselves to form any scheme for the promoting of that interest. And as the failure of any one piece in the execution is
connected, though not immediately, with the failure of the whole, they prevent that failure, because they find no interest in it, either immediate or remote. Thus bridges are built; harbours opened; ramparts raised; canals formed; fleets equiped; and armies disciplined every where, by the care of government, which, though composed of men subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, which is, in some measure, exempted
from all these infirmities."

Labels: , , , , , ,


  • Thank you for this insightful post-one of the few I have found on Mancur Olson's work.

    By Anonymous Victoria Wilson, at 5:34 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home