Was Mancur Olson wrong? That is the question posed by an essayist at an unlikely website, the American Enterprise Institute. You wouldn’t think that a conservative American think tank would wish to entertain this possibility because Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action has been a revered touchstone for free-market champions since its publication in 1965. It's been rivaled only by similar arguments that Garrett Hardin made in his famous “tragedy of the commons" parable three years later.
Both Olson and Hardin proposed memorable theories for why it is difficult for groups of people to undertake collective action. But recently, on the AEI website, Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rauch seriously considers the possibility that Olson’s analysis is wrong, or at least has been rendered weak by history. The occasion for this reflection is the publication of a new book, Strength in Numbers: The Political Power of Weak Interests, by Gunnar Trumbull, a Harvard business professor.
First, a quick review of Olson, who in the 1960s was an economist at the University of Maryland. Olson pointed to the great effort that it takes to organize people with diffuse interests. It’s hard for them to find each other, come together, and then organize themselves to advance their collective interests. The “logic of collective action,” as Olson put it, is that individuals are so fragmented and diverse that it is difficult for their collective interests to be represented in the public policymaking. That’s why it’s so darn hard for citizens to prevail against corporate lobbies, who tend to have the advantage in securing government favors, subsidies, legal entitlements, etc.