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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The logic of collective action

 
In 1965, Mancur Olson wrote a classic book called "The Logic of Collective Action," which pointed out that large, amorphous groups are often less powerful politically than small, organized ones. He followed it up with "The Rise and Decline of Nations." In that book, Olson observed that as the number of small, organized factions in a society grows, the political culture becomes more divisive, the economy becomes more rigid and the nation loses vitality.
 
If you look around America today, you see the Olson logic playing out. Interest groups turn every judicial fight into an ideological war. They lobby for more spending on the elderly, even though the country is trillions of dollars short of being able to live up to its promises. They've turned environmental concern into subsidies for corn growers and energy concerns into subsidies for oil companies.
 
The $307 billion farm bill that rolled through Congress is a perfect example of the pattern. Farm net income is up 56 percent over the past two years, yet the farm bill plows subsidies into agribusinesses, thoroughbred breeders and the rest.