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The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Second printing with new preface and appendix (Harvard Economic Studies) [Paperback]

Mancur Olson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 31, 1971 0674537513 978-0674537514 Revised
This book develops an original theory of group and organizational behavior that cuts across disciplinary lines and illustrates the theory with empirical and historical studies of particular organizations. Applying economic analysis to the subjects of the political scientist, sociologist, and economist, Mancur Olson examines the extent to which the individuals that share a common interest find it in their individual interest to bear the costs of the organizational effort. The theory shows that most organizations produce what the economist calls “public goods”—goods or services that are available to every member, whether or not he has borne any of the costs of providing them. Economists have long understood that defense, law and order were public goods that could not be marketed to individuals, and that taxation was necessary. They have not, however, taken account of the fact that private as well as governmental organizations produce public goods. The services the labor union provides for the worker it represents, or the benefits a lobby obtains for the group it represents, are public goods: they automatically go to every individual in the group, whether or not he helped bear the costs. It follows that, just as governments require compulsory taxation, many large private organizations require special (and sometimes coercive) devices to obtain the resources they need. This is not true of smaller organizations for, as this book shows, small and large organizations support themselves in entirely different ways. The theory indicates that, though small groups can act to further their interest much more easily than large ones, they will tend to devote too few resources to the satisfaction of their common interests, and that there is a surprising tendency for the “lesser” members of the small group to exploit the “greater” members by making them bear a disproportionate share of the burden of any group action. All of the theory in the book is in Chapter 1; the remaining chapters contain empirical and historical evidence of the theory’s relevance to labor unions, pressure groups, corporations, and Marxian class action.

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The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Second printing with new preface and appendix (Harvard Economic Studies) + Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States
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Editorial Reviews


There is now a considerable body of literature which attempts to apply economic analysis to political problems. In my opinion, Olson's is one of the most successful and provocative of these attempts. Olson's central insight is novel and illuminating to political scientists and he shows that by the use of it he can give familiar facts (about labor unions, farm organizations, and other interest groups) new meaning. I believe that his work is going to force the jettisoning of much of what has been said about interest groups and the revision of the rest. It should also have an influence on the many political scientists who work in the field of organization. (Edward C. Banfield, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Urban Government, Harvard University)

About the Author

Bryan Garsten is Professor of Political Science, Yale University. --This text refers to the Unbound edition.

Product Details

  • Series: Harvard Economic Studies (Book 124)
  • Paperback: 186 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Revised edition (January 31, 1971)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674537513
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674537514
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 5.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #219,629 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT LOGIC, CLEARLY WRITTEN ARGUMENT April 8, 2003
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action is one of the best arguments I have read on the theory of groups. Given its age (it was originally written in the 1960s), it does not include much of the later scholarship on the subject.
However, it is a great introduction to collective action, as the basic argument has not changed: groups in which the benefits from collective goods cannot be denied to people are very difficult to organize. Organization will more lilkey come about when there is one (or a small number of) individual whose cost of action is lower than his own expected benefits; this leads to an exploitation by the small of the large, which is an interesting and counterintutive situation.
Olson provides a wide array of examples, which are of course old but nonetheless relevant. Examples include farming organizations, trade unions, business pressure groups, medical associations, etc. Overall, I found this book to be very interesting and easy to read, as the economics hardly ever go beyond basic math. For people who like rational arguments, it will be a pleasure to read this. The most interesting portion of the book, in my opinion, is the author's argument why Marxism does not work in practice in the way that Marx predicted.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Logically indeed April 6, 2004
In this influential work, Mancur Olson is dismissing the 'classical' group theories, as he calls them. Rational individuals will rarely contribute to a common (or collective in the economics-lingo) good, because their contribution will be insignificant and the good will be produced whether the individual provides the good or not. With his stringent logic, the late Olson reminds his readers that groups of all kinds consist of individuals, and that these individuals usually follow there own interest, which not necessarily correspond with the organization's.
The book's explanatory powers are tremendous. Why large groups very rarely if ever are able to organize, and at the same time why some small groups exercise extraordinary amounts of power is Olsons main point of interest. In the very interesting last chapter he describes which features an organization, be it a farmer union, a labor union, a profession lobby or a special interest group, must inhibit to attain members.
The best trait of the book (at least for this reviewing economist) is the persuasive logic with which the arguments are hammered home, and the instructive examples that are used to illustrate the point just made. One little objection should be Olson's (human) tendency to arrogance when he is most pleased with his own conclusions. However: still an excellent read, 40 years after it's first printing.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to Explain History April 18, 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Many people discuss the influence of groups, but few really understand why some groups have are more effective than others. Mancur Olson crafted subtle and persuasive arguments explaining why special interest groups are often so effective. People participate in groups according to the expected marginal costs and benefits. Problems with group action emerge when we consider externalities and public goods provision within groups.

Olson's theory is applied to labor unions, corporations, and other pressure groups. Olson also has a critique of Marxian class theory which drives one more nail into the coffin of communism. The Logic of Collective Action is important because it explains so much about how real groups have functioned throughout history. Pressure groups date back to the ancient world, and Olson's theory fits very well with this experience.

Olson's ideas need further dissemination because most people get the special interest issue wrong. Most people recognize that pressure groups are often pernicious. But all too many people think that undue special interest influence is just a current phase that can be dealt with in a simple manner. This book indicates that we really should reconsider the role of government in society, especially at the Federal level. Olson is certainly not an anarchist, he insists that there are some things that government can and should do. However, the inevitability of special interest influence does make it impossible for government to function as many would like it too. Read this book along with Gordon Tullock's The Politics of Bureaucracy. Olson and Tullock enable us to make greater sense of world history.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
I initially read Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action over 30 years ago, and have found it to be a seminal work of economic scholarship that resonates over the decades. This masterpiece is in urgent need of new attention, especially as America confronts its role in a post September 11 society.

Olson's theory is deceptively simple: goods that are primarily public (everything from a town park to a cruise missile) suffer from a "free rider" problem, in that most of those who would benefit from their provision are not personally motivated to pay for them. Thus, collective action, undertaken through the political sphere, is needed to provide goods and services intended for the collective welfare.

"The Logic of Collective Action" is based on economic theory. Olson's theory recognizes that competitive markets are the best source of private goods, but draws an articulate and compelling case for the intervention of government to provide those goods and services that are beneficial for society, but which cannot be offered effectively through market mechanisms.

A re-reading of this concise and well-written volume is urgently needed in 2007 America. For close to three decades, the downsizing of government has been the dominant theme in U.S. political life. Some of this trimming may well have been appropriate, but events of recent years (September 11, the Katrina hurricane, the possibility of adverse climate change) suggest that collective action is needed to address the most pressing problems of our time.

Olson's gem of a book is a worthwhile place to start our national reconsideration of the logic of collective action.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Reference
I needed this for my research and found the price and quality good. The content was well written and just what I needed.
Published 5 months ago by Leigh A. Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid text
I was trying to figure out a framework for an organization with a volunteer component. Did help me to those ends. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, if a little technical.
Anyone interested in how the world of groups and organizations work should read this book. Even by the author's admission it's technical, and hard to follow at times if you're not... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Bob Graham
5.0 out of 5 stars Why organize?
This book is deceptively simple. It asks a basic question about political organization, but defies conventional explanations. Read more
Published on February 11, 2012 by Enjolras
4.0 out of 5 stars Grouping
I have long been fascinated by the study of groups and how they function. I've read many of the famous thinkers and sociologists on this topic and found this work to be among the... Read more
Published on January 3, 2012 by J. Smallridge
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic in Early Rational Choice
Olson takes issue with the idea - stemming from group theory - that groups of rational individuals will cooperate in pursuit of common interests because they would all be better... Read more
Published on December 7, 2009 by Matthew P. Arsenault
5.0 out of 5 stars The Logic of Collective Action
This is a fine new edition of a seminal work in modern economics and political theory. Olson, in this work, introduced the concept of collective action problems: that the costs... Read more
Published on January 9, 2007 by Richard E. Mendales
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful book
Although refuting Marx is hardly a challenge, the argument against Marx here deviates from the norm with a refreshing new perspective. Read more
Published on August 29, 2006 by GangstaLawya
4.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat dated, but still worth reading
This book does a good job of describing the effects of financial incentives on the ability of large and small groups to organize to promote their interests. Read more
Published on October 9, 2004 by Peter McCluskey
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