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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) Revised Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674537514
ISBN-10: 0674537513
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Editorial Reviews

Review

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)

From the Back Cover

'This superb little volume is worthy of the attention of all social scientists. it can lead to a healthy and challenging discussion and perhaps to a reappraisal of pressure groups in American society.Public Opinion Quarterly.
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Product Details

  • Series: Harvard Economic Studies (Book 124)
  • Paperback: 186 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Revised edition (January 1, 1971)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674537513
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674537514
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #66,821 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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Format: Paperback
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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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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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 off if the objective were achieved. Olson contends that instead, individuals will seek to maximize their own personal utility at the expense of the common interest unless there is (1) a coercive force making them cooperate, or (2) there is an individual incentive, beyond the common good, that provides individual benefits so that they contribute to the costs of achieving the collective good. The logic supporting this claim suggests that although members in a group have a common interest, they also have their personal interests. For example, a group of firms wants to keep prices high, while individual firms seek to maximize profit. In order to maximize profit, the individual firm must increase output. If all firms increase output, prices (the common good) will fall. This illustrates that the individual may act rationally in pursuit of his individual may act rationally in pursuit of his individual interests, but ultimately irrationally in pursuit of the common good.

This leads to a second major point, that is a discussion of the free-rider problem. Essentially, the free-rider occurs when the common good is non-excludable, that is, even those who don't contribute to the procurement of the good are not excluded from enjoying its benefits. It is rational for individual to not contribute. As the function of any group is to provide collective benefits, there must be some kind of coercive mechanism to ensure that everyone contributes. Here it may be helpful to think of state-tax policies. Without coercion, no one would contribute, and the group - here the state - would fail to function.
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