The Logic of Collective Action
The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups is a book by Mancur Olson, Jr. first published in 1965. It develops a theory of political science and economics of concentrated benefits versus diffuse costs.
The book challenged accepted wisdom in Olson’s day that:
- if everyone in a group (of any size) has interests in common, then they will act collectively to achieve them; and
- in a democracy, the greatest concern is that the majority will tyrannize and exploit the minority.
The book argues instead that individuals in any group attempting collective action will have incentives to "free ride" on the efforts of others if the group is working to provide public goods. Individuals will not “free ride” in groups which provide benefits only to active participants.
Pure public goods are goods which are non-excludable (i.e. one person cannot reasonably prevent another from consuming the good) and non-rivalrous (one person’s consumption of the good does not affect another’s, nor vice-versa). Hence, without selective incentives to motivate participation, collective action is unlikely to occur even when large groups of people with common interests exist.
The book also noted that large groups will face relatively high costs when attempting to organize for collective action while small groups will face relatively low costs. Furthermore, individuals in large groups will gain less per capita of successful collective action; individuals in small groups will gain more per capita through successful collective action. Hence, in the absence of selective incentives, the incentive for group action diminishes as group size increases, so that large groups are less able to act in their common interest than small ones.
The book concludes that, not only will collective action by large groups be difficult to achieve even when they have interests in common, but situations could also occur where the minority (bound together by concentrated selective incentives) can dominate the majority.