Mancur Olson

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Mançur Olson
Mancur Olson.jpg
Mançur Lloyd Olson Jr.

(1932-01-22)January 22, 1932
DiedFebruary 19, 1998(1998-02-19) (aged 66)
NationalityUnited States
InstitutionUniversity of Maryland
Princeton University
FieldInstitutional economics
School or
New institutional economics
Alma materHarvard University (PhD)
University of Oxford (MA)
North Dakota State (BA)

Mançur Lloyd Olson Jr. (/ˈmænsər/;[2] January 22, 1932 – February 19, 1998) was an American economist and political scientist who taught at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most influential contributions were in institutional economics, and in the role which private property, taxation, public goods, collective action, and contract rights play in economic development.

Education and career[edit]

Olson graduated from North Dakota State University, and was a Rhodes Scholar at University College, Oxford before he earned a PhD in economics from Harvard in 1963.

His first job was as an assistant professor at Princeton University. Afterwards, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare for two years in Washington, D.C. In 1969 he left government and joined the economics department of the University of Maryland, College Park, where he remained until his death.[1] He is buried alongside his parents and grandparents, east of Buxton, North Dakota, in the cemetery of Grue Lutheran Church (first established as Grue Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church).


Academic work[edit]

In his first book, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965), he theorized that what stimulates people to act in groups is incentive; members of large groups do not act in accordance with a common interest unless motivated by personal gain (economic, social, etc.). While small groups can act on shared objectives, large groups will not work towards shared objectives unless their individual members are sufficiently motivated.[3]

In 1982, he expanded the scope of his earlier work in an attempt to explain The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982). He argues that groups such as cotton-farmers, steel-producers, and labor unions have an incentive to form lobby groups and influence policies in their favor. These policies will tend to be protectionist, which will hurt economic growth; but because the benefits of such policies are concentrated, and their costs are diffused throughout the whole population, there will be little public resistance to them. As distributional coalitions accumulate, nations burdened by them will fall into economic decline. His work influenced the formulation of the Calmfors–Driffill hypothesis of collective bargaining.[4]

In his final book, Power and Prosperity (2000), Olson distinguished between the economic effects of different types of government, in particular, tyranny, anarchy, and democracy. Olson argued that under anarchy, a "roving bandit" only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a "stationary bandit"—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government.[5] Olson's work on the roving vs. stationary bandits is influential in analysis of the political and economic order structured in warlord states and societies.[citation needed]

Policy work[edit]

To help bring his ideas to the attention of policymakers, Olson founded the Center for Institutional Reform in the Informal Sector ("IRIS Center"), funded by USAID (United States Agency for International Development). Based at the University of Maryland, the Center sought to supply an intellectual foundation for legal and economic reform projects carried out by USAID in formerly communist states that were attempting to make the transition to market-driven democratic governments governed by the rule of law. It was particularly active in East and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The Center also became actively involved in projects in South America, Africa, and Asia, where it became a proponent of judicial independence. It sponsored the first conference on corruption in francophone Africa in the 1990s, when it was a very sensitive subject. The IRIS Center continued to operate after Olson's death, but was eventually folded into other programs at the University of Maryland.

To honor Olson's many contributions, the American Political Science Association established the Olson Award for the best PhD dissertation in Political Economy.[6] In 2013 the University of Maryland announced the creation of a new endowed professorship—the Mancur Olson Professor of Economics.[7] Maryland Professor of Economics Peter Murrell was the first Mancur Olson Professor.

Selected works[edit]


  • The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1965. ISBN 0-674-53751-3.
  • The No-growth society. New York, NY: Norton. 1974. ISBN 0-393-01111-9.
  • A New approach to the economics of health care. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. 1981. ISBN 0-844-72212-X.
  • The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1982. ISBN 978-0300030792.
  • A Not-so-dismal Science: A Broader View of Economies and Societies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 0-198-29369-0.
  • Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships. New York: Basic Books. 2000. ISBN 0-465-05195-2.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Peter Passell (February 24, 1998). "Mançur Olson, 66, a Professor and Author of Economics Books". New York Times.
  2. ^ The Economic Journal, Vol. 109, No. 456, Features (Jun., 1999), p. F445.
  3. ^ Mancur Olson Jr., 1965, 2nd ed., 1971. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Harvard University Press, Description, Table of Contents, and preview.
  4. ^ Mancur Olson, 1982. The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities, Yale University Press, 1982. Description, chapter-preview links, and review quotes.
  5. ^ Mancur Olson, 2000. Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships, Oxford University Press. Description and chapter-preview links. Foreign Affairs review.
  6. ^ Organized Section 25: Mancur Olson Best Dissertation Award
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-12-02. Retrieved 2013-05-18.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

External links[edit]