Sunday, February 03, 2013

Collective Action - Aspiration vs. Reality

Charles Lane wrote a column recently in which he complained that "collective action" is overrated:
[T]he gist [of Mancur Olson's argument] is that large numbers of people do not naturally band together to secure common interests. In fact, the larger the group, the less likely it is to act in a truly collective manner.

As Olson explained, the interests that unite large groups are necessarily of the lowest-common-denominator variety. Therefore the concrete benefits of collective action to any individual are usually small compared with the costs — in time, effort and money — of participation. “Free-riding” is a constant threat — as the difficulties of collecting union dues illustrates.

By contrast, small groups are good at collective action. It costs less to organize a few people around a narrow, but intensely felt, shared concern.
Lane suggests that Olson's thesis is supported by the existence of lobbyists and "special-interest groups that swarm Congress", seeking favorable legislation. He also speaks as if this is a new thing, or that the recognition of diverse interests and competing factions didn't arise until Olson published his 1965 book.

I agree with the general thesis that, the larger the group, the more difficult it is to achieve consensus, and that the difficulty compounds as you try to achieve consensus on a greater number of issues or across a broad range of subjects. Lane is also correct that factions tend to look out for their own self-interest, "whether or not success comes at the larger society’s expense". Lane is correct that groups that self-select for a specific purpose (e.g., to lobby Congress for a favorable tax law, or a protectionist regulation that protects them from competition) can be effective at advancing their agenda. They tend to be even more successful when they are well-funded.

However, he runs into trouble when he attempts to turn his critique of collective action into a critique of stable democracies and, more specifically, the Obama Administration. Turning to a later book by Olson, Lane argues,
His paradoxical, and deeply depressing, conclusion: Political stability is a curse of sorts, because, over time, stable societies accumulate interest groups, with all the distortion and complexity that breeds. “On balance,” he wrote, “special-interest organizations and collusions reduce efficiency and aggregate income . . . and make political life more divisive.”
Lane diagnoses the United States with that "British disease", with too many factions looking out for their own self-interest, with the result that the bargaining table is "too crowded to agree on the problem, much less a solution."

But if we step back for a moment, the foundation of the Lane/Olson "British disease" thesis is weak. First, Britain's fall from its status as a dominant world power followed the collapse of colonialism and its involvement in two world wars. Over that same period the U.K. underwent a massive social transformation. Its likely that the social transformation did lead to a greater number of voices vying for the attention of Parliament, but Britain's decline began long before, under a class-based power structure that was far less responsive to many of those voices, so it's difficult to even find a meaningful correlation, let alone causation. To focus on an increased number of "special interests" while ignoring the economic drivers of Britain's shrinking influence is to miss the forest for the trees.

Further, if it is in fact true that older democracies become ineffecient due to their being overwhelmed by a proliferation of special interests, where can we find the modern, nimble democracies not yet weighted down by faction? France's Fifth Republic? Greece passed its most recent Constitution in 1975 - what should we make of that? Which of the democracies borne of the fall of the Iron Curtain are exemplars of the efficiency and lack of faction that Lane attributes to long-term stability?

In criticizing the President, Lane also misses the entire point of appeals to unity and collective action. It's not that the President is lacks "realism". It's that he, like every President who came before him, recognizes that you don't unify the people or inspire the type of solutions Lane claims he favors by telling the people, "We're hopelessly divided by faction, we have no chance of solving tough issues, so 'every man for himself,' 'good luck and thanks for all the fish.'" The notion of the people as a collective, pulling together, is part of the preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,[note 1] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Divisions among the citizenry, and the need to nonetheless pull together, have been part of presidential rhetoric from the time of George Washington:
Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.

But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.
Lyndon Johnson:
This is one nation. What happens in Selma and Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. But let each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities and let each of us put our shoulder to the wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists. As we meet here in this peaceful historic chamber tonight, men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old Glory to the far corners of the world and who brought it back without a stain on it, men from the east and from the west are all fighting together without regard to religion or color or region in Vietnam.
Jimmy Carter:
With God’s help and for the sake of our nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.
I suspect that Lane has been thinking about the issue of faction and how it impedes government action, and has a better column hidden somewhere inside his head, but made the poor choice of trying to build his case based upon a flawed thesis about the "British disease", presidential rhetoric that is consistent with that of every other president, and the conceit that the concept of faction and competing interests is relatively new to politics. Lane also overlooks the dark side of faction, with its "us versus them" thinking, and although he acknowledges "", he elides from his column any mention of wedge issues and the manner in which political factions and parties attempt to create and exaggerate differences between groups in order to prevent political change or progress. Sometimes it's the rhetoric Lane criticizes, that of unity and common interest, that allows for the type of change he claims to endorse.

Lane betrays his actual complaint when he engages in the language of his own faction, that of the Very Serious Person:
But the president’s paean to collective action lacked Olson’s realism. The question is not just how much more government we need or want, if any. It’s also how much more government we can afford, in light of its purposes and given the risks Olson identified — which have already materialized in the form of unsustainable but politically untouchable entitlement programs.
The question for Lane, though, is not how much government we can afford, because his faction is unconcerned with how government could provide the same level of service at a substantially lower cost. Were Lane to break out of the groupthink of his faction he would acknowledge (as has his paper) that the only government "entitlement" that is projected to be unsustainable is Medicare, while Social Security can be made sustainable for the indefinite future with relatively modest changes. Fixing Medicare? Lane's own newspaper doesn't think the problems are all that difficult to fix, but it's also telling that Lane isn't advocating the immediate, significant cost savings that could come from emulating the better national health insurance plans of other western democracies.

At the end of it all, Lane does a pretty good job of evidencing his larger point, that it's difficult to find solutions when people won't look past their self-interest. He grouses that the President isn't sufficiently serious about entitlement reform while failing to admit that President Obama keeps offering Reagan-style Social Security reforms that will keep its books in balance, despite the howls of factions on the left. He similarly ignores the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) attempts to improve the quality of Medicare while reducing costs, and that its cost-saving measures would be stronger but for the obstructionism and demagoguery of the Republican Party. And of course, he fails to note that Obama was ready to enter into a "grand bargain" with the Republicans on taxes, spending and entitlements but... the Republicans walked away from negotiations.

I can't argue with Lane's feelings - we would all feel better if the government stopped listening to anybody else, and honed in on what we, individually, believed to be in the best interest of the nation. I guess it needs to be said: that's not realistic.

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