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In the excerpt from Mancur Olson’s classic work “The Logic of Collective Action,” in the Kernell/Smith Reader, the author explores the levels of difficulty posed in coordinating collective action to attain common goals. In addition, since politics is the process through which individuals and groups reach collective agreements and take collective action, collectivity undergirds political decision making and action via cooperation. The chiefest obstacle is the free rider problem arising due to the inherent weakness of group dynamics. In any unit, either one person or a minority actively participates, contributes and sustains the group’s existence. However, all members reap the benefits. Although sharing common interests, free riders inhibit common action.
The next problem owes to the scale or size of the group. Olson argues that in any case, universal participation still constrains common action because divergence of opinions and disparate interests only lead to cacophony. As a consequence, disunity is defined by the inability to reach any consensus. Indeed, this contentious climate barricades collective decision-making and cooperative efforts. On the other hand, unanimity can also impose an overbearing burden on a country’s or an organisation’s resources, as evidenced by the nationalization of public policy in the U.S.
Olson points to the final besetment, the nature of the stakes involved for common goods among the collective. Common goods or public goods indicate the production of most government municipalities and corporations. Some common goods to consider are water, sunlight, air, education, state property and services. Naturally, common interest is defined as the unifying concerns bonding the group. No stakes or vested interests exist in the realm of common goods or public goods. True common goods are non-rival (one’s use of one good or service does not compromise the supply for another) and non-excludable (one may not prevent another from usage or enjoyment). Accordingly, the lack of specific incentives and assumption of universal benefit for common goods obstructs action.
Overall, deducing from the above arguments, Olson advocates for the collective action and political power of small numbers, overturning previous political thought on the tyranny of the majority. His observations are grounded on the real threat of a powerful minority involved in politics. In contrast to mammoth cooperatives, small groups derive advantage from their ability to quickly agree, associate, mobilize and execute. The result is that powerful minorities often command in negotiation processes and even surpass larger, representative bodies. Olson launches into a vivid case study analysis in which ironically, not-so-common interests materialize. Monopolies owning disproportionate shares and fewer stakeholders compete more efficiently and progress faster as politicians show themselves more sympathetic to private lobbies. Olson’s unconventional findings run counter to the popularly held belief that within a democracy, the will of the majority crushes the minority.
At the end of it all, the scales, stakes, sympathies and key concerns and concentrations of representatives play leading roles in burden-sharing, resource distribution, political decision-making, policy-making and the successful passage of lobbies for public benefit. Comparing the operations of small and massive groups, despite their ideals to realize common interests, the stark difference resides in the willingness to make sacrifices to achieve these goals.
Question: How can the passive majority awake to the unpleasant reality and rally themselves to pursue collective action? How can both minority and majority interests harmonize to enhance the crafting of mutually beneficial policies.
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