Mancur Olson’s “The Logic of Collective Action” (book review)

KU Campus, Lawrence, 2006

Ryan Chapman, who makes instructive videos about political ideologies on YouTube (he is about due for another one as of now), recommended (to me at least) the little book “The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups”, by professor Mancur Oslon, published in 1965, now by Harvard University Press in paperback, ISBN 0-674-53751-3, 186 pages, with a Preface (1971), an Introduction and six long chapters, each divided into sections, running to page 174. (The word “group” here is not quite the same as in algebra in mathematics; are there “operations” among individuals in a “group”?)

Going back to look at a classic book like this reminds me of “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer, 1951, about mass movements and why ordinary people have to join them sometimes. 

quick summary of book by Vulk Coop

This topic is very important to me.  There is an issue for writers and bloggers, or especially now video channel owners, whether to run things completely on their own and say exactly what they want, or instead join with others in collective (politically correct) group speech.  This plays out differently on the Left and Right, but is more pertinent for the Left. Individualized speech like mine is likely to be perceived as disrupting the opportunities for marginalized groups to achieve solidarity in what gets presented to the public.  That is especially so if the speech is “gratuitous” (does not pay its own way).

lecture by Steven Suranovic

The overall message of the book is something like this:  Groups, especially larger groups, tend to be most effective if any individual who wants the (political or economic) benefits procured by the group has to belong to the group (and support the group publicly).  In the Introduction, p. 2, Olson writes, “Indeed, unless the number of individuals in a group is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interest.”

From about pp 22-32 in Chapter 1, Olson offers some mathematical theorems and proofs with calculus and perhaps partial differential equations, following the writings common in graduate school economics, even in the 60s (when I was in grad school in mathematics). 

In Chapter 3 he discusses labor unions, with the obvious issues of closed or union shops v. right to work laws, and the resulting “free rider” problems.  My reaction is that I worked in IT (mostly mainframe) my whole career, as a “salaried professional” (not union), so I sometimes worked overtime without pay (in a few cases covered other people’s on-call duties without compensation because I had fewer family responsibilities as a single person without kids – you can see the “moral” problems mount very quickly, but in the 90s this tended to get swept out of sight).

On p. 104, Olson discusses Marxism, where economic activity and private ownership has led to opposing interests between the “proletariat” and the “bourgeoisie”, over the moral problem of benefiting unduly from inherited (presumably unearned personally) wealth.  On an individual level, I have tended to look at this as the “pay your dues” problem, or it might be seen as an argument for social credit (or even making such credit into a crypto currency and storing it on a blockchain forever!)  What happens is that identity groups from around the idea of “oppressor” and “oppressed”, the latter forming new intersectional groups and using them as a source of personal identity (following “critical theory”).

In the last chapter Olson discusses lobbying and special interests.

My own reaction to Olson’s ideas seems focused in one particular area, that is “freedom of reach” with my own Internet speech.  There have been objections and challenges communicated to me on this area. My style of writing and presenting materials is not necessarily popular with the public as a whole (low numbers) but tends to get noticed by policy makers.  In a few instances this has given me personal leverage (or “power”) to influence an outcome out of proportion to my own “skin in the game” (Taleb’s idea) in terms of direct responsibility for others (like children or family) or earned political constituencies.  Should I not “care” more personally about how badly many people (who claim “oppression”) are doing right now?  One answer could be coercion.  Imagine a world where, to have a public website, you first had to make some kind of contribution (and “bend the knee”) toward a specific group grievance, say in the form of “anti-racism”.   A more troubling and challenging question to confront me with would be, why have I not allowed others in need to bond with me personally (there are ”opportunities” being thrown around all the time, in social media and even MSM).  That would solve some of the “skin in the game” problem,

(Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2022 at 1 PM EDT by John W. Boushka)

“Rise Against Hunger” volunteer experience (2 hours)

setup before the Rise Against Hunger session

Today, at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, in the renovated Fellowship Hall, we had a volunteer session putting together 10,000 food packages, as supervised and set up by an organization called Rise Against Hunger.

Rise Against Hunger video

The volunteers at tables, each a workstation with about 10 volunteers each to perform some task. I received the bags of rice, weighed them and adjusted the weight to fall within a prescribed range (about 380 grams).

two piano room FBC

Other people stamp-closed the bags, which went into the packages that then got boxed up.

We actually got it done in slightly over two hours.

Corridor, FBC Fellowship Hall

Larger events building care boxes have been held on the National Mall or in a space near the Tidal Basin in the past on some holiday weekend.

Working in an assembly line is a humbling “proletariat” experience.  Imagine living in China, living in a militarized dorm (right now with Covid restrictions) and doing maybe 60 hours a week of monotonous, regimented work, and being spot checked.  It sounds like “detail” in Army Basic.

(Posted: Sunday, June 5, 2022 at 9 PM EDT)