As Robert Samuelson describes him in a Washington Post essay, Mancur Olson should be made the official patron economist of Rhode Island, or something:
Although an economist, Olson revolutionized thinking about the political power of interest groups. Until Olson, conventional wisdom held that large groups were more powerful than small groups in pursuing their self-interest — say, a government subsidy, tax preference or a protective tariff. Bigness conveyed power.
Just the opposite, Olson said in his 1965 book “The Logic of Collective Action.” With so many people in the large group, the benefits of collective action were often spread so thinly that no individual had much of an incentive to become politically active. The tendency was to “let George do it,” but George had no incentive either. By contrast, the members of smaller groups often could see the benefits of their collective action directly. They were motivated to organize and to pursue their self-interest aggressively.
Here’s an example: A company and its workers lobby for import protection, which saves jobs and raises prices and profits. But consumers — who pay the higher prices — don’t create a counter-lobby, because it’s too much trouble and the higher prices are diluted among many individual consumers. Gains are concentrated, losses dispersed.
Around here, one can see this dynamic at both the state and local levels. The special interests have much more incentive to become active. So conspicuous is this, at the local level, that those who benefit disproportionately from the higher taxes find it selfish when those who do not push back on excesses. The doubling of a town’s tax levy over a decade is just a few thousand dollars per year to the average taxpayer, but it’s $30 million in brand new elementary schools to teachers, administrators, and parents, as happened not long ago in Tiverton.
Of course, if the effort required of the large group (Samuelson’s term) is relatively minor, and if a small, motivated team can offer the people an option, the large group can still win. However, the special interests will do their best to utterly destroy that team, working especially hard to make sure that few see them as motivated out of a sense of fairness and justice. Rather, there must be some explanation of greed or personal corruption. They must be bad, evil people.
It’s quite an education to be on the receiving end of that dynamic. In some local circles, for example, I’m the symbol of all politically empowered greed in the world because I work to give people a substantive option when it comes to their tax bills, which causes problems for those who want to take money away from their neighbors by force and spend it on things that benefit themselves.
We’ve reached the point, in other words, that the special interest advantage has become a sense of entitlement. That attitude, if not stopped, will lead inexorably to tyranny as entitlement transitions into a sense of a right of ownership.