Collective Action

Although this is a powerful theoretical argument, we know that groups do form, often large ones, such as the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) or the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association. Indeed, over the fifty years since the publication of Olson's book, groups have proliferated. Unlike in earlier generations, many of these new organizations are not organizations with active members; rather, individuals support groups through dues or donations but do little more. Moreover, many groups are financially backed by patrons, making broad-based monetary support less important.

In short, Olson challenged social scientists to think more rigorously about why political groups form and how they maintain themselves. He provided the initial analysis, noting that individual material incentives could lead members to remain in a group; for example, the American Farm Bureau Federation has long offered lowcost insurance policies to its members. Moreover, Olson noted that smaller groups would be more likely to form because their organizational costs would be modest and they could obtain enough of a collective benefit (such as increased defense spending for a few large firms) that it would be worthwhile to organize.

Consider clean air, a classic collective good, and two potential groups—one consisting of those citizens who would like policies that promote cleaner air, and another consisting of a handful of auto manufacturers who would prefer fewer environmental restrictions and more profits. Organizing the legions of individuals who want cleaner air would be difficult, according to Olson: if a fairly large group did get started, adding new members would become increasingly difficult, in that each new member would provide very little additional value to the group, while the incentives to free-ride would be great. More important, all individuals would benefit from cleaner air, regardless of whether they joined. Contrast these conditions with those for the auto manufacturers. With only a few firms, the costs of organizing are low, and the potential benefits are substantial for each company, making it far more worthwhile to organize. Indeed, one of Olson's general implications is that consumers will find it difficult to organize, while producers will find it much easier.

Still, many large groups do form, and their numbers have grown consistently. Various scholars have addressed ways of overcoming the free-rider problem. Some, most notably Robert Salisbury ( 1969 ) and James Q. Wilson ( 1974 ), focused on alternative benefits, in particular social ties (solidarity benefits) and purposive (or expressive) benefits, which provide internal rewards for individuals who act on their own beliefs. These benefits are important in large part because they are cheap. That is, the group entrepreneur ( one of Salisbury's notions ) can provide expressive benefits for doing the right thing, like joining a civil rights group or an antiabortion organization, that provides no material benefits at all. Likewise, solidarity benefits (a sense of camaraderie) may well keep members active in a group that seeks or provides only collective benefits. A good example is the League of Women Voters, as members form close social ties over years of activism.

On occasion, as the political scientist John Mark Hansen ( 1985 ) has observed, political conditions may well push individuals to organize. Consider public school teachers. In most states they are represented by unions in contract negotiations, but joining their respective unions is not mandatory; indeed, many teachers free-ride, knowing that they will benefit from the contract that affects their entire population. But if their core interests are at stake, such as the right to due process in a termination hearing, they might see joining the union or other organizing as a fruitful option.

Mancur Olson made social scientists, and especially political scientists, acutely aware of the collective-action problem, and they responded broadly by developing increasingly nuanced approaches to the issue.

SEE ALSO Civic Associations ; Civic Engagement ; Commons Problems ; Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) ; Interest Groups .


Hansen, John Mark. “The Political Economy of Group Membership.” American Political Science Review 79, no. 1 (1985): 79–96.

Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Salisbury, Robert. “An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups.” Midwest Journal of Political Science 13, no. 1 (1969): 1–32.

Wilson, James Q. Political Organizations. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Burdett A. Loomis
University of Kansas