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The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  845 ratings  ·  40 reviews
This book develops an original theory of group and organizational behavior that cuts across disciplinary lines and illustrates the theory with empirical and historical studies of particular organizations. Applying economic analysis to the subjects of the political scientist, sociologist, and economist, Mancur Olson examines the extent to which the individuals that share a ...more
Paperback, 186 pages
Published January 1st 1971 by Harvard University Press (first published 1965)
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Oct 24, 2013 rated it it was ok
The Logic of Collective Action

JDN 2456594 PDT 15:55.

The blinders neoclassicists wear are large indeed. This book was written in 1971, and the neoclassical understanding of collective action has, as far as I can tell, not been substantially advanced since then—in over 40 years, the essential conclusions haven't changed.
This would not be a problem, of course, if those conclusions were correct; but they aren't. Indeed they are wrong at a fundamental level; they are almost literally reversed from t
Sep 23, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Desiderio da Settignano
Shelves: own, economics
This is one of the seminal social science works of the 20th century. Olson argued (contrary to the conventional academic wisdom up to that time) that "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 interests." (Emphasis his.) It makes no rational sense for an individual to join an organization a ...more
Oct 29, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: social-theory
Olson’s main argument is: Individuals will not act in the interest of a group unless there’s some form of coercion, or the group is relatively small. An economist by training, Olson disregards that humans are capable of altruistic behavior and that there are intangible benefits that individuals seek by being loyal to a certain group. Guess the soft science of studying the great lengths many of us are willing to go to in order to belong to a group was not popular in the 1960's. Not quite a terrib ...more
Feb 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Brain food.

Within a fairly small space the author puts forward a theory that spans economics, political science, and group psychology. He then applies this to liberal economies, Marxist theory, and past and present America (i.e. unions, lobbies, agricultural coops). He breaks a few myths and common misunderstandings, and puts forward an explanation of the strengths and weaknesses of all of these cases that is very compelling. Notable is the attention given to explaining (with data) the history o
Eavan Wong
Oct 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Is a clearly identified common interest sufficient to motivate individuals’ group-oriented actions? In The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson challenges the conventional wisdoms of his contemporaries that individuals automatically participate in movements or organizations seeking to solve problems at the collective level. If individuals of a large latent group are instrumentally rational, he argues, they would not take actions to contribute to collective interest, unless they are coerced o ...more
Jan 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely essential text concerning how club goods and public goods get provisioned, whose conclusions are now so widely accepted that it is hard to understand how illuminating they were when first enunciated.


Basic argument:
1) The fact that a goal is common to a group means that no one in the group can be excluded from its benefits.
2) The logics inside small groups and large groups are quite distinct.
3) "Certain small groups can provide themselves with collective goods without relying
Jan 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Highly informative, quite dated. Main points can be gleaned in initial chapters.
Dio Mavroyannis
Fantastic little book. The first chapter or two lays out a very simple logic of how groups work. This is basically the Nash equilibrium argument. Olson then shows that the larger the group, the more the argument applies. What is truly breathtaking is how one can take such simple premises and go so far with them. Eventually, these trivial premises completely decimate any "politics is how class x keeps their power on class y" kind of argument it a wonder to see. After showing how group interest is ...more
Dec 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a classic book for understanding cooperation in contributing to public goods. Olson extends and makes accessible Samuelson's arguments about the provision of public goods.

The main contribution (IMO) is identifying the conditions under which public goods *will* be produced. When an individual will gain more from the public good than the entire cost of the good, then that individual will provide it. E.g., if Exxon kept crashing ships into the rocks at this one harbor, then they would like
Mark Uberuaga
Mancur Olsen’s ideas about why groups form, the difference between small and large groups that are exclusive or inclusive, and effects such as free-riding ware explained in his book, The Logic of Cooperation.

While a bit dense and overly infused with formulas and math, his theory is extremely useful. He explains that even though organizations share common interests and goals, they may not behave collectively to satisfy those goals.

Exclusive groups have fewer members and each member receives mor
Don Lim
Mar 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
The book that first exposed and explained the concept of "concentrated costs and dispersed benefits," Olson's central thesis is that smaller groups are able to affect political change much more effectively than large groups. The reasons he gives includes lower costs of organization, greater benefits (or selective incentives) per member, and individuals participating within small groups are generally the more passionate and interested ones. Additionally, with large groups, in order to maintain hi ...more
Jan 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
A seminal work in public choice. In The Logic of Collective Action, Olson originates what has become the standard story that the public choice economists tell about the role of special-interests in politics. Namely, that a small group is inherently at an advantage against a larger group in arguments over public policy. Although in total the amount at stake is the same for each group, the individual members of the small group have much more at stake than the individual members of the large group ...more
Ian Colby
Jul 23, 2014 rated it did not like it
Read the first third of the book. Had to put it down to finish another Library book. When I picked it up again, I thought to myself, "good god, I really don't want to read any more of this." Any book that I'm that repulsed to pick up again has to get one star.

I'd advise you to read a wikipedia article about the book instead.

Sep 23, 2014 rated it liked it
Read this as a supplement (not a requirement) for a community development class. I don't think it would hurt anyone studying in this field to read this book. It's short enough, and easy to understand, but brings home some important concepts about collective action and capacity building that were not in my case, so easily understandable in our text. ...more
Jul 03, 2007 rated it really liked it
this book made a really good point but I forgot what it was - please remind me
Jun 21, 2012 marked it as abandoned
Read the first few chapters for a project I'm working on and when I got what I was looking for I stopped. No time to go on after I'd gotten what I needed. Very thought provoking though. ...more
Jan 22, 2016 added it
Required Reading for Intro Political Science. Interesting... and that 's about it. ...more
Mar 09, 2016 rated it liked it
This is a core text in the economics of labor movements and political parties.
Sean Rosenthal
Interesting Quotes:

"However similar the purposes may be, critics may object that attitudes in organizations are not at all like those in markets. In organizations, an emotional or ideological element is often also involved. Does this make the argument offered here practically irrelevant?"

"A most important type of organization-the national state-will serve to test this objection. Patriotism is probably the strongest noneconomic motive for organizational allegiance in modern times. This age is som
Nov 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book as I always appreciate a different perspective that goes against conventional wisdom. There are some good ideas about how groups function based on their size that are worthwhile considerations for anyone contemplating getting something done in the public Arena.
Apr 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I was thinking of joining a professional journalists and/or a professional historians organization, but now I'm not so sure that's a good idea. ...more
Eddie Lee
Apr 19, 2021 rated it liked it
A slow read. Interesting but not a book I’d recommend to friends.
Nick Klagge
Dec 17, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: economics
I kind of read this book by accident. The author, Mancur Olson, is often mentioned by an author I like, Ashwin Parameswaran, on the topic of "crony capitalism." I saw this book in a used book store and picked it up. It turns out, however, that this particular book is completely unrelated to the work mentioned by Parameswaran. To me it is pretty much a garden-variety exposition of the economic problems associated with collective goods (though perhaps it was groundbreaking when published). ...more
Arthur Kyriazis
Apr 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Mancur Olson is essential reading for anyone studying economics or any of the social sciences. He stresses that GROUP action and COLLECTIVE action is the motive force of society, and not the actions of individuals. Thus, history is not determined by individuals, but by groups and collective forces. The relationship between Prof. Olson's theories and welfare economics are obvious, as well as the relation to political science, sociology and just about everything else. Essential reading. ...more
Nate Huston
Jul 23, 2012 rated it liked it
Read only a portion of this book. Generally, author's thesis is that the larger a group is, the less likely it is to pursue a common good unless additional incentives are offered. This is for a number of reasons, but stems mostly from the fact that more members means less "bang" for each "buck" spent in pursuit of the common good.

This hurt my brain a little bit.
Sep 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: doctoral students in public administration
Recommended to Wendy by: a professor
An interesting look at the dynamics of group behavior and effectiveness, it describes the dynamics of small groups and large, and gets it right. Olson's description of how groups work is right on the money in my experience. While not exactly entertaining, it is illuminating. ...more
Sep 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
A classic example of the very best scholarship that turns conventional logic on its head and opens up a whole new field of approaches. Absolutely essential to anyone working with policy or political theory.
Alex Brown
Jul 23, 2010 rated it liked it
This book delves into some thought provoking questions, such as why rational actors engage in economic activity that is of no direct benefit to them, and why groups refuse to act collectively even when it is in everyone's best interest. ...more
Apr 07, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: economics
I'm told that this is the driest book Olson wrote, I'm really hoping that's true, because I have Rise and Decline of Nations as well as Power & Prosperity waiting for me in the next couple of weeks. It was informative though, and he does explain his theory well. ...more
Feb 20, 2013 rated it liked it
3.75 stars
Good look at the motivations people do, or do not have, to have to create groups. I had to play catch up, as the book starts out super strong, but their are some interesting points throughout the book.
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American economist and social scientist who, at the time of his death, worked at the University of Maryland, College Park. Among other areas, he made contributions to institutional economics on the role of private property, taxation, public goods, collective action and contract rights in economic development. Olson focused on the logical basis of interest group membership and participation. The re ...more

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