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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: November 2009

2 - States and Collective Action


The immense majority of the merchants of our Republic flee, as from the plague, from whatever action that might cause them to aggregate their interests. … They refuse to join the chambers. We have heard merchants say: Why should I join, if when the chamber gains a benefit for commerce, it is for all of us, and on the other hand when the same chamber has difficulties with the government or town council its members are exposed to reprisals.

Letter from the National Mining Chamber of Chihuahua to the Minister of Industry, Commerce, and Labor, 1927

Olson's Uneven Legacy

Some four decades later, Mancur Olson (1965) formalized the lament of the Chihuahua Mining Chamber into his microeconomic theory of collective action. For Olson, potential members of associations have incentives to free-ride, to let others do the work of organizing and then enjoy the benefits of, say, successful lobbying. These incentives to free-ride discourage spontaneous collective action unless the numbers involved are small or an association provides selective benefits, available to members only, that effectively compensate members for their efforts and dues. And, some three decades after Olson published his Logic of Collective Action in 1965, his theories were hegemonic in several subfields of political science. However, not all components of Olson's original book have had the same impact or have benefited from equally intense theoretical development.

One large literature inspired by Olson's Logic essentially applies and elaborates the core microeconomics of small numbers and homogeneous interests.