The Rise and Decline and Rise Again of Mancur Olson

Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations is one of my favorite books and a classic of public choice. Olson may well have won the Nobel prize had he not died young. He summarized his book in nine implications of which I will present four:

2. Stable societies with unchanged boundaries tend to accumulate more collusions and organizations for collective action over time. The longer the country is stable, the more distributional coalitions they’re going to have.

6. Distributional coalitions make decisions more slowly than the individuals and firms of which they are comprised, tend to have crowded agendas and bargaining tables, and more often fix prices than quantities. Since there is so much bargaining, lobbying, and other interactions that need to occur among groups, the process moves more slowly in reaching a conclusion. In collusive groups, prices are easier to fix than quantities because it is easier to monitor whether other industries are selling at a different price, while it may be difficult to monitor the actual quantities they are producing.

7. Distributional coalitions slow down a society’s capacity to adopt new technologies and to reallocate resources in response to changing conditions, and thereby reduce the rate of economic growth. Since it is difficult to make decisions, and since many groups have an interest in the status quo, it will be more difficult to adopt new technologies, create new industries, and generally adapt to changing environments.

9. The accumulation of distributional coalitions increases the complexity of regulation, the role of government, and the complexity of understandings, and changes the direction of social evolution. As the number of distributional coalitions grows, it will make policy-making increasingly difficult, and social evolution will focus more on distributing wealth among groups than on economic efficiency and growth.

Olson’s book has become less well known over the years but you can gauge it’s continued relevance from this excellent thread by Ezra Klein which gets at some of the consequences of the forces Olson explained:

A key failure of liberalism in this era is the inability to build in a way that inspires confidence in more building. Infrastructure comes in overbudget and late, if it comes in at all. There aren’t enough homes, enough rapid tests, even enough good government web sites. I’ve covered a lot of these processes, and it’s important to say: Most decisions along the way make individual sense, even if they lead to collective failure.

If the problem here was idiots and crooks, it’d be easy to solve. Sadly, it’s (usually) not. Take the parklets. There are fire safety concerns. SFMTA is losing revenue. Some pose disability access issues. It’s not crazy to try and take everyone’s concerns into account. But you end up with an outcome everyone kind of hates.

I’ve seen this happen again and again. Every time I look into it, I talk to well-meaning people able to give rational accounts of their decisions.

It usually comes down to risk. If you do X, Y might happen, and even if Y is unlikely, you really don’t want to be blamed for it. But what you see, eventually, is that our mechanisms of governance have become so risk averse that they are now running *tremendous* risks because of the problems they cannot, or will not, solve. And you can say: Who cares? It’s just parklets/ tests/high-speed rail/housing/etc.

But it all adds up.

There’s both a political and a substantive problem here.

The political problem is if people keep watching the government fail to build things well, they won’t believe the government can build things well. So they won’t trust it to build. And they won’t even be wrong. The substantive problem, of course, is that we need government to build things, and solve big problems.

If it’s so hard to build parklets, how do you think think that multi-trillion dollar, breakneck investment in energy infrastructure is going to go?
This isn’t a problem that just afflicts liberal governance, of course.

All these problems were present federally under Trump and Bush. They are present under Republican governors and mayors. But it’s a bigger problem for liberalism because liberalism has bigger public ambitions, and it requires trust in the government to succeed. I’m going to be working a lot over the next year on the idea of supply-side progressivism, and this is an important part.


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