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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Is Group Participation Like Playing the Lottery?

For my current writing, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading and thinking about collective action and public choice theory. I’m far from the first one to notice that there’s a tension between Mancur Olsen’s views on collective action and the fact that people still organize in large groups. One of Olsen’s arguments (in oversimplified form) is that large groups tend to underproduce public goods, because of incentives to free ride and disincentives to act. The question that remains is why individuals in large groups organize in the first place, since according to Olsen, the larger the group, the less incentive for individuals to act. Scholars have provided a variety of explanations to this, but reading Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter made me think that the trick to explaining why large groups organize in the face of the disincentives Olsen highlights is to check our premises: maybe people aren't acting rationally here, as public choice (and the logic of collective action) assumes. Maybe group participation (voting, campaign donation, and especially individual participation in interest groups) is like playing the lottery. It's irrational to think you'll win, just as it's irrational to think that your influence in an interest group, or an election, will make a difference, or yield benefits that outweigh costs, rather than the other way around. So the answer to the question public choice theory raises about why people vote in elections, or join interest groups, may be the same as the reason people play the lottery: they are systematically irrational about the payoff they will receive from their actions.  

Posted by Patrick Luff on August 9, 2011 at 10:00 AM in Law and Politics, Legal Theory | Permalink


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I'd agree with that observation in part, with the caveat that rational choice needn't be *inevitably* circular. As cpm points out, if you limit your understanding of payoff, then you go looking for explanations purely in terms of that payoff. But I'll give you a (hopefully) non-circular example. An individual who cares about the environment might join the NRDC, whose goal is to protect the environment, and presumably that's also the goal of the members who join it--they join the NRDC because they think doing so will help protect the environment. But as a matter of costs versus benefits, it's irrational for members to join, unless you think that the utility value of the environmental protection that an individual's dues creates is greater than the utility value of those dues when put to other uses. You might disagree with some of those premises, but the argument itself isn't circular.

On the other hand, you might reply that a person gets psychic utility out of donating to the NRDC, so our original utility calculation was too low. But then you aren't taking public choice at face value, which has argued that people join groups to achieve shareable goals, rather than individual ones (like the psychic utility of group participation). Once you get here, I would argue that you've merely substituted one form of individual irrationality for another.

Posted by: Patrick Luff | Aug 10, 2011 9:44:02 AM

Elaborating cmp's point: thinking about these things in rational choice terms is inevitably circular. We can understand behavior as an efficient means to achieve certain ends but can identify the ends only by positing that the behavior is an efficient means. What sort of "explanation" is that?

Posted by: Doug Williams | Aug 10, 2011 8:46:11 AM

That's always a question when discussing these issues--how are we calculating the payoffs, and are we comparing apples and oranges. But presumably the intangible benefits are included in the public choice literature's conception of payoff.

Posted by: Patrick Luff | Aug 9, 2011 2:00:10 PM

Or maybe voters are acting rationally, but the "payoff" they perceive in voting is not limited to influencing election or policy outcomes.

Posted by: cmp | Aug 9, 2011 12:52:49 PM

Caplan's book is a must-read for anyone interested in political economy and/or democratic theory. Some might know that Caplan is a hardcore libertarian and thus be turned off by reading any of his work, but the major project of the book has nothing to do with political philosophy. The only evidence of libertarianism (that I remember, I read it a few years ago) is a chapter comparing "market fundamentalism" with "democratic fundamentalism," which again should be interesting to the relevant audience.

Posted by: GU | Aug 9, 2011 12:24:25 PM

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