Collective Action

From International Political Economy
Jump to navigationJump to search

In the realm of international political economy actors are numerous and decisions highly strategic, which makes collective action arguably one of the most interesting problems in the field.

Mancur Olson, an American economist (1932-1998), wrote about organizations and the logic of collective action. In a book cleverly entitled The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965), he underlines that "one purpose that is nonetheless characteristic of most organizations {...} is the furtherance of the interest of their members."[1]There is therefore a notion of "common interest" that is paramount to the formation and the sustainability of any group or organization.[2]

Although, as Olson reminds his readers, the idea of "common interest" promoted by a group goes all the way back to Aristotle, we can still use it as a means to understand some contemporary issues brought up by scholars such as James Alt, Michael Gilligan and BGW (Bailey, Goldstein, Weingast).

Olson also stresses a very important point about groups and collective good: the larger the group, the less likely it will be to reach its goal and provide an optimal amount of a collective good[3]In their essay The Political Economy of Trading States: Factor Specificity, Collective Action Problems, and Domestic Institutions, Alt&Gilligan call up this hypothesis in order to explain the Pareto-Schattschneider puzzle, which asks the question of how policies that benefit only a majority of the population can be enacted. First, large groups are most costly and thus more difficult to form than small groups. Second, small groups are more powerful than large ones because, due to a higher benefit per capita, there are less incentive to free-ride.[4]

But the notion of collective or common good seems to provide an argument in favor of Michael Hiscox[5] in his opposition to BGW[6] about the reason for the adoption of the RTAA. Indeed, if, as Mancur Olson and others have implied, the collective good (i.e. the common interest of the members of the same group) is necessary to the very existence of an organization, then how could the BGW's argument still make sense? An institution could not go against its members' interest without imploding but it surely could adapt to a change in this interest.


  1. Olson, Mancur. "The logic of Collective Action." Readings in American Politics: Analysis and Perspectives. Eds. Ken Kollman. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010, p.1
  2. Ibid p.2
  3. Ibid p.9
  4. Alt, James; Gilligan, Michael. "The Political Economy of Trading States: Factor Specificity, Collective Action Problems, and Domestic Institutions." International Political Economy: Perspectives on Global Power and Wealth. Eds. Frieden, Jeffry A, and David A. Lake. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000. Print. p.329
  5. Hiscox, Michael J. “The Magic Bullet? The RTAA, Institutional Reform, and Trade Liberalization.” International Organization 53, no. 4 (1999): 669-98
  6. Bailey, Michael, Judith Goldstein, and Barry Weingast. “The Institutional Roots of American Trade Policy: Politics, Coalitions, and International Trade.” World Politics 49, no. 3 (1997): 309-38