Interest Groups ≠ Pluralism OR Collective Action OR Efficacy?

Political scientists have theories for just about every political topic. Theories provide an explanation for political phenomena. We call ourselves scientists because we use scientific techniques to test the theories for evidence. Then we publish our findings. Some political scientists are really good at scientifically revealing the faults of others’ theories, while outstanding researchers then find tenet(s) / traits which quash the fault finder’s results. Eventually, the rare revolutionary political scientist(s) creates a new theory altogether. The analysis of evidence begins again. Usually, it revolves around a “Big Normative Question.”

The big normative question for our topic:  HOW DO INTEREST GROUPS DISTORT THE PUBLIC WILL?  You have interest groups on each side of the median voter that are trying to distort the public will.

The subsidiary question that is being asked: Under what conditions does an interest group form? In a democratic system, where political interest groups are possible—we care about interest groups because they can distort policy!

L   [——————median voter————————] R

What if interest groups are only allowed on the right (e.g. corporation owners)? What about “Right to Work”? These are important questions because I care. Interest groups that form can determine how policy deviates from the wishes of the median citizen—(citizens are our BIG PICTURE). We do live in a democracy, after all. So, is voting a problem of collective action (distortionary effects on policy because it’s easier for people to vote on the right over the left)?

Let see:

Under pluralism, interest groups naturally form as associations for the purpose of advocating a particular set of ideas. Many interest groups in a large republic will protect the people from an overpowering faction (one particular interest group). Copious amounts of associations will cause the common denominator among these groups will be policy–which will be pretty harmless in nature. Pluralism in a large republic will not enable a localized majority to tyrannize the minority.[0]

interest groups were originally explained via the theory of pluralism.[1] Pluralism denotes that (Part 1) interest groups form due to common interests among citizens. (Part 2) Group policies are a direct result of the group’s common interest(s). (Part 3) Group policies enable continuous support because the people support those policies.[2]

Now imagine surfing was not an Olympic sport. Well, actually, you don’t have to imagine that… it’s not an Olympic sport as of January, 2012. But don’t surfers have a common interest in organizing an interest group to make surfing an Olympic sport (Part 1)? If so, then this group would create a policy to get surfing into the Olympics (Part 2) with an agreed upon goal of sustaining the common interest of Olympic inclusion until surfing is recognized as an Olympic sport (part 3). Yet, what would be the inner workings (and the output) of this interest group? Would all surfers join this interest group? Is the goal good enough to get the surfers to join for that common interest?

The Logic of Collective Action (Olson) caused a dramatic setback to the pluralist tradition.[3]  Once Olson applied a simple rational model to interest groups, he uncovered the foundations of group activity, which contradicted the tenets of pluralism.[4] According to Moe, Olson “flatly discounts the core pluralist belief that interest groups arise on the basis of common interests…” For example, take this finding from Olson:

If the members of a large group rationally seek to maximize their personal welfare, they will not act to advance their common or group objectives unless there is coercion to force them to do so, or unless some separate incentive, distinct from the achievement of the common or group interest, is offered to the members of the group individually on the condition that they help bear the costs or burdens involved in the achievement of the group objectives.[5]

Two components comprise the structure of Olson’s analysis: (1) when individuals have a common interest in accomplishing a political goal, the latter characteristics take the form of the collective good; and, (2) these individuals are rational, perfectly informed, and economically self-interested.[6] Respectively, once the political goal is achieved, everyone benefits regardless of their contribution. This means that the collective good is a tool for manipulating collective behavior, but rationally, there is an inhibiting effect upon individuals to pursue their common interests.[7] Second, rational and informed individuals will desire to achieve their common political goal, but how much and under what conditions will members contribute?[8] For example, will the surfers have a say in the rules of the Olympic sport?

Olson thus creates AN ECONOMIC THEORY OF INTEREST GROUPS.[9] Political goals alone are not enough to get people to join an interest group.[10] The rational individual must receive inducements-benefits-perks, which non-members do not have access to whatsoever. These incentives are non-political, such as reduced rates on auto-insurance, news publications; thus, members may like or dislike the political goal, but are actually interested in the incentives.[11]

Under Olson’s theory, I surmise that surfers will not join the Surfing Olympic Group with respect to attaining the goal of surfing as an “Olympic Sport.” Indeed, surfers must be induced with selective incentives—perhaps members will be invited to an exclusive week long-annual party at Oahu’s Pipeline, or they are emailed new videos of innovative surfing strategies, or the interest group networks surfing instructors, establishes safe surfing techniques and  surfing moves… then surfers will join the interest group. But if Olson showed that goal attainment isn’t enough, has anyone commented on Olson’s strategies?

Moe (1980) provides much needed insight regarding interest groups—updating Olson’s theory regarding: (1) why individual’s choose to join, (2) how organizations form and maintain themselves, and (3) the internal politics. Respectfully, individuals do not join a group based on perfect information. Indubitably, they may join an interest group because they truly perceive that they will make a political difference.[12] Thus, analysis must incorporate the political inducements and political collective good conceptions. Second, organizations are formed and maintained by a “political entrepreneur”—as a business.[13] Finally, internal politics are predicated on the fact that the policy entrepreneur adjudicates all internal decisions. So, the interest group is not democratic, where members would have a vote—a voice—in the decision-making process. Rather, very few members make decisions for the entire group.[14]

So far we understand: Surfers would join the Surfing Olympic Group if they were provided a service, and, they would not have a say in the internal decisions that produced external outcomes. Is this a rational choice?

According to Moe, rational choice assumes (1) that each individual is rational, (2) that s/he makes a decision based on specific types of information, and (3) that s/he evaluates his/her decision alternatives based upon specific types of values.[15] The former points create constraints on the process of choice and thus force choice to be predictable.[16] Meaning, based on the given values of the individual, a rational actor will assess the information at hand and “order preferences” in a rational manner. Rationality does not assume that the actor only looks at economic gain, has perfect information, or selfish motives.[17] Moe contends, “Rational individuals may be grossly ignorant of the objective context, and they may be motivated by the most altruistic of values.”[18] So why join an interest group?

According to Olson’s research, rational people would not join an interest group simply because of its goal (pluralism); rather, because of a collective good. A collective good happens for a set of individuals once those individuals supply the good for collective consumption.[19] Think of a bike path. There are some people that pay for it, but then anyone can use [consume] it. Or think of national defense—you, my reader, would never be able to afford an army, navy, and an air force. But if everyone puts in a little bit of money,[20] then collectively the country can pay for a strong military. Importantly, all citizens benefit from the strength and presence of the military, since the people no longer fear external invasion.

So how much are you—my rational reader—willing to pay for a good that you certainly have an interest in achieving/acquiring?

The Olson Model explains that: (1) each individual is rational, perfectly informed, motivated by economic gain, and independent; (2) the collective good is infinitely divisible; (3) the marginal costs of providing the collective good are positive and increasing; and (4) the marginal benefits of obtaining the good are positive and decreasing.[21]

Basically, every rational person will figure out what s/he will gain from the good, how much it will cost, and how to divvy up the cost. In earnest, many people will not have money to contribute, or, even if they do, they will choose not to contribute. This is the free rider problem, the “exploitation of the great by the small.”[22] People simply choose not to contribute since they figure that they will benefit from everyone else’s work without doing anything themselves.

Of course, if the whole group does not have discretionary income, then no one will contribute. The collective good will go unrealized.[23] Now, I don’t know many people with a lot of extra money looking for collective action problems to solve. So, if I wanted to get people to contribute money towards a collective good, then what should I do?

The Olson Model provides two answers that would initiate interest groups based on collective action theory. First, bargaining, though it doesn’t solve the free rider problem, will enable rational individuals to form agreement on the costs/benefits/payments. Bargaining works better in smaller groups rather than larger groups.[24] Second, selective incentives are private benefits that members of the group earn through contribution(s), and, these private benefits are withheld from people that do not contribute.[25] This usually solves the free rider problem. For example, all elderly people benefit from AARP, but since members receive countless discounts and perceive that the benefits of joining AARP outweigh the costs of membership—they join. Finally, some AARP members may not agree with the political goals of the interest group, but since the perks of formal membership outweigh the costs of joining—who cares. In this case, the mechanisms of collection action destroy the assumptions of pluralism.

Moe alters Olson’s rational actor assumptions and thus changes the theory. Moe argues that individuals may be “imperfectly informed” and so ponders what “perceptual conditions” must arise for a person to believe that there is an incentive to contribute.[26] Under The Moe Model, anyone can perceive that they have an incentive to contribute. The higher the marginal benefits, the lower the marginal costs and the lower the total level of supply, the more likely that the individual will decide to contribute.[27] This is because the individual will think that s/he is making a difference regarding net personal gains. Meaning, the individual will thus perceive personal efficacy, which does provide a rational incentive to contribute.[28]

This is not unimportant. Under The Moe Model, group leaders may purposefully manipulate information in order to attract members and contributions.[29] Efficacy is a key determinant of interest group membership. Efficacy may matter more than goals, because an individual may believe in a goal, but perceiving that they actually matter to the accomplishment of that goal matters much, much more. A high level of personal efficacy is the tipping point for collection action contribution at times, instead of an individual’s strong belief in the interest group’s goal (pluralism). But who makes Person A think that they matter to the success of Group RNC or DNC? Who tells the surfer that s/he should contribute to the Surfing Olympic Group?

The Political Entrepreneur organizes and controls the interest group. S/he administers the profit, services, support, communication, selective incentives, administration of collective goods, member bargaining, and environmental relationships.[30] The Political Entrepreneur is selling the interest group to the public, offering a package of incentives, either through direct contact (e.g., media or personal contact) or indirect contact (e.g., middlemen).[31] The entrepreneur must be wise regarding the selective incentives and focus on net surplus (even though a temporary loss of revenue might be justified by a large increase in membership).[32] In order to increase efficacy endogenously and exogenously, the political entrepreneur may ask members to participate, such as writing letters, making phone calls, and signing petitions—all of which are virtually cost free.[33] Finally, rival entrepreneurs may arise, and the political entrepreneur must influence market demand through the advantage of prior establishment (e.g., call meetings, conferences, and committees to initiate nonsupport pacts against rivals).[34]

In conclusion, Pluralism, The Olson Model and The Moe Model all help us understand how and why interest groups work. But since this BLOG entry is mostly a breakdown of Moe, 1980, The Organization of Interests, Incentives and the Internal Dynamics of Political Interest Groups, from the Introduction through Chapter 3, please consider that this analysis reflects political science until 1980. Surely something has changed in the thirty-two years since publication (probably 40 years since publishing took so long back then :).

Also, this entry is exceptionally weak regarding pluralism. Additionally, I fail to mention important scholars who contributed to the subject of interest groups.[34.5]  That said, this blog entry does help clarify:

  • Does the surfer join Surfing Olympic Group because of the goal (i.e. pluralism)?
  • Does the surfer join Surfing Olympic Group because the benefits outweigh the costs (i.e. Collective Action)?
  • Does the surfer join Surfing Olympic Group because it makes them feel that they matter (i.e. Moe’s Efficacy)?

Like it’s difficult to surf non-stop for 2 hours on a good day; let me just use Moe to provide a great summary of the political science wave:

Olson is largely correct in his attack on pluralism: group goals are almost certainly not the key to group membership, and economic interest groups do appear to rest in large part upon nonpolitical foundations. On the other hand…Olson’s analysis is inadequate for understanding the actual basis of member support, and certainly for drawing any inferences about organizational consequences. Political goals simply appear to have much greater inducement value for members than his theory leads us to expect. Thus, while the pluralist perspective is politically biased, Olson’s perspective overemphasis the nonpolitical… thus…[35]

Moe provides answers. The Moe Theory  deserves more research.

Anomalies are good for developing new theories. I have briefly described how and why interest groups form, attract members, sustain themselves through time in light of rivals, and make people feel good about themselves. According to this blog entry, then, political interest groups are predicated on collective action and efficacy, more so than pluralism.

Alas, we would need to randomly survey political interest group members and ask: (1) Did you join primarily for the goal(s) of the organization [pluralism], or, because the benefits outweigh the costs [collective action]? And, (2), what matters more to you:  the benefits you receive from the group [collective action], or, that you make a difference [Moe’s efficacy]?

That’s the science of it–a wave about interest groups…

Finally, when you think of interest groups, remember the infamous political scientist E.E. Schattschneider:

The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.

[0] Big Normative Question and former pluralism explanation taken from Dr. Grynaviski’s lecture, January 23, 2012.

[1] James Madison in Federalist Papers 10 described factions (associations with a common interest or goal). These factions were a by-product of liberty and freedom.

[2] Moe, T. 1980. The Organization of Interests, Incentives and the Internal Dynamics of Political Interest Groups. (Moe, OofI). Page 2-3.

[3] (Moe, OofI). Page 3.

[4] (Moe, OofI). Page 3.

[5] Olson, M. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action. Page 2.

[6] (Moe, OofI). Page 3.

[7] (Moe, OofI). Page 3.

[8] (Moe, OofI). Page 4.

[9] The name is appropriate also by matter of fact that it is not very useful in describing religious, ideological, or social interest groups. Thus the theory is limited in scope; however, this theory is usually applied to political interest groups—exactly those interest groups that engage the power structure of the government(s).

[10] (Moe, OofI). Page 4.

[11] (Moe, OofI). Page 4.

[12] (Moe, OofI). Page 5-6.

[13] (Moe, OofI). Page 6.

[14] (Moe, OofI). Page 6-7.

[15] (Moe, OofI). Page 13.

[16] (Moe, OofI). Page 13.

[17] (Moe, OofI). Page 13.

[18] (Moe, OofI). Page 13.

[19] (Moe, OofI). Page 22.

[20] You would likely pay less under Ron Paul (starting in 2013) than under the direction of Mitt Romney or [President] Obama.

[21] (Moe, OofI). Page 24.

[22] (Moe, OofI). Page 26. Quote from Olson.

[23] (Moe, OofI). Page 27.

[24] (Moe, OofI). Page 28.

[25] (Moe, OofI). Page 28.

[26] (Moe, OofI). Page 31.

[27] (Moe, OofI). Page 32.

[28] (Moe, OofI). Page 32.

[29] (Moe, OofI). Page 33.

[30] (Moe, OofI). Page 36-39.

[31] (Moe, OofI). Page 39-47.

[32] (Moe, OofI). Page 47-48.

[33] (Moe, OofI). Page 54-55.

[34] (Moe, OofI). Page 67-69.


Lower, David and Holly Brasher, Organized Interests and American Government. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003.

Baumgartner, Frank, and Beth Leech. Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and Political Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. 6

Cigler, Allan and Burdett Loomis (eds.). Interest Group Politics. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2007. Currently in its 7th edition.

Heinz, John, et al., The Hollow Core: Private Interests in National Policymaking. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Schlozman, Kay and John Tierney, Organized Interests and American Democracy, New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

Truman, David. The Governmental Process, esp. chapters 2, 3, 16

Walker, Jack, Mobilizing Interest Groups in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Wilson, James Q., Political Organizations. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2nd ed., 1995.

Baumgartner, Frank and Beth Leech, “Interest Niches and Policy Bandwagons: Patterns of Interest Group Involvement in National Politics,” Journal of Politics, 63:4 (November 2001), 1191-1213.

Theodore H. Lowi. 1964. “American business, public policy, case studies, and political theory,” World Politics (1964)

Salisbury, Robert, “An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, 13 (1969), 1-32.

Salisbury, Robert, “The Paradox of Interest Groups in Washington-More Groups, Less Clout,” in Anthony King (ed.), The New American Political System, 2nd ed., 1990, pp. 203-229.

[35] (Moe, OofI). Page 9.


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