Interest Groups Maim the Median Voter

•Essay 2 response for PS 1000, Wayne State, Fall 2012.
•Example of teaching/learning mechanism: compare your essay to mine.
•Niche audience: international relations / comparativists.

ARTICLE: Barkley Rosser Jr. 2007. The Rise and Decline of Mancur Olson’s View of
The Rise and Decline of Nations“. Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 74, No.
1, pp. 4-17

How do interest groups distort the public will, or the will of the median voter? The question is predicated on observing pluralism. In a democracy, the people naturally form interest groups and hire a political entrepreneur to take the issue to be solved by government. Opposing interests will be resolved by a rational and efficient government (Weber). In a democracy, the elected officials are concerned with the arguments brought forth via political entrepreneurs, and the elected officials are aware that the people will throw them out of office if they heavily favor one interest group over the others when against the majority will—when against will of the median voter. This is the idea of pluralism.

Mancur Olson blew up the idea of pluralism in his [almost rejected as a dissertation] The Logic of Collective Action (1965). This perspective is called “Transactions.” Girdwood summarizes this nicely on his blog, political pipeline (see here):

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 (2). According to Moe (1980), Olson “flatly discounts the core pluralist belief that interest groups arise on the basis of common interests…”

…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. 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. 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. But if Olson showed that goal attainment isn’t enough to get people to join an interest group, has anyone commented on Olson’s strategies?

…Second, organizations are formed and maintained by a “political entrepreneur”—as a business. 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.

Thus, an understanding of the transactions perspective enables us to see that interest groups may distort the public will. Mobilization of people is not natural; rather, latent groups with small numbers are more able to overcome organization barriers because the free rider problem is more limited and because they provide selective incentives. The selective incentives, and perhaps interest groups efficacy, may not be of any interest to the group member. Consequently, smaller groups with a specific interest, not larger groups with a common interest, are overrepresented and wield more power than their pluralist counterpart.

More so, within the transactions perspective, organized interests manipulate the preferences of the public and of public officials. According to McChesney (1997), “The essential insight of the economic model is that legislation and regulation are sold to the highest bidder in political markets, just as other goods and services are sold in more familiar commercial markets.” Thus, Lowery and Brasher deem transactions the “pluralist vision of hell” (2004, 22). This does undermine the confidence citizens have in their government and distorts the control that they have over it. Lobbyists who represent interest groups may advocate ill-considered public policy, due to a biased set of organized interests, and the policy-makers may use their recommendations. We need only think of Jack Abramoff. Elements within the transaction perspective clearly distort the public will. This why I colored in the transaction table boxes yellow—it’s the distortion gold standard [for democracy].

Illuminating the rational way pluralism would be subverted, and therefore the public will and the median voter, was only the beginning of Olson’s career!

Olson determined that a few interest groups could provide the support for a monopoly of interests in governance. This would cause party leaders to rebel against expanding markets, since they would constantly be protecting the current monopoly of interests. Olson explains in The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982) that democracies hence become stagnant. However, Rosser Jr. (2007) makes clear, Margaret Thatcher “triggered a global movement to privatization and marketization…Thus, Olson’s central example undercut his argument about the inevitability of stagnation in a stable democracy. The power of special interest groups could be broken…through peaceful democratic means” (5). Indeed, economic growth is important to the median voter.

Olson heeds: There is no private property without government.

But why then does government own so much private property? I mean that literally and as a matter of civil liberties. When does government acquire so much for the sake of stability that life becomes dystopia in equilibrium?

Research regarding how the median voter would live in dystopia is needed.

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6 thoughts on “Interest Groups Maim the Median Voter

  1. Before answering, consider Brettschneider’s work, which was debated within the blog Public Reason… he says that liberal democracies may form two dystopias: the militant regime / invasive state and the hateful society. And he provides an answer. That’s research which does talk about the median voter living in a dystopia…see, “When the State Speaks, What Should It Say?”

  2. Pingback: Poltical Scientists: “I’m American” | Political Pipeline

  3. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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