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Hardin: Collective action

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Hardin. 1982. Collective action.

In Brief

(Needs an overall summary of the book's argument. Please contribute.)

Chapter-by-Chapter Summaries

Chapter 2

A summary of Olson's theory. Points out that Olson is not speaking strictly of public goods, only of reasonably public goods--thus, "collective" goods. There might be a point at which consumption gets crowded, so it's not perfectly public.

Privileged vs latent groups. Privileged groups can succeed; latent groups cannot without something more.

Collective action is simply a large-N prisoner's dilemma. Thus, any solution to the prisoner's dilemma applies equally to collective action problems (including iterated games etc).

Selective incentives can help a latent group. However, they do not explain a group's origins, only its continuation. After all, the union has to form before it can establish a closed shop (and coercion/avoiding sanction is a type of selective incentive). Thus, it is strange that Olson called this the "by-product" theory. The collective good cannot be the by-product--else why did the group organize in the first place? Moreover, a lesser problem is that the selective incentives could be provided more cheaply if the group were not also spending money on the collective good.

Political entrepreneurs can help a latent group. These come in two flavors: Rising politicians who want to mobilize a new constituency, and non-politicians who want to establish a new organization for partly private purposes (e.g. ambition). For reasons that I don't see explained anywhere, Hardin concludes that political entrepreneurship suffers from the same problem as the by-product (selective incentives) theory: it explains the continuation of groups better than it explains the formation. (Isn't he wrong here?)

Chapter 3

Hardin considers whether group size matters, in great detail, and concludes that Olson confused the issue by thinking that group size matters (it doesn't). After all, Olson concluded that small groups might organize but large groups will not. Hardin points out that Olson had two different typologies in mind. The analytical typology separated groups into privileged and latent. The empirical typology separated them into large, small, and intermediate. That these often correlate does not mean they must covary, however. There is no logical connection between group size and group latency.

Whether a group is privileged depends on k, not n (group size). "k" is the size of any subgroup within n that "just barely stands to benefit from providing the good, even without cooperation from other members of the whole group" (p 41). Thus, if there is one person for whom the benefits of providing the good (on his own) exceed the costs, then k=1. If it would take at least two people, then k>1.

Thus, a group is privileged if k=1. A group is latent if k>1 (because the members of subgroup k have a prisoner's dilemma). A group is intermediate if k is close to 1, but still greater than 1.

Olson supposed that k was more likely to be manageably small in small groups, since the costs of organizing people are lower and the per-member benefits of the good are higher (assuming it isn't an actual public good, which would be inexhaustible). Hardin goes into a deeply technical argument at this point (starting on 45).

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Hardin, Russell (author)American PoliticsCollective ActionInterest Groups

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