Goals of This Exercise
- Examine the collective-action problem as it relates to interests groups and demonstrate how the Internet might help groups overcome the collective-action problem.
- Provide some empirical evidence on the political use of the Internet.
- Explore the impact of Internet political use in helping different economic and ideological groups overcome the problem of collective action.
Effects of Interest Groups in American Politics
Political scientists have long argued about the effects of interest groups in American politics.
- “Pluralist” political scientists believe that interest groups develop in American politics in response to the perception of a common interest. Generally speaking, any collective interest can form and participate in the pluralist group universe.
- In The Semisovereign People, political scientist E. E. Schattschneider claimed that affluent interests benefit from the organization of politics in groups; he famously observed that “the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper class accent” (pp. 34–35).
Examining the Collective-Action Principle
The Collective-Action Principle: all politics is collective action and, whereas all cooperation through collective action is difficult, the difficulty mounts as the number of people grows.
According to Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, the main impediment to collective action in interest groups is the fact that every individual has an incentive to be a “free rider,” reaping the common benefits that result from the contributions of others. Of course, if this is everyone’s incentive, then the puzzle is: Why does anyone contribute to the common good?
It is also important to note that the collective-action problem falls disproportionately on some groups. Large and heterogeneous groups, for example, have a more difficult time overcoming the collective-action problem than do small groups based on narrow, specific interests.
The collective-action problem can be overcome through the provision of selective benefits; that is, benefits that are conferred only on those who join the group and contribute to the collective good.
Types of selective benefits include:
- Informational benefits: Group members are provided with magazines, fliers, and other materials that keep them informed.
- Material benefits: Group members are given discounts and group rates by virtue of being part of the group.
- Solidary benefits: Group members benefit from networking and getting to know other group members with similar interests.
- Purposive benefits: Group members enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that they have contributed to a cause that they value.
- It seems that the Internet might be a relatively inexpensive way to provide some of the selective benefits that help to overcome the collective-action problem.
Answer the following question: