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Sunday, October 01, 2006


Collective Action and the Rise of Transnational Institutions

The theories presented by Mancur Olson in his book The Logic of Collective Action are based on the rational choices that individuals make as they participate in collective action. His logic is applicable to all types of groups and organizations. Furthermore, in the Rise and Decline of Nations, the author utilizes the model developed in the 'Logic' book and proposes a model that aims to explain the process by which nation states rise and fall as a function of how groups interact within their social, economic, and political systems. The current international political system is experiencing a deep transformation defined by the emergence of many transnational institutions and their growing importance as players in the global stage. Olson's logic could be used to explain this new phenomena.
In the Logic of Collective Action, and later in chapter 2 of The Rise and Decline of Nations, The author writes about the difficulties that arise when individuals organize and attempt to pursue conjunct or collective action. As he states, "[a]nother problem in organizing and mantaining socially heterogeneous groups is that they are less likely to agree on the exact nature of whatever collective good is at issue or on how much of it is worth buying" (Rise 24). This fundamental issue is at the core of the difficulties of true collective action and the theory proposed by Olson. The nation-state system of politics that has dominated the international scene since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) was initially characterized by the interaction of mostly homogeneous units (nations) but the domestic politics of nation's themselves have experienced an evolution toward more pluralist units. This falls in line with Olsons work in the Rise and Decline of Nations. As the second implication of chapter 3 indicates, "[s]table societies [...] tend to accumulate more collusions and organizations for collective action over time" (Rise 41). This finding explains the process by which nation states become more pluralist over time.
Governments around the globe, once they have undergone the process previously described, become less efficient and less adept to manage the requirements of their citizens. This happens as a result of what Olson describes in his ninth implication on chapter 3, "the accumulation of distributional coalitions increases the complexity of regulation, the role of government, and the complexity of understandings, and changes the direction of social evolution" (Rise 73). In this quote, the 'distributional coalitions' refer to different interest groups that aim to (re)distribute collective resources in a manner that most fits their best (individual)interests. In the example I am using, those coalitions would be the interest groups within nations that want 'a larger' piece of the national 'pie.'
Modern transnational institutions are gaining importance as vehicles for individuals to attain their larger shares of societal wealth, assuming a role previously reserved for nation-states. Gradually, citizen's around the World are relying more on transnational, non-governmental, organizations instead of their own national governments. Richard Mansbach, a political scientist and proffessor at Iowa State University, explains this phenomena as partly related to the "erosion of state capacity"(Global Politics in a Changing World 184). Increasing ineffieciency at governmental levels, in addition to advances in technology that have made transnational resources more accesible, have changed people's perception of community and changed forever the alternatives available for their natural 'self-serving' quest. Author Jessica Mathews writes in her article Power Shift, " nation-states may no longer be the natural problem-solving unit"(Global 184). The effectiveness of transnational organizations is often derived from the fact that they act in a very autocratic manner. P.J. Simmons, in Learning to Live with NGO's, explains: "NGOs operate outside formal frameworks, moving independently to meet their goals" (Global 198). However, as organizations, they come to be under the same process that Olson describes in the Logic of Collective Action, just as the traditional nation-states did. They are subject to the same evolution and the same arising complications. Mathews points out, "[d]edicated to promoting more openness and participation in decision making, they [NGOs]can instead lapse into old-fashioned interest group politics that produces gridlock on a global scale"(Global 197).
As the logic of Olson explains, the 'decline' of the new global system of transnational organizations is inevitable as the workings of collective action continue to shape the evolution of individuals and the social,economic and political systems in which they operate. The same technological adavances that ended "governments' monopoly on information" and changed "people's perception of community," will likely continue to be the shaping force of change for global political systems. Especifically, ever increasing access to the World Wide Web (or internet) has dramatically changed the 'costs and benefits' of attaining and transmitting information, as well as of contacting and organizing with people beyond traditional social circles.
In the Rise and Decline of Nations, Olson provides the following quote: "The limited knowledge of public affairs is in turn necessary to explain the effectiveness of lobbying. If all citizens had obtained and digested all pertinent information, they could not then be swayed by advertising or other persuasion" (Rise 26). As individuals gain greater access to information they will naturally become less reliable on their usual channels of collective action.
If Olson's logic is followed, as this entire essay attempts to do, the eventual decline and/or transformation of the new transnational system of NGOs is inevitable. It is interesting to speculate about how this transformation would occur and what the new emerging system would be like. Is the erosion of the nation-state paradigm transitory? Will a new type of collective organization arise? My understanding of Olson's work may not be sufficient to elaborate a guided 'guestimation' of how the evolutionary process of collective action and global politics will turn out; for now, this posting served as an interesting exercise for the application of the first few assigned chapters of the Rise and Decline of Nations.

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