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Sunday, September 12, 2010


Logic and the American Revolution

On Thursday, Dr. Eubanks posed an intriguing question: “Is the American Revolution consistent with The Logic of Collective Action? What was different about this revolution that allowed it to end in democracy?” To probe our minds, he provided a suggestion: the American Revolution arose for the protection of individual rights, something the British government had discontinued. Dr. Eubanks emphasized the fact that the colonists had previously held these rights and that these rights had been usurped. What does this tell us about the American Revolution? Unlike other groups/unions, the colonies were advocating for lost rights, not for new ones. This differentiates it from other groups. The colonists were able to form a government based on one that they had known rather than creating something out of thin air in response to new desires. In this way, they were able to protect all rights, not simply a list of new ones at the cost of the old. This may partially explain the reason that the United States did not become a dictatorship, but it does not provide a full answer and does not begin to answer the first question (i.e., “Is the American Revolution consistent with The Logic of Collective Action?”).

The democracy also arose because multitudes of people helped to develop it. How did that happen? How did a large group form and act and create a democracy? The Logic of Collective Action suggests either force or selective incentives. Additionally, Olson’s theory states that large groups usually evolve from small ones.

The American Revolution evolved from a confederation of smaller entities which joined forces. However, these entities (i.e., each colony) were not small groups. So what held them together? According to Olson, either force or selective incentives catalyzed them to action. Force did not hold the group together (although the force of the British government may have given them incentive to join the revolt). Therefore, selective incentives must have been the means by which the group was formed. But what were the selective incentives? They would all be better off if they won the revolution; however, this is not a selective incentive to each individual. According to Olson (The Logic of Collective Action, p. 65), rational individuals would not have joined because they would not have seen their impact and would have received the benefit if others had achieved it. In addition, rational individuals would not have joined because the colonies did not have a good chance of winning. Nonetheless, I do believe that selective incentives were involved. Each individual had his own individual incentive. Some of those were a desire to serve, pride, the desire to better the lives of their families and their descendants, perhaps anger and a feeling of personal injustice, and so on.

Perhaps the American Revolution is consistent with The Logic of Collective Action but is not fully explained by it. The logic is consistent but it does not explain the action. In Chapter Six, Olson stipulates that “…like any other theory, [his] is less helpful in some cases than in others” (The Logic of Collective Action 159). He continues to explain that his theory is not as useful for explaining noneconomic groups as it is for explaining economic groups. I would argue that the colonies united in the American Revolution for reasons in addition to economic ones (e.g., political, moral—though certainly not religious—, familial, social, and etcetera). Olson’s theory does not falter under this example because the logic is consistent; but it cannot fully explain the group that initiated the American Revolution and formed a powerful democracy. Like irrational groups, which Olson’s theory is not useful in explaining (p. 161), these individuals saw a greater benefit in action likely to be unsuccessful than they did in latency. In order to understand the success of the American Revolution, we need to utilize other theories, such as psychological and sociological ones that account for action outside of Olson’s definition of “rationality.”

"How did a large group form and act and create a democracy?"

I do not necessarily disagree with you on what you have said here but if you look at the history of the beginning of our country it was NOT a large group that formed our country. It was actually a very small select groups of leaders like Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Franklin, and Adams. And furthermore, only about a third of the country actually supported the Revolution. Here is a link to an article about that. Not disagreeing with you, just some thoughts to consider...

I submit to you that in fact, it was force that caused the colonies to unite as a federated group. During the Continental Congress, pressure ( coercion ) was used by the majority to force the hold out states; Rhode Island, New York, and Penn, to agree to terms to sign the DoI. It was not select incentives but political, peer, economic, and public pressure that caused them to unite.
A few thoughts in response to Spencer's suggestions (questions, actually): What makes a "small" group; can we really call one third of the colonists a small group? And if they do not comprise a small group, what would cause them to unite? Also, what did the founding fathers have to gain from a revolution that wasn't even likely to be a success? Maybe power, prestige, a sense of duty and responsibility, the idea of some greater good that they might be helping to protect,...
Courtney, I see what you are saying, but what caused them to organize in the first place? How did the colonists (or leaders) in each colony decide to form a group? The pressure to which you are referring was absent until some sort of group was formed. In addition, I see those pressures as social, political,economic, and public incentives. No one actually forced them to join. Who had the authority to do so? The majority did pressure them and give them incentives to join but could not make it compulsory for them to join. It was still up to them whether to support the British or the Congress.
@ Sarah, the group that came up with most of the ideas reflected in the Constitution and the Declaration can be attributed a group of no more than 10 people, and I stand by my opinion that this is a very small group considering the population of the colonies and the historical impact that they were making. The founding fathers had values that they felt were being suppressed by the British government and they wanted change. They were stand up guys and even if the revolution was considered a "lost cause" by many, they were still acting rationally in their minds by making an attempt to change something that they felt was wrong.
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