Labor vs. Capital: Sweep the Leg!

Today I read quite a good and classic work, Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action. It discusses the thorny problems of “collective action problems” we all learn about in intro economics, or intro political science, or all of those good things. It’s quite good – Olson demonstrates why this occurs and rips apart the 60s-era social science consensus that groups efficiently serve their members’ interests. He works both the logical channel and also does the math, and is overall quite convincing, which is why this has become such a solid piece of conventional wisdom. Interestingly, a large part of Olson’s analysis centers on unions and why “Right to Work” laws would destroy them – because unions need coercion in order to prevent defections that will undermine their entire negotiating stance. As Olson points out, “Right to Work” isn’t about individual freedom at all, it’s about restricting group freedom.

That is good or bad depending on how you feel about the right to organize, but it goes to show that Republican focus on right-to-work has been a very clever way to attack their opponents’ organizational structure. How would the American left emulate this success?

Fairly similarly – use the law to go after their opponents’ ability to organize. The left has generally focused on campaign-finance reform, which makes a terrible mistake in my opinion. Going after campaign funding without attacking business’s ability to organize may hurt them, but it doesn’t actually break them. The Democrats should prioritize actually interfering with business’s right to organize through more aggressive tactics – laws banning or severely restricting trade associations are one means, alongside the aggressive use of antitrust law against “collusion”. Trade associations and industry groups are business’s unions, they exist to solve the collective-action problems that Olson identified. If you break them but leave lobbying and campaign finance intact, free riding will cause them to systematically underinvest in collective goods like subsidies, special tax treatment, and for that matter antitrust law.

In short, in order to shift the playing field the left and the Democrats should be looking to hamstring their opponents first rather than score policy victories. Those will follow. This is something that the Republicans have been quite determined about, with admirable success.

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