Mancur Olson is the new Reinhold Niebuhr

I remember a few years ago when a lot of neocons and “liberal hawks” suddenly started talking about Reinhold Niebuhr all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Niebuhr was awesome, as many of you insisted when I asked you about it, but that’s not the point. When pundits suddenly start talking about some intellectual figure, it’s usually because (a) they all heard about the figure at the same cocktail party or Aspen Ideas festival seminar and (b) there’s some radically simplified version of the figure’s ideas that lends support to the pundits’ positions. With Niebuhr, it was the idea that Iraq was a “just war” so it’s okay if our government tortures people etc. Here, Noam Chomsky, hate him or love him, was spot-on:

[W]hat it came down to is that, ‘Even if you try to do good, evil’s going to come out of it; that’s the paradox of grace’. And that’s wonderful for war criminals. ‘We try to do good but evil necessarily comes out of it.’ And it’s influential. So, I don’t think that people in decision-making positions are lying when they describe themselves as benevolent. Or people working on more advanced nuclear weapons. Ask them what they’re doing, they’ll say: ‘We’re trying to preserve the peace of the world.’ People who are devising military strategies that are massacring people, they’ll say, ‘Well, that’s the cost you have to pay for freedom and justice’, and so on.

That’s no knock on whatever Niebuhr actually wrote; his oeuvre isn’t relevant here, since no matter how nuanced his “just war” theory is, propagandists and self-rationalizers can easily run with the phrase “just war” and justify whatever they want with it.

Today, two of our most prominent pseudo-intellectual pundits — Charles Lane and Bobo — both started talking about someone named Mancur Olson. Bobo mentioned him in passing, while Charles Lane devoted his entire column to the man’s ideas. Lane uses Mancur Olson’s idea that “On balance…special-interest organizations and collusions reduce efficiency and aggregate income . . . and make political life more divisive” to argue that Obama is too wedded to big gubmint and that both sides do it when it comes to special interests (predictably, the Democratic side of the “both sides do it” equation is teachers’ unions). The logic here, I think, is that big gubmint, and thus Obama, is bad because it empowers special interests, whereas smaller groups of self-determinationist patriots would be free and pure.

Is Mancur Olson going to be a new thing with conservatives?

Update. Chunky Bobo started talking about Mancur Olson in September.

121 replies
  1. 1
    Brian R. says:

    Ronald Niebuhr?

    Is he any relation to the famed theologian Reinhold Neibuhr?

  2. 2
    Crusty Dem says:

    Yes (SATSQ). The pseudo-intellectual and the “explainer” comprise the two most destructive forces in our politic. Both take solid, intelligent thought and distill it down into a form of pablum utilized as propaganda by the powerful to get whatever the fuck they want. And we end up blaming the ideas over the assholes who distorted them into nonsense.

  3. 3
    c u n d gulag says:

    Well, since they buried Billy Buckley, and his puss right now looks like the skull on a pirate flag, they sure could use a new face!

  4. 4
    tweez says:

    Glad you corrected Niebuhr’s first name.

  5. 5
    kindness says:

    Reality – anyone who Bobo touts is automatically suspect.

    And that is for good reason.

  6. 6
    Doug Galt says:

    @Brian R.:


    I thought it was usually anglicized.

  7. 7
    MattF says:

    A quick read of Lane-on-Olson suggests that Olson doesn’t care much for democracy. Not a problem, of course, since everyone has their opinions– but I just think it’s mentionable.

  8. 8
    General Stuck says:

    I think Bobo mentioned Olsen in his semi coherent article today, on his plan to create two divisions for the GOP. That sounded like division dumb and dumber for some kind of brain fart on a good cop bad cop solution to fix his broken party. The dude gets more unwrapped with each new day. And he’s not the only one.

  9. 9
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    So, if we stake Charles Lane over an anthill and cover him with honey, this would be a good example of a just action because we’re expunging evil by doing so?

    Am I following this right?

  10. 10
    khead says:

    Is Mancur Olson going to be a new thing with conservatives?

    My FB “wingnut sharing index” says yes.

  11. 11
    taylormattd says:

    The classic example of this is, of course, George Orwell. You could almost see Hitchens’ erection if you read his book about Orwell.

  12. 12
    max says:

    Is Mancur Olson going to be a new thing with conservatives?

    Of course.

    Lane uses Mancur Olson’s idea that “On balance…special-interest organizations and collusions reduce efficiency and aggregate income . . . and make political life more divisive” to argue that Obama is too wedded to big gubmint and that both sides do it when it comes to special interests

    Feh. The world is full of chock full of ‘special interests’ and in fact, my democratic impulse is your ‘special interests’. Or to put it another way, I’m not sure why no one points out that right-wing pundits are special interest group always seeking changes in government policy to benefit them and their 10,000 closest friends with zero apparent interest in the actual details of their policy.

    Additionally, on balance, Olson’s argument is full of shit. There is always someone claiming that something ‘reduces efficiency’ but show me the evidence and how we get a government that doesn’t isn’t influenced by ‘special interests’.

    As a bonus point ‘efficiency’ is irrelevant when your economy is in a state of collapse, as the Greeks and the Spanish are unhappy to demonstrate for you.

    [‘Bleh. Thing is, is if I needed to read an idiot, I could just read Bobo and skip Charles Lane, pretty much forever.’]

  13. 13
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    The logic here, I think, is that big gubmint, and thus Obama, is bad because it empowers special interests, whereas smaller groups of self-determinationist patriots would be free and pure.

    And Norman explodes trying to figure out if Harry Mudd is a special interest or not.

  14. 14
    schrodinger's cat says:

    The only Olsens I know are the Olsen sisters. Former child stars who now make ultra expensive hand bags.

  15. 15
  16. 16
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @kindness: and Bobo is at least a well-intentioned fool. Charles Lane is (IMHO) a nasty, insidious fuck. I suspect (admittedly without evidence, just a hunch) that even more than HIatt or Donnie Graham, he’s what’s made the Washington Post op/ed operation a joke– the almost weekly by-line from some combination of the Three Stooges of the Senate during the Iraq debacle, giving Dick Cheney Jr a ‘respectable’ platform, Jackson Diehl, Jennifer Rubin, Marc Thiessen, Michael Gerson…

  17. 17
    Mike Goetz says:

    I love that Chomsky quote, because it so efficiently pins the entirety of centrist conventional wisdom discourse on the dissecting tray.

  18. 18
    General Stuck says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    Well there is Jimmy Olsen. But I think he passed on to the other side a while ago.

  19. 19
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    In short, my interest is not special. Yours, however, is, and is evil.

    I think I’ve parsed that down sufficiently so that a chunderhead like Lane can at least simulate grokking it.

  20. 20
    taylormattd says:

    @matt: holy crap. Literally everything can be found on the internet, can’t it?

  21. 21
    Ben Franklin says:

    That’s no knock on whatever Niebuhr actually wrote; his oeuvre isn’t relevant here, since no matter how nuanced his “just war” theory is, propagandists and self-rationalizers can easily run with the phrase “just war” and justify whatever they want with it.

    It’s called rationalization. The primary function of the human brain is to find excuses for what we’ve already decided to do.

    Criminals in lock-up rarely admit their criminality. Most of them are ‘innocent’. If they are presented with bald evidence of their crime, they justify it.

    Human nature——

  22. 22
    Brian R. says:



  23. 23
    Woody says:

    Mancur Olson wrote aplenty about both the failure of large institutions and the horrors of collective bargaining.

    This enables the Faithful Foxies to continue their drive toward corporate feudalism under cover of science.

    (oddly enough, the failure of institutions like the Catholic Church, universities such as Penn State and Notre Dame, the NCAA, and Wall Street are excused!)

  24. 24
    Gin & Tonic says:

    Whatever the merits or demerits of Olson’s views (which are, of course, more complex than sound bites would indicate) I suspect he remains the only Rhodes Scholar to come out of North Dakota Agricultural College.

  25. 25
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    Rule 34. It’s not just about pr0n.

  26. 26
    Waynski says:

    Good post, Doug. It takes constant vigilance to deter the right, because they never say what they really believe. They want to turn this country into a plutocracy, where only the wise, old, rich white men have all the power and their money forever. They’re smart enough to know that you can’t get elected that way, so they come up with something plausible enough for their middle managers to support (like the Laffer curve) and the rubes thinks it makes sense ’cause the guy who’s saying it is articulate (like Newt Gingrich). Sooner or later people need to wake up and realize that these guys are running the longest con in human history and that there are millions of people who are either too invested in the system or too stupid to call them out on it.

  27. 27
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @MattF: No, not really. One of his books discusses how, and I am grossly simplifying here, democracy most closely aligns government action with the needs of the people. Special interest groups can develop power that is greater than their numbers and this can be a bad thing, e.g., gun nuts and the NRA.

    I would put it down to Lane being a douche.

  28. 28
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    Can I get a shout out for Hewlett-Packard?

  29. 29
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    @taylormattd: Thanks for a pre-lunch image I didn’t need.

  30. 30
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    running the longest con in human history

    What? They’re in the invisible sky buddy of a bunch of shepherds business, too?

  31. 31
    Maude says:

    I don’t know who either of these people are and my life is richer for it.

  32. 32
    schrodinger's cat says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist:

    Bobo is at least a well-intentioned fool.

    Bobo is definitely a fool, But well intentioned? His job is to sugar coat the poison pill of the conservative agenda for tote-baggers. He is Uriah Heep.

  33. 33
    taylormattd says:

    Speaking of “libertarian” porn:

  34. 34
    J says:

    Conservatives should just come out and admit that their real model and intellectual hero is Aleister Crowley.

  35. 35
    Suffern ACE says:

    Why, they could just have selected Coal Interests and written almost the same article if they wanted to inform the American Public on the way that special interests involve themselves with things.

    I’d have to go back 15 years to grad school to remember Mancour Olson. But if I remember right, he wasn’t particularly awful as a political economist. More in tune with the idea of studying how actual governments actually worked in the actual world than focusing on election processes and their meanings. Something to be said for that.

  36. 36
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: I see Bobo as a romantic naif insulated from the real world and actually believing all of his silly hothouse worldview. Lane I see more of the Cheney school of Malthusian/Randian “fuck the poors and the weak, they deserve misery”

  37. 37
    Ben Franklin says:


    Conservatives should just come out and admit that their real model and intellectual hero is Aleister Crowley.

    …and their god is Thoth.

  38. 38
    Alex S. says:

    Olson.. the name rings a bell. I think I heard of him in a lecture given by Prof. Tornell. I made a note, so it must have appealed to me. I think the use of Olson is indeed just a dinner party fad. There was probably a conservative newsletter that mentioned the name. And of course, Bobo likes to throw out names because shut up, that’s why!
    If I recall correctly, I had the intention to read Olson’s ‘Rise and Decline of Nations’. There’s also ‘The Logic of Collective Action’.

  39. 39
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Ben Franklin: My Egyptology may be off, but isn’t Thoth supposed to be source of science, learning and knowledge?

  40. 40
    JPL says:

    OT.. TVNewser has confirmed that Erick Erickson will be leaving CNN and joining Fox News as a contributor.
    unFair and unBalanced

  41. 41
    patroclus says:

    WTF happened to Charles Lane??!! In the Stephen Glass case, he was the hero who stood up for journalism and not publishing made-up stuff as fact. Then, he went to Faux News and I thought he was merely going to parrot right-wing talking points (like Mara Liason) and offer mealy-mouthed liberal stuff (like Juan Williams) occasionally whilst being overwhelmed by conservatives (the Alan Colmes/Bob Beckel role). But instead, he’s actually morphing himself into a pseudo right-wing hack (like David Brooks) with nothing intelligent to say or report (like Tucker Carlson).

    What a waste! He actually had some promise before destroying his reputation (and augmenting his career).

  42. 42
    mtraven says:

    Olson is a pretty well-known figure. He did write about the difficulties of collective action, but of course the pundits have extracted justifications for their side’s destruction of the ability of the country to take such action. This attitude was the subject of Colbert’s Word segment last night actually.

    The cure for Olson is Elinor Ostrom, who got the economics Nobel (and died) recently. Link is to a pdf of a paper she wrote in Olson’s honor. Her life’s work was showing how people do in fact manage to take collective action despite theories that state that they shouldn’t be able to. If there was a leftish cocktail circuit, now would be the time to start dropping her name in.

  43. 43
    JoyfulA says:

    Thanks for explaining the rejuvenation of Niebuhr a few years back. I could never figure it out for myself, because what he had written and what they were saying didn’t seem to connect much.

  44. 44

    Yeah, I saw Lane’s piece this morning, and even kind of skimmed it. I never heard of Mansard Ombudsman or whoever the guy is. But he sucks, I know that much about him. Anybody Lane has good things to say about sucks. And anybody he doesn’t like is great. He’s like some kind of oracle in reverse. An elcaro.

  45. 45
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @patroclus: Yeah, he ain’t what he was back when he was Peter Sarsgaard.

  46. 46
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    Ah, he’s moving to the mothership.

  47. 47
    Ben Franklin says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Crowley was big on Thoth. He created a Thoth Tarot deck, and was reportedly, always trying to raise him for consultation.

    But I see your point. mea culpa.

  48. 48
    Bulworth says:

    Noam Chomsky, hate him or love him, was spot-on:

    Oh dear. Chomsky is very shrill. And he hates Amercia and probably hangs around with George Soros. Maybe he is George Soros.

    And Mancur Olson. Does Bobo know Mancur Olson wrote a book called The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups? I have the book right on my shelf here at work. It’s a pretty soshulist book that Glenn Beck probably thinks should be burned.

    Of course, maybe Olson wrote this heretical book in his pre-Burkean days or something. But Olson isn’t some kind of conservative icon, that I am aware of.

  49. 49
    Yutsano says:

    @mtraven: You expect Bobo to pay attention to something written by a GIRL? Girls are for the makings of babies and sandwiches and stuff, not high intellectualism and things.

  50. 50
    maurinsky says:

    Who names their child Mancur?

  51. 51
    Bulworth says:

    Chuck Lane wrote a pretty good book about the anti-Black violence at the end of Reconstruction. Have a hard time believing that guy is the same Chuck Lane clogging up space at the ‘liberal’ Washington Post with superpseudo centrist bleh.

  52. 52
    Roger Moore says:


    A quick read of Lane-on-Olson suggests that Olson doesn’t care much for democracy.

    Feature, not bug.

  53. 53
    What Have The Romans Ever Done for Us? (formerly MarkJ) says:

    Mancur Olson was pro democracy. I remember reading his Logic of Collective Action in grad school years ago. It didn’t strike me as right-wingy at all. He talks about the free rider problem (which is a real problem) and how it makes organizing large groups difficult, if I recall correctly. I’m sure their misinterpreting him just like they ignore the fact that Freidrich Hayek advocated for universal health insurance.

  54. 54
    handsmile says:

    Olson’s first and best-known work, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965), was one of the principal texts in the introductory political science course I took at Wesleyan in 1975. (The course professor, the late Clement Vose, was at that time party to a suit against Richard Nixon seeking release of his presidential papers.)

    The two things I remember about the book were 1) it was the first (and remains the only) time I had encountered the first name “Mancur”); 2) it theorized the relative political influence/effectiveness of small and large interest groups, e.g., a close-knit, narrowly-focused group could derive greater benefit. it is entirely possible that this idea has been dimmed and caricatured by memory.

    To the best of my knowledge, Olson’s scholarly work was confined to the disciplines of political economy and political science. He did not range into broader discursive domains like Niebuhr nor was he as influential a figure as that more celebrated neoconservative hero F.A. Hayek.

    Brad DeLong could probably give a reliable current assessment of Olson’s work and legacy. As for Lane and Lean and Chunky Bobo, at this point isn’t it just an immediate and accurate assumption that their interpretation of any intellectual figure’s work will be badly flawed and trivial? Olson’s work could only be discredited by their praise.

  55. 55
    patroclus says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Back when he was Peter Sarsgaard, he was compassionate and thoughtful and intellectually curious and ethical and he cared about journalism and people. Now, he’s an utter hack, he’s far uglier and he doesn’t care a whit about journalism or truth or anything (as far as I can tell). Other than serving his Faux master and cashing his paychecks, I suppose. If he’s pushing Mancur Olson, Mancur Olson must really suck.

  56. 56
    Marc says:

    Former political scientist here: Mancur Olson was/is a pretty big deal in the public choice/rational choice/ political economy arenas based on his theory of collective action. At bottom, Olson believes that free market capitalism produces a more efficient and more democratic society (but in sense of social democracy) but that as capitalist societies age, they begin to accrete more and more interst groups (e.g., unions or the NRA). These groups, in turn, have to continually come up with issues to advance so as not to render themselves irrelevant. Moreover, because it’s not “rational” for any particular person to participate in such a group when they can just “free ride” on the benefits they produce, the groups have to offer special side payments/benefits to promote membership. This can be as mundane as a free newsletter or as important as access to policy-makers. Over time, more and more groups engage in more and more rent-seeking and the provision of “special” services. As this happens, capitalism devolves into corporatism and democracy as well with slower economic growth. As paradigms, olson examines more mature democracies like the UK and the USA with the new ones of Germany and Japan, which saw the total destruction of the old interest groups after WWII. In those countries, according to Olson, economic growth should be higher because of the paucity of entrenched interests but over time sclerosis will set in. Olson’s theory rests on a very strong form of the rational actor school of thought and tracks neo-liberal economists like Friedman and Gary Becker. In this sense, he’s very much “conservative,” but on economic grounds only. I have no idea of his positions, for example, on social issues. But overall he’s anti-collectivist (e.g., unions are bad). Hope that didn’t bore everyone too much!

  57. 57
    Roger Moore says:

    @Ben Franklin:

    and their god is Thoth.

    I don’t think so. Thoth was the god of knowledge, which is not something highly valued by Conservatives. No, their god is Mammon.

  58. 58
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Yutsano: You laugh, but the year she won her Nobel was very grim for that male dominated profession. Apparently, she wasn’t worthy and only chosen because the Nobel people were being politically correct.

  59. 59
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Yutsano: I would like a sandwich.

  60. 60
    Roger Moore says:


    But Olson isn’t some kind of conservative icon, that I am aware of.

    Real world Olson may not be, but they aren’t dealing with real world Olson. They’re dealing with the abridged, expurgated version, where the few thoughts that can plausibly be twisted to justify screwing the poor and old have been extracted and presented as the main message. That’s what they do.

  61. 61
    Yutsano says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I would like to not go to work today. Apparently we will both be quite disappointed. Although I bet there’s a good sandwich shop a short walk from your office.

  62. 62
    mainmati says:

    @matt: LOLz. Very well done.

  63. 63
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @handsmile: Olson’s work could only be discredited by their praise.

    I gather Ayn Rand read Les Miserables and came away believing that Hugo’s philosophy was “Every man for himself!”, and any number of right wing authors– some with fancy degrees and tenure– firmly believe Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wanted a Christian theocracy.

  64. 64
    eemom says:

    Noam Chomsky, hate him or love him

    How can you not love Noam?

    I may not agree with him on everything, but I find his ancient, weary, all-is-fucked demeanor infinitely endearing.

    Also too, he’s no Nader.

  65. 65
    handsmile says:


    Thanks for that link to Ostrom’s paper (and I see from her Wiki entry that she is the only woman to have received a Nobel in Economics) and for the heads-up on Colbert (all hail!).

    @Omnes Omnibus: , @patroclus:

    I see what you two are doing, and well-done!

    patroclus: Olson, like Niebuhr before him with neoconservative distortions, doesn’t deserve your wrath simply because some hack like Lane or the Bobos misreads/misinterprets him. Dead scholars can’t be held accountable for the worms they feed.

  66. 66
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Roger Moore: O.K. That’s going to be a little unfair to Olson. WE have elections in this country a lot. In fact, one might say we are a democracy. However, between those elections, a lot happens. In fact, one might say, the most important things happen then. That’s what he’s studying, so it would seem that elections aren’t important but that isn’t what he is interested in. Should we naiively think that we’re going to end up with a more just society merely because people are going to be allowed to vote and naturally the will of the people is going to solve everything? The focus on holding fair elections to solve evertything doesn’t explain why, for instance, we don’t end up wtih more populist policies coming out of our legislatures. Mancour Olson attempts to explain that. There’s more things to the state than voter behavior.

  67. 67
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Yutsano: Fine, I’ll get it myself.

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: Yep. Don’t write someone off because one of the right-wing pundits cites him/her. Odds are that the rightie is a hack and is either willfully or ignorantly misinterpreting a respectable scholar.

  68. 68
    Humanities Grad says:


    With all due respect, that’s doing a grave disservice to Olson. While it’s been many years, I’ve read _The Logic of Collective Action_. My reading concurs with what other in this thread have said–Olson was just studying the conditions under which groups can organize effectively in a political environment, and outlining things (like the free-rider problem) that can make that a problem in democracies.

    It’s not Olson’s fault that his work has been hijacked by a bunch of loons who almost certainly don’t understand it, and may very well have never even read it.

  69. 69
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    I never saw Shattered Glass. Was Chuckie Lane once a decent human being? Is he one of those who thinks 9/11 proved we need to privatize social security?

  70. 70
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: As portrayed in Shattered Glass, he was a decent person who was struggling to both understand and respond to what Glass had done. He is one of the only people to emerge from the scandal with any credit.

  71. 71
    Yutsano says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: If I could I’d treat. But the logistics are a wee bit insurmountable.

    Oh and I’ve never been to Wisconsin. I might have to change that.

  72. 72

    @Roger Moore:
    I’ve taken to calling the ‘bad Christians’ (ie the ones who seem to have forgotten all the compassionate aspects of their religion) Mammonites. As you said, it fits. And I like the way it sounds.

    Crowley’s “Thoth” was probably derived from this guy, not the original Egyptian Thoth. (Even Gods are subject to mission creep over the course of a couple thousand years).

  73. 73
    jl says:

    Olson was an economist, so the economic concept of ‘efficiency’ was big deal for him. He made a distinction between small decentralized interest groups who had no interest in overall productive efficiency and larger groups who did. I don’t see that distinction in Lane or Bobo or Douthat, or that they understand or are aware of that distinction at all.

    Now, Obama is the leader of a national party (Dems) that wants to win national elections, the kind of large interest group that does have an interest in promoting efficiency and overall performance of the economy. But Lane merely asserts, no Obama has no interest in overall efficiency. Why not? Who knows? Lane just asserts that. Similar arguments can be made for Social Security, a large centralized system that will produce very adverse consequences for anyone in charge when it falls apart. That is why the GOP is so eager for Obama to ‘lead’ (that is, go ahead and adopt GOP proposals to simply start dismantling it right now, which is the the GOP’s idea of ‘leading’.) Any party who wants to run a government, and continue running it, has to figure out how to finance the commitments of Social Security, or at least cannot be observed throwing it in the trash bin (which explains the GOP approach to SS).

    So, I agree with commenters above, these guys just got a memo with some talking points with Olson’s name slapped in there.

    Love him or hate him, Olson at least tried to think through the issues. But these pundits are just using him for their propaganda points of the day.

  74. 74
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Yutsano: To be fair, I am more interested in the sandwich-bringing girl than the sandwich itself. And I would be perfectly happy to get her a sandwich if I was up.

  75. 75
    David Margolies says:

    Like Niebuhr, Olson is a fascinating writer with lots of big ideas about human institutions. He talks about the difference between ‘pirates’ and ‘businessmen’ (not his word, but I cannot recall what he calls it), where people with power discovered that taking a portion or people’s output (businessmen) was much more profitable in the long run than just showing up and taking everything (pirates). Lots of big ideas about trends in history, a fascinating read, broadly correct (yes, institutions can be set in their ways etc.) but hardly applicable to specific current issues. One of my favorite political/economic thinkers and well worth reading.

    Great post.

  76. 76

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist:

    I gather Ayn Rand read Les Miserables and came away believing that Hugo’s philosophy was “Every man for himself!”,

    Just imagine: Had things turned out just a little differently, the infamous ‘John Galt Speech’ could have been a 100+ page description of the Paris sewer system.

  77. 77
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Judas Escargot, Bringer of Loaves and Fish Sandwiches: That would have been more readable.

  78. 78
    patroclus says:

    @Humanities Grad: Okay, point taken. I’ll await the views of the real Peter Sarsgaard on Mancur Olson before commenting further. The views of “Chuck” Lane, however, will still be automatically discounted.

  79. 79
    Doug Galt says:


    I love his analysis and world-weary ways but he pushes the both-parties-are-the-same stuff too much for me.

  80. 80
    handsmile says:

    @David Margolies:

    I believe Olson’s term is “bandits,” specifically “stationary bandits.”

    ETA: Though given Betty Cracker’s earlier post today, “Pirates” could be word-of-the-day.

  81. 81
    Bobby Thomson says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: And kill Oscar winners by dialing their publicists instead of 911.

  82. 82
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @handsmile: Roving bandits have no interest in the people they rob; they steal and move on. Stationary bandits have an interest in the well being of those they plunder and will thus take actions to benefit them – so that they can get their share. As a result governance develops. Yes? As a brief thumbnail sketch…

  83. 83
    Rich (In Name Only) in Reno says:

    Anyone remember this chestnut from the recent past?

    “First they came for the rich. And I did not speak out because I was not rich. Then they came for the property owners, and I did not speak out because I did not own property. Then they came for the right to bear arms, and I did not speak out because I was not armed. Then they came for me and denied me my medical care, and there was no one left to speak for me,” – Laura Ingraham, protesting the Senate healthcare bill at a rally in Washington DC. in December, 2009.

    One of the great ironies about American Right Wingers who perversely paraphrase Pastor Niemoller’s poem “First They Came…” is that in their own history, past and present, they have relentlessly persecuted the first two groups he identifies in his poem, the “communists” and the “trade unionists” here in America to the point of near extinction, and brag about it.

    It’s almost as ironic as Republicans celebrating Labor Day.

  84. 84
    Narcissus says:

    @taylormattd: Which is a shame, because Orwell deserves a lot better than to be winger fodder

  85. 85
    Ben Franklin says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    As a result governance develops.

    That’s the lynchpin. It’s like a remora on a shark. Or maybe like those little fish who pick around for parasites on a cooperative Great White.

  86. 86
    jl says:

    @handsmile: Thanks for reminding me about Olson’s terminology.

    So, are Lane’s, Bobo’s and Douthat’s favored patrons (and patrons of the GOP) ‘roving bandits’ who care not a whit for the overall efficiency of the economy, or ‘stationary bandits’?

    Is Obama, as leader of a national party better characterized as a ‘roving’ or ‘stationary’ bandit.

    Are tycoons CEOs and corporations (as opposed to tyrants like Obama :>) more interested in the overall welfare of the people. Do leading Democatic politicians, whose power base depends more on keeping social insurance intact have more individual incentives to work towards socially efficient solutions than the GOP who seem to care only about a collection of big corporations and rich fatcats (who seem more accurately described as ‘roving bandits’ these days than anyone who wants to keep Medicare and Social Security intact?)

    I am more liberal in many ways than Obama, so I think he has too much interest in catering to ‘roving bandits’ but still, there is some distinction.

    But, it does not fit into our respected pundits’ propaganda, so they ignore that aspect of Olson’s thought.

    There is dark side to Olson, since his thought can lead to admiration of ‘benevolent’ economic tyrants. But would CEOs and banks and corporations be the kind of benevolent tyrants, say, who build Athens?

  87. 87
    El Cid says:

    There’s also a long-standing tradition in political science and sociology of discussing a plausible connection of chosen empirical (i.e., generalized or statistically deduced from data like population figures and the like) as indicating a causal relationship, and then going on to speak of that arguable but tenuous relationship as though it now forms a useful, physics-style law.

    It’s really notable when such formulations serve the interests of the powerful, because it’s great if you can talk about things which happen to serve your or your peers or your bosses’ interests as though you were simply talking about the cold, hard facts of the world.

    And often by doing so, you’re directing the discussion onto your desired turf even if the ‘law’ you discuss has little to do with the topic.

    So, if your government (the U.S. in the 1980s) is going around the world hiring slaughtering and occasionally genocidal terror forces, drug barons, fundamentalists, murderous generals to kill in total millions of civilians in order to prevent governments from maintaining or coming to power with policies and economic rules you and your bosses don’t like, well, focus your time talking a lot about how ‘democracies don’t go to war with each other’ and indicate by nodding sternly that this has something to do with the topic at hand.

    And usually the very serious people will get the nod and go along.

  88. 88
    handsmile says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    A finely-trimmed thumbnail no less! At least that’s what the “Abstract’ from the linked JSTOR article suggests. That notion is apparently central (according to Olson’s Wiki entry) to his final work, Power and Prosperity.

    BTW, if you’re still taking orders for sandwiches, could I get Swiss on mine? Oh, and light on the mustard. You’re a pal!

  89. 89
    Roger Moore says:

    @David Margolies:

    He talks about the difference between ‘pirates’ and ‘businessmen’ (not his word, but I cannot recall what he calls it), where people with power discovered that taking a portion or people’s output (businessmen) was much more profitable in the long run than just showing up and taking everything (pirates).

    Coming from a scientific background, I’d call the two models predators and parasites. Predators actually kill and eat their victims outright, while parasites just take a little bit here and a bit there and let the host survive to continue providing for them in the future. From an evolutionary standpoint, predators are in straight competition with their prey, while parasites have some tendency to evolve to from a straight parasitic existence into providing some kind of mutual benefit. Of course life sucks while you’re waiting for that evolution to take place…

  90. 90

    @Judas Escargot, Bringer of Loaves and Fish Sandwiches:
    Can I offer for consideration Nyarlathotep, part of whose schtick was to pose as Thoth?

  91. 91
    handsmile says:


    Specifically within an American context, “CEOs and banks and corporations” were in no small way responsible for the establishment/promotion of many of the principal benevolent institutions of the public sphere, this country’s “Athens”: universities, libraries, museums, foundations.

    Some of your questions are addressed by Chrystia Freeland’s recent book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich (2012). Freeland’s primary thesis is that the contemporary social and economic elites are far less interested in the commonweal than previous generations of the tycoon/patron class. Self-interestedly, they regard themselves as “citizens of the world” rather than holding specific national civic responsibilities. Charitable activities are manifestly connected to the sustenance of their political/economic power.

    Finally, the application of Olson’s “stationary/roving bandits” idea to contemporary political actors may not be all that illuminating. That distinction was related to more rudimentary forms of governance.

  92. 92
    redshirt says:

    Crom is far superior to Thoth. I mean, imagine if you had a speech impediment?

  93. 93
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @handsmile: It is possible that the bandits have started roving again.

    Sorry I missed your sandwich order. Maybe next time.

  94. 94
    Chris says:


    Conservatives should just come out and admit that their real model and intellectual hero is Aleister Crowley.

    Didn’t that guy have a major pulp villain based on him? I could have sworn he inspired Professor Moriarty, but Wikipedia claims he didn’t (apparently that was Simon Newcomb). Then I tried Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but apparently not him either. Does this ring any bells with anyone?


    Oh dear. Chomsky is very shrill. And he hates Amercia and probably hangs around with George Soros. Maybe he is George Soros.

    Finkel IS Einhorn… Einhorn IS Finkel… Einhorn is a MAN!

  95. 95
    jl says:


    Thanks for the reference.

    My only disagreement with you is that I don’t think establishing universities, libraries, museums, foundations has much to do with economic efficiency overall. They are part of it, but not all.

    Building Athens as a power was about stabilizing income distribution through primitive social insurance measures without damaging efficiency too much (at least for free males who were Athenian citizens).

    I do agree with you that the old school US business and finance community was different from what they are today. But the instability and extreme boom bust cycle and financial panics, and grinding of the poor in the 1880s up to Progressive Era could not be fixed with libraries and opera houses.

  96. 96
    Chris says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist:

    I gather Ayn Rand read Les Miserables and came away believing that Hugo’s philosophy was “Every man for himself!”, and any number of right wing authors– some with fancy degrees and tenure– firmly believe Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wanted a Christian theocracy.

    I continue to be amazed by the popularity of Les Miserables among conservative Christians in America. Yeah, I think I understand why, but still, damn, awareness fail much?

  97. 97
    jl says:

    @handsmile: to amplify, was the big cartel capitalism of the 1880s and 1890s consistent with a stable system of sustained rapid per capita GDP growth? Very hard to tell due to the instability of the era, which could be interpreted as an unstable system with slowly eroding ability for sustained per capita growth. That I think is the key issue Olson was concerned about wrt to stationary vs. roving bandits running things.

  98. 98
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Chris: Because they root for Javert? Or because of the priest

  99. 99
    Chris says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Because of the priest, basically.

  100. 100

    Sentient fungus is kind of a hard sell, theologically.

    There’s a Cthulu tarot deck (sadly out of print, AFAIK) that has much better artwork than the Thoth deck (IMO). Just perfect for doing readings for someone’s Little Old Auntie over tea & crumpets.

    (At least until Auntie starts foaming at the mouth and howling in ancient tongues).

  101. 101
    handsmile says:


    Appreciate your reply and I take your point. Within the context of a discussion of Mancur Olson, emphasis upon economic, not cultural, models and history should be foremost. I realize I was interpreting “Athens” metaphorically.

    Moreover there is substantial argument, to which I’m partial, that the establishment of “libraries and opera houses” was more a demonstration and defense of class distinction/privilege than a Progressive effort to ameliorate social and economic iniquities.

  102. 102
    What Have The Romans Ever Done for Us? (formerly MarkJ) says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: @Chris: Otto: “Apes don’t read philosophy.”

    Wanda: “Yes they do Otto! They just don’t understand it!”

  103. 103
    Matt McIrvin says:

    I’d noticed this, not about Mancur Olson specifically, but about “public choice theory”: as used in political essays, the phrase “public choice theory” seems to be a universal magic refutation of the benefit of any government regulatory scheme. Probably I should actually learn what public choice theory is.

  104. 104
    sharl says:

    @Chris: Just by coincidence I stumbled onto the Wikipedia entry for List of D.Gray-Man Characters, and found this for the character Arystar Krory III:

    Arystar Krory III (アレイスター・クロウリー三世 Areisutā Kurōrī Sansei?) is a 28-year-old Romanian man who was mistakenly identified as a vampire by nearby villagers because his Innocence caused him to instinctively attack people (which were actually Akuma)…

    Krory is modeled after Aleister Crowley, an English occultist and writer. He is voiced by Mitsuo Iwata in Japanese and Eric Vale in English.

    Hopefully all that will mean more to you than it does to me, assuming it is even relevant to your question.

    …{wanders off, wishing those damned kids would stay off his beautiful virtual lawn}…

  105. 105
    Berliner2 says:

    This analysis is spot on In “Decline and Rise of Nations”, Olson explains how the German post-war economic miracle was due in large part to contribution of unions, rather than something that happened despite the fact that Germany had very lager and very powerful unions. Olson’s theory of collective action elegantly explains that very large unions have the negotiating power that puts them in a position to work with corporations to grow the economy rather than merely help their members to their fair share. This is precisely what happened in post-war Germany where one large umbrella organization, the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, represented 80% of the unionized workforce, which was more than 80% unionized. DGB representatives became board members and developed a stake in the overall success of the companies whose workforce they represented, a system that continues to this day and partly explains the continuing resilience of the German economy. It’s called “MItbestimmung”. Amercians should try it some time. And you’ve got Mancur Olson to back you up if you want to give it a shot.

  106. 106
    dp says:

    “Mancur” sounds like some kind of cross-species abomination, like “Manbearpig.”

  107. 107
    General Stuck says:


    “Mancur” sounds like some kind of cross-species abomination, like “Manbearpig.

    Or like one of The Usual Suspects.

  108. 108
    Va Highlander says:


    Most of the American Crowleyites I’ve known were libertarians and Ron Paul supporters.

    @Ben Franklin:

    Nuit and Horus, mostly, and teh Beast hisself.

  109. 109
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @dp: No, that’s not Mancur; it’s Limbaugh.

  110. 110
    Singular says:

    I haven’t read “The Logic of Collective Action”, but a friend gave me the “Rise and Decline of Nations” a few years ago and I read it for fun. It’s a good book – give it a go.

    I reckon Olsen would absolutely despise these people who are hijacking his work. The face of “special interests”, each and every one of them.

  111. 111
    Matthew Reid Krell says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: No, it’s about production of documents.

  112. 112
    redshirt says:

    @dp: Or like a Lincoln-Mercury sedan circa 1983. The “Mancur – driving elegance”.

  113. 113
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Matthew Reid Krell: I will drive to where you live and beat you.

  114. 114
    Bruce S says:

    @Brian R.:


    And just to be clear about RH, his thoughts on “just war” reference WWII, after a long bout of Christian pacifism. And he opposed the war in Vietnam. Most of his thoughts about the inevitability of “evil” while trying to do “good” had to do with his warnings against Manichean versions of the Cold War wherein the other side was dehumanized and our every act was seen as virtuous. The notion that Niebuhr provides a rationalization for the Iraq war is as dishonest as…the entire Bush administration and their “intellectual” enablers. The foremost proponent of Niebuhr’s perspective today is Andrew Bacevich, who is a former military guy who is adamant that the US has been engaged in monstrous and dangerous over-reach since at least 9/11. My guess is that John McCain who went on a binge of quoting Niebuhr prior to Iraq had never read the man and was handed some out-of-context note cards by one of his speechwriters.

  115. 115
    Bruce S says:

    I don’t know a damned thing about Mancur Olsen, but in answer to Bobo’s question in that column – “Who is going to build a second GOP?” – the answer is nobody. You are who we thought you were. Your crazy base has a stranglehold that won’t be broken in the foreseeable future. Three electoral rounds of “moderate GOPers” playing to the insane Teatards and worse has proven this. Deal with it.

  116. 116
    Bill Arnold says:


    Dead scholars can’t be held accountable for the worms they feed.

    Nice. (And a google-original).

  117. 117
    handsmile says:

    @Bruce S:

    Checked back here to see if more thread had unspooled, and I’m so glad to read that you chose to rescue the good and wise Reinhold Niebuhr from the foul stains now besmirching his popular reputation because of neoconservative misinterpretations. It’s depressing to think how the work of a theologian of his depth and insight and a public intellectual of his commitment could be so distorted so as to promote ends utterly contradictory to Niebuhr’s faith and reason. And as Doug Galt’s opening remarks above suggest, that damage still lingers.

    Also too, great to find another fan of Andrew Bacevich! It’s a pity he’s so underappreciated; with his background and current commentary he would seem to be a figure much cited and respected by this blog’s front-pagers and commentariat. On a couple of occasions, I have linked to articles by him.

  118. 118
    Bruce S says:


    Yes. Ironies of American History is a must-read in consideration of US foreign policy, IMHO. Still relevant – and a serious rebuke to the kind of hubris rampant among neo-conservatives. I’m actually confounded that the neo-cons attempted to hijack Niebuhr to their ends. It makes absolutely no sense.

  119. 119
    Scamp Dog says:

    @handsmile: I’ve been a big fan of Bacevich ever since I heard about him. I suspect he’s more conservative than I am on social topics, but he nails the confused thinking and thorough incompetence of the foreign policy and military elite of this country.

  120. 120
    Linda says:

    “Olson argued that nations decline because their aging institutions get bloated and sclerotic and retard national dynamism.”

    By this, Brooks means government, and can’t possibly mean corporations that are stuck in their non-meritorious old-boy networking and mutual hand washing.

  121. 121
    Nazgul35 says:

    Mancur Olson is a well known name amongst political scientists. His seminal work, the “Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups,” focuses on group interactions. He is a rational choice theorists and builds an economic model of human behavior (and before you jump on rat-choice, understand what it is exactly).

    He creates a compelling theory of groups and organizations, which describe the variety of factors that can lead to group abilities to overcome the collective action problem. Focusing on the problem of “free riders” and how individual self preferences can block the achievement of collective action.

    What troubles me is the very large number of people in the comments who 1) haven’t heard of Mancur Olson (you might want to look through political science research) and 2) have decided to discuss the issue through these two people’s interpretations of Olson.

    Olsen wasn’t anti-democratic at all. He built a theory that attempted to examine how groups work and what factors can help or hinder the collective good. The interpretation offered by these two are a picked nit and incorrect interpretation of Olson’s work.

    You are surprised?

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