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POL242Y5 Lecture Notes - Mancur Olson

Political Science
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The free rider: collective action failures in cycling and beyond
Team GB’s strategy, team members would attempt to control the competition, chasing down
breakaways and keeping the peloton (the main group of riders) together, in order to set
Cavendish up for a sprint victory in the final kilometre. Given that the race is officially an
individual competition, the prevalence of team tactics seems counter-intuitive, but cycling is
a sport in which many team members are expected to sacrifice their own results for the
benefit of the team. These riders, known as domestiques, exert themselves only to fall-off
before the end of the race. Within the framework of a team, the rules are generally clear,
with roles and responsibilities clearly outlined.
However, once you move beyond the set of established rules that govern the behaviour of a
team, the pursuit of certain objectives becomes much less clear and the need for the
alignment of interests more acute. While Team GB put in an impressive effort trying to bring
back the final breakaway group in Saturday’s race, given Cavendish’s prowess as a
sprinter, there was little incentive for most of the teams to exert themselves (at great
physical cost) in support of the British attempt to achieve this outcome. Those teams
reluctant to arrive exhausted at the finish to witness a Brit sprint to victory (at least the
ones not trying to actively protect the chances of their countrymen in the breakaway
group), simply sat back and waited to see if the British effort would be sufficient at which
point they might take advantage.
These types of situations, of course, are not simply a feature of sporting events. Indeed the
world of public policy is replete with cases in which the distribution of costs and benefits can
prevent individuals or groups from productively working together to produce something that
it is difficult for any single actor to produce alone. Examples range fromlocal emergency
services, to national security and even global public goods like environmental protection.
Work by Mancur Olson, Elinor Ostrom and others has demonstrated this challenge to be
particularly salient in the case of public goods, where it is difficult to exclude anyone from
benefitting once the good is produced, leading to free riders who don’t contribute, but who
benefit nonetheless.
To some degree, solutions to such problems have been identified. Olson’s classic work,The
Logic of Collective Action, made the observation in 1965 that: ‘unless the number of
individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make
individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to
achieve their commonor group interests’ (Olson, 1965: 2; emphasis in the original). In
other words, rules, agreed upon by the individuals in question and backed by consequences,
are needed to ensure coordination and prevent individuals from free-riding on the efforts of
others. Too many free-riders and ultimately the intended common goal can be undermined.
In the cycling world, this coordination function is fulfilled by the use of established
hierarchies within the team. In society, this can be seen as the formation of various groups
that organise and represent the interests of groups of individuals, including professional
associations, trade unions, and political parties. Yet, as demonstrated by the insufficiency of
Team GB’s teamwork, bridging the gaps across interest groups is often a crucial task(which
is often left to the state). In such cases, systems of public good provision determine the
contribution expected from everyone, including the development and enforcement of rules
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