Washington, 25 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Mancur Olson died last week. But his theories on the ways in which collective choices may come into conflict with individual ones continue to affect people around the world, including many who never heard his name.
An economist at the University of Maryland, Olson was the author of many works. But possibly the most influential was his 1971 study, "The Logic of Collective Action." In that book, Olson argued that there are many situations in which individuals will benefit from a particular course of action only if all of the individuals with whom they interact agree to it.
In the absence of such consensus, Olson noted, particular individuals may benefit from ignoring that consensus, although their violation of it may impose costs on everyone else.
For example, all drivers will benefit if everyone of them obeys the speed limit. At a minimum, there will be fewer accidents. But a particular individual may benefit perhaps by getting to his destination more quickly by exceeding the limit.
And because the logic of the group and the logic of the individual can point in very different directions, Olson suggested, one of the most important tasks of public policy is to formulate a system in which individuals can agree and thus achieve mutual benefits.
Olson's insight is especially relevant at a time when many people have come to believe that market forces can solve all questions of the relationship between the individual and the community. And for societies undergoing the transition from communist authoritarianism to democracy and free markets, it is a useful reminder of the kind of tasks that the market alone cannot solve.
Indeed, in a market situation in which there are no constraints of any kind -- no agreements on weights and measures, no quality controls, no licensing arrangements, to name but three -- individuals may behave in ways that will benefit them but only at a cost to others.
Free market theorists argue that the market will be self-correcting, that individuals will appear to challenge other individuals who may be exploiting others. Such a theoretical claim is not unconvincing, but it assumes more openness and transparency than is true in many market situations.
Even more, it also ignores the fact that people exist in time and space and that the promise of redress in the future may not be sufficient to deal with problems they now confront. And groups of aggrieved individuals may turn to the political system, frequently banding together in ways that benefit all members of these groups but impose costs on others.
And such activities, Olson showed, can work either in a way that will bring these various interests together into a new collective agreement or undermine the very possibility that a particular collectivity -- be it a trade union, a government, or even a state -- could continue to exist.
Because his theories did not provide a neat template of exactly what would happen in any particular situation, Olson never became the kind of ideological leader that the authors of other theories sometimes have become. But there are three important reasons why his insights are likely to be more important than many of theirs over the longer term.
First, Olson clearly saw that individual and group decisions matter, that human beings have choices and that the choices they make will affect the future. Such a position elevates the individual and the group and gives to both a moral stance often denied by those who see all of human activity as the result of some hidden hand, be in the class struggle or the market.
Second, Olson highlighted a key dilemma of the individual in society: an individual may benefit if all or most of the other members of a society are prepared to follow the same rules, but he may also benefit -- and sometimes even more and more immediately -- if he violates those norms himself.
And third, and flowing from these two, Olson saw the history of societies as open-ended, as a process in which individuals and groups would contend in ways that could lead in a variety of ways, now moving toward greater freedom and now toward less.
For societies going through the difficult transition from communism to democracy and free markets, Olson's ideas are an important reminder of both the possibilities and the limitations inherent in any such human project. For outsiders encouraging these societies to make these changes, his theories may be even more important as a corrective to those who believe that there is any single path to these goals.