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Interest Groups and Free Riders
PS103 - April 3, 2009
Russell D. Renka

The Free Rider Problem
Some Solutions
Works Cited

Introduction             Top; Next Down

    America has two permanent political parties, and ten thousand enduring interest groups.  One must wonder why so few of one and so many of the other, as both are core elements of American democracy.  The simple answer comes in two parts.  First is to understand that parties are unique within democracy as the only organizations that run their own slates of candidates for office.  Parties therefore live or die by success in doing that.  Interest groups don't run their own slates, and you'll never enter a voting booth to see candidates from AARP, the National Rifle Association - NRA, the NAACP, MoveOn.org, or The Traditional Values Coalition.  Not to say interest groups don't care about who's elected; they do.  They engage in a lot of electioneering alongside their lobbying and public relations and litigation efforts.  But they do not run slates the way parties do.

    Interest groups also differ from parties on issue focus.  Simply put, parties must have broad issue agendas addressing whatever government is actively doing or being pushed to do.  You can easily see this via Political Party Platforms, 1840-2008 of the two national parties.  They are broadsides on dozens of issues, and always have been so since our mass-based two-party system was firmly established in 1840.  Not so for interest groups.  Nearly all are narrow-focused on one or a few issues.  The NRA doesn't care for much aside from gun rights.  The AARP cares chiefly about preserving governmental retirement and medical benefits for the aged.  And the NAACP has always specialized in civil rights for black Americans.

    As Madison taught us in Federalist 10, factions divide on both economic and ideological basis.  Ideology does not address economic issues alone, and is not narrow-focused.  A few emergent interest groups such as MoveOn.org are highly ideological, and not so specialized in terms of issues.  These groups tend to be strongly left-wing or right-wing, not moderate.  There are also "good government" groups such as League of Women Voters and Common Cause which care chiefly for making democracy work and wringing corruption out of politics.  That's pretty close to the "narrow focus" of the groups cited above.

    If you know a tad about evolution in nature, you can readily understand narrow issue focus by interest groups.  More than 20 distinct species of hummingbirds co-exist in their Amazon homeland in similar environments even though all depend on high-energy nectar derived from tubular flowers requiring a specific beak shape to reach the nectar.  Each species exploits certain flowers in certain locales to exclusion of other food sources, leaving those to other species.  On "general source" flowers like the red canna blooms in my yard, these birds aren't good at sharing with their own kind.  They fight intensely in aerial "hummer war" duels with rivals from their own species seeking to use the same feeding sites (not to mention nest sites, and suitable mates!).  Similarly, interest groups seek dominance over a specific issue domain, fighting intensely with rivals who seek the same territory as their own.  They coexist peacefully with non-rival groups that specialize in distinct issue domains, so the NRA and AARP are largely indifferent to each other.

The Free Rider Problem                         Top; Next Down

    The pluralist interest group system in America is flourishing, yet we emphasize the serious free rider problem faced by these groups.  Interest groups are nearly all voluntary associations out to achieve political goals.  Like all groups seeking public or collective outcomes, they encounter the free riding problem.  How do they get volunteers to join their ranks?  Russell Hardin outlines the core problem as an n-person prisoner's Dilemma where it's better for the whole group if everyone contributes to a common cause, but each group member has an incentive to sit back and allow others to do the work to achieve that (The Free Rider Problem - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  If the group has leadership and accountability, then it can police itself by making sure everyone pulls together to achieve its goals.  But per Hardin, that "n-person" coordination fails when n is a large number.  That's what Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action (1965) has taught us.

    The large-n problem extends beyond actual group membership to its potential group membership.  That refers to those who benefit from the interest group's successful political actions.  Introductory texts often acknowledge this with examples.  One text illustrates large differences in a group's size compared to the class of beneficiaries, that is, we have about 6.5 million Americans working to improve the environment through various environmental groups, but the number of beneficiaries for cleaner air, cleaner water, and so forth is vastly more than 6.5 million.  Similarly, the NAACP with 500 thousand members does civil rights promotion for 35 million black Americans, while the National Rifle Association's 3 million members pay for gun rights on behalf of an estimated 40 million gun-owning households (Fiorina et al. 2005, Ch. 7).

    The large-n problem isn't confined to interest groups, but rather afflicts any organization that produces large-scale public goods.  Patterson cites National Public Radio's large national network of local stations, which broadcast for free and solicit listeners to voluntarily contribute by becoming "members" of the local radio station (Patterson 2008, 252).  Public Broadcasting System (public TV) has a similar problem.   If you doubt the common practice of casually benefiting from work of others, consider how often you listen to radio or television broadcasts for free, or troll through websites without cost.  It's all legal and so commonly done as not to be viewed as immoral.  But somebody must pay to produce and disseminate these products to us.  Normally that's commercial advertisers (who win the privilege of annoying us with lengthy interruptions of the broadcast).  But if not them, then whom?  The answer is volunteers who pay for it even though its benefits extend equally to all non-volunteers.  That's how public television and NPR National Public Radio operate.

    NPR and PBS are not interest groups, but their problem closely resembles the interest group problem of getting potential members to become contributors.  If you think about that, it's very similar to the politician's problem of getting people to work for their election.  Many do, but most limit themselves merely to voting.  Unless you're personally rewarded by the fun and learning experience of such work, or highly placed enough to actually reap a job or contract preferment from your help, then the only payoffs are in public goods currency of better governance.  Interest groups must campaign to get enough of us to actually join and work toward their political goals that they will be achieved and sustained.  That's not simple to do.  But there are several simultaneous strategies they have employed with success to overcome the free riding problem well enough to thrive.

Some Solutions                         Top; Next Down

    Since interest groups do flourish, some sort of free rider solutions must be in place.  This is so even though none is a foolproof or all-purpose remedy.  But perfection isn't necessary.  One merely has to find enough paying traffic to keep the group's doors open and its positioning viable in the interest group jungle.

    The most famous solution, and perhaps the most widely used tactic, is packaging a selective incentive (a private good available to members only) with public goods produced by the interest group.  I call this "the Girl Scout solution" since the non-profit GSA has successfully sold cookies for decades as a way of getting vast numbers of non-Girl Scouts to contribute toward GSA collective goals (up to and including upkeep of the national organization).  Those Thin Mint sales ladies must know something; and they do.  To buy their scrumptious cookies, you must contribute to the GSA in buying each box.  You aren't simply buying a private good; you're combining a private good for yourself with a contribution to cover both the production cost of those cookies, and the larger public goals of GSA itself.  You cannot buy the cookies at a lower, market-competitive price while bypassing that contribution.  On their website, the GSA shows you the cookies, but doesn't sell them there (per Girl Scout Cookies; also The History of Girl Scout Cookies).  You get them instead through your local Council's volunteer Girl Scout sellers (along with their parents, on occasion).

    This type of packaging is also used by AARP and many another interest group.  Formerly known as "American Association of Retired Persons" and now simply "AARP," it's the hands-down leader as largest-membership American interest group.  AARP knows how to package.  It carefully emphasizes selective incentives for exclusive use by its members.  Their website exhibits Member Discounts and Services with automobile insurance, price discounts at Barnes and Noble bookstore and Rockport shoe outlet stores (especially coveted by older folks seeking a comfortable walk through life), homeowners insurance, and (of course) hotel discounts.  They're also fully in the politics business, as Issues and Elections Important to Citizens over 50 - AARP readily illustrates.  And like all interest groups, they concentrate on a few issues of specific concern to older Americans--Social Security, and medicare drug prices.  At 37 million members and growing (by their own reckoning), that's a broad interest.  But no one should be deluded into believing all those 37 million jointed AARP for its politics.  Many joined simply because they like AARP "cookies" (as cited above).

    AARP couldn't care less about guns.  But the National Rifle Association does--yet they also entice potential members to join by issuing selective incentives only to subscribers.  Unlike AARP, the NRA Benefits of Membership website leads off with expressly political messages on the absolute centrality of their half of the Second Amendment to the freedoms Americans enjoy and take for granted.  But they too have a prominent Members-Only Discounts and Services weblink to highlight selective incentives available only to dues-paying contributors.  For both groups, this is the packaged "Girl Scout solution."

    Packaging isn't the last word or sole solution to free rider problems.  There are other solutions that often coincide with it.  One is to substitute the intensive help of a few patrons for the lack of assistance from thousands or millions of potential members.  The number of big-money interest group patrons is unknown, as many do not wish a lot of publicity (less they be called to assist others), but it's bound to be small compared to the class of beneficiaries of group activities.  Big patrons typically believe strongly in what they're supporting.  That's the purposive incentive cited in Patterson (2008, 251).  But they also get paid in selective incentives as large university patrons obtain name recognition during their lives and beyond.  They also get on boards of directors, and enjoy special privileges of access to top management of the organization.  Universities routinely use this approach to seeking donors.  You can see this at Southeast in Fall 2007 during dedication of the new River Campus with its naming and plaque acknowledgements (River Campus Grand Opening Highlight of Homecoming, Southeast Missouri State University, 10/21/07).

    Interest groups lean heavily on patrons too.  The web has made this a lot easier.  Several ideological and good-government groups have made a mark in electioneering from web-derived locales.  They all have large patrons alongside their mass memberships.  The influential web-based liberal ideological group MoveOn.org has relied on big-money contributor George Soros.  The Soros name is tremendously effective in generating smaller donorships from others:  get one big donor and publicize that as "seed money" in hopes of getting more.  A women's rights and electioneering group named EMILY's List says "early money is like yeast" in getting bread to rise (sorry for mixing too many metaphors there!).  They're evidently having an impact judging from the hate-you websites dedicated against them.  One such is file-named Atheist George Soros Funds MoveOn.org from The Traditional Values Coalition.  Of course, they do much the same as MoveOn, with different donors of different ideological stripe.  The method is ideologically neutral, not property of left or the right.

    Patrons normally must have money as well as dedication to a cause.  But even more important than patrons are the founding and driving-force entrepreneurs.  These rare individuals possess a certain missionary zeal aligned with organizational talent, persistence, and sheer personal energy.  Some of them create a group where none existed before.  Sarah Brady did so, at Handgun Control, Inc., which has since expanded into a more comprehensive gun control agenda shown at Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  This has been Sarah Brady's singular cause ever since the 1981 tragic shooting of her husband alongside President Reagan (1/22/06 - Jim Brady, 25 Years Later, CBS News Exclusive Reagan Aide And Wife Reflect On Life Since Shooting - CBS News).  Candy Lightner did likewise with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after her daughter was killed by an errant driver (MADD Online Home).  This organization has thrived despite Lightner's eventual departure from its leadership.

    Some entrepreneurs operate strictly at local levels.  Virtually all of these are energetic persons who believe deeply in a cause.  They are not necessarily wealthy, famous, or powerfully connected to city hall.  One famous example brought to me from an old textbook is Gretchen Brooks, locally famous as the "Cat Mother of Syracuse."  She was instrumental in curbing Syracuse city ordinances designed to restrict cat occupancy to three or fewer per household.  She and her followers won (Syracuse's Feline Lobbyists Thwart Proposed Cat Limits - New York Times).  I emphasize that such persons are rare, valuable, quite hard to find, and quite difficult to replace.  Dogs in Syracuse were still limited, as no one stepped forward to become a Dog Mother.

    Probably the most famous entrepreneurial leader of all once led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the days of the southern black uprising against oppressive Jim Crow laws and practices.  His name was Martin Luther King Jr. (King Institute; Martin Luther King - Biography).  King was the inspirational and rhetorical leader of this organization, and while it survived his 1968 assassination, it never again assumed the centrality and moral force it held in the 1960s heyday of King's campaigns.

    Finally, there is the "call to arms" method blending element of fear and anger.  If real events are not sufficient to produce serious emotions, groups resort to fear-mongering.  We know in political campaigns that mobilization of voters-to-be is crucial to winning these things.  Partisan mobilization isn't easy, but is greatly helped in a climate of anger and fear among citizens.  Interest groups can do mobilization too.  Occasionally a government decision inherently promotes people to mobilize around a cause.  One such was the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion decision in January 1973.  Instant legalized abortion in the nation brought many angry cultural conservatives out of church pews and into politics.  Within six months there appeared the National Right to Life Committee, which claims "over 3000 chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia" devoted to fighting legal abortion and overturning Roe itself (NRLC Mission Statement).

    This has the ambiance of a popular crusade resembling the early-20th-century temperance movement which produced a spectacular (but temporary) national adoption of Temperance & Prohibition.  Instrumental in this was the The Anti-Saloon League.  Another instance like this is the Carrollton bus disaster of 1988, where a drunk driver collided head-on with a church bus and killed 27 and injured 34 in the bus fire that followed.  The Carrollton Wikipedia account reports that several parents of victims became leaders in Mothers Against Drunk Driving in wake of this event.

    This method too is neutral with respect to left and right.  Imagine a slight thought experiment for a moment:  in year 2010, the high Court reverses Roe v. Wade and pronounces all abortion in violation of the unborn child's inherent rights.  In short, abortion becomes categorically illegal.  In this closely divided nation, how long would it take for pro-choice organizations to thrive with increased membership?  Probably less than six months.

    Fear-mongering is a rhetorical substitution of prospect of a policy disaster for the real thing.  What about rivalry of two groups dueling over one issue from opposite ideological and policy goals?  These pairs not only coexist happily, they thrive with unintended help from each other.  Each one invokes the other as a bogeyman out to dash the group's cherished goal or goals.  These pairs rely on the rivalry itself for each to mobilize potential members into becoming real dues-paying ones.  This is the dual position of ACLU and ACLJ.  The old-time liberal organization is the American Civil Liberties Union, and its more recent cultural-war conservative rival is American Center for Law and Justice.  No, the resemblance of acronyms is not by accident!  It's by intelligent design.  ACLU is old and firmly established, having once furnished the legal talent to defend John Scopes in the legendary 1925 Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee (Scopes Trial Home Page - UMKC School of Law).  As a relative newcomer here, the ACLJ has a territorial problem of trying to become the chief conservative rival to the established liberal kingpin ACLU on constitutional questions of civil liberties.  One way is to portray itself as THE rival of ACLU, reinforced by invoking fear of this worthy adversary.

    Fear-mongering is notorious among my set for invoking extreme and inflammatory language.  I shall furnish some direct print illustrations in class from ACLU and ACLJ.  Such as these will provoke cynical disdain from Fiorina, and me, too; to arms, to arms, there is a cultural war to lose, and a world to win!  Reminds me of Julius Lester's old spoof-title book "Look Out Whitey!  Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama!" (Lester 1968).   But then, what fun would political life be without a little hyperbolic fear-mongering from our current day cultural warriors?  And besides, it just might work to hold the ramparts until the real storm arrives.

Russell Renka

Works Cited

Fiorina, Morris P., Paul E. Peterson, Bertram Johnson, and D. Stephen Voss.  2005.  The New American Democracy, 4th ed.  New York:  Pearson Longman.

Hardin, Russell.  2003.  The Free Rider Problem.  URL:  plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/.

Lester, Julius.  1968.  Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama.  New York:  Vanguard.

Olson, Marcur.  1965.  The Logic of Collective Action.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

Patterson, Thomas E.  2008.  The American Democracy, 8th ed.  New York:  McGraw Hill.

Copyrightę2009, Russell D. Renka