Most decisions along the way make individual sense, even if they lead to collective failure

Thursday, December 16th, 2021

Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations is one of Alex Tabarrok’s favorite books and a classic of public choice. He shares four of its nine implications:

2. Stable societies with unchanged boundaries tend to accumulate more collusions and organizations for collective action over time. The longer the country is stable, the more distributional coalitions they’re going to have.

6. Distributional coalitions make decisions more slowly than the individuals and firms of which they are comprised, tend to have crowded agendas and bargaining tables, and more often fix prices than quantities. Since there is so much bargaining, lobbying, and other interactions that need to occur among groups, the process moves more slowly in reaching a conclusion. In collusive groups, prices are easier to fix than quantities because it is easier to monitor whether other industries are selling at a different price, while it may be difficult to monitor the actual quantities they are producing.

7. Distributional coalitions slow down a society’s capacity to adopt new technologies and to reallocate resources in response to changing conditions, and thereby reduce the rate of economic growth. Since it is difficult to make decisions, and since many groups have an interest in the status quo, it will be more difficult to adopt new technologies, create new industries, and generally adapt to changing environments.

9. The accumulation of distributional coalitions increases the complexity of regulation, the role of government, and the complexity of understandings, and changes the direction of social evolution. As the number of distributional coalitions grows, it will make policy-making increasingly difficult, and social evolution will focus more on distributing wealth among groups than on economic efficiency and growth.

You can gauge the book’s continued relevance from this thread by Ezra Klein, he notes, which gets at some of the consequences of the forces Olson explained:

A key failure of liberalism in this era is the inability to build in a way that inspires confidence in more building. Infrastructure comes in overbudget and late, if it comes in at all. There aren’t enough homes, enough rapid tests, even enough good government web sites. I’ve covered a lot of these processes, and it’s important to say: Most decisions along the way make individual sense, even if they lead to collective failure.

If the problem here was idiots and crooks, it’d be easy to solve. Sadly, it’s (usually) not. Take the parklets. There are fire safety concerns. SFMTA is losing revenue. Some pose disability access issues. It’s not crazy to try and take everyone’s concerns into account. But you end up with an outcome everyone kind of hates.

I’ve seen this happen again and again. Every time I look into it, I talk to well-meaning people able to give rational accounts of their decisions.

It usually comes down to risk. If you do X, Y might happen, and even if Y is unlikely, you really don’t want to be blamed for it. But what you see, eventually, is that our mechanisms of governance have become so risk averse that they are now running *tremendous* risks because of the problems they cannot, or will not, solve. And you can say: Who cares? It’s just parklets/ tests/high-speed rail/housing/etc.

But it all adds up.

There’s both a political and a substantive problem here.

The political problem is if people keep watching the government fail to build things well, they won’t believe the government can build things well. So they won’t trust it to build. And they won’t even be wrong. The substantive problem, of course, is that we need government to build things, and solve big problems.

If it’s so hard to build parklets, how do you think think that multi-trillion dollar, breakneck investment in energy infrastructure is going to go?


  1. Bomag says:

    Some of the medieval cathedrals took centuries to build.

    Just sayin’.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    “We need government…”

    Which government?

  3. Jim says:

    I can’t find the post or comment where I promised Sam the video of police shooting at suburbanites, but I’ve come to deliver:

  4. Sam J. says:


    Thank you.

    I watched this. They should be thrown out of the police force and anyone who gave orders to do as they did should also.

    I fully understand people favoring having police but in many places they have become such mercenary assholes that we would be better off without them and just go back to lynching.

    They don’t stop crime in a lot of cases and just go around murdering people that have less power then them. Some of this, probably more than people realize is directly related to the psychological profiles that they are specifically using to hire police. The courts are responsible for this.

    Just take a wild ass guess at what kind of people are responsible for these psychological evaluations which pick who gets to be a policeman? I followed a few of the links to find out who put these guys on the street. Who exactly is in charge of the evaluations that see these guys as fit to shoot people on their porches? Here, surprised? It’s “”. And look at the cute blue stripe. It doesn’t show at the link but other pictures from the same page show the stripe in the flag as blue.

    Have any of you ever read any of James LaFond stuff. He lived in Baltimore and as a regular working guy was attacked and threatened by the police near as much as by the thugs.

    He had several friends of his killed by the police, and they were not criminals.

  5. Sam J. says:

    The guy has missed what I believe THE MOST IMPORTANT part of empires and in a smaller way countries to destroy themselves. The rise up higher and higher in the countries government of psychopaths. It doesn’t take but a few to drive the whole country into the ground.

    There’s a 100% no doubt about it case of this in history.

    We see civilizations rise and fall and all this turmoil but why? Civilizations rise up from hard work and the struggle of the many. Once they get to the top they become more powerful and the ruling of them attracts the the most ruthless. Over time the psychopaths move to the top and then, the whole thing crashes to the ground.

    One such case that destroyed a whole civilization is Alcibiades of Athens. Alcibiades was almost certainly a psychopath. Some had an intense hatred for him, some great love. It was Alcibiades that pushed the great idea of attacking Syracuse on the Athenians. The failed Syracuse attack was THE downfall of Athens. The failed attack destroyed them completely. The same Alcibiades went from city to city in the ancient world. In Sparta he was more Spartan than the Spartans. Changing his chameleon skin every time he moved somewhere else and betraying everyone he came in contact with. Alcibiades killed Athens with risky schemes to glorify himself.

    What did Plutarch have to say about him.*.html

    “…He had, as they say, one power which transcended all others, and proved an implement of his chase for men: that of assimilating and adapting himself to the pursuits and lives of others, thereby assuming more violent changes than the chameleon. That animal, however, as it is said, is utterly unable to assume one colour, namely, white; but Alcibiades could associate with good and bad alike, and found naught that he could not imitate and practice. 5 In Sparta, he was all for bodily training, simplicity of life, and severity of countenance; in Ionia, for p65 luxurious ease and pleasure; in Thrace, for drinking deep; in Thessaly, for riding hard; and when he was thrown with Tissaphernes the satrap, he outdid even Persian magnificence in his pomp and lavishness. It was not that he could so easily pass entirely from one manner of man to another, nor that he actually underwent in every case a change in his real character; but when he saw that his natural manners were likely to be annoying to his associates, he was quick to assume any counterfeit exterior which might in each case be suitable for them…”

    One thing not widely known is King Agis of Sparta hated Alcibiades because Alcibiades had a child by the Kings wife.

  6. Sam J. says:

    BTW look at Hillary and Nancy Pelosi and if you can’t see the psychopath in those two faces you’re not paying attention. I think it’s harder for Spath Women than Men to hide their expressions. Maybe because Women are more emotional we can better notice it but I can see the psychopathy in those two easy. Particularly when they get that big smile wide eye look. It’s SO DAMN FAKE.

  7. VXXC says:

    “It’s just parklets/ tests/high-speed rail/housing/etc….”

    You’re right, Ezra, it’s not a big deal.

  8. Sam J. says:

    Sorry for getting so off topic. My apologies.

  9. Jim says:

    You’re welcome, Sam. I agree.

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