Social media and collective action

by on June 13, 2008 · 24 comments

Here are some thoughts that might become a paper. Feedback would be much appreciated.

Public choice theory can be summarized in four words: concentrated benefits, dispersed costs. Your share of the bill for the Bridge to Nowhere might be 5¢—much less than even the postage needed to write your member of Congress—but the developer and the local community stand to gain millions, which pays for lots of stamps. The few who will benefit from the transfer have an easy time organizing to lobby for it, while a group as diverse and dispersed as taxpayers face what Mancur Olson called a collective action problem. That is, the costs of organizing large groups are greater than the possible gain, and then there’s always the free-rider problem. This is the status quo and the source of much pessimism.

Here is, perhaps, cause for optimism: social media has pushed down, and continues to push down, the cost of organizing. If the cost can be pushed down far enough, it’s conceivable that the collective action problem could be solved. (That’s a thesis in case you hadn’t noticed.)

In his wonderful book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky tells the tale of two flights that where stranded at airports with the passengers subjected to terrible conditions. One incident happened in 1999, and the other almost identical incident happened in 2007. The former became a press blip, while the latter led to congressional reform of passenger rights. The difference, Shirky points out, is that the second event happened after the technology was in place to make it trivial for the passengers who had been in similar situations to find one another and organize into a cohesive group.

There seem to be two ways to get the attention of Congress: money or members. The AARP is the most effective lobby in town because it has the backing of 38 million members. Like the AAA, unions, and other large lobbies, the AARP solves the collective action problem by offering its members benefits—beyond representation in Washington—that can actually be captured by the individual. (What Olson called a “separate and selective incentive.”) Wikipedia and Linux and the rest offer selective incentives, but they also lower the costs of organization and participation dramatically. Would it be possible for an ad hoc Facebook group to rival a traditional lobby? I don’t know. Maybe we should try.

A couple of problems I see: First, as Jonathan Rauch explains in Government’ End, we are the special interests. Seven out of ten Americans belong to at least one association, according to Rauch. The groups that lobby for favors and transfers are made up of us. And we can use social media to lobby for a transfer as well as we can against it. Second, might be the group identity or the perceived benefit, I don’t know what to call it. What I mean is that you can see how a group would form around Barrack Obama, or in opposition to something as clearly egregious as a bridge to nowhere. But what about mohair subsidies? Or a Route 7 community improvement grant? At what level do you get organization? The Farm Bill or the earmark?

It also seems to me, though, that the first step to the formation of Internet-facilitated ad hoc taxpayer lobbies is that it needs to be dead simple for taxpayers to know what to lobby against (or even for). This means improved government transparency, and I’ve written plenty on that.

Barrack Obama is someone who seems to understand the power of ad hoc organization, as well as transparency, and it looks like he might be thinking along the same lines. Above is a recent talk by Obama brought to my attention on Micah Sifry’s blog:

In relevant part he says,

I want to open up transparency in government, so that you guys know on a day to day basis what is happening. I want to revamp our White House website. I know it’s nice to take the virtual tour of the China Room and all that stuff, but I want people to be able to say, “today, this issue is going on…today’s President Obama talked about his proposal for $4000 student college tuition credits, it’s going to be going into this congressional committee, these are the key leaders in the House and Senate who are going to be deciding on the bill, here are the groups that are involved that are supporting it, you should contact your Congressman.” Just creating the situation that if people want to get involved they have the information to do it and it’s easy. The information is out there right now, but [if] your trying to track it down and find it in one easy place, it’s hard. … The more we can enlist the American people to pay attention and be involved, that’s the only way we are going move an agenda forward. That’s how we are going to counteract the special interests.

There’s a heck of a lot to like in that statement and what that is should be pretty obvious, so instead I’ll tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like the part where he seems to imply that the White House website tells you which congressman to contact in order to “move an agenda forward.” I much prefer David Robinson’s suggestion that government merely give us all the details in easy-to-parse formats and leave the organizing to third parties (on either side of an issue). Obama might be right on one thing, though: this could be “how we are going to counteract the special interests.”

Previous post:

Next post: