In the now classic The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965) the author Mancur Olson wrote:
“(O)nly a separate and ‘selective’ incentive will stimulate a rational individual in a latent group to act in a group-oriented way”; that is, members of a large group will not act in the group's common interest unless motivated by personal gains (economic, social, etc.). He specifically distinguishes between large and small groups, the latter of which can act simply on a shared objective. Large groups, however, will not form or work towards a shared objective unless individual members are sufficiently motivated”.
The National Rifle Association understands Olson’s analysis better than most.
The simple observation of Olson was that when it comes to organizing for a common purpose, people organized into small, highly focused groups will incur less cost per unit of good produced than those in large groups. In other words, as political groups increase in size, they tend to lose focus and experience what we now call “mission creep”. In addition, as groups increase in size there is a greater tendency for some to not pay their way – the quintessential “free rider” problem. The goals tend to become fuzzy and eventually, most large groups become more socially oriented than goal oriented. Costs to members per unit of good rise precipitously until it is no longer cost effective to belong. This is the theory of collective action and concentrated benefits versus diffuse costs.
An example I studied in the 1980s was the Sierra Club. What started out as a small group of conservationists passionate about the high Sierras in 1892 was, by the 1930s, as focused on outings and social gatherings as conservation. Eventually, the club’s efforts to get along with mainstream politics got so bad that then director David Brower resigned in 1969 and formed his own conservation group – The Friends of the Earth. This is not to suggest the SC had no conservation successes, on the contrary – they have their activist fingers in virtually every conservation pie from clean water to climate change to electric cars. In fact, they are currently engaged in 25 different conservation programs. Today, if you were to ask most Americans what the club is all about many would say they run fun trips into the wilderness. They have lost focus and so effectiveness in the conservation world.
The NRA takes a different approach. When I was young, all of us kids took NRA Hunter Safety courses before we could acquire our first hunting license. Their magazine The American Hunter was on par with Field & Stream. The NRA was about firearm safety and shooting sports with a little conservation thrown in. It was largely apolitical and certainly not a standout interest group. Today, the NRA is focused wholly on gun control. A political coup in 1977 by organization activists afraid of gun confiscation turned the group into a Second Amendment advocate. Since then, the NRA has proven itself one of the most successful interest groups on the Hill. The reasons are obvious and were explained by Olson almost fifty years ago.
First, NRA members know exactly what their dues go toward – preservation of gun rights via Second Amendment protections. There is no pretense among membership that they are a shooting hobby group or social club. They advocate for the right to own guns.
Second, members are notoriously single minded in their voting patterns. They are single issue voters and will oppose any politician that threatens their own perception/interpretation of their Second Amendment rights. They will write letters, sign petitions, march in political rallies, give money, and generally go beyond the “normal” level of political commitment compared to most of us.
Third, they are relatively few in number and so are able to stay on task. Gun ownership numbers are always suspect but there is widespread agreement that Americans own a lot of guns. Gallup polls report that almost half (47%) or around 50,000,000 households own a gun; a recent survey of 45,000 people by YouGov reported 35% of households with guns. However, here is the important number: 65% of the 310,000,000 guns in private ownership belong to just 20% of gun owners. Further, the YouGov survey found that only 7% of gun owners belonged to the NRA – according to NRA figures that is only four million members. While that seems like a large number, and it is, in terms of gun ownership it is a drop in the bucket – but a highly focused, highly activist one.
What lessons can we take away? The first would be that until a group emerges that is as highly focused on gun control measures as the NRA is on gun rights, there is no contest. All the major polls show overwhelming support (somewhere north of 50%) for some degree of gun control. The problem is that most of those same people do not have the single-minded focus of the gun rights advocates. Until they do, they are not in the game.
The other lesson is that perhaps size really doesn’t matter. The NRA demonstrates that a relative handful of people can block any sort of meaningful reform for decades. Rather than building broad political consensus on the issue, reformers could be effective by operating with strategy and funding. The only time we hear from Wayne LaPierre is when he rails against reform measures. The rest of the time the NRA stays mostly out of the news and so out of our consciousness. They lobby quietly on the Hill and in state races. Reformers should do the same.
Mancur Olson understood that our social and political activities are better understood through an analysis of our costs and incentives for action. Politics is not always a game of large numbers; sometimes it is simply laser like focus on a single goal. Incentives cover a wide array of motivators including financial and moral remuneration. The NRA understands this. The gun rights reform movement; in order to be successful, will need to identify the incentives most salient to the majority. Unfortunately, widespread gun violence in our schools and communities doesn’t seem to be sufficient.