"Letting George Do It": Does Olson Explain Low Levels of Participation?

Alexander Grant Jordan, William Anthony Maloney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article contributes to the discussion of one component of the “crisis” in political participation by looking at (non‐) participation in groups. The starting point is that political science has a heavy gauge tool for accounting for such low inactivity – Olson’s (1965 Olson, M. 1965, 1971. The Logic of Collective Action, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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) free rider proposition. The article accepts the influence of Olson, but uses survey data to investigate whether non‐participation is a self‐interested strategy, as he suggests, or whether it reflects broader differences in resources and orientations to political action. While it is often assumed that surveys demonstrating that members join for collective ends “disprove” Olson’s thesis, this article accepts his rebuttal that these surveys of joiners tell us little about those who refuse to join. Olson accepted that (trivial) numbers of members would join (in addition to those seeking selective benefits), but argued that the number joining for collective goods would be dwarfed by those failing to participate. These he assumed to be free‐riding. This article revisits the definition, and supplies theoretically illuminating survey material from non‐members as well as members. The data show little support for the free‐riding instinct. While Olson implies that free‐riding is logical for almost all potential members, this article suggests that non‐participation is not simply a “leftover” from those not mobilized, but is itself based on specific factors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-139
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2006


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