Why is the National Rifle Association such a powerful organization? The reason is that in politics, small but organized groups win.

Politics in Washington is about concentrating and focusing power. Large groups have trouble doing that, but small groups focus power very well. The reason is that effective political groups form if individuals think that they benefit by participating. Social scientists call this the free-rider problem.

Imagine you belong to a club or fraternity. You have a party. People promise to show up the next day to help clean the house. The free-rider problem is that everyone likes having the house cleaned up, regardless of whether they helped clean it. So, who shows up to help clean the house?

Mancur Olson, the renowned 20th-century economist, identified three factors that will help us predict what happens.

  1. Individual benefits — Not many people enjoy cleaning up the house after a party. Still, in any group, some people always show up for everything. But there aren’t enough of those people to solve the problem.
  2. Group size — If there are only six people in your frat, it’s easier to get help than if there were a hundred. In a large group, everybody thinks, “Let someone else do it. I’ll just sleep.” But if there are only a few members, you know you need to help.
  3. Selective incentives — One word: donuts. Or maybe sausage biscuits. Some reward that only goes to the people that actually show up and work for the group.

What does this have to do with the NRA? Suppose you’re opposed to guns and favor stricter gun control laws, but you know the individual benefits to any one person from organizing are very small. Further, if stricter laws are passed, all the supporters win, whether they contributed or not. There are thousands and thousands of people who think that way. So, the potential group size is very large, and it’s hard to organize.

What about selective incentives? Not much hope there, either. If you go to a gun control meeting, all you see is some very earnest people handing out folders and wondering why so few people came to the meeting. Is the NRA different? You bet.

Gun rights supporters are not a small group, so group size isn’t the reason. But individual benefits are important because NRA members not only like guns but, in many cases, actually own guns. So, they have something personally at stake in the issue.

Furthermore, if you go to a meeting of pro-gun folks, you’ll get to see … guns! Old guns and rare guns. You can join safety classes and marksmanship classes. Even people who might support gun control would enjoy a gun show.

These sorts of differences explain a lot about our political system generally. Special interest groups that have focused benefits, relatively small numbers, and the ability to offer selective incentives have disproportionate power.

The problem is this means government policy may not be guided by what’s best for the public at large. Organized interest groups are able to control a lot of policy making, even if most people in the unorganized public disagree with them. Perhaps that’s a reason to be wary of giving the government certain powers in the first place.


The article above was adapted from the transcript of a Learn Liberty video featuring Professor Michael Munger, “Why Is The NRA So Powerful?”: