Why Is the NRA So Powerful?

Michael Munger,

Release Date
January 18, 2013


Lobbying & Special Interests

Why is it that organized interest groups such as the National Rifle Association wield such powerful influence in policy discussions? According to Professor Mike Munger, the reason is simple. In politics, small but organized groups win.
Politics is sometimes more complicated than simply having the majority of voters on your side. Prof. Munger explains the three main factors that can allow a smaller interest group to succeed in implementing a policy that may be opposed by a larger (but unorganized) group. First, an interest group’s members receive individual benefits from the group’s success, which encourages them to act. Second, smaller groups will find it easier overcome the “Free-Rider Problem” since each member’s contribution is more visible. Finally, interest groups frequently offer selective incentives that reward people who help support their cause.

This economic concept applies to issues far beyond gun rights. Interest groups ranging from environmental activists to rent-seeking corporate lobbyists all understand that Prof. Munger is correct when he says, “Politics in Washington is about concentrating and focusing power.”


How The NRA Became The Most Powerful Special Interest In Washington [article]: One writer says the NRA’s power is due to their being “simultaneously a lobbying firm, a campaign operation, a popular social club, a generous benefactor and an industry group.”
Public Choice Theory [article]: An explanation of public choice theory and the economics of special interests
Why Is There Corn in Your Coke? (video): LearnLiberty video explains how farm and sugar interest groups obtain above-market prices and protection from competitors
Why Is the NRA So Powerful on Gun Control (video): Slate News offers its take on how the NRA became so influential

Why is the National Rifle Associate 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.”
Now 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.
First, 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.
The second factor is group size. If there are only six people in your frat, it’s easier to get help than if there are 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.
The third factor is 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 your opposed to guns and favor stricter gun control laws, but you know the individual benefits to any one for organizing are very small. Further, if stricter laws are passed, all the supporters win, regardless of 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.
Furthermore, 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 agree with them. Perhaps that’s a reason to be wary of giving the government certain powers in the first place.