The composition of the pressure system: competing perspectives

Political scientists have long pondered the processes by which people with joint political concerns come to form organizations and the consequences of those processes for the composition of the set of politically active organizations. Interest group pluralists, among them Arthur Bentley (1908) and David Truman (1951), emphasized the ease with which individuals form interest groups and the low barriers to entry to, and the fluid nature of, the organized interest system.2 In this view, interest groups emerge more or less automatically when individuals whose interests are affected respond to disturbances in the political environment. They move easily in and out of the pressure system as dictated by their concerns about the particular issues on the political agenda. Because of the ease of entry and exit from pressure politics, the absence of advocacy for a particular point of view in a political controversy was sometimes interpreted as an indication of a corresponding absence of political concern on the part of those who might be expected to, but do not, articulate a collective opinion on a policy matter.

This perspective has been criticized from numerous directions. A number of observers, most notably Mancur Olson (1965) and E. E. Schattschneider (1960), argued that the barriers to entry to the political fray are higher than would be expected on the basis of interest group pluralist analysis. In an influential formal analysis, Olson pointed out that, as the result of the free-rider problem, large, diffuse groups lacking the capacity to coerce cooperation or to provide selective benefits often face severe collective action problems that prevent them from organizing on behalf of their joint political concerns. Writing somewhat earlier and relying on empirical observation rather than logical deduction,

Schattschneider came to a conclusion similar to Olson's when he argued that the interests of broad publics seeking public goods are less likely to achieve organized representation. However, he called attention to an additional obstacle to organized representation: absence of resources. The resource requirements for organization and advocacy imply that the shared concerns of those who lack political and economic resources are also less likely to be represented by political organizations. Thus, organizations do not emerge automatically to advocate on behalf of groups of people who might be expected to have joint concerns. The corollary of this observation is that the absence of group activity is not necessarily prima facie evidence of satisfaction with the policy status quo but may reflect the barriers, including a deficit of resources, to interest group formation and political action.

Our empirical inquiries confirm, at least in part, each of these perspectives. As the pluralists maintained, pressure politics is fluid. Organizations do move in and out of pressure politics - although, once they leave, they are relatively unlikely to return to the political fray. Mancur Olson was correct that the free-rider problem inhibits the formation of large groups and, thus, that organizations advocating on behalf of broad public interests widely beneficial to all in society are less common than might be expected on the basis of the large number of people who express support for their goals. And, E. E. Schattschneider was on target in pointing to the role of the resource problem in limiting the organized political representation of those with limited political and economic resources.

However, we gain greater understanding of the overall composition of the pressure system in the context of two other considerations. The first consideration is that most organizations active in politics are not "groups" at all. In fact, even among the politically active associations that we conceptualize as classical "interest groups," the majority are not composed of individual members. As Robert Salisbury (1984) demonstrated, most of the organizations active in pressure politics are not groups at all, especially not voluntary associations of individuals. A majority are what he calls "institutions" that have no members at all in the ordinary sense. Among such institutions are universities, museums, and, especially, corporations. In addition, organizations having such institutions as members, such as trade associations that bring together companies in a single industry, are more numerous than organizations composed of individuals.

The other consideration is that achieving organized representation in politics is a two-step process. The first of these two steps, one that Olson and others have correctly characterized as fraught, is to get an organization off the ground as a going operation.3 The next step is politicization, that is, bringing an organization into politics. It turns out that it is much easier to politicize an ongoing organization that is outside politics than it is to found a new organization. Contrary to the interest group pluralist emphasis on the emergence of newly organized political groups when jointly interested parties face a circumstance in which political influence would be useful, most of the organizations that enter pressure politics are existing but previously apolitical organizations. Moreover - presumably because both the free-rider problem and the resource problem impose fewer constraints on an institution than on a voluntary association - it is easier to politicize an institution that would benefit from government action than to bring an existing, but apolitical, membership association into politics.

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