This is a book report on The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities, by Mancur Olson. There isn’t a whole lot about how nations pulled themselves out of their medieval stagnation (see A Farewell to Alms for that), so a better title for this still-in-print book from 1982 would be “How Rich Countries Die.”
Table 1.1 shows annual rates of growth in per-capita GDP for each of three decades, the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, in a range of rich countries. Contrary to our perception of the U.S. as a growth dynamo and the Europeans as sclerotic, France and Germany tremendously outperformed the U.S., as did most of the other countries. If we have grown larger it is because our population has expanded much faster than the European countries.
Chapter 2 summarizes Olson’s groundbreaking work on how interest groups work to reduce a society’s efficiency and GDP. Some of this work seems obvious in retrospect and indeed Adam Smith noted that businessmen rarely met without conspiring against the public interest. There are a handful of automobile producers and millions of automobile consumers. It makes sense for an automobile company, acting individually, to lobby Congress for tariffs. The company will reap 20-40 percent of the benefits of the tariff. It doesn’t make sense for an individual consumer, however, to lobby Congress. It will cost him millions of dollars to lobby against Congress and preventing the tariff will save him only a few thousand dollars on his next car purchase. The economy suffers because some resources that would have been put to productive use are instead hanging around Washington and because cars are more expensive than they should be.