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Conservative student groups and the logic of collective action:

Jonathan Adler's post below highlights the seemingly surprising fact that the conservative College Republicans are the largest and possibly most unified student group at the generally very liberal University of Californiat at Berkeley. This fact, however, is not as strange as it seems.

Basic collective action theory, as outlined in Mancur Olson's classic work The Logic of Collective Action (well summarized here), shows that it is easier to mobilize a small group than a larger one. The bigger the group, the more likely it is that some members will fail to contribute to the achievement of its common goals and instead free-ride on the efforts of others. In a small group, bu contrast, members know that if they fail to contribute, it is not likely that anyone else will pick up the slack. Moreover, it is usually easier and cheaper to organize and assemble a smaller number of people than a larger number. For this reason, it is likely that a much higher percentage of the conservative students at Berkeley take an active part in conservative organizations than liberal students who actively contribute to liberal ones.

It is also easy to understand why the conservative students tend to be unified in one organization (in this case the College Republicans), while the liberal ones are "splintered" into many factions, as the Wall Street Journal article quoted by Jonathan notes. Precisely because they are so heavily outnumbered, Berkeley conservatives know that they are unlikely to achieve much in the face of overwhelming liberal dominance if they fail to cooperate; being a beleaguered minority is conducive to unity in a way that majority status often is not.

I saw the same logic at work when I was a student at Yale Law School, where right of center students (including both conservatives and libertarians) were probably no more than 10% of the student body. Yet the Federalist Society was one of the largest student groups, and certainly one of the most active. We few YLS right-wingers knew that if we didn't work to promote our cause, nobody else at the Law School would either. And the overwhelming predominance of liberal and leftist students gave us a stronger incentive to put aside our differences than would otherwise have been the case. Indeed, the YLS Fed Soc at that time (1997-2000) included a variety of libertarians, social conservatives, neoconservatives, and even a few centrist Democrats. These disparate factions were willing to work together in large part because of the fact that we were so heavily outnumbered on campus by the political left. During the impeachment of President Clinton, which occurred during my second year at Yale, I wasn't shy about saying that I was opposed to efforts to remove him from office. Yet no one in the YLS Fed Soc seemed to mind my apostasy, despite the fact that one of the organization's leaders had spent the previous summer working for Ken Starr's independent counsel office.

Liberal YLS students, by contrast, had few such incentives to avoid factionalism and free-riding and as a result were split up among numerous groups focusing on single issues or (less commonly) on one particular narrow type of left-wing ideology.

When will we know that liberal dominance on campus has truly ended? When conservative and libertarian students engage in as much free-riding and factional in-fighting as liberal ones do today:)!

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Conservative student groups and the logic of collective action:
  2. Young Republicans at Berkeley:
Friedrich Foresight (mail):
It's not just numbers, ie, it's not symmetrical between Left and Right. To generalise and stereotype very gorssly, the sort of people who are attracted to substantively Left-wing political positions tend not to be the sort of personalities who can tolerate imperfection. In particular, they don't take very well to being outvoted by the majority - whether in the legislature, the supreme court, the student council, or the club executive.

Evidence being that when the shoe is on the other foot and the Right is dominant, the Left also tends to splinter into every-smaller, ever-purer sects of barely distinguishable ideological degree (the Seventeenth International, Judaean People's Liberation Front, Juche as opposed to Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc...)

The Right, on the other hand, tend to be more tolerant (perhaps too tolerant) of imperfection, and to put up with ideological inconsistencies (up to a point) for the sake of stability and winning/ keeping power. Thus, Christian conservatives lining up behind Bush senior, and budget-cutting libertarians pulling the lever for Bush junior.

(I did say up to a point...)
10.21.2006 1:17am
SC Alumna:
In the mid-eighties, I saw the same dynamic play out at the University of Southern California. Except that there were four different large campus Republican party organizations that most students were sympathetic to. And a small focused campus Democratic organization that was able to project an impact that was much larger than its size.
10.21.2006 2:42am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
That's nice except for the fact that Berkeley (the school) isn't overwhelmingly liberal. A huge percentage of the student body is relatively conservative christian asian and plenty of other students come from all over the state and aren't particularly liberal.

Still, it is probably true that conservative students feel they are outnumbered as the liberal legacy does tend to make liberals more visible on campus and the surrounding community contributes to this perception.

In my opinion this is a simple example of group dynamics. If you can make a group feel like they are under siege from opposing forces they will forget their differences and band together. It is the same reason that constantly complaining about the 'liberal media' benefits republicans at large by unifying their cause.

Of course it is also entierly possible that conservatives are just more inclined to organization by temperment than liberals. Many people on the radical left are there preciscely because they like to feel like revolutionaries fighting against the corrupt system which is likely correlated to personalities that are harder to organize. Also I get the feeling that the conservatives at Berkeley get more outside donations than most liberal groups which is also a unifying factor.
10.21.2006 3:17am
Ilya Somin:
That's nice except for the fact that Berkeley (the school) isn't overwhelmingly liberal. A huge percentage of the student body is relatively conservative christian asian and plenty of other students come from all over the state and aren't particularly liberal.

I'm skeptical that this true. Among most Asian-American groups, being conservative Christian in a theological sense doesn't necessarily equate to being politically conservative; Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans - the two largest Asian-American groups in California tend to vote Democratic. There may well be a good many apolitical students at Berkeley who aren't liberal. But among those who are politically active, I suspect that the vast majority are in fact liberal, as is true at most other elite universities (and may well be even more true at Berkeley than elsewhere).
10.21.2006 3:30am
Kovarsky (mail):
Ilya,

I'm pleased to see that public choice theory is en vogue at GMU Law School. I am eagerly awaiting the logically related explanation for why "framers intent" of the constitution is unintelligible! :)
10.21.2006 3:35am
Samael (mail):
An interesting concomitant of this is that conservative groups seem to mostly engage in "cultural" activities--by which I mean, activities designed to piss off liberals. It isn't that the substantive ideological distinctions don't exist, but as Ilya describes, a smaller group has powerful incentives to paper over those differences in pursuit of cohesive power. Hence, conservatives gravitate to those areas of conservativism where they can all agree. Hence all the culture war stuff. Encouraging students to eat meat isn't conservative, but it does aggravate liberals in a way all conservatives seem to enjoy.
10.21.2006 8:32am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Kovarsky -- Obviously framers' intent is incoherent. What public choicers have you seen suggest otherwise?
10.21.2006 10:34am
liberty (mail) (www):
There is another public choice reason for this, which is that participation in a small goup is more rewarding. Not only can you expect each of your actions to have a greater impact (because it would not get done without you) but you also reap a larger portion of the rewards.

In a large group you might make the difference and achieve something that others could not, yet the reward is then divided by a larger population. In terms of political groups this might have the effect (given equal populations receiving the policy reward) the praise. In a large group it is less likely that you will alone will be credited and advance within the group; in a small group the praise for accomplishments can only be split a few ways and so you more directly feel the reward both of acheiving the goals and of being recognized.

This also explains why parties that tend toward somewhat authoritarian policy tend also to be very small -- it isn't just that a small number of people would choose to join, they split and splinter and there may be many small groups which each are interested in control (with leaders who need to feel the rewards of each action) and then they can create mass movements once they get the momentum going. Examples of this include pre-1917 socialist groups in Russia, Germany, France etc and terrorist groups which fall under the tent of al-Qaeda but probably have done most of their work in smaller clans.
10.21.2006 12:39pm
Kent Scheidegger (mail) (www):
Organizing people is much easier when they feel they are under siege. In one regional meeting of the Federalist Society a few years back, the folks from the SF Bay area were pumped about how enthused people were, while the guy from Oklahoma City was frustrated with his inability to stir up much interest.

Logicnazi says Berkeley isn't that liberal, apparently referring to the student body. That would be very good news if true, but I share Ilya's skepticism. Even if there are large numbers of conservatives in the student body, though, I would expect them to still feel besieged by the overwhelmingly left-wing faculty.
10.21.2006 1:07pm
Cathy (mail) (www):
As a Cal alum ('92-'96, Go Bears! Beat the Huskies!) I think Logicnazi's impressions of the campus are not that far off. It's not that Cal is so conservative, but it is much less liberal than it is perceived to be.

Where Cal tends to be most liberal is in its hosting of a range of views. You can probably be a cultural outlier much more comfortably at that campus than many others. But it isn't the 60s anymore; the ability to unify in support of liberal positions (or protest against conservative ones) is hardly more striking there than it would be at any university in general. Some of that is probably because of the political composition - lots of students may be more politically conservative than they used to be (in the 60s many students were rebelling against conservative parents; now many are rebelling against liberal ones) - but lots of it I think is due to general complacency. The 60s had a draft; the 90s-00s has had a ... ??? Even for something relatively big like Affirmative Action, the loss of which in the 90s having offended so many politically liberal people, only a small part of the campus managed to mobilize in protest. Either people didn't care politically, or they just didn't care period.
10.21.2006 1:15pm
Kovarsky (mail):
Sasha,

That was precisely my point. Sorry if it was unclear.
10.21.2006 1:45pm
TFKW:
I feel like the left sees libertarians as conservative who they don't like much, and the right will try not to say too much against them as long as they keep voting Republican. I wonder what percentage of (small 'l') libertarians who are not actively involved with the Republican party (as opposed to regular voters) are actually able to stomach associating with the rest of the Republican party's current coalition. That is, in the absence of remotely libertarian candidates getting run by the Republicans, I wonder what percentage of libertarians are invisible because they just stay home or consider themselves Democrats.

Also, Samael, your post made me laugh, but I think the left does just as much purely to annoy the right, at least as far as espousing contrary views in an antagonistic way goes. There is a related tendency to think "if the right wants it, it must be bad for us, so we'll oppose it". I'm not sure if the right does the same thing.
10.21.2006 2:13pm
Bruce:
I saw the same logic at work when I was a student at Yale Law School, where right of center students (including both conservatives and libertarians) were probably no more than 10% of the student body.

I think this may significantly underestimate the number of conservatives at Yale. Perhaps it's accurate as an estimate of the vocal conservatives, but I don't get the sense that 90% of all YLS grads are liberal (or liberal libertarians).
10.21.2006 3:36pm
Frater Plotter:
Another possibility, of course, is that conservatives are more willing than liberals (or libertarians) to follow an authority that is broadly tolerable, *because* it is an authority and, given power, capable of providing resistance to other less tolerable forces.

Old-school liberals commented on this in the early 20th century. Conservatives in various parts of Europe preferred fascism over the threats of Bolshevism or anarchism. Even though they conceded that fascism was rather foolish, they preferred a broadly tolerable fascist authority over intolerable Bolshevism or incomprehensible anarchism.

Paleoconservatives who nonetheless favor Mr. Bush's regime are in a similar position. While there are many aspects of Bushism which are nearly as revolting as fascism to the conservative temperament, Bushism embodies a powerful enough authority to resist both foreign terrorism and cultural liberalism.

In the analogy to the rise of fascism in Europe, foreign terrorism and the threat of dhimmitude are analogous to the threat of Bolshevism. The threat posed by foreign (Saudi now; Russian then) nationals, immigrants, and suspicious converts from the lower class and intellectuals (e.g. Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, "Dhimmicrats") is similar. And cultural liberalism with its preference for foreign culture over a strong national identity, and its effeteness and indeed its faggotry, is analogous to the perceived decadence of the Weimar era.

The crisis -- or opportunity for change -- comes when it becomes undeniable to the paleoconservative that the fascist movement is just as radical -- just as destructive of the nation, its identity, and traditional Christian and freeman values -- as is the external threat. It does not make sense to the conservative to become a monster in order to fight monsters more effectively; it is better to go down fighting as a man, to preserve freedom for our posterity against *both* the threat of dhimmitude and the threat of fascism.
10.21.2006 7:19pm
Mac (mail):
Frater Plotter

"Paleoconservative"

Would that be a relative of Tyrannasorus Rex or more closely related to Brontosaurus (Apatosaurus)? Just wondering.
10.21.2006 9:34pm
Brian W (mail) (www):
Maybe people who are inclined to organize themselves spontaneously are more likely to experience our world in a way that makes them receptive to Republican ideas.

And people who know they need order and discipline imposed on them from above are more likely to become Democrats.

That would lead the the differences in organization we see just as much as any hand-waving sociological explanation.
10.22.2006 2:30am
Anonymous but not so much:
You see the same thing with racial groups on campus. At someplace like Wesleyan, the "Asian Pacific Islanders" will all be stuck in a single group. The same thing happens at places like UCLA Law School, despite the fact that, historically, all the various Asian groups have not always gotten along so swimmingly.

But you take someplace like the UCLA undergraduate community, where there are thousands and thousands of Asians, suddenly it's Filipino this, Japanese that, Korean such-and-such, the Thai student association, etc. etc. etc.

I've always been fascinated by that.
10.22.2006 3:44am
Cornellian (mail):
Among most Asian-American groups, being conservative Christian in a theological sense doesn't necessarily equate to being politically conservative; Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans - the two largest Asian-American groups in California tend to vote Democratic.

They may be politically conservative and still vote Democratic if the issues that matter to them count for more than other issues which are typically taken to draw a line between conservative and liberal. Thus, for example, they may vote Democratic because they perceive the Democrats are more welcoming of immigrants, even if they also hold any number of other views which might cause them to be labeled conservative.
10.22.2006 10:42pm
Jon L:

I saw the same logic at work when I was a student at Yale Law School, where right of center students (including both conservatives and libertarians) were probably no more than 10% of the student body. Yet the Federalist Society was one of the largest student groups, and certainly one of the most active.


This may be anachronistic, but currently at Harvard Law School it's an open secret that many Fed Soc members have little ideological leanings or particular conservative enthusiasm. Instead, so the common knowledge goes, membership is a resume boost for clerkship applications, given the political perspective of today's federal judiciary.
10.23.2006 1:39am
Justin (mail):
Ah, so when Professor Volokh was saying he wouldn't comment on Republican corruption scandals because they were outside of his area of expertise, the key modifier was REPUBLICAN. I had always assumed it was corruption, but I'm glad I've been correcte.
10.25.2006 5:32pm