Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance and what normal people should do about interest group accretion

In Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance, I noticed his discussion of regulatory thickets* and patents, both of which are real but hidden problems of the kind that accumulate in democracies, like free radicals in the body. But there’s not an obvious way for random people to do anything, which led me to ask Tabarrok directly:

I have a question about Mancur Olson [if you’re interested, see The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities] and interest group accretion: what, if anything, could and/or should normal people do about it? If normal people are worried about free speech, they can put their money where their online complaints are and join the ACLU or EFF, but I don’t see any obvious parallel for the accretion of interest groups. Is there an anti-interest group interest group out there?

The ACLU / Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) model is an obvious one to me because a lot of people online complain about things like the police abuse of photographers and the patent system. Complaining online is better than doing nothing, but it’s even more helpful to support interest groups that are trying to preserve freedom in the face of growing state power. I get the sense that relatively few people move from the “complaining” to “doing” stage.

Tabarrok replied:

Excellent question. Unfortunately, Olson isn’t too helpful on this score as he says one of the few times the interest groups are cleared is after losing a terrible war! I am hopeful that as we see other countries such as China and India leaping forward that we will clean our house. Not much of any answer, I know. We have to develop a base that supports innovation even when we don’t know what innovation will bring.

It seems like a lot of large-scale, serious problems do not have simple or obvious solutions. Reading Launching the Innovation Renaissance helps at the margin—Tabarrok is after all the co-writer of Marginal Revolution—but I am also looking for space to expand that margin, which inspired the question.

* Example: “The problem is that building even a small hydro-electric project requires the approval of numerous agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments and State Historic Preservation Departments. It’s simply too expensive, time-consuming and risky to build these projects when any of these agencies could veto the project at any time.”

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