Mitch Daniels Appreciates the Greatest North Dakotan

It’s Mancur Olson, the economist and former professor at the University of Maryland, who died in 1998.

From the Five Books website, which asks notable figures to document five books on a theme, an interview with Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Daniels begins with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, which is enjoying an amazing rebirth in popularity these days. The governor’s less familiar choice is Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations. From the interview by Jonathan Rauch:

That leads us squarely to Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations, who I’m thrilled to see on your list because to me he’s one of the great and underrated thinkers of the centre-right of the past century. 

This is a really extraordinary book. Olson has got a little bit of a pessimistic view. He makes it sound almost inevitable that free societies will become encrusted with these interest groups that form. It’s not sufficiently in anybody’s interest to oppose them, and because the cost they impose or diffuse over everybody, you need some sort of calamity to wipe them away if you really want growth to happen, if you really want the upward mobility of less fortunate individuals, which I think should be our highest priority. 

Olson’s thesis is that the gradual accumulation of perks carved out for special interests gradually saps the dynamism of economies and societies, leading to their decline if you don’t work very, very hard and constantly to try and counter those effects… 

Yes, and when I went to the shelf and pulled the book down – it had been years since I had – it reminded me how dense the thing is. It’s a very scholarly work but it leads one to ask – since we’d rather not have a war or an earthquake or an epidemic that wipes out these structures – what allows the green shoots of economic growth and mobility to happen again, what can be done to if not eliminate, at least minimise, the stultifying effects? 

Olson grew up on a farm in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota, and graduated in 1954 from North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University). The background gave him insight into the sugar beet industry, the political power of which he cited in his first, much-acclaimed book, The Logic of Collective Action.  Olson graduated in 1954 from North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University).

Rauch provided a short background on Olson’s early year’s in Rauch’s 1998 book, Government’s End (page 24):

Though he held a Harvard Ph.D. and a fancy title at the University of Maryland, even in his later years he could still repair a tractor, and he retained a Midwestern matter-of-factness that his writing, like his speech, vigorous and too the point. Yet an intellectual fire burned in him. He had a jump, delighted, almost pixieish excitability when he talked about ideas. He would ask visitors to let him pace while spoke, and then he prowled the say some people gesticulate, as though the movement helped him form words. The effect was pleasantly gnomish.

For his economic and political insights, Olson should surely be a recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt  Rough Rider Award, North Dakota’s highest honor. (Although we may exaggerate in calling him the greatest North Dakotan. Peggy Lee richly deserves the title, as well.)

P.S. Since we mention Hayek, here again is the illustrated Road to Serfdom, via the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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