Collective Action Problems and the GOP

Ezra Klein has an interesting piece (Wonkblog) on the collective-action problem facing the GOP with respect to Obamacare. Stated concisely:

Here’s the Republican Party’s problem, in two sentences: It would be a disaster for the party to shut down the government over Obamacare. But it’s good for every individual Republican politician to support shutting down the government over Obamacare.

These smart-for-one, dumb-for-all problems have a name: Collective-action problems.

As Klein correctly notes, ideally,  party leadership plays a critical role in managing these problems through the use of various carrots and sticks (“Threats, flattery, fundraising money, and plum committee assignments are all deployed to keep members of Congress from undermining the group in order to help themselves”). But the GOP leadership appears to lack the power to control the behavior of its members, particularly those who are aligned with the Tea Party.

It should prove interesting to watch the collective-action problem unfold in the next few weeks as Congress turns to the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling (not to mention broader issues like immigration reform).

A few additional thoughts:

  • The ongoing efforts to defund Obamacare might be useful for some members of Congress who are hoping to signal their ideological purity to voters in their district (and dissuade those who might mount a primary challenge from the right). But if you truly believe that Obamacare is destined to fail, wouldn’t it make greater strategic sense to fund it and let the Democrats accept full ownership for the results?
  • The return to the debt ceiling foolishness is unfortunate. The debt ceiling, after all, is an aggregate expression of the taxing and spending decisions made by Congress. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is similar to an alcoholic refusing to cover his tab at the end of a long bender. The problem, alas, is not the bar tab. If those who oppose increases in the debt ceiling are sincere about fiscal responsibility, they should turn to deeper cuts in spending. Of course, this would force them to address substantial reforms in the defense budget and, more importantly, in entitlements. This would not play well among the “Keep the Government’s hands off my Medicare” crowd.
  • Current demographic trends are working against the GOP. The collective action problems exhibited in the de/funding of Obamacare will find an even greater expression in issues like immigration reform. Ironically, members of Congress who are successful in maximizing the vote in their carefully gerrymandered districts may simultaneously accelerate the GOP’s decline into a regional party that can no longer win the White House. They will trade job security for relevance.

5 thoughts on “Collective Action Problems and the GOP

  1. One note, Marc, on this: “But if you truly believe that Obamacare is destined to fail, wouldn’t it make greater strategic sense to fund it and let the Democrats accept full ownership for the results?” It might make greater strategic—which is to say partisan—sense, but that is too high a price to pay. Funding Obamacare and then waiting around for it to grind to its slow, painful, and miserable (if inevitable) collapse would entail far too much human suffering along the way. Better to end it now, before the toll it takes gets any worse.

    1. Is that reasonable?

      I wonder if you’d take the same view of, say, a host of other government programs and regulations you find objectionable?

      Obamacare has aggravated the Tea Party base significantly more than other, more offensive programs. House Republicans had an opportunity to significantly cut wasteful farm subsidies, instead they decided to spend more than either President Obama or the Senate wanted. They could draw the line on other more achievable victories in rolling back state spending. Instead they are fixating on Obamacare.

      I can understand the argument of wanting to nip this in the bud, defund it before it gets off the ground, but there are so many other aspects of the program that don’t have to be funded that it’s impossible to stop all of this in its tracks.

      If House Republicans had a list of government programs other than Obamacare they wanted to defund, I bet the White House would be willing to negotiate in order to avoid a government shutdown. Better to find ways to cut now and focus on bigger goals once you control more than one house of Congress.

      1. The most moderate and serious criticism of Obamacare is that it will have a disruptive effect that will inhibit job growth and economic recovery in the short-term. In the long term the question is whether this behemoth of a bill will exacerbate or ameliorate our looming entitlement crisis.

  2. Let’s see. The Democrat Congress shut down the government in 1993 over much less. Who took the blame? George Bush. Why should it be different now? Oh, the media. That’s right.

    1. Just my two cents, but people who want to blame “the media” for somehow manipulating how people will assign fault in the case of a government shut down should get their facts straight.

      There was no government shut down in 1993. Maybe your reference to George Bush is trying to make a link to the 1990 shutdown, but if you can’t get your facts right I don’t see why I have to provide them for you.

      How in the world did you end up as a reader of Pileus if you demonstrate such an appalling ignorance? I read this blog because it has some of the best libertarian/conservative/fusionist commentary around. Are you lost?

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