Olson’s critique of collective action is complicated, and it is made less accessible by an ungainly prose style. But the gist is that large numbers of people do not naturally band together to secure common interests. In fact, the larger the group, the less likely it is to act in a truly collective manner. …

By contrast, small groups are good at collective action. It costs less to organize a few people around a narrow, but intensely felt, shared concern. For each member, the potential benefits of joint action are more likely to outweigh the costs, whether or not success comes at the larger society’s expense. …

The problem is not, as the president implied, the opposition of an implacable few to the manifest general interest.

Rather, it is that Washington is besieged by mutually offsetting lobbies representing almost every conceivable segment of society. Some (e.g., teacher unions) collect under the Democratic Party banner; some (e.g., independent oil operators) tilt Republican; and many (Wall Street, agribusiness, hospitals) have their hooks in both parties.