The Political Economy of Collective Action and Radical Reform: A Proposed Conceptual Framework

44 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2019

See all articles by William D. Ferguson

William D. Ferguson

Grinnell College - Department of Economics

Date Written: January 19, 2017


Radical reform displaces social equilibria. It reorients key institutions and underlying mechanisms of coordination and enforcement. This paper presents a broad framework for analyzing radical reform in terms of a large set of collective-action problems faced by potential reformers. It merges concepts that often appear separately in the literature, including social preferences, power relationships, policy subsystems, institutional stability, types of institutional change, and types of agents. Relatively simple game-theoretic models offer a platform for depicting key interactions. Over time, these interactions follow a punctuated-equilibrium dynamic, within which incremental reforms sometimes sow the seeds for punctuation via radical reform. Punctuation unfolds as an information cascade of rapidly shifting perceptions and activity within a social network. Ultimately, this paper offers conceptual foundations for examining how activists occasionally succeed in instigating or facilitating radical reform — and why they so often fail. This framework can then spawn a host of more targeted models and multiple empirical hypotheses.

Keywords: radical reform, collective-action problem, power relationships, institutional change, punctuated equilibrium, social equilibrium

JEL Classification: D72, D74, D79

Suggested Citation

Ferguson, William D., The Political Economy of Collective Action and Radical Reform: A Proposed Conceptual Framework (January 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

William D. Ferguson (Contact Author)

Grinnell College - Department of Economics ( email )

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