For much of the discipline of economics, a closed economy is seen as the result of efforts of distributional coalitions and rent seekers to maintain sector-specific protections. Accordingly, economic liberalization is explained by the policy consistency of uncompromising reform elites. Students of the politics of economic adjustment in the developing world, in turn, have argued that reform programs concentrate costs in the present and disperse benefits in the future. Hence, losers are prepared to engage in collective action, whereas prospective winners, facing uncertainty about payoffs, remain disorganized. They thus posit the cohesiveness and insularity of policymakers as the main variable for explaining successful reform. Both economists and political scientists, therefore, adopt a collective action approach that overlooks how groups organize in support of liberalization.
In the recent Latin American experience, however, these reforms have preserved market reserves for firms that provided vital political support to, and often colluded with, policymaking elites. This setting has thus reproduced incentives for rent-seeking behavior, even in the presence of comprehensive liberalization. This evidence supports two interrelated theoretical claims. First, distributional coalitions may proliferate when the state withdraws from the economy, not only when it intervenes. Second, interest-based variables retain explanatory power in political economy--which state autonomy arguments disregard--irrespective of whether the economy is closed or open--which neoclassical perspectives overlook. To highlight the centrality of interest groups favoring marketization, therefore, the article suggests modifications to the dominant theories of collective action and the literature on the politics of economic adjustment.