Entwined Fates: A Conversation with Margaret Levi


Over at Edge:

The thing that interests me has to do with how we evoke, from people, the ethical commitments that they have, or can be encouraged to have, that make it possible to have better government, that make it possible to produce collective goods, that make it possible to have a better society.

I'm a political scientist, political economist, so I think about this not so much from the perspective of moral reasoning, or philosophy, or psychology for that matter—though all those disciplines come into play in my thinking—but I think about it in terms of the institutional arrangements and contextual arrangements in which people find themselves. It is about those that evoke certain behaviors as opposed to other kinds of behaviors, and certain attitudes as opposed to other kinds of attitudes, that ultimately lead to actions. I'm ultimately interested not just in how the individual's mind works, but how individual minds work together to create an aggregate outcome.

To give you a much more concrete example of that: a recent book that I coauthored with John Ahlquist called, In the Interest of Others, looked at a variety of labor unions, because they are basically mini-governments, in order to understand why it was that some were getting people to act on various social justice commitments and others didn't even ask the question.

The first thing we had to think about was how much of this was self-selection. Had we just picked unions that picked people that then asked them to do what they were already willing to do? The unions that we looked at were three dockworker unions, two in the United States: the On the Waterfront Union on the East Coast, the ILA—the International Longshoremen's Association—and the more left-wing union, the ILWU—International Longshore and Warehouse Union—and a comparable union in Australia to the ILWU. We also looked at the Teamsters.

This gave us a set of organizations that, as it turns out, attracted virtually the same kind of people with the same heterogeneous mix of political attitudes and commitments to larger social justice issues. We started our investigation looking from the 1930s until the 1990s. In the early part of that story the only people who joined unions were those who needed the jobs that the unions represented. In the midst of the depression they weren't about to choose a union simply for political reasons.

More here.