Cookie usage policy

The website of the University Carlos III of Madrid use its own cookies and third-party cookies to improve our services by analyzing their browsing habits. By continuing navigation, we understand that it accepts our cookie policy. "Usage rules"

Profesora Margaret Levi

Professor Margaret Levi

Remarks of Margaret Levi
I thank the Rector and Governing Council of Carlos III for bestowing on me the Honorary Doctorate. It is with great pride that I accept.  I have loved Spain and its academic community since I first taught at the Juan March Institute in 2001, and I continue to cherish the research—and friendships—of many of those associated with the Institute, including its many internationally distinguished graduates. Since 2013, my membership in the scientific committee of the Carlos III-Juan March Institute has extended my knowledge and appreciation of Spanish contributions to the social sciences and of this great university in particular. I am moved by your recognition of my work, and I want to acknowledge some of those who made this moment possible.  Special gratitude goes to Professor Ignacio Sanchez-Cuenca, who has been a cherished colleague for nearly twenty years.  But I am also grateful for the important and long-term support of other faculty and staff of the IC3JM, particularly Andrew Richards and Magdalena Nebreda.  Let me also extend thanks to Juan March Delgado and Javier Goma for their vision and generosity. 
My life-long research is on the conditions under which citizens of governments and members of organizations comply with or resist the demands of their leaders—particularly the extractive and costly demands that violate narrow economic interest.  I have done long-term studies of paying taxes, going to war, and engaging in strikes on behalf of distant others who will never be able to reciprocate.  I investigate these questions through the lens of a comparative political economist using the tools of economics while focusing on the dynamics of power and the values and ethics that inform actions.  Most recently, I have taken concepts developed in my earlier work to think hard about one of the most important issues confronting our societies today:  How to generate a new moral political economic framework.  This is now a major undertaking at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences that I direct at Stanford. We are in the process of building a network capable of generating the kind of thinking and policy we need for the future in which we, our children, and grandchildren must survive and thrive.  The enterprise is a collective one, engaging scholars and thinkers from across disciplines in the academy and across sectors in society.  
What motivates us is the undisputable fact that the political economic framework developed in the post-WWII era is fraying. The protests on the streets and through votes are one indicator.  The general discontent with the liberal consensus on globalization practices is another.  I saw this reaction with my own eyes in Spain, first with the large protests for global equity and later with the Indignados.  With unravelling comes contestation of the values that undergird the framework and antagonism against those perceived as violating the social compact. It also highlights the need for a new moral economy that better aligns with the values and needs of those living within it and provides us all with a new basis for social cohesion.
Every political economic framework embeds values and encodes standards for behavior and choices.  All are moral political economies. Neo-liberalism is no exception.  It enshrines the rational individual as decision-maker and centerpiece; it then emphasizes the importance of rational choices defined narrowly in terms of personal costs and benefits.  It is normative about firms, governments, and the economic system itself:  Firms should single-mindedly maximize profit, governments are primarily to protect property rights and provide the infrastructure that the market will not, and relatively unfettered capitalism will ultimately benefit all who work and strive. It is also normative about individuals:  free riding is expected, and economic failure generally reflects personal, not structural, problems.
The major achievement of neoliberalism—and all prevailing political economic frameworks since Adam Smith’s—is to make normative prescriptions seem like descriptive statements of the natural behavior of people, governments, and organizations.  We come to understand the system as given and natural; it can be tweaked but not fundamentally changed.  The fact that some prosper while others do not is an effect of choices or luck, not of system design.
This belief in the system as natural is a parlor trick.  Economies are the result of moral and political choices, which can be made and remade. They embed values and norms of justice and fairness.  We observe that a populace responds not only to material changes in their status quo but also—and sometimes in contradistinction to their narrow interests— to what they perceive as violations of those norms, of wounds to their dignity, and of failure to recognize the worth of their cultures. Any political economic framework enshrines reciprocal rights and obligations that link populations, governments, corporations, and all the other various organizations that make up the society. It guides the social relations among the actors in a society, and it defines what constitutes legitimate action.  Incorporated in a moral political economy are accepted justifications for the actions and power of government, employers, landholders, and financiers—justifications based on widely shared values and beliefs.  
A moral political economy is not just its abstract qualities or its economic reasoning and political justifications.  It must speak to the concerns that people have and outline a set of values that guide policy to meet those concerns. There is growing empirical evidence—statistical, experimental, qualitative and interpretive—of what various populations want.  While we can presume that everyone seeks a modicum of economic and physical security, we cannot presume other values and relevant trade-offs. In addition to more knowledge of existing preferences, we also need a grounded understanding of the role of context, persuasion, socialization, and other factors that influence values and how they are prioritized. Every day observation informs us that group identities and norms are a huge influence on perceptions of both preferences and strategies for achieving them. Everyday observations—and recent Facebook and Google exposés—alert us to how actions on those values are manipulable by information. 
Incorporating our knowledge of groups and individuals is important but not sufficient. In the Interest of Others, a book I co-authored with John Ahlquist, reveals the factors that encourage unions, organizations created to serve economistic self-interest, to mobilize their members on behalf of distant others.  For example, the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) and its counterpart in Australia created governance, educational, and socialization institutions that facilitated costly collective actions in the interest of others.  These others included peasants in China, Vietnam, and El Salvador, the rebels against colonial rule in Indonesia, and the victims of apartheid in South Africa.  They were strangers, people the union members were unlikely to ever meet and from whom they had no expectation of reciprocal action.  The unions created an expanded community of fate.  They did so with institutions that socialized and informed workers about the world, and institutions that, even more importantly, gave workers voice and agency to challenge the information and the aims underlying demands for acting in the interest of the others.  The institutions gave the workers the power both to recommend actions and to veto them.  
All of us have some community of fate, those with whom we perceive our interests as bound and with whom we are willing to act in solidarity.  The trick is how to achieve a community of fate that encompasses all those likely to be affected by climate change or globalization or some other overarching concern that moves us beyond the bounds of our family, personal connections, and parochial forms of identity.  The values of a moral political economy would be those that cut across divides, rather than deepen them:  values such as protection of our common planet, significant reduction of inequality, protection and facilitation of human dignity.  Failure of government, employers and other organizations to ensure these kinds of goals or unfair and unjust implementation of them would be defined as illegitimate use of power.  They would be perceived as violations of the social compact and reasons for protest and withdrawal.  
The post-WWII institutions—both domestic and international—are experiencing a crisis in capacity and fitness.  Neo-liberalism, which once promised solutions may still be touted and articulated, but it is fraying and with it the economy, political coalitions, and social fabric that were its backbone.  Fashioning a “moral political economy” will require shifting popular ideas about markets and about work, designing a new regulatory apparatus, and fashioning a safety net that unleashes the economic potential of a technologically driven economy. We can’t go back to the postwar period, but we have choices over where we will go next.
My continuing affiliation with the scholars of the Juan March Institute and Carlos III is informing my thinking on the necessary components of a new moral political economy.  I am so very grateful for the intellectual stimulation, the informed knowledge, and the models provided of how to bring the finest research to bear on the tough issues of the day. This affiliation also aids my learning on how to best marry that research to policy and programmatic change in polities and governments.  The fact that I have gained so much from all of you makes your bestowal of an honorary doctorate all the sweeter. Thank you!