leverage as a moral issue

Newly out from Springer is Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework, edited by my friend David M. Anderson. Anderson identifies bargaining leverage, resource leverage, and investment leverage as three distinct but related issues and then develops the idea of a “leverage mean,” which is the “mean between the extremes of too much leverage and too little leverage.” He and the other contributors examine cases from Wall Street meltdowns to parenting. Significant portions of the book are available online for free.

I’ve been thinking about leverage lately as well. We begin the Summer Institute of Civic Studies by examining forms of human interaction that are direct and human. In community organizing, deliberative democracy, and the management of common pool resources, the participants can explain what they believe and value to one another and can tangibly affect the outcomes with their own words and work.

But we don’t believe that we can stop at that scale, because the national and global economy and environment are crucial. Therefore, by the second week of the course, we are reading authors like James Madison and Bruce Ackerman who are interested in the design of nations and other large-scale systems. But then the deliberate, intentional, active citizen tends to recede from view. After all, most of us are not in the position to write a new constitution that will be ratified. As one of our participants acutely noted, “I had to miss a day, and when I returned, we were talking about Madison. Where is the civic in that?”

The problem is one of leverage. If we only do what is right, we leave most of the world unchanged. If we seek to change the world at large scale, we must get others to do what is right as well. That is leverage. For the most part, our leverage in the social world comes from creating, using, and changing institutions.

As theĀ Archimedean metaphor suggests, to use leverage is to manipulate–to treat something as a means. In the social world, that something will have to be human: a person or a group. Leverage is necessary if you care for the world at any significant scale. But leverage is also risky and is ethically problematic because it can’t be fully reciprocal and relational. I think this is a fundamental problem, and Anderson and colleagues have opened an important line of inquiry.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.