Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Modes of Survival

Jane Jacobs was a brilliant, self-educated advocate for community.  Although she considered herself a socialist, she was a deep thinker.  She is best known for her urbanist books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations.  She also created a cogent and provocative analysis of the ways that we organize: Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.  She perceived politics and commerce as adhering to two mutually exclusive codes of ethics. 


Systems of Survival was in the form of the Dialogues of Plato: guests at dinner parties discussed the topic at hand.  The leader of the chat presented current newspaper clippings to illustrate her points.  As they argued the pros and cons, the symposiasts created two tallies: the Guardian Syndrome and the Commercial Syndrome.  As the treatise developed these were presented as hierarchies. 

The Guardian Moral Syndrome
A.                 Be loyal
B.                 Be obedient and disciplined
C.                 Treasure honor
D.                 Adhere to tradition
E.                 Respect hierarchy
F.                 Show fortitude
G.                 Exert prowess
H.                 Be exclusive
I.                   Take vengeance
J.                  Make rich use of leisure
K.                 Be ostentatious
L.                 Dispense largess
M.               Deceive for the sake of the task
N.                Shun trading
O.                Be fatalistic

Loyalty is the primary virtue of the guardian.  A thousand years ago, when I was a Cub Scout, the pledge was to “obey the law of the pack” and to “follow Aquila.”  The United States Armed Forces offer a grown-up version: “I, [Your Name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” 

The Merchant or Trader follows a different ethos.  Nominally, the virtues often seem analogous, but at root, the Commercial ethic involves different values.  For the trader, meeting strangers is the essence of their calling.  The Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa by dumb barter. They dropped off goods.  The natives took the stuff, and left other items in exchange.  If what was offered was not enough, the traders waited, visible but distant, until more was brought.

The Commercial Moral Syndrome
  1. Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  2. Be honest
  3. Shun force
  4. Come to voluntary agreements
  5. Respect contracts
  6. Use initiative and enterprise
  7. Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  8. Be efficient
  9. Invest for productive purposes
  10. Be industrious
  11. Be thrifty
  12. Promote comfort and convenience
  13. Dissent for the sake of the task
  14. Compete
  15. Be optimistic

Honesty for the Merchant is analogous to Honor for the Warrior… but not quite the same thing.  The Guardian will deceive for the sake of the task.  (Cops lie to suspects in interrogations as a matter of routine.)  On the other hand, the Merchant will dissent to achieve the task at hand.  In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, all the capitalists run away to avoid coercion.  Ragnar Danneskjold becomes a pirate, saying, in effect, “Sorry, guys, but I have to do this for the higher good.”  If that is too mythic, consider the formation of dozens to hundreds of Silicon Valley firms by “traitors” who left one firm to create another.  The “task” was always to create the better system: if your employer would not, then form your own firm to serve the needs of the customers. 

Jacobs pointed out that we get corruption and moral failures when the two modes are confused and intermingled.  Cops must not sell favors.  Businesses must not start wars

The Commercial versus The Guardian
  • Shun force versus Shun trading 
  • Come to voluntary agreements versus Exert prowess
  • Be honest versus Be obedient and disciplined
  •  Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens versus Be exclusive
  •  Compete versus Respect hierarchy
  •  Respect contracts versus Be loyal
  •  Use initiative and enterprise versus Take vengeance
  •  Be open to inventiveness and novelty versus Adhere to tradition
  •  Be efficient versus Make rich use of leisure
  •  Promote comfort and convenience versus Treasure honor
  •  Dissent for the sake of the task versus Deceive for the sake of the task
  •  Invest for productive purposes versus Dispense largess
  •  Be industrious versus Show fortitude
  •  Be thrifty versus Be ostentatious 

  • Be optimistic versus Be fatalistic

Some of these express similar virtues: “Be honest” and “Be obedient and disciplined”’ and “Respect contracts” and “Be loyal.”  But others are clearly opposites or contraries: “Use initiative and enterprise” versus “Take vengeance” and “Be efficient” versus “Make rich use of leisure.”

The harsh truth is that the Guardian syndrome is the animal mode; and the Trader syndrome is the human mode.  The Cub Scouts (and the Marines) are modeled on a wolf pack.  Since at least the last Ice Age – if not the one before that – we humans invented a different way to get along.  Trade and commerce evolved from ritual gift exchange.  Now we harness lightening and enjoy flying carpets.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant.

    This is the most compelling dissection of left vs right I've ever seen. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have been unhappy with all other discussions of this topic, including Sowell's, which seems second best. This is much more intuitively satisfying.

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