Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

96. Guardian free zone?

Note: This post is the ninety-sixth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week I'm going to cover a thought experiment I've been turning over in my mind for the last few days. In Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs explains that Communism is what results when the guardian syndrome takes over the commercial syndrome. With the breach in the 'shun trading' precept from the Guardian syndrome, the Guardians took control of commerce leading to a failure of the commercial precepts (innovation, efficiency, honesty, dissent, etc.) as they were superseded by Guardian precepts such as (make rich use of leisure, be fatalistic, be exclusive, etc.) But what I wonder is, what would happen in the reverse scenario? What if a group of people decided that they would be governed by commercial principles only rather than guardian ones?

My first thought was that, since one of the commercial precepts is to shun force, the only way this community could survive would be to completely avoid all guardian types who would be willing to use force to seize any wealth generated by the commercial activity. Thinking of this I was reminded of the origins of the great trading nation of Venice, in an out of the way lagoon that was safe from the marauding guardian types running rampant in those days. Of course, any member of our hypothetical non-violent commercial society could take over the whole enterprise if they resorted to force, given that the commercial folks would be unwilling to use force to resist. So the commercial society would have to be extremely careful about who was allowed in, since only 100% acceptance of their morals would be a stable situation.

Given the constraints on the use of violence, it seems completely infeasible to me that a pure commercial society could exist for any length of time, or even form in the first place.

In order to make the commercial society at all viable, there needs to be some mechanism for dealing with those who would use force against it. A location with natural defenses (such as an island in the case of England, another great trading nation) would help, but could never be a complete solution. The logical commercial solution would be to hire mercenaries to enforce the rule of non-violence, much in the way that medieval aristocrats had stewards to trade on their behalf.

Of course, the difficulties of this approach are obvious and were well explained by Machiavelli. The mercenary, must be at least two things: willing to use force, and motivated by wealth. It seems clear that the mercenary will eventually decide that they can make more wealth by turning on their paymaster than by simply accepting their pay.

Another option would be for the commercial folks to make an exemption in their rules of non-violence to allow for vengeance to be taken against acts of force or fraud. In other words, when dealing with a person who does not follow their commercial code, they in turn would choose to use a different moral code, one that condones violence as an act of vengeance against those who initiated violence. But this still causes some issues. A google search for the term 'costly punishment' will uncover lots of academic work which has focussed on the question of whether it makes sense, from the rational commercial syndrome point of view, to take vengeance against someone who has used force against you. The trouble is that the act of taking vengeance benefits the whole commercial society by protecting it against the incursions of someone willing to use force, but the cost of taking vengeance (punishing the perpetrator) falls solely on the person who does the punishing.

Researchers starting from a premise of rational self-interested behaviour have struggled to explain why people are willing to go beyond what is 'rational' in their willingness to punish those who have wronged them. But of course, if people have a moral value of taking vengeance this puzzle disappears, much as the Mancur Olson explained that a moral value of loyalty or cooperation could mitigate the puzzle of how collective action can be sustained by large groups.

You can see where this is leading, I'm sure. The commercial society has two options if it wants to survive: the corrupt, unstable, syndrome-mixing solution of hiring mercenaries, or the establishment of a second set of morals, one based on a willingness to take vengeance, even when it is not in your own self-interest to do so, one based on a willingness and an ability to use force effectively.

There seems to be an asymmetry between the two syndromes, reflecting the lack of proportion between the armed and the unarmed that Machiavelli described. The guardians can take over the commercial syndrome and society can still run, albeit not as successfully as it would with the two syndromes kept separate. But the commercial syndrome simply can't exist without guardians. Seen in this view, much of the structure of our government, from the Magna Carta on down, can be seen as an elaborate scheme devised by the commercial folks to maintain the existence of guardians while constraining their ability to interfere with the commercial syndrome as much as possible. Balance of powers between legislatures, senates and executives, term limits, constitutions backed by legal systems, democratic elections, media watchdogs, etc. all serve (or at least can serve, if circumstances are right) to constrain the ability of guardians to take over the economy.

Beyond these institutional mechanisms, I see two other bulwarks against the guardian takeover of the commercial syndrome. The first is simply strong guardian morals. The shunning of trade by guardians, the fortitude that disregards material wants, the willingness to sacrifice for the community, all of these traits serve to prevent the guardians from using their privileged position to enrich themselves at the expense of the economy. The second is the existence of competition between nations. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, since competition between nations can take the form of war, which is the most guardian of all activities, but war requires resources to be prosecuted successfully, and a country which maintains a strong commercial culture will have more economic resources to devote to the war effort. And aside from war, the citizens of the country with the weaker economy will naturally want to see their country imitate the country with the stronger economy. We could see both of these forces at work in the Soviet abandonment of communism in favour of capitalism.

Similarly, it seems to me that two of the great flourishings of commercial life occurred in Greece and in Europe, and that both of these emerged from geographical areas where the terrain, combined with the technology of the time, favoured the creation of a number of small competing states.

Anyway, this was just another random train of thought post, the next post will examine the source of this bout of meandering.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

95. Beyond Guardian and Commercial Ethics

Note: This post is the ninety-fifth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week's topic is German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his efforts to discover a 'genealogy' or origin for our moral sentiments.

The first time Nietzsche takes on this question is in 'Human, All too Human,' in the chapter, "On the History of the Moral Sensations." There's two main passages in this chapter that seem relevant to our series on ethics.

The first, is paragraph 94, 'The three phases of morality hitherto':

"It is the first sign that animal has become man when his actions are no longer directed to the procurement of momentary wellbeing but to enduring wellbeing, that man has thus become attuned to utility and purpose: it is then that the free domination of reason first breaks forth. An even higher stage is attained when he acts according to the principle of honour; in accordance with this he orders himself with regard to others, submits to common sensibilities, and that raises him high above the phase in which he is diverted only by utility understood in a purely personal sense; he conceives utility as being dependent on what he thinks of others and what they think of him. Finally, at the highest stage of morality hitherto, he acts in accordance with his own standard with regard to men and things: he himself determines for himself and others what is honourable and useful.; he has become the lawgiver of opinion, in accordance with an ever more highly evolving conception of usefulness and honourableness. Knowledge qualifies him to prefer the most useful, that is to say general and enduring utility, to personal utility, general and enduring honour and recognition to momentary honour and recognition: he lives and acts as a collective-individual."

There are a couple of points to highlight here. The first is the notion of patience or prudence, favouring the long run over the short run as central to morality, in particular to personal morality that maximizes one's utility. The second is the division of morality into a personal stage based on utility and an inter-personal phase based on honour. How similarly this resembles our split between a guardian syndrome filled with precepts governing our relations with others and a commercial syndrome which is primarily concerned with maximizing our own utility (although the commercial syndrome also covers inter-personal relationships manifested via trade).

The second passage is paragraph 45, 'Twofold prehistory of good and evil':

"The concept good and evil has a twofold prehistory: firstly in the soul of the ruling tribes and castes. He who was the power to requite, good with good, evil with evil, and also actually practices requital - is, that is to say, grateful and revengeful - is called good; he who is powerless and cannot requite counts as bad. As a good man belongs to the 'good', a community which has a sense of belonging together because all individuals in it are combined with one another through the capacity for requital. As a bad man belongs to the 'bad', to a swarm of subject, powerless people who have no sense of belonging together. The good are a caste, the bad a mass like grains of sand. Good and bad is for a long time the same thing as noble and base, master and slave. On the other hand, one does not regard the enemy as evil: he can requite. ... Our present morality has grown up in the soil of the ruling tribes and castes."

Unlike the previous quote, which is never really revisited much in Nietzsche's writings, this notion of the twofold origin of good and evil will be discussed in much greater length, first in the chapter 'The Natural History of Morals' in 'Beyond Good and Evil' and finally at book length in 'The Genealogy of Morals.'

As he moves along, Nietzsche seems to become less certain about the morality level of Europe, and gradually begins to attribute the growing prevalence of 'slave' morality in Europe as being due to religious influence, from Christianity and Judaism. But the notion of two different systems of morality, one based on the ability and willingness to take vengeance and one based on non-violence persists in his thinking.

In 'The Genealogy of Morals' Nietzsche identifies certain cultures as 'noble races' that hew to 'master race' morality such as the "Roman, Arabian, German, Japanese nobility", as well as the "Homeric heroes and the Scandinavian vikings." This is contrasted with primarily the Jews, but also on occasion the Chinese as cultures with primarily 'slave' morality. It seems unlikely to be coincidence that the two cultures that Nietzsche identifies as being emblematic of a 'slave' morality that doesn't use violence or take vengeance are two cultures that are renowned the world over for the commercial success of their citizens.

Having said that, Nietzsche never really identifies salve morality with commercial culture. At first I thought that maybe that was just because Nietzsche was so guardian minded that he didn't even acknowledge the existence of commerce (even a guardian-type like Aristotle deigned to denigrate commercial ethics as base and shameful). But as 'The Genealogy of Morals' goes along, Nietzsche shows his awareness of commercial culture as he traces our notions of guilt and personal obligation and even justice back to the "...oldest and most primitive relationship between human beings, that of buyer and seller, creditor and debtor." So it wasn't that he was unaware of commercial ethics, he just didn't link it up with 'slave' morality explicitly.

So, it's not a perfect match, by any means, but still the notion of two ethical systems, one based on 'noble' races that are barbaric and love conquest and take vengeance and have good manners and one based on 'slave' races that shun violence, don't (can't) take vengeance and is associated with successful commercial cultures certainly lends some support to the notion that Nietzsche was working his way towards the notion of Guardian and Commercial ethics, although his remarkably strong guardian mindset may have skewed his observations somewhat.

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