Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

1. Systems of Survival

I've decided to start a series of somewhat different posts than the standard recent fare here at CAtO. The general goal is to talk about ethics and the role of government and markets in society.

The first few posts will be summaries (not reviews, summaries) of various books I've read that I figure have something relevant to say on the topic. I won't summarize everything in the books, just those elements I found to be relevant. Later on, assuming that my attention span doesn't run out, I might get around to actually trying to pull some of the different threads together and start applying them to various issues that affect us here in Canada. Or not, we'll see how it goes.

To differentiate the posts in this series from the standard 'That Politician Stinks' and 'That Article Was Stupid' posts we do here, I am going to number them , as I have done with this one. They also will get the 'ethics' tag which would be useful if I ever get around to updating my template for tags.

The first book I want to summarize is one I have referenced on the blog in many past occasions, including here, here, here, here, and here. The book is Jane Jacbos' Systems of Survival.


Back in 1992, Jane Jacobs wrote a book called, Systems of Survival in which she built on Plato's Republic to argue that humans have two ways of making a living: our traditional one based on control of territory and taking what we need, and one based on trading for what we need. Humans are set in contrast to other species which only rely on taking what they need and do not make use of organized trading activity to make a living.

Each of the two ways of making a living has it's own set of ethics, with ethical trading relying on shunning the use of force, honesty, competition, openness to novelty, invention, collaboration with strangers and a bunch more.

In contrast, ethical territorial (or 'guardian' as Jacobs calls them) activities (such as government) rely on a different set of values including shunning trading, respect for hierarchy and tradition, loyalty and a bunch more.

In Jacobs' view, unethical behavior inevitably arises when values which are ethical in one way of making a living are used in the other way. i.e. When the two ethical systems are mixed together. An example she gives is organized crime, where the mixture of legitimate commercial activity with activities that normally only a government is allowed to perform (such as use of force) leads to a 'monstrous hybrid' of the two ethical systems.

The two syndromes contain the following sets of ethics:
Commercial Moral Syndrome:

Shun Force
Come to Voluntary Agreements
Be Honest
Colllaborate easily with strangers and aliens
Respect Contracts
Use Initiative and Enterprise
Be Open to Inventiveness and Novelty
Be Efficient
Promote Comfort and Convenience
Dissent for the sake of the task
Invest for Productive Purposes
Be industrious
Be Thrifty
Be Optimistic

Guardian Moral Syndrome:

Shun trading
Exert Prowess
Be Obedient and Disciplined
Adhere to Tradition
Respect Hierarchy
Be Loyal
Take Vengeance
Deceive for the sake of the task
Make rich use of leisure
Be Ostentatious
Dispense Largesse
Be exclusive
Show Fortitude
Be Fatalistic
Treasure Honour

I've covered the main elements of the book, but here are a few other tidbits:

1) Jacobs talks about how historical societies often developed Caste systems which separated the two types of activities. Medieval Europe had feudalism with a guardian class that shunned trade. India still has a caste system with trade and commercial activity belonging to a lower class. Japan had the samurai warrior class with its guardian ethics as a separate class from the commercial class.

By way of contrast, the Bible talks of the Jewish people switching back and forth between the two syndromes as en entire people as necessary during their Exodus.

Although our society does not have a formal caste system, nonetheless many people exhibit certain 'casts of minds' where their thinking hews more to one of the two syndromes.

2)Jacobs identifies Plato's Republic, which was to divided into a guardian class and a commercial class as the original expression of this idea, and suggests that Plato's definition of injustice (one man doing the work of someone from another profession) was meant to reflect the intractable corruption that results when the two syndromes are mixed together.

3) Jacobs identifies two anomalous professions with respect to the ethical syndromes: Law and Agriculture

Law is anomalous because the profession sometimes operates along Guardian lines (courtroom battles) and sometimes operates along Commercial lines (drawing up contracts, wills, etc.). In England, the profession is actually split into Barristers who do the Guardian work and Solicitors, who do the Commercial work.

Agriculture is an anomaly because it is a commercial activity by nature, but because the raw material for agriculture is land, and guardians see guardianship over the land as their primary duty, they have a near irresistible urge to meddle in agriculture that they don't have with respect to other industries.

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  • Thanks for posting this. I read "Systems of Survival" in the mid 90's and have found the bits I recall useful intellectual tools for understanding what has gone ill in the world in the last decade. Perhaps it's time to re-read the book and fill in the blanks time has created in my memory of it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:28 AM  

  • No problem, like you say, I also find it one of the most useful books I have for helping to make sense of the world.

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:00 PM  

  • I teach technology commercialization at UT Austin and require my adult, working students to read Systems of Survival so they can better understand issues involved in working to commercialize university (guardian institutions) technology, and to better understand the government that passes laws like Sarbanes Oxley that have so many nasty unintended consequences.

    My students ususall "get" the point and some have used it very creatively: some to analyze monopolistic companies, rogue companies (Enron), while others looked at cultures like Japan and how their large companies behave very much in the guardian syndrome and the problems Europe has in supporting university and entrepreneurial activity since their only responses seem to be guardian responses. They don't understand how to provide incentives to commercial activity.

    By Anonymous MWilson, at 4:45 PM  

  • This is a very good blog with great information for reading.

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    By Blogger TONLOVE69, at 9:47 PM  

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