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 as they were superseded by Guardian precepts such as (make rich use of leisure, be fatalistic, be exclusive, etc.)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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