Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics
by Jane Jacobs
Random House, 236 pages, $22
In her latest book, Jane Jacobs trains her genial, sparkling intelligence on a subject that is much neglected in our law-saturated society: the great webs of manners, customs, social sanctions, and informal understandings that undergird economic and political life. As Judith Martin (Miss Manners) has had occasion to point out in these pages, members of a society without well-developed systems of informal social regulation will tend to resort too often and too quickly to law, a crude, incomplete, and expensive substitute. With Systems of Survival, Jacobs becomes an eloquent contemporary proponent of Tocqueville's view that manners and mores are much more important than laws in sustaining the world's democratic experiments.
Jacobs makes a surprising claim—one that has been misunderstood by some reviewers. She contends that human beings have developed two and only two basic “systems of survival”: a “commercial syndrome” and a “guardian syndrome.” Each of these survival strategies has arisen and persisted, she argues, because it promotes material success in the way of life with which it is associated.
Like the other animals, we find and pick up what we can use, and appropriate territories. But unlike the other animals, we also trade and produce for trade. Because we possess these two radically different ways of dealing with our needs, we also have two radically different systems of morals and values—both systems valid and necessary.
The “commercial syndrome” has its principal home among peoples who trade or produce for trade (though it is not coextensive with, or limited to, the world of business). The linchpin of the commercial syndrome is honesty, for the very good reason that trading systems don't work without a good deal of trust, even among strangers. Because traders' prosperity depends on making reliable deals, they set great store by policies that tend to create or reinforce honesty and trust: respect contracts; come to voluntary agreements; shun force; be tolerant and courteous; collaborate easily with strangers. Because producers for trade thrive on improved products and methods they also value inventiveness, and attitudes that foster creativity, such as “dissent for the sake of the task.”
“Guardians” are modern versions of the raiders, warriors, and hunters who once made their livings through sorties into unknown or hostile territories. Today's guardians (usually more concerned with administering or protecting territories than acquiring them) are found in governmental ministries and bureaucracies, legislatures, the armed forces, the police, business cartels, intelligence agencies, and many religious organizations. Guardians prize such qualities as discipline, obedience, prowess, respect for tradition and hierarchy, show of strength, ostentation, largesse, and “deception for the sake of the task.” The bedrock of guardian systems is loyalty. It not only promotes their common objectives, but it keeps them from preying on one another. They are wary of, even hostile to, trade, for the reason that loyalty and secrets of the group must not be for sale.
Ideally, says Jacobs, in any given society the commercial and guardian syndromes should coexist in separate, symbiotic relationships. Why separate? Because, according to Jacobs: “[C]razy things happen systematically when either moral syndrome . . . embraces functions inappropriate to it.” It is as though each system has its own moral ecology that can be fatally disrupted by the introduction of foreign elements. Jacobs fears that the guardian syndrome may be gaining ascendancy in inappropriate places and that “systemic corruption” of both syndromes may be spreading. Systemic corruption, more intractable than random individual corruption, frequently takes the form of breakdown, with each system losing the ability to discipline its members or to check its own extreme proclivities. But it may also produce “monstrous hybrids”—like the Sicilian mutual defense societies that applied raiding methods to trading (Mafia), the Ik of southern Uganda who began raiding each other when they were forced from hunting into farming, or American investment bankers in the takeover era.
Now, summarizing Jacobs' ideas as I have just done can easily lead to misconstruing her enterprise. Any summary, no matter how carefully done, comes out sounding a bit like the horoscopes on the placemats in a Chinese restaurant. (Guardians respect tradition and authority. They can't stand criticism, even from their mother. If you are a guardian, you're apt to be a politician, a bishop, or a prison warden.) In Jacobs' book, however, the idea of two basic systems of survival emerges gradually from conversations among characters (created by the author) in a dialogue. Clearly, the relationship here between genre and substance is not accidental. A remark toward the end of the book by Kate, a biologist with an interdisciplinary bent, probably represents Jacobs' own reflection on her method. Kate says: “[T]ruth is made up of many bits and pieces of reality. The flux and change in itself is of the essence. Change is so major a truth that we understand process to be the essence of things.”
Reading Systems of Survival, I was often reminded of another reason why some writers have chosen the dialogue form. In Plato's Seventh Letter, for example, he reveals why he never wrote any treatises or lectures on the questions to which he had devoted his life. Those great subjects, Plato explained, “cannot be put into words like other studies. Acquaintance with them must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining.” It is because Jacobs' book harvests the fruit of her lifelong reflection on human ingenuity (and on the settings that are conducive to human flourishing) that one keeps on thinking about her ideas in a way that one doesn't keep thinking about zodiac categories. But the fruit is not there for the picking. Her book is rather an invitation to participate in the conversation.
A misunderstanding of that fundamental point has led most reviewers to treat Jacobs' book as a kind of social horoscope, overlooking her Tocquevillean call to reflection on the present condition of our economic and political mores. What is the current state of the great web of understandings that undergirds relations among those who trade and produce for trade in our society? How well are we doing at restraining force, fraud, and unlimited greed in commercial life? What is the current state of America's guardian cultures? How can the persons who perform those essential roles be kept from running roughshod over personal plans, property, and freedoms?
Another misunderstanding, perhaps arising from Jacobs' use of the ambiguous word “moral,” concerns the scope of her inquiry. Thus Alan Wolfe, writing in the New York Times, takes Jacobs to be arguing that “there are no more than two moral systems.” Early in the book, however, Kate explains that, in addition to the two clusters of traits characteristically associated with the two different ways of making a living, there are several “universal values” such as cooperation, faith, mercy, patience, and wisdom that are prized in all sorts of settings. And, Kate adds, “in conduct of personal life, too, for that matter, not just in working and public life.” But the discussion leader, a publisher named Armbruster, requests that the group concentrate on economic and political life. They agree to leave to one side those moral systems that are about making a life, as distinct from making a living. In the domains to which they devote their attention, what is striking is that, when the “universals” are subtracted from the qualities prized in different occupational specialties, one is left with two remarkably different lists of qualities.
The conversation meanders toward a conclusion that seems to belong to the domain of practical epistemology. In complex modern societies, the discussants agree, raiders and traders cannot simply go their symbiotic respective ways in their separate spheres. Since interaction is unavoidable, contemporary liberal democracies need more individuals who are “morally flexible enough to adapt to either syndrome as need be, and knowledgeable enough to know the difference.” The participants note that this is not an impossible feat—lawyers, for example, often shift from guardian roles in adversarial situations to trader roles in other facets of legal work. (The idea that lawyers might be intelligently ethically ambidextrous, rather than merely ethically versatile, is one that should endear Jacobs to members of the legal profession.)
Those who are interested in “first-order” questions, though, may be disappointed in Jacobs' book, for her characters are resolutely concerned with second-order problems. Their questions are not about the good life and how to live it; they are about comfortable self-preservation and what sorts of strategies have historically been effective in promoting it. Still, if mere life in reasonable comfort is not the summum bonum, neither is it to be scorned. In illuminating the informal understandings upon which we all unconsciously rely, Jacobs reminds us of the fragility of much that we take for granted. The question that will occur to readers of First Things is: What is the condition of the first-order moral foundations that undergird the second-order guardian and commercial syndromes?
Jacobs brushes up against that question occasionally, as when Jasper, a writer of crime novels, warns that neither honesty nor loyalty comes naturally; both depend on constant inculcation and watchfulness. But who is doing the inculcating, and who is watching? Jacobs' own confessed partiality for trader values seems to incline her toward a universalistic individualism that makes it hard for her to carry through on the full implications of her own argument that the trader cultures she admires are at risk without the presence in society of groups that exalt qualities she really doesn't like at all. Guardians aren't particularly tolerant, egalitarian, or much interested in dissent.
So we have in Systems of Survival a conversation among a group of likeable, intelligent, sociologically minded, modern men and women who arrive at, and shrink from, the disturbing and paradoxical insight of the great social thinkers: that trader (liberal democratic) society may be dependent on the maintenance in its midst of some very non-liberal institutions—such as religious groups with strong truth claims. Yet if her main thesis is correct, it is highly relevant to current controversies over the family and the military, for her message is that to reorganize these irritating (to traders) but necessary groups on liberal principles may be to destroy them, and to undermine liberal society in the process.
One matter this reader would have liked Jacobs' discussants to address is the role that such processes as rationalization, bureaucratization, and the “liberation” of the individual from family and group ties have played among the deep causes of what Jacobs calls systemic corruption. The guardian and trader syndromes described by Jacobs are, above all, social and relational phenomena, dependent on widely shared understandings. A lone raider is no raider; a lone trader is no trader. Thus, what Jacobs describes as the spread of the guardian syndrome may be something worse: the spread of individual raiding behavior unchecked by informal social constraints of any sort. Perhaps that's what she means by systemic corruption. But if so, the causes may be more directly traceable to the above-mentioned features of modernity than to the careless mingling of guardian and trader cultures.
Jacobs' approach to the riddle of social causation, however, is of less importance than her elaboration of the point that “the great web is in a deplorable state.” Of course, if she is right about the persistence of survival strategies, new guardian and trader cultures are probably already forming somewhere. But what rough beasts are slouching toward New York, Tokyo, and Brussels to be born?
Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.