Thursday, January 19, 2006

Jane Jacobs Meme: on the Ethics of Politics and Business

A meme is an infectious idea, infectious because it is a construct within which new achievements become possible. Complementary yet incompatible ethical syndromes separating public servants from other professions, including scientists, is a Jane Jacobs meme. Understanding this enables us to distinguish universally bad behavior from acts that merely offend our own syndrome's sensibilities, acts that are otherwise in character. A guardianship syndrome is shared by those who serve a closed and corporate group, and protect that group from outside threat. A commercial syndrome is shared by those that trade goods or skills, an occupation that requires trusting and selflessness extended to even to those who fall outside the responsibilities and protection of the guardianship structure.

One example is not sufficient but it will have to serve: Assuming traders will become raiders given sufficient opportunity is a timeless guardianship syndrome perspective. Assuming such a worst case scenario without basis is abhorrent within the commercial syndrome.

The National Society of Consulting Soil Scientists' most recent newsletter has a review of Jane Jacobs' book, "Systems of Survival". A portion is reproduced below.

If there is anyone who deserves the label "critical thinker," then it is Jane Jacobs.
From: Jane Jacobs: Her Life and Work By Gert-Jan Hospers
A refreshing book for exploring ethical consistency is Jane Jacobs' “Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics” (1994). 214 pp. ISBN 0-679-74816-4

In Systems, Jacobs describes the ethics of commerce as a moral syndrome equal, antagonistic and complementary to the ethics of politics, or guardianship. Neither commerce nor guardianship sectors do well in the absence of the other. Government protects commerce, provides stability, administers justice and enforces uniform standards. Commerce provides the economic engine and the ethical framework for trade, technological advance and individual rights that combine to make governments worth living under. Yet these two ethical systems are mutually exclusive and cannot be rashly integrated without the risk of moral confusion.

Jacobs is careful to limit Survival to the ethics of how we eke out a living. Greater questions of good and evil are wisely set aside.

Jacobs warns that when entities cross the functional boundary that separates the two systems, morally corrupt hybrids can emerge: organized crime and corporate raiders. Jacobs uses cold-war era Soviet Union as a particularly apt example. Jacobs opposes military models for managing business.

Jacobs' observations on the professions of art and science are entirely novel. Drawing on history, Systems demonstrates that artists are grounded in tradition and are necessarily supported by largess. Tradition and largess are characteristics of a guardianship system. In contrast, scientists make advances in an environment of innovation and trust but are frustrated when subordinated to tradition and ideology. Jacobs warns that academic institutions steeped in guardianship values are antagonistic to objective science.

Both moral syndromes are consistent with social mores, yet are incompatible with each other. This paradox was not anticipated when the author first conceived the book. Jane Jacobs mentions in her footnotes that she started the book expecting that she would show that the “trading” ethic was good and existed in opposition to an antagonistic “raiding” ethic.

Jacobs uses an inductive approach to critical thinking making her ideas difficult to test. No one doubts her abilities as a profound thinker but some question her methods, seeking to weaken the impact of her most uncomfortable conclusions. Yet her underlying observations ring true. Systems confirms that making a living is wonderfully challenging at many levels, regardless of whether we choose to survive through commerce or through serving the public.

This book is available from for $10.50 new, often less than $3.00 used. This reviewer highly recommends it.

Some supporting information from outside sources:
Jane Jacobs Interviewed by James Howard Kunstler (author, The Geography of Nowhere) For Metropolis Magazine, March 2001 September 6, 2000: Toronto Canada
Jane Jacobs, The Anti-Planner by Gene Callahan

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