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Cautionary Tales

Plato’s Republic, as every schoolboy knows, asked the question, What is Justice? As almost every schoolboy also knows, the surprising answer was that justice consists in “sticking to your own task.” Many readers express outrage at the reduction of the fundamental social virtue to “Cobbler, stick to your last.” Injustice seems an altogether larger and more horrible thing than the shoemaker aspiring to the carpenter’s job, and they wonder what Plato can have been thinking of. Not the least of the innumerable surprising ideas that Jane Jacobs has packed into Systems of Survival is her claim that Plato got it right.

What did Plato get right? Surely not that the worst of all evils is a breach of the principle of the division of labor? According to Ms. Jacobs, that is the argument and it is largely correct. Or, rather, it is Plato’s larger argument that is right: the morality appropriate to governments—to Plato’s “Guardians”—is distinctively different from the morality appropriate to the productive and trading classes, and must be kept so. Plato saw that human society is governed by two distinct moral codes—“moral syndromes,” Ms. Jacobs calls them—and disaster can strike when they are mixed.

Borrowing from Plato, she labels these two codes the “commercial” syndrome and the “guardian” syndrome; the first is the moral code appropriate to trade, commerce, and industry, the second the moral code appropriate to hunters and gatherers, warriors, and governments. The first stresses the avoidance of force and fraud, recommends openness to novelty, praises inventiveness, thrift, investment-mindedness, accepts the value of comfort and convenience and the utility of competition. The second stresses prowess, obedience to authority, loyalty, the rightness of vengeance, the legitimacy of deceiving one’s enemies, fortitude, resignation to fate, respect for tradition, and exclusiveness. It also emphasizes leisure and display rather than production or trading.

These two are “syndromes” because they must work together in one package; mix and match is not a possibility. An army whose commanders shunned force and fraud (which “are in warre the two cardinal virtues,” according to Thomas Hobbes) would perish miserably; companies that use strong-arm tactics on the competition loot the economy for the benefit of their CEOs, but do nothing for production. It’s not so much “Cobbler, stick to your last” as “Warriors and traders, stick to your code.”

Ms. Jacobs’s debt to Plato extends to the literary form of Systems of Survival; the book is a symposium, with half a dozen lightly sketched characters worrying away at the moral basis of economic and political life and whether “breakdowns of honesty” are today getting out of hand. The dialogue form isn’t whimsical, and it isn’t an attempt to borrow Plato’s prestige for Jacobs’s opinions. It reflects her belief that

we need continual but informal democratic explorations on the part of people who must thread their ways through governmental, business, or volunteer and grassroots policies, or must wrestle with the moral conflicts and ethical puzzles that sprout up unbidden in all manner of occupations.

Much as in the Republic, one character gets to hold the stage for quite extended stretches, but as Ms. Jacobs promises, her Kate, Jasper, Ben, and Hortense are contradicted, interrupted, and nagged more often than Plato’s Socrates was.

The basic premise is elegantly set out in the author’s own voice: “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 reader is not expected to accept this without question. Once this idea has been put into the mouth of one of the participants in the dialogue, the rest of the party do their best to multiply syndromes and to reduce them to one—and mostly fail.

They do not altogether fail. Envisage a world in which human beings can stay alive by one of two routes, either picking up what they can from the environment or swapping what they have for what others can offer in exchange. The question is how what is traded gets produced. In simple societies it is just picked up—groups in forests well supplied with wild bees might collect honey and trade it for obsidian knives, or shells, or whatever else they fancied of their neighbors’ picking and making.

For most of human history, however, much of what has been traded has been agricultural produce, and agriculture is an “anomalous” survival system. The reason is not hard to see. Modern farming is commercial. Producers produce for the market, not themselves; “agribusiness” is business, not pious devotion to agrarian ways. Still, agriculture is based on land; its territorial basis makes it a natural base for Ms. Jacobs’s guardians, for whom the control and protection of territory is a central activity. Plato’s imagined guardians were to have no land, no property, and no private life. The more usual reality is that guardian classes live off the land, as feudal landlords, or as warrior elites taxing the peasantry for a dubious protection.

It does not follow that “guardian” attitudes are good for agriculture considered as an activity designed to produce as much food as possible as economically as possible. Indeed, Ms. Jacobs finally declares farming to be intrinsically commercial—thrift, foresight, and self-control are virtues when maximizing production and minimizing costs. But that is just what the guardian ethic is no good at. Ms. Jacobs has a memorable two sentences on the follies of Soviet agriculture: “Decade after decade the state poured capital into state and collective farms. That was investment less in agriculture than in an ideology about agriculture.” The ideology contemplated productive activities in an essentially military light; economic rationality was subordinated to political goals such as maintaining the grip of leaders on followers, punishing recalcitrant groups and areas, and rewarding loyalty with largesse diverted from more productive purposes.

One other anomaly is the law; lawyers straddle commerce and the enforcement of the system of law and order that allows commerce to flourish. This presents no great puzzle; lawyers wear one hat when they act to facilitate the business of making contracts, sorting out commercial liabilities, and elaborating flexible claims on property, and another when they are “officers of the court,” inflexibly applying the rules, and risking punishment if they allow themselves to be bribed by the other side, or sell their judgment when they sit as judges. There is much in this. We are uneasy at the proliferation of plea-bargaining as a way of increasing the “productivity” of courts, but would think two corporate lawyers quite mad if they let the justice of their sides’ cases stand in the way of a settlement that would profit them both.

Systems of Survival offers many things at once. It offers a speculative history of the growth of politics out of the necessities of warrior bands, and a complementary history of the ability of people engaged in commerce to get along peaceably and efficiently with little besides mutual trust to help them. It provides a very cold look at the depraved state of American politics and commerce, and an even colder look at what went wrong in the Soviet Union. It offers an intuitively persuasive picture of why “syndrome mixing” is likely to prove disastrous. What rational soldier would follow a general known to be looking for ways of striking mutually advantageous deals with the general on the other side; what rational investor would invest in a company that refused to sell its products to foreigners? By way of a happy contrast, it also gives some thought-provoking examples of institutional and commercial inventiveness, for example, the “borrowing circles” of Bangladesh established by Dr. Mohammad Yunus. Faced with the problem that the loans needed by small traders were too small to be profitable to established banks, while village moneylenders charged such high interest rates that they were a deterrent to investment, Yunus set up small groups who jointly borrowed the money, first from him, then from a bank he established. Members of the groups use the loan in turn, which gives them a great incentive to see that each of them repays it on time, and to help one another to do so. The result is a default rate of barely 2 percent, and a steady improvement in the borrowers’ economic position.

Although Systems of Survival is a difficult book to absorb, it is a wonderfully lively and readable treatment of a great range of topics. The difficulty it presents it shares with Jane Jacobs’s other books, such as The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities—it is so different from run-of-the-mill social science that it is hard to decide quite where its insights fit in.

Any reader is likely to be moved by a statistic offered early on:

A public policy research group noted in 1989 that small New York businesses were creating new jobs at only a third the national rate. The researchers concluded that a chief reason was the direct costs of crime to the small businesses, added to the high indirect costs of expensive security measures.

But this, though supporting the some-what unfashionable thought that just as poverty and unemployment cause crime, so crime causes poverty and unemployment, is something any social scientist might come up with. More characteristic and more novel is the gloss one of her characters puts on the epoch of the leveraged buyout:

Between 1960, or, say, 1955 and 1990, American industry has been restructured, as economists put it. Much has come under the control of people with a taking cast of mind, conquerors as unfit for guiding commercial life as Castro.

That is, people applied the moral code appropriate to hunter-gatherers and warriors to commercial life, with characteristically destructive results. Jacobs cites Antony Jay’s best-selling Corporation Man1 as a representative sample of the bad advice handed out by management consultants who mistook themselves for military strategists:

He draws his precepts for managers—mind you, he’s serious about this even though insufferably arch—from prisoner-of-war camps, sports, boys’ schools, conspiracies, tribal hunting bands—he’s big on hunting bands—baronies, duchies, principalities, empires, the Roman legions, the army of Genghis Khan, the British army, the U.S. army, wolf packs, and troops of baboons.

Illustrations are not drawn only from our problems. The misfortunes of the Ik point the same moral. The Ik are an unfortunate Nilotic tribe resettled in the 1950s when Kenya set up its game reserves; the intention of their rulers was that they should become subsistence farmers. The effect was catastrophic. The Ik had been happy hunter-gatherers, at peace with their neighbors, and so with little social or political organization. As farmers, they were an instant disaster. Hunter-gatherer communities live from hand to mouth; farmers have to be provident, but the Ik despised providence.

Instead of saving seed for the next planting, they ate it. Their hunters’ virtue of deceptiveness, combined with the practice of picking up whatever was available, turned ugly. People who ran short of food raided neighbors’ fields and granaries. Those who’d been raided did the same. Takers all.2

One of the book’s most provocative suggestions is a new gloss on the much-ruminated-on connection between the US emphasis on military research and development and the decline of American manufacturing industry. Every time a scandal emerges—hundred-dollar screwdrivers, thousand-dollar toilet seats and the like—the public is shocked. More alarming is the systematic debauchment of the commercial value of thrift.

Industrial engineers are the great custodians of productivity in manufacturing—major antagonists of waste and inefficiency, major dissenters to doing things in an old way if a better new way can be devised. Their objects are to maximize efficiency and minimize costs. Normally, commercial cost discipline and competitiveness keep them up to snuff.

Pentagon contracts subvert that discipline; some are “buy-ins,” where overoptimistically low bids are accepted on the understanding that cost overruns will be accepted later, when it is too late to cancel the project in question. Others are awarded on a “costplus” basis, which is just what it says it is—the manufacturer can charge his costs plus a percentage for profit. The carelessness about costs that this induces is likely to run back from the contractor to the contractor’s suppliers and so on indefinitely. The result is that

American engineers have indeed remained marvelous at inventing in fields that can afford to support such work. But the trouble comes from inability to produce the inventions at affordable costs and with competitive efficiency.3

The truly gloomy thought is that President Clinton’s attempts to redeploy military personnel to civilian employment may have lethal consequences for civilian cost control; so enormous is the military-industrial sector that its habits could infect all of American industry.

After contemplating Soviet agriculture and heavy industry, 1980s commercial excess, and the follies of the Pentagon procurement system, readers will wonder whether government can do anything useful for economic activity beyond providing the simple benefits of the “nightwatchman state.” One recipe Ms. Jacobs encourages us not to follow is the currently fashionable one of making government “businesslike.” Hiving off essentially commercial activities to commercial enterprises is fine; providing commercial incentives to people engaged in “guardian” activities is not.

In the mid-1980s the New York City transit police were put through a productivity review; consultants hit on the idea of measuring productivity by arrests per man-hour, and so of encouraging it by rewarding the highest performers by this measure. The result was not entirely unpredictable. Innocent people were arrested in large numbers, mostly blacks and Hispanics whom courts would not believe in preference to the arresting officers. Once arrested, they were encouraged to believe that their only hope of avoiding a long sentence was to plead guilty on a plea bargain. Until one of the transit police made the mistake of arresting an off-duty black cop who became indignant and exposed the whole business, everyone except the falsely accused was happy. So much for “reinventing government.”

Jane Jacobs tells her cautionary tales with such verve that even while we wince we cannot quite believe that she is going to end with absolutely nothing for our comfort. Nor does she. Governments, she writes, are not doomed to make a mess of the economy; not all changes in commercial practice are changes for the worse; renewal is always possible—though in the race between civilization and barbarism, the outcome will always be too close for complacency. Among governments that have acted in the guardian mode, but with successful commercial results, she nominates Taiwan’s rulers, who forced land reform upon the landlords, paid them adequate compensation, blocked the export of their funds, and thus encouraged them to invest in industry without telling them how, where, and on what terms; and now Taipei is catching up on Hong Kong. Hong Kong itself she regards as a fluke in the generally rotten record of the British Empire; in most colonies British administrators embroiled themselves in the local economy, while in postwar Hong Kong they wisely confined themselves to politics and administration, from which the native Chinese were excluded, leaving the Chinese to exercise their talents in commerce and industry.

More generally, societies have flourished where two very different divisions of labor have taken effect. One is a caste system, as practiced in Hindu India or ancien régime France, for example. (Not the least of the virtues of Systems of Survival is its unblinking political incorrectness; it is not anti-liberal or illiberal, and it is anything but conservative intellectually and politically. But it is extremely un-starryeyed.) Plato’s Republic offers in theory what European and Japanese feudalism, among many other variations, put into practice. The other is “flexibility,” by which a whole society can switch moral allegiances. The book cites Moses, who encouraged the Israelites to negotiate, cooperate, and trade—and then fastidiously to keep their bargains once made—where they could; and where they could not, he told them to strike hard and ruthlessly, to wipe out their enemies, and take whatever they could.

Both ways of working have their dangers. The first is inflexible and slow to deal with social change. Few feudal elites have given way gracefully to the demands of a new era, and nothing is nastier than a military elite animated by greed. Even countries that have managed the transition to rapid economic growth and a more flexible social order have had disasters enough—German and Japanese fascism and racism aren’t mentioned by Ms. Jacobs, but might well have been. Flexibility’s problem is that it demands a great deal of self-conscious and intelligent moral reflection from harassed people who have little time to give to it, and probably not much training in how to do it either.

Sweet-natured and cooperative people can all too easily cooperate with evil; brought up on the rule of “Go along to get along,” their sociable virtues end up supporting vice—a point Ms. Jacobs makes very firmly, with due acknowledgment of Hannah Arendt’s insights into the “terrible matter-of-factness of institutionalized wickedness and rote cooperation with it.” As to what any of us can do about it, there is no quick answer any more than Hannah Arendt had any quick answer to the banality of evil. Jane Jacobs is no happier about the current craze for moral relativism than Arendt was, and no readier to believe that we can leave it to the intellectuals to act as our moral keepers. All of which raises one of those questions that conservatives and the devout answer too easily, and secular liberals apparently can’t answer at all—What is moral intelligence, and how do we train it? While we are looking for an answer, we can at least hope that Systems of Survival will find its way into Wall Street and Washington; that would certainly be a start.

  1. 1

    Random House, 1971.

  2. 2

    Jane Jacobs’s account draws on Colin Turnbull’s classic study The Mountain People (Simon and Schuster, 1972).

  3. 3

    Jane Jacobs credits Seymour Melman, The Demilitarized Society (Montreal: Harvest House, 1988), with many of these insights.

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