Sunday, April 20, 2008

The guardian and the commercial

"In her book Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs proposes that society can be viewed as encompassing two moral syndromes, the "guardian" and the "commercial". Jacobs argues that the guardian system, or governance, arose in territorial and hunting societies, cultures that guarded their boundaries, were suspicious of outsiders, and were deeply protective of their possessions. The guardian system is conservative and hierarchical, adheres to tradition, values loyalty, and shuns trading and inventiveness. The commercial system, on the other hand, is based on trading, and functions well when it is open, trusting of outsiders, innovative, positive, and forward-thinking. It values collaboration, contracts, initiative, and optimism.
Jacobs' thesis is that, ideally, society should separate these two functions as completely as possible. Trouble ensues when the two systems become confused about their roles and take on the functions--and therefore the behavioral traits--of the other. The virtues of one system become vices when exercised by the other. When the guardian syndrome--governance--intrudes with its hierarchical, bureaucratic assumptions into the realm of commerce, it founders, because it is no match for business in quickness and creativity. The S&L* fiasco in this country resulted directly from business's outwitting governance. Instead of insisting that industry create its own insurance system for depositors, government guaranteed that protection directly and thereby gave private institutions every incentive to choose the riskiest investments for depositors' money. [...]
Of course, the opposite situation also occurs, in which business attempts to take on the role of guardianship and governance. Every time it tries to do so, we suffer. In the context of the arguments of this book, the process might be described as follows: Business assumes the role of guardianship viv-à-vis the ecosystem and fails miserably in the task; governance steps in to try to mitigate the damage; business tries to sabotage this regulatory process and nimbly sidesteps those regulations that are put on the books; governance ups the ante and thereby becomes a hydra-headed bureaucratic monster choking off economic development while squandering money; business decries "interference in the marketplace" and sets out to redress its grievances by further corrupting the legislative and regulatory process in an attempt to become de facto guardian, if not de jure.
In the political arena, this struggle plays out in virtually every industrialized country in the world as the classic two-party schism of liberal and conservative. When liberals are in power, they understandably propose controls and regulations on business; in the more extreme forms, liberal thought tries to unite the guardian and commercial responsibilities with the guardian role predominant, producing socialist enterprises of marginal efficiency. When conservatives are in power, they attempt to reverse the regulations and give business carte blanche, invoking pious homilies to the free market and human enterprise, creating the future seeds of backlash, while avoiding the real issues of health and habitat. Conservatism has its own radical school of thought, wherein guradian and commercial roles are united but with commercial powers in the primary role. This experiment has not been tried in quite so thorough a fashion as the socialist ideology, but if it ever were attempted on a wide scale in the industrialized West, the fate of the ecosystem would be sealed.
Guardianship and commerce are trapped in a positive feedback loop, and neither is likely to solve the problems of ecological degradation and scarcity when reacting only to the excesses of the other. All of us suffer the consequences. When patterns of behavior in business repeat themselves again and again, as they do, and when the reaction of governance is another round of regulations, we would do well to consider whether "bottom-line" blame should be placed on "unruly" business or "incompetent" government, rather than on the design of the system within which they function."

Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce. A Declaration of Sustainability. (Chapter "Restoring the guardian").

* I think it stands for the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States (but I can't tell for sure since there are no notes in the book for that).

About how to improve the design of the system, see next post.
Note the description of the guardian (represented by the liberals) as conservative and traditional, and the description of the commercial (represented by the conservatives) as trusting of outsiders and innovative. Don't you think the names given to the political parties should have been switched ?

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