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Book Review: Systems of Survival – Jane Jacobs

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In Systems of Survival, Jane 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 Systems 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 of Survival 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.

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About Philip Small

  • This book brings up some basic questions that concern ethics..on many levels of participation..in business and life…Instead of confronting the idea of what is ethical and what is not…the book follows the line of thought that
    many paths exist to the end result..success.I believe the choices we make in business defines who we are and what we stand for…todays business is interested in the bottom line..we should be interested in providing the best we can for our consumers..at no cost to ethics.

  • jason taylor

    The book has one flaw in that it didn’t address the transport trade which traditionally has some guardian as well as trader characteristics. Merchant ships depend on hierarchy and discipline and once often needed to go into lawless territories.