In our December 1992 book issue, REASON asked a number of writers to answer the question, "What should the president read?" by recommending three books for the incoming chief executive. At the time contributors had to make their choices, no one knew who the president would be. Suggestions ranged from In Pursuit to The Little Red Hen.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have suggested Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs, an author best known for her iconoclastic work on cities. Subtitled "A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics," her 1992 book provides much insight into the profound moral failings of the Clinton administration. If Bill Clinton had read it, and heeded it, he would have avoided a huge mess of trouble. But he would also be a very different person, with very different politics.
Using the trope of an extended discussion among characters from different professional backgrounds, Jacobs sets out to examine the moral codes that govern work. She finds two "syndromes"–two mutually exclusive collections of connected traits, self-organized systems that have evolved over the long span of human history. They derive, she argues, from the two and only two ways humans as a species have of making a living: taking and trading. (Most animals have only taking, better known as hunting and gathering.) She dubs them the "guardian syndrome" and the "commercial syndrome."
The commercial syndrome, recognizable as bourgeois morality and championed in the pages of this magazine, includes, writes Jacobs: "Shun force. Come to voluntary agreements. Be honest. Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens. Compete. Respect contracts. Use initiative and enterprise. Be open to inventiveness and novelty. Be efficient. Promote comfort and convenience. Dissent for the sake of the task. Invest for productive purposes. Be thrifty. Be optimistic."
These virtues encourage prudent benevolence, a search for ways to prosper by improving people's lives. As long as your trading partners also follow them, they represent a smooth, if twisting, road to success and security. But if predators–highway robbers–lurk nearby, then the commercial syndrome requires guardians for protection.
The guardian syndrome contains aristocratic and martial virtues: "Shun trading. Exert prowess. Be obedient and disciplined. Adhere to tradition. Respect hierarchy. Be loyal. Take vengeance. Deceive for the sake of the task. Make rich use of leisure. Be ostentatious. Dispense largesse. Be exclusive. Show fortitude. Be fatalistic. Treasure honor."
Guardian precepts strengthen the individual against fear and weakness–and against the temptation to misuse prowess or sell out allies. They are suited to defense against predators, as well as attacks against enemies.
Like any simple model, Jacobs's dichotomy doesn't describe the world perfectly. But as with any good model, its very simplicity delivers some useful insights.
For one thing, Jacobs reminds us that in its place the guardian syndrome is not only moral but necessary. It is the underpinning of government, including very limited government. For commerce to flourish, the territory within which it operates requires protection, and the rules that forbid theft and fraud need enforcement. Protection and enforcement, in turn, require guardians whose ethic lets them do some things (such as undercover surveillance) that the commercial ethic would shun and forbids other things (such as selling defense secrets) that might appear tolerable under a trading morality. (Whether treachery constitutes a breach of contract, prohibited by commercial ethics, is not a question Jacobs considers.)
Unlike traders, guardians must adhere to strict discipline, rather than go off on their own creative impulses, lest they undermine their mission or destroy the society around them. But a society that depends too much on the guardian syndrome will be an impoverished and stifling place. Taking is a very limited way to wealth, and progress–in knowledge as well as material goods–depends on a culture willing to reward inventiveness and trust strangers. At best, as in Hong Kong until July 1, the guardians operate apart from commercial society and give it enormous freedom.
Jacobs's primary message, then, is a warning: Inject a bit of commercial morality into guardian tasks, or vice versa, and you produce "monstrous hybrids." Some are truly horrific, such as the Nazis turning commercial-style efficiency toward genocide. Others are corrupting in more banal ways, such as defense contractors' insensitivity to costs or forfeiture used to fund police departments.
Individuals sometimes have to switch between the two syndromes to perform different tasks–as when a commercial lawyer serves on a government commission and must be loyal to the public task rather than to paying clients. The trick is to know when you're crossing from one set of ethics to another and to adjust accordingly. Trying to mix the two syndromes, or to apply them to inappropriate activities, produces institutional, social, and moral breakdown.
Enter the Clinton administration. It is almost unsurpassed in its ability to apply the inappropriate syndrome to the issue at hand: As labor secretary, Robert Reich complained that corporations don't show guardian-style loyalty, while the administration demands commercial-style behavior from the military. Firing the travel office staff–contract employees performing a commercial function–to ensure loyalty and wreak vengeance was a typical mixing of modes. So is asking the CIA to do industrial espionage.
And so was the entire Ron Brown Commerce Department philosophy: the pursuit of commercial ends (enriching particular companies) by guardian means (dispensing largesse, money "invested" to gain power rather than profit). A typical accomplishment, a monstrous hybrid, is proclaimed in a November 1994 press release on the president's trip to the Philippines and Indonesia. Its headline: "Clinton Administration Secures Contracts for U.S. Exporters Totaling Over $40 Billion, Supporting Tens of Thousands of Jobs." The contracts were secured not only through negotiations with foreign governments but through generous subsidies from the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, both founts of corporate welfare and political juice.
"Brown called it 'commercial diplomacy,' the intersection of foreign policy, government power and business deals. We used Washington's official muscle to help firms crack overseas markets," writes Brown's former undersecretary for trade, Jeffrey Garten, in Newsweek. Trade as war.
For the Clinton administration, there is no line between government and business. Wealth is dispensed through connections, not created through inventiveness and trade. It's no surprise, then, that this corporatist policy bred corrupt politics.
Fund raising for political candidates has inherent problems when viewed through Jacobs's lens. Especially in a legal regime that prohibits large donations from idealistically driven people, fund raising easily becomes the use of force–or the threat of force, or a promise to avoid force, or an offer to apply it to the donor's enemies–to get trades. It's part protection racket, part bribery, a monstrous hybrid. The only defense against such corruption is rigid, unswerving ideological commitment: policy views so certain that they cannot be swayed by money and so clear and predictable that they do not invite people to try. Whether one can be so stubborn and get elected to political office, outside a few safe congressional districts, is not clear.
Certainly, William Jefferson Clinton has never been tempted to try. His primary commitment, the task to which he and his staff are dedicated, is to further his career. Aside from a generalized statism and a feeling that racism is bad, he doesn't really have much in the way of ideology; the specifics are always in flux, a situation that suggests they are for sale. Hence the steady stream of scandals, of guardian territory allegedly sold by commercial transaction: from small-time stuff in Arkansas to increasing indications that the Chinese government thought–perhaps correctly–that Clinton administration policy was for sale. It would, after all, hardly be surprising to find that an administration dedicated to "the intersection of foreign policy, government power and business deals" might make foreign policy itself a business deal.
Everything for Sale is the title of Robert Kuttner's latest book, an ill-informed attack on markets, economists, and everything associated with them. (See Susan Lee's review.) But it is not laissez-faire advocates who confuse the guardian and commercial realms, who rush to call subsidies "investment" and treat government as an extension of business. In fact, only those who would limit the world of guardians, who recognize its necessity but fear its power, can be trusted not to sell it to the highest bidder.