Wednesday, September 24, 2008

whom do you trust?

I've been interested in the expansion of commerce in 17th-century England; particularly interested in the importance of credit, and, with regard to credit, particularly interested in the importance of trust. Partly for that reason I recently read Jane Jacobs's Systems of Survival which sets out to explain a pair of competing moral systems: the guardian syndrome and the commerce syndrome. She derives these syndromes from the behaviors two occupational groups: the one evolved from aristocratic moral structures and the other from the moral structures of businessmen. It's a good read. The guardians are those who govern, who run the bureaucracy, and who dispense justice. They trust only their own kind and strictly by the rules of honor (which give plenty of latitude for deception). In contrast, commercial people treasure honesty, not for its own sake but because trading requires trust.

Jacobs isn't saying these moral codes are observed by everyone all the time, but that each group has ways to enforce its own precepts. They both try to minimize deviation from their own specific norms. She also isn't saying that these two competing syndromes comprise all the rules that people strive to follow in their attempts to lead good lives. These are simply the ones that separate the one group from the other. I've put a table showing the two lists at bottom.

Jacobs points out that guardian group must step in when the morals of the commerce group break down. That is to say governments regulate commerce for the good of citizens. Though there are ideologies that regret this intervention, almost everyone regards it as necessary. She also says governments can't actually perform the functions of the commercial group -- government run business operations rarely succeed. (She says they never do). That's because the moral structures are inimicable. It's an interesting way of looking at things; basically an update on a position that Plato has Socrates take. There's a quick summary in this pdf document.

So now we're seeing government debate what to do to correct the mess created by the big New York banks (and others). You can look at the arguments from a Systems-of-Survival point of view.

But I'm more interested in one aspect: the betrayal of trust. Steven Pearlstein writes about the subject today. In an article called The Words Left Unspoken in the Bailout Debate he says:
Political systems, communities, markets all share one common characteristic -- at their core, they all require a level of trust among the participants if they are going to work. In recent years, we have allowed that trust to erode to the point that our political system is paralyzed by partisan bickering and communities are fractured into enclaves of race and class. Now markets are collapsing because investors realize they have been misled by corporate executives, investment banks, ratings agencies and regulators. As a country, there is an urgent need to rebuild that trust. In different ways, that is what both the McCain and Obama campaigns are all about. And it is the same challenge that now faces us in this financial crisis.
Where Pearlstein writes about the trust we should be able to place in large financial institutions, an academic blogger writes, indirectly, about the trust we should be able to place in our military. In a post called Counterinsurgency Comes Home, he writes about an Iraq-seasoned infantry brigade being deployed to "help the people at home" through sophisticated military action to counter civil unrest. The blogger has first-hand knowledge since he's currently serving in the Army in Kuwait. (He writes for Cliopatria, a group blog, and is a historian in graduate school at UCLA.) If you read the whole article from which he quotes, the unit sound more helpful than threatening (Brigade homeland tours start Oct. 1). But, in light of the misplaced trust that has produced so many horrors in recent years, including the current financial crisis, you have to wonder. Why do we need Army specialists to do the job the National Guard is tasked to perform? There used to be fears of large standing armies which might subvert the rights of citizens. As James Madison put it in Anti-Federalist Papers No. 10 of 24 January 1788,
The liberties of a people are in danger from a large standing army, not only because the rulers may employ them for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpations of power, which they may see proper to exercise, but there is great hazard, that an army will subvert the forms of the government, under whose authority, they are raised, and establish one, according to the pleasure of their leader.
We no longer have quite that fear, but with the drastic undermining of civil liberties in the current war on terror and the embracing of torture as a judicial tool, and all else that increases the power of the state to coerce its citizens, there is very good reason to withhold trust when the Army says its deploying a seasoned combat-ready force on our own territory for our own good.

Here are Jacobs's two syndromes:
Guardian Syndrome's
Moral Precepts
Commerce Syndrome's
Moral Precepts
  • 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
  • Shun force
  • Compete
  • Be efficient
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Respect contracts
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Be optimistic
  • Be honest

No comments: