(Volume 25 Issue 9)
By Jim Scott
In her 1992 book Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs described the opposing impulses that inform the activities of government and commerce. The warriors and bureaucrats who learn to lord over others, have a ‘Guardian’ class moral syndrome that includes “Respect hierarchy”, “Be obedient and disciplined”, “Dispense largesse” and “Deceive for the sake of the task”. Diametrically opposed are the moral imperatives of the ‘Commercial’ class: “Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens”, Use initiative and enterprise”, “Be efficient” and “Dissent for the sake of the task.” In a short column I cannot do justice to the depth of the philosophical cogitations that comprise the book, but it will serve to illustrate.
These are tendencies, not hard and fast rules, but if one were to pursue a career in business one would be expected to lean toward open, honest negotiation to the mutual benefit of parties to any agreement. In order for commerce to flourish, these parties, even having met two minutes prior, must have a reasonable expectation that a good or service will be exchanged as agreed upon. If politics or public service is the choice, then in short order our up-and-coming public servant will immediately begin to close ranks, hold information dear, connive and conspire and measure success based on what higher level of authority can be exercised over others.
Human activity is a messy business and all societies have elements from both. There are those who run businesses like fiefdoms and bureaucrats capable of reaching out to create worthy programmes. It is not that our pursuits should be hived off and kept ‘pure’, but that everyone has a stake in examining, questioning and demanding accountability from merchants and politicians. A wide variety of opinions and an open mind toward innovative approaches should be ingrained in public discourse.
On the contrary, we seem at present to be sliding into yet another period where the elected and electors alike cheer on the suggestion we can ‘get stuff done’ if we just trample over the process and shove the so-called solution down everybody’s throat. No political party has a corner on this. Trudeau, while “dispensing largesse”, insists everyone endorse abortion or be excluded from the taxpayer’s trough. Ontario’s Premier Ford, using his office as a hammer, will cut down Toronto’s bloated city council, a court’s ruling notwithstanding. The American president, supposedly business-oriented, pushes allies and enemies alike and uses uncertainty as a policy.
Like his predecessors, he uses executive orders in place of having Congress actually deal with issues. (Mind you, this is a Congress populated by millionaires who have closed ranks on their own self-interest).
These individuals do this because they believe they are right. At any given time, half the population agrees with them. Those that don’t resort to ever more shrill theatrics in order to halt anything from going forward.
There are innumerable examples of guardians interfering in commerce, and commercial giants hoping to impose their will on others. Citizen/taxpayers become so accustomed to being told what’s good for them they forget to ask: “Perhaps, but mightn’t such-and-such be better?”
At least commerce continues to offer up solutions. Don’t like Canada Post? Ship UPS. No longer a fan of Molson-Coors? Yet another micro-brewery just opened up. It isn’t a ‘free market’ of course. Business proposes, (UBER, Amazon, Walmart), government disposes, (LCBO still rules Ontario’s booze industry. Why?). Slowly, and by no means certainly, people push the agenda toward more commerce and less guardianship. Or sadly, toward more tyranny and less choice and responsibility.
Madam Jacob’s central character concludes: “Some other civilising agent must therefore be necessary…the guardian-commercial symbiosis that combats force, fraud and unconscionable greed in commercial life – and simultaneously impels guardians to respect private plans, private property, and personal rights.”
Beware the tyrant who asks you what you want. Regard the leader who asks you what you need.