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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 1999
Jane Jacobs is one of those amazing outsiders who can take a collection of clippings from the newspaper, historical texts, and conversations with friends, and identify patterns no one else has so clearly seen. Here she has pointed out an entire field for future study -- the social evolution of meme-complexes, patterns of self-reinforcing beliefs that have evolved over time in human populations. One can quibble about the undisciplined frame for the arguments, but it does make the book an exceptionally easy read (and no doubt was much easier to write than a more formal treatment would have been). I certainly recognized myself and my friends (and politcal opponents) in her syndromes, and have found the insight they provide invaluable in working with people who are "syndrome-inflexible" (cannot swing from one syndrome to the other as appropriate) -- especially on local development issues, where the clash of the syndromes is exceptionally obvious.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
This is one of my favorite books. I have read and re-read it again and again. Jane Jacobs explains why governments do good things -- and bad things. And why the free market does good things -- and bad things. Her exposition of the conflict between the "commercial syndrome" and the "guardian syndrome" is profound and original. An exceptionally brilliant philosophical dialog in the tradition of the Greeks.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2005
This is a most insightful book, in which the author convincingly expounds her thesis that the world uses two systems of ethics as systems for the survival of mankind: the commercial system, and the guardian system.

The commercial class lives by production and exchange, primarily by means of honest, binding contracts and voluntary agreements, and where initiative, inventiveness and efficiency are prized, along with industriousness, thrift and investment.

The guardian class is prevalent in governments, benevolent trusts, charity organizations, universities and schools, military and police. They shun trading and exchange, and live by taking, in the form of taxes and donations, and sometimes expropriation. They are dispensers of the good things, in the form of grants and largesse. Guardians issue commands and expect them obeyed, with courage if necessary, which they in turn are subject to themselves, for a hierarchical command structure is honored. And they use force and deception where necessary to accomplish objectives.

The greatest sin, and the cause of all corruption, according to Ms. Jacobs, is when the two systems are merged in one organization. I have read several books on ethics, but this is the first that points out that there are two systems in operation in society. And it explains so much that has been a puzzle for me. For example, we are taught to tell the truth, as in the commercial system of ethics, yet a government will lie in the interests of the state, and a general will try to deceive the enemy, and both expect to be applauded for that. This can be explained only by the distinct systems of morality that guide the guardian class and commercial classes.

The two systems explain the characteristics of nations too. The empire building nation is dominated by a guardian morality, and it guardian class despises the commercial morality. A good example is England, in the past, with its class system and colonial empire that puts business men and women at the bottom. You do not have to read too many Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope novels to become aware of that. To some extent this dominant guardian syndrome lingers in monarchical England to the present day, but the country is being forced into prizing a more commercial morality by an European Union led by successful, commercial-syndrome-dominated republics France and Germany.

In contrast, the growing nation with plenty of territory is dominated by the commercial morality, for example the United States through most of its history, with its strong corporations and industrious commercial class. The U.S., however, is now showing signs of trending more toward a stronger espousing of the guardian morality, as its interests force it to begin some empire building abroad. But even if the commercial ethic still dominates in the United States, the guardian ethic is present and strong, and Jane Jacobs' brilliant proposition explains the never ending conflict between the two.

And we can now see why communism failed. It removed the commercial ethic, and the sanctity of commercial contract. The commercial ethic, by the looks of it, has still not been reestablished in the new Russia, which explains its lack of real economic success in the modern world. I am not knowledgeable enough to dissect Japan with Jacob's thesis.

Her thesis also throws a great deal of light on the thinking of novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand , whose philosophy is explained and dramatized in the novels "Atlas Shrugged" and "Fountainhead". Rand strongly espoused the commercial system of ethics, and viewed the guardian system as closest thing to evil, best eliminated to the extent possible. She did concede that guardian institutions of police, military and courts were a necessary evil, however, to be closely monitored (by the commercial class). This viewpoint probably originated with the dominant, communist, guardian ethic in the violent, disorganized and impoverished Russia that she escaped as a young woman, after the communists confiscated (a 'taking' guardian action) the family business.

But if Jane Jacobs is right, then both systems are necessary. Instead of eliminating the guardian systems, as Ayn Rand seemed to advocate, we simply have to make sure that the guardian class is modest in size, no larger than necessary, and that the two systems of ethics are never allowed to mix. As a footnote, it could be argued that Michael Crichton's recent novel, about environmentalists and global warming, "State of Fear", is really about a conflict between the guardian and commercial classes.

"Systems of Survival" is a must read for anyone interested in what makes the world work.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2000
I rate this as one of the ten best books I have read in the last decade. For years I could not understand how everyday people can commit moral transgressions. Some years back, I found myself on the receiving end of some seriously unethical behavior committed by people who were my friends and whom I had always held in high regard. How could these good people involve themselves in such unethical behavior? The dysjunction between their behavior and my assessment of their characters was the source of much grief. After reading Jacobs' book, I have come to understand just how tricky some of these problems can be, and just how easy it is for good people to fall into error at the junction between commericial life and guardian life. Her book doesn't solve any problems, but it certainly makes sense of much human perfidy.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 1997
Jane Jacobs' division of morality into two "syndromes", "commercial" and "guardian" has given me an enormously helpful and practical frame of reference from which to view human behavior, including my own. I especially see how I can lock into the point of view of one moral syndrome -- either one -- and judge the other syndrome to be immoral, when in fact, as Jacobs points out, immorality arises from the "monstrous hybridization" of the two. Jane Jacobs is one of my top five intellectual heroes, for this book and her several others on city economics.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2001
Our society has principles that forbid us to kill and yet our society also has principles that require it to prepare for and engage in war. Much has been made of this conflict in morality but very little light has been shed on it despite its ancient origin. Jacob's tackles this apparent contradiction and others in another of her books where her searching insight can discover ideas that have eluded others.
Jacobs resolves the apparent conflict by showing that it is no conflict at all but really the interworking of two disjoint moralities that must function interdependently to allow our society to flourish.
Our society functions to interfere with the liberty of its inhabitants as little as possible and yet it can restrict the freedom of malefactors and even sentence them to long terms of imprisonment. Jacob's identifies this as the interworking of the commercial and guardian syndromes of morality. These moralities are contradictory - what is a vice in one is a virtue in the other. And yet we need them both. The commercial syndrome abjures force and encourages voluntary agreement. This is the syndrome that characterises interpersonal interaction within our society. It is desirable and yet it is incomplete. Its success requires the confidence of all particpants that the principles of the syndrome. This is provided by the guardian syndrome which is based on coercion and strict adherence to fixed rules.
Jacobs shows how these sysndromes must be kept separate in society for just as initiayive and industry are virtues in the commercial syndrome they are vices in the guardian syndrome. Simliarly the guardian sysndrome requires largesse but the commercial requires invenstment and efficiency. A guardian cannot make laws on his own or use his offce to enrich himself without disabling the entire society. Similarly a commericial participant cannot use coercion on others since it destroys the flexibility that gives the commercial syndrome its societal benefits.
A clear example of this can be seen in present day Russia in which the machinery of government has been taken over by ogliarchs who run it for their own benefit. The commercial and guardian syndromes are intertwined and so both fail. The obvious crime here is the violation of trust by these official but another crime is that this makes the entire country poor. People can not have trust in voluntary agreements and so do not make them. The economy fails because the commercial sundrome is violated and poverty results not from the funds directly stolen by officials but from the wealth that they prevent creating.
I am only skimming the behaviors that Jacob's describes in her book and cannot do justice to her ideas in this brief review. It is book full of insight and wisdom. It is well worth reading.
The only flaw I see in the book is not in the content but the form in which it was written. The dialogue style is not Jacob's strength but this is only a samll flaw in an book that is excellent overall.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2004
A very interesting dialog on paradigms which helped me understand better why "commercial" types and "government" types so often see each other as just plain evil and can't get past that emotional reaction.
The book explores two moral systems with very different ideas of honor, which is at the emotional root of how we perceive each other. Should be required reading in high school political science and social studies classes.
The reader needs to look past the cardboard cut-out "characters" which are there only to present the arguments, and focus on the insights produced from the arguments.
A quick, yet very informative read. I recommend also learning more about paradigms and how they limit what we CAN perceive... makes this book even more powerful in understanding limits to understanding.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2002
I have seldom read a more thought-provoking, stimulating, and fascinating book than this.
The author uses two techniques that are particularly useful in conveying this rich material - Socratic dialog, and inductive reasoning. The wealth of examples and the detailed analysis are compelling, yet as a reader you feel free to disagree, to question, and to challenge the ideas being presented -- all good exercise for the mind.
The book's thesis is discussed elsewhere. Suffice it to say I find that thesis highly persuasive, and I plan to put it to the test in coming months. I recommend this book highly.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2014
Astounding book. Let's take an example from the first few chapters.

Is it right or wrong to lie? Of course, it's wrong -- honesty is an obvious moral ideal. But what if you have people hiding in your basement, and the Nazis knock on your door? Then, it is essential to lie; honesty would be a horrific, inexcusable choice. So morality is complicated, right?

Wrong. Jacobs argues (persuasively!) that all moral standards fall into two, and only two, categories (or "syndromes"). One is used by merchants and scientists, and values honesty, efficiency, and debate -- Jacobs calls this the "commercial syndrome." The other is used by governments and armed forces, and values hierarchy, loyalty, and honor, and Jacobs calls this one the "guardian syndrome."

I found myself cheering for that commercial syndrome, choosing it over the other. But Jacobs says no, each one has its place. The guardian syndrome is essential whenever society must protect itself from an enemy. Both syndromes complement each other.

Where things go wrong, where the wheels really come off, is when the syndromes mix. Then you get scientists who lie, or soldiers who make deals with the enemy.

A lot of people have complained about the presentation of these ideas through dialogue from fictional characters. I thought the approach worked well, and I enjoyed this book. If you are looking for a novel, move on. If you are looking for a profound book on moral philosophy and sociology, you should read this.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2014
Speaking as guardian who has spent his life as a commercial I found this book very enlightening. It's a brilliant exposition of the tensions between the two systems and the way that they are fated to live together. The book made it clear to me that society needs both guardians and commercials (ie structure and flexibility).
As an interesting aside Jane Jacobs wrote it when she was 76!!

UPDATE 23rd November 2014:

An aspect of Commercials/Guardians that isn't in the book, but perhaps could have been, is the way in which the dominance of one or the other seems to run through cycles. In the US for example, commercials have been dominant since the 1980's and this society is showing all the signs of commercial infiltration of guardian areas.

Examples could be the "revolving door" between business and government(they should be quite separate), the inability of guardians (government) to resist commercial pressure for bailouts or prosecute high level corporate crime and the failure of government to control special (commercial) interests.

The prediction is a return to a dominant Guardian system which would protect society from commercial abuses but could itself risk a slide into dictatorship.
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