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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Know Thine Enemy, Know Thyself

What would Jane Jacobs do?

(As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jane Jacobs’s path-breaking book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This week’s column is one of several I’ve written this year in her honor.)

For the past couple of weeks protesters have been occupying a small park in the Wall Street district of Manhattan. They are a mixed group ideologically, though what seems to unify most of them is disgust with corporate greed and corruption.

Sheldon Richman has addressed the protest in his recent FreemanOnline article “Occupying Wall Street,” so I won’t try to repeat his excellent analysis. But I would like to elaborate on his point that “It’s perfectly reasonable to think that some radical changes are needed. But to know what changes, one has to understand what happened.”


As these events are happening I ask myself, “What would Jane Jacobs do?” My gut tells me that it’s quite likely that she might well have been down there amongst the protesters.

If you’ve read some of my previous columns, you probably know that she is one of my intellectual heroes. (For example, I’ve made references to her ideas in the past few months here, here, and here.) While I was and still am mainly attracted to her economic ideas, I’ve also found her political ideology interesting; partly because it’s elusive.

She was very careful not to let anyone pin an ideological label on her, although much of what she wrote, especially in Systems of Survival, has a strong libertarian flavor. (This also comes out in an interview she did with Reason magazine back in 2001.) Nevertheless, she has ardent supporters across the political spectrum, from statists on the left and right to libertarians.

I mentioned this last April while presenting a paper at a conference. In the audience was Deirdre McCloskey, a noted economic historian and historian of thought, who during the question-and-answer period simply asked me why she had this broad appeal. I answered that she appealed to the left because she not only wrote eloquently against heavy-handed government projects that threatened to rip apart the fine-structure of local communities, but she was an effective organizer of public protests who wasn’t afraid of getting arrested for doing so. That’s part of it, I’m sure, but I think the answer is more complicated than that.

I believe, though I don’t yet have enough evidence to back it up, that Jane Jacobs is a good example of someone whose deeply felt left-leaning ideological sentiments tended to be constrained by her understanding of sound economics. And I believe her deepening understanding of economics continued to shape her political ideology until, by the time she published Systems of Survival in 1992, she had become, as a result of her own “common-sense genius,” much more of a philosophical libertarian.

Jacobs and the Protesters

Which brings me back to the Wall Street protesters. Yes, I think Jacobs might have been there amongst them, but I believe she would have known exactly what the source of the problem is. And I wish she were still around to educate them about it in her own forceful but kind way.

In Systems of Survival she points out that

[W]e have two distinct ways of making a living, no more no less. . . . First, we’re able to take what we want – simply take, depending of course, on what’s available to be taken. That’s what all other animals do. . . . But in addition, we human beings are capable of trading – exchanging our services for other goods and services, depending, again, on what’s available, but in this case what’s available for exchange rather than taking. [51-2]

The “commercial moral syndrome” that underlies free markets and trade counsels: “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 industrious, be thrifty, and be optimistic.”

On the other hand, the “guardian moral syndrome” that underlies government and forced takings counsels: “shun trading, exert prowess, be obedient and disciplined, adhere to tradition, respect hierarchy, adhere to tradition, 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, and treasure honor.”

Which of these best fits the personality profile of the young, iconoclastic but peaceful, ideologically driven protesters with their iPhones, Twitter, and leaderless organization? Now which of these best fits their enemy?

Monstrous Moral Hybrids

Jacobs warns of the unstable “monstrous moral hybrids” that emerge when these two moral systems combine, as when either government tries to operate in the market (such as the U.S. Postal Service and Medicare) or businesses partner up with government (such as the military-industrial complex and Wall Street bailouts). That of course describes the crony-capitalist, mixed economy that we in the United States, and most of rest of the world, live under. In Jacobs’s logic, such hybrids result in pork-barrel politics, monopolies, censorship, corporate dishonesty, corruption, and sometimes war.

(Jacobs explains how she arrives at these generalizations in Systems of Survival, which I highly recommend if you’re interested in libertarian moral philosophy.)

It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think you could say that Jacobs was someone who could talk the talk of (her brand of) libertarianism but also walk the walk of genuine progressivism. Yes, I wish she were still here to fight the good fight and to find ways to effectively communicate with those fed up with the twisted morality of interventionism, from the Wall Street protesters to the Tea Party. Unfortunately, she isn’t, but she did leave us with her ideas and her example.

So now I guess it’s up to you and me.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.