A book review of "Systems of Survival" by Jane Jacobs.
Systems of Survival
by Jane Jacobs
Vintage Books, NYC 1992
Reviewed by Melvin Hathorn
Privatization of Education? Privatization of Corrections? Privatization of the Juvenile Justice System? These controversial questions arouse strong feelings on both sides of the issue. In Systems of Survival Jane Jacobs takes on these issues in a penetrating manner that defies the reader to pigeonhole her. This challenging book will offer thinking fodder to those who favor either position.
In Systems of Survival, she explores on a deeper level the tension that exists between the public and private sector. For she discusses two sets of opposing values or syndromes that have guided human culture throughout the centuries, the Commercial and the Guardian syndromes. It is the creative tension between these two sets of values that produce vibrant societies.
The Commercial syndrome reflects the values found in the business sector, values such as competition, efficiency, industriousness and thriftiness
The Guardian syndrome lists those values that are important to government and government agencies (which include police, the military, various regulatory agencies, etc.) Examples of these values are loyalty, respect, and hierarchy. These are the values that serve and protect society.
It's important to realize that these lists include only values specifically applicable for that syndrome. They do no include universal values such as courage, love, wisdom and patience.
She devotes a lot of time to the dangers that arise when the value systems are mixed. When commercial values are used in guardian settings or when guardian values are used in commercial settings, disaster results. She cites, among many others, the example of the New York City Transit Police who monitor the subway system.
The Department hired a consultant to study the system and suggest improvements. The consultant suggested improving the system by increasing the output of product per staff hour of work, a commercial standard. His measurement was the number of arrests per hour. Those police achieving the best productivity would be rewarded with the best assignments.
Shortly thereafter, the number of arrests increased; unfortunately, they were false arrests. It also turned out that most of the innocent were minorities who had few resources to defend themselves in court and were "persuaded" to plea bargain for reduced charges. The corruption became unraveled when the police arrested the wrong person, a New York City detective who spent hours tracking down false witnesses. His work was followed by an investigation by the District Attorney.
At this point the book shows the folly of running government like a business. But equally clear is the foolishness of applying guardian values to a commercial setting. An example of this is the funding by the World Bank of Cold War activities and the undercutting of popular unrest. The commercial values of productivity and efficiency were shortchanged and caused poor governments to go deeper into debt.
Her conclusion is that a useful definition of civilization is a reasonable guardian-commercial symbiosis, a symbiosis that is only possible through on-going dialogue and questioning. Her book is an excellent starting place for such a symbiosis.