The Jains, Jane Jacobs and why Tony Blair is a Sleazeball

The Jains, Jane Jacobs and why Tony Blair is a Sleazeball

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The Jains are probably the most peaceful people on the planet.  Strict vegetarians, unwilling to wear leather because their religion abhors hurting animals, the especially devout wear masks so they don’t accidentally inhale microscopic creatures.  A Jain will not swat a mosquito as it sucks blood from his arm. Harming others, whether human or animal is anathema.

Until I travelled to Jaisilmire, the North Indian walled city on the edge of the Thar desert, I gave little thought to the Jains or their gentle ways.  But upon visiting their beautiful and extravagantly decorated temple, I learned that the Jains were renowned all over South Asia for their wealth and their skill as businessmen. 

Is there a link between their pacifism and their prosperity?  Conventional wisdom (and most airport business books) suggest hard-driving tough-as-nails take-no- prisoners businessmen would have the advantage over negotiators who fear hurting a gnat.

An explanation for this can be found in the work of the woman I consider the most underrated thinker of the 20th century, Jane Jacobs.  A Greenwich Village housewife who never graduated from university, Jacobs is mostly known as the prophet of the new urbanism. In the 1960s, she almost singlehandedly led the opposition to a proposed elevated ten-lane road that the infamous Robert Moses proposed to build through the heart of lower Manhattan.  Without Jane Jacobs, Greenwich Village, Soho, and Little Italy would have been torn to shreds in order to build an interstate highway. Back in the late 1950s, the heyday of suburbia, Jacobs   proclaimed the importance of the human-scale, pedestrian-centred, multi-use urban neighbourhoods that most of us want to live in today.

Jacobs, however, is much more than a proto-hipster devotee of urban living. Her books The Economies of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and The Nature of Economies are idiosyncratic and eye-opening works of economics. For me, her most profound work is Systems of Survival in which she describes the two opposing moral systems underpinning our public and commercial lives.

An observer of ordinary life and an empiricist, Jacobs noticed that behaviour considered criminal in certain situations was praiseworthy in others.  For example, a soldier who offers his skills to another country is a traitor, but a businessman who won’t sell to foreigners is either a racist or an idiot.  An entrepreneur who sits on his butt cooking tasty meals for his mates when customers aren’t calling is lazy, but a fireman who turns arsonist in order to generate work is a psychopath. Businessmen   should always be drumming up more work, but we would rather soldiers did not start wars just to give themselves something to do.

Jacobs concludes that we have two opposing ethical systems, a commercial morality and a guardian morality, because humans have always made their living in two very different ways, trading and taking. The commercial morality, more at home in Silicon Valley than in the Pentagon, believes in competition, efficiency, and innovation. The guardian morality, which admires hierarchy, loyalty and might, reflects the old aristocratic ethos of warrior bands and hunters. The commercial morality shuns force and respects contracts, while the guardian morality shuns trading and recognizes the value of vengeance.  Below is Jacobs’ complete list.

Jacobs says that problems arise when the two moralities become intertwined.  Police are guardians.  When they are given quotas to fill, a sensible motivational tool for salesmen or line workers, they inevitably arrest the innocent.  Likewise when merchants are allowed to use force, they become the Mafia. In both feudal Japan and medieval Europe, Jacobs tells us, stringent (and almost identical) measures were used to ensure that neither warriors nor traders would be corrupted by the ethos of the other.

Jaisilmeer is a trading city, built on an ancient route between the Middle East, India and Central Asia. Imagine an Arab merchant 500 years ago, bringing his caravan across the desert. Trading far from home is always perilous.  What is to stop your counterparty from taking your goods and murdering you, instead of giving you the agreed-upon measure of gold?  You are far from friends and relatives who will protect you, and the local government is not likely to defend your interests. 

In such a situation, trading with a Jain is tempting. A man whose religion prohibits him from killing a fly is unlikely to use force to steal your goods.  Indeed, you would be happy to take a lower price from a Jain than you would from a Hindu or Muslim, just for peace of mind that he will not rob you.

Jainism, then, is a useful signal that a merchant’s word is true, that even strangers need not fear that force will be used against them, that the contract is inviolate.  In the west, Quakers, also pacifists, became wealthy traders.  For merchants, a pacifist religion seems an excellent selling tool.

Samurai, of course, have a very different code.  Jacobs reminds us that loyalty is the primal guardian virtue. A samurai who betrayed his master for filthy lucre would not be able to live down the shame.  He could, without impinging on his honour, pretend to go along with his enemy’s plan, but only if he was to turn on them in the end and stay true to his master’s cause.  This, of course, is the opposite of our Jain merchant.  Breaking contracts is wrong for a merchant, even with customers he does not particularly like. But a soldier whose deceptions defeat his enemies will get a medal.

What, you say, does this have to do with Tony Blair?  Upon leaving office, Tony Blair, like his American counterpart Bill Clinton, set off to make his fortune.  The two of them have amassed tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, speaking before corporate audiences, selling their good name and their contacts to the highest bidder.  In the world of business, this is ordinary, even admirable.  All we own, ultimately, is our skills and knowledge, and no one begrudges us if we make a living putting them out in the marketplace.

And yet, it is impossible to imagine Winston Churchill or Franklin Delano Roosevelt having so little respect for the office that they held, and so much lust for money, that they would act as do Blair and Clinton.  In 1948 George Marshall, the American four-star general who led the US military during World War II, was offered $1 million dollars by a New York publishing house to write his memoirs.  $1 million back then is more than $10 million today. Marshall was not a particularly wealthy man, but he refused, telling the publisher that he went into the military to serve his country and he thought it wrong to make personal profit from his public service.

Today that attitude is passé.  Now public service is seen by many as a stepping-stone to private wealth.  In America it is called “punching your ticket”: a few years at a regulatory agency for little money followed by a corporate gig advising private firms how to sidestep the regulations you wrote.  Even honourable men like Ben Bernanke make more for one speech after leaving office than their annual salary when they were in power. No wonder we no longer trust our government.

As Albert Hirschman makes clear in his classic The Passions and the Interests, in aristocratic times, the guardian morality held much more sway than that of merchants.  The rise of capitalism required that we place our material desires above what noblemen and guardians called “honour”. Government buildings used to be grand and imposing, demonstrating the power and dignity of the state. Today they are generally shabby and cheap.  Our respect for our leaders is disappearing, replaced by adulation for the rich and famous. One hundred years ago, actresses were seen as little better than prostitutes and politicians as statesmen.  Today it is the other way around.

In the past, public servants accepted that the glory they received was its own reward. Today, the commercial morality is omnipresent. Glory is not enough, and, in truth, politicians rarely even get that. Too many of our leaders hunger for wealth.  No wonder we are no longer confident that they look out for our interests.

Jane Jacobs is on to something.  We need to reward our public servants in a way that once again allows them to be disdainful of money. Meanwhile it should be both unacceptable and deeply shameful when they sell their names to the highest bidder.  Blair and Clinton’s money-grubbing antics are both symptom and cause of the lack of respect we give our leaders.  If we remember Jacobs’ guardian and commercial syndromes we are less likely to forgive their transgressions.


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