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Starr: Modes of Survival, Presidential Edition

7:18 AM, Jan 31, 2008 • By RICHARD STARR
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John McCain repeated a line in the debate last night that has infuriated Romney backers more than any other, the one where he contrasts his "leadership" experience with Romney's "managerial" experience, by referring to his Navy service as something undertaken "for patriotism and not for profit."

I can see why a lot of people on the right hate hearing this. It does sound - and McCain may even mean it to sound - dismissive of and condescending towards archcapitalists like Romney. But this line of McCain's is more than a cheap shot; it actually illuminates a deep and important difference between the two GOP contenders. And the distinction McCain's soundbite points toward is one that needn't reflect badly on either of the two men.

McCain is close to being a pure exponent of what Jane Jacobs called the "guardian syndrome." And Romney, for his part, is an almost equally pure exponent of its counterpart, what Jacobs termed the "commercial syndrome." As I can't lay my hands on my copy of Jacobs's 1992 book, Systems of Survival, in which she elaborates in fascinating detail on these two modes of living, I will fall back on Mary Ann Glendon's review for First Things.

Jacobs, writes Glendon,

contends that human beings have developed two and only two basic 'systems of survival': a 'commercial syndrome' and a 'guardian syndrome.' Each of these survival strategies has arisen and persisted, she argues, because it promotes material success in the way of life with which it is associated.

Like the other animals, we find and pick up what we can use, and appropriate territories. But unlike the other animals, we also trade and produce for trade. Because we possess these two radically different ways of dealing with our needs, we also have two radically different systems of morals and values - both systems valid and necessary.

The 'commercial syndrome' has its principal home among peoples who trade or produce for trade (though it is not coextensive with, or limited to, the world of business). The linchpin of the commercial syndrome is honesty, for the very good reason that trading systems don't work without a good deal of trust, even among strangers. Because traders' prosperity depends on making reliable deals, they set great store by policies that tend to create or reinforce honesty and trust: respect contracts; come to voluntary agreements; shun force; be tolerant and courteous; collaborate easily with strangers. Because producers for trade thrive on improved products and methods they also value inventiveness, and attitudes that foster creativity, such as 'dissent for the sake of the task.'

'Guardians' are modern versions of the raiders, warriors, and hunters who once made their livings through sorties into unknown or hostile territories. Today's guardians (usually more concerned with administering or protecting territories than acquiring them) are found in governmental ministries and bureaucracies, legislatures, the armed forces, the police, business cartels, intelligence agencies, and many religious organizations. Guardians prize such qualities as discipline, obedience, prowess, respect for tradition and hierarchy, show of strength, ostentation, largesse, and 'deception for the sake of the task.' The bedrock of guardian systems is loyalty. It not only promotes their common objectives, but it keeps them from preying on one another. They are wary of, even hostile to, trade, for the reason that loyalty and secrets of the group must not be for sale.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that these two constellations of traits match up pretty neatly with what most people would agree are the distinctive virtues of Romney and McCain. Whether McCain's drawing attention to the distinction is ultimately a winning line in a commercial republic like ours is another question.