Tom Streithorst applies Jane Jacobs’s theory of guardian and commercial morality to the phone hacking scandal.by Tom Streithorst / July 27, 2012 / Leave a comment
Tapping the phone of grieving parents just so you can titillate your readers is deeply reprehensible. And anything that reduces the power of Rupert Murdoch cannot be a bad thing. That said, I feel the sanctimony about the phone hacking scandal is a tad misplaced. Journalists always sneak around, have to dissimulate a bit to get closer to the truth. Had phone hacking had a worthier goal than satisfying the prurient interests of readers, it might still have been criminal but it would have been a lot less creepy. Let me explain my reasoning, by introducing Jane Jacobs’s theory of guardian and commercial morality.
Jacobs noticed that behaviour considered praiseworthy in some circumstances is criminal in others. A spy who sells secrets to foreigners is a traitor, a businessman who trades with them, savvy. A businessman should be open and transparent in his dealings while a soldier can deceive in order to fulfil his mission. Fooling the Germans into thinking D Day would begin with a landing in Calais is heroic. Creating power shortages in California in order to boost your trading profits is criminal.
Humans, Jacobs explained, have two ways of making a living, trading and taking—so the morality of a shopkeeper needs to be different from that of Junker on the Prussian General Staff. The guardian morality probably originated in hunting bands and has evolved to serve the requirements of policemen, soldiers, and government officials. Traders and businessmen require a very different ethos. I suspect the reason the Jains, an incredibly pacifistic religion, have flourished for thousands of years as traders in India is because their business partners have reason to be confident a Jain would never pull out his weapon and rob them after money has changed hands.
Jacobs codified these observations to distinguish what she called the commercial and the guardian syndromes, each with 14 complementary precepts. While traders must shun force, government officials should shun trading. Traders need to come to voluntary agreements with strangers, but guardians should be loyal to their own. A businessman should be industrious, always looking for work but a fireman shouldn’t be setting fires to give himself something to do. We don’t want a businessman…