Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Happy birthday, Jane.

Google doodle, 4 May 2016.
Today would have been Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday.

Jacobs taught us, more than anything, about the importance of people - even and especially ordinary people - over plans. She saw her work as a contribution to economics, and her inductive, heterodox approach to the subject offers insights that too-mathematical training is apt to miss.

If nothing else, she made us think harder.

I've just finished reading Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. One of the most frustrating things about the book is that it passes over Jacobs' work completely even though Jacobs dedicated her 1994 book, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, to the same topic (broadly speaking). Jacobs was like a bourgeois virtues hipster (those glasses!), writing about them before they were cool. Systems of Survival is, along with The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities, one of her most important books.

Below is an extended excerpt from Systems of Survival, explaining the radical implications of establishing commercial rules and norms in a previously hierarchical-only society, and on the economic logic behind equal individual legal rights.

To celebrate Jane Jacobs' life, consider taking part in a Jane's Walk in your city this weekend.

Thanks, Jane.
~ 
"The contractual law we inherited from those medieval merchants contained radical conceptions. Not only did it apply alike to all individuals, no matter who they were or what their social status might be, but it was available to individuals for no other reason than that they were individuals, making contracts. That second notion is so inseparable from our contractual law that we even have the fiction that a corporation is a person. That's so corporations, like individuals, can make contracts and carry on commercial life under protection of civil law. To realize how radical the Custom of Merchants was, we only need to think about some of the battles to extend the jurisdiction of contractual law.
"For instance, slaves lack rights as individuals. After slaves in the United States were freed, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution theoretically gave them access to all the rights of individuals available under contractual law. But by custom, hierarchical law, the rule of rank, still prevailed, so freedmen and their descendants seldom enjoyed the benefits of contractual law. Every time a black homeowner was driven from his legally purchased house in a white neighborhood he was being treated as if hierarchical law, derived from social status, prevailed. Every time effective barriers were thrown up against black-owned businesses, and they were, more often than not, or against employment of qualified blacks, or they were excluded from labor unions and apprenticeships controlled by unions, it was as if contractual law did not exist for African Americans. As someone has said, even buying a loaf of bread is a contract. So is being served a meal in a restaurant. A bus ticket is a contract, but if you have to stand instead of sit because of your color, that's the rule of rank, not contract. So many of what we call civil rights are actually rights to make contracts as equals.
"A generation ago," Hortense continued indignantly, "large numbers of American women began to create businesses of their own. To their outrage and disbelief, many discovered they were blocked from signing commercial leases or borrowing commercial funds on their own responsibility. Banks and landlords demanded a male cosigner, usually a husband or father. By custom, sexism was excluding women from individual rights under contractual law. Another variety of sexism has often denied homosexuals the benefits of contractual law; those battles still continue.
"Neither rulers nor philosophers invented individual rights. Nor did nature invent them. Not Rousseau or Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson, much less the barons who extorted the Magna Carta from King John on grounds of the rights their rank entitled them to. The strange idea of rights unconnected to status was what medieval servs referred to when they said, 'City air makes free.' By getting to the city and subscribing to its extraordinary customs, they wiggled out of hierarchical law and into contractual law. I don't need to tell you individual rights still frighten many governments. They also frighten economic oligarchies. It's no wonder the very idea had to emerge outside the government - and even then as a by-product of other practical purposes."
--
Vintage Books edition, p. 39-40, in chapter 3: Kate and the Commercial Syndrome.