Seth Roberts on the Enduring Relevance of the ‘Guardian Syndrome’ and the ‘Commercial Syndrome’

by Reihan Salam

Seth Roberts has an interesting post that draws on Jane Jacobs’ distinction between the “guardian syndrome” and the “commercial syndrome”:

Should police officers be paid per arrest? Most people think this is a bad idea, I imagine, but the larger point (what can we learn from this?) isn’t clear. In Systems of Survival, Jacobs tried to spell out the larger point. She wrote about two sets of moral rules. One set (“guardian syndrome”) applied to warriors, government officials, and religious leaders. It prizes loyalty and obedience, for example. The other set (“commercial syndrome”) applied to merchants. It prizes honesty, avoidance of force, and industriousness, for example. The two syndromes correspond to two ways of making a living: taking and trading. The syndromes reached the form they have today because they worked — different jobs need different rules. When people in one sort of work (e.g., guardian) follow the rules of the other, things turn out badly. Ayn Rand glorified the commercial syndrome. When Alan Greenspan, one of her acolytes, became a governor, he did a poor job.

He applies this distinction to powerful newspapers, drawing on recent controversies surrounding News International in Britain. And his conclusion is interesting:

When newspapers are small, they are not powerful, not guardians, and must adopt commercial norms — they must try to sell more copies or they will be crushed. When a small newspaper becomes large and powerful, however, its norms must change to guardian ones or things will turn out badly. This suggests that the phone-hacking scandal happened because Murdoch became very powerful too fast — too fast for a shift in values to accompany much greater power.

What would guardian values in the news business actually look like? My suspicion is that much of what passed for the “guardian syndrome” as it applied to leading media outlets in the pre-internet era was mainly an artifact of a lack of competition. Even the largest news organizations now face a far more competitive environment, which means that no one institution can safely abandon commercial norms. This suggests that it is the audience that needs to change. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.