Having said that about books twice so far this year, I am compelled to add a third contender.
While Dr. Sowell's book was tremendously powerful in it's dualistic analysis of pre-philosophical intuitions (Constrained vs. Unconstrained visions of the world), I have belatedly come to the conclusion that I should see his work not as a standalone, but an introduction to Hayek. This, only after I read Chris Sciabarra and Vernon Smith and found most of the ideas presented (very well) by Sowell presented also by the other two authors, each time referencing Hayek as the source. The book is brilliant, and (from memory) easier to read than Hayek...but not that original.
Grant McCracken's book was dizzying. The breadth of knowledge presented was amazing. I cannot even identify as many cultures as he casually displays deep understanding of in his book. And the topic is brilliant: identity transformation, which of course leads to identity construction. It is hard to find a book more relevant to life than one that shows how people build and change their conceptions of themselves. Unless, of course, one maintains the notion that the self is somehow not an object of study. I nominate Dr. McCracken as the next participant in the Dalai Lama's regular discussions with scientists, so as to integrate the Buddhist and McCrackenian anthropology interpretations of the self...much like was done with emotion in another brilliant book.
At the risk of blogorrhea, Jane Jacobs book, now the other worthy contender to the throne of best book I read this year, needs explication.
A few months ago, I posted a taxonomy of systems of survival that was responding to Seth Roberts' discussion of doctors, which in turn was riffing off Ms. Jacobs. Roughly speaking, I hadn't read Ms. Jacobs, and had not seen the brilliance of her position. As usual, I will claim to be unable to do justice to the breadth of her discussion of the topic, but in a page, I should be able to at least convey, if not to convince as effectively as she does.
Her book states basically that there are 2 incompatible ethical systems that we have in the world today, and incidentally, historically as well. There is the code of the guardian (guardian soldier, guardian chieftain, guardian of faith, guardian of knowledge/truth), and there is the code of the trader (maker, doer, merchant). Roughly, and simply, the two ethical codes are conflicting, contradictory, complete, and each necessary. This is not to say that some people or professions don't adopt or try to adopt an intermediate position. However, she argues (effectively) that a trader working under a guardian's code becomes a mess, and clearly unethical. Ditto a guardian working under a trader's code.
|Shun trading ||Shun force |
|Exert prowess ||Come to voluntary agreements |
|Be obedient and disciplined ||Be honest |
|Adhere to tradition ||Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens |
|Respect heirarchy ||Compete |
|Be loyal || |
|Take vengeance ||Use initiative and enterprise |
|Deceive for the sake of the task ||Be open to inventiveness and novelty |
|Make rich use of leisure ||Be efficient |
|Be ostentatious ||Promote comfort and convenience |
|Dispense largesse ||Dissent for the sake of the task |
|Be exclusive ||Invest for productive purposes |
|Show fortitude ||Be industrious |
|Be fatalistic ||Be thrifty |
|Treasure honor ||Be optimistic |
Upon examination, it is obvious that the two systems are in conflict. "Adhere to tradition" and "Be open to investment and novelty" are quite incompatible, as are honesty precepts, force precepts, exclusiveness precepts, leisure precepts, and so on. In addition, while Ms. Jacobs has done her homework, and cites from everywhere and everywhen, it is not hard to find these two conflicting sets of values in various cultural spots. The military is a prime example of guardian culture, but the catholic church is too. Small (even individual) business is the ideal picture of commercial culture.
What was surprising, even shocking, to me was the the rather stark contrast in the two systems, and the extent to which each system's ethic is appropriate to it's arena, and poorly appropriate to the other arena.
Commercial ethics' in the military lead to selling of state secrets. Military ethics in business lead to poor innovation. And we simply don't have much in the way of alternative ethical visions. There is do by force and do by trade.
The genius of Ms. Jacobs (or perhaps just my stupidity) is that for the first time, I have been able to see the usefulness of the alternative (guardian) system of ethics. And, I think that this is a better, more fundamental , and more easily understood/explained distinction than that of Hayek and Sowell. The fundamental civilized ways of interacting with people come down to trading with others (in and out of group) or defending the group from outsiders.