Lao Tzu on Liberty

Regular reader Alister Cyril Blanc reminds me of Roderick Long’s Austro-Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianisman interesting essay that attempts to find the roots of the modern schools of libertarianism (Rothbard, Boaz, Menger) in Taoism and Confucianism.

Long concludes (as I did on Friday) that Confucianism — while certainly not being entirely the same as modern libertarianism — was built up around the (peculiarly unmodern) concept of spontaneous order, and developed the concept that interventionism can be problematic.

Mencius (also known as Mengzi, and Confucius’ student) wrote:

There was a man from Sung who pulled at his rice plants because he was worried about their failure to grow. Having done so, he went on his way home, not realising what he had done. “I am worn out today,” said he to his family. “I have been helping the rice plants to grow.” His son rushed out to take a look and there the plants were, all shrivelled up. There are few in the world who can resist the urge to help their rice plants grow.

Statue of Lao Tzu (Fujian Province)

While Confucianism has some useful concepts, so too does Taoism. Lao Tzu also developed this theme:

The more prohibitions there are, the more ritual avoidances, the poorer the people will be. The more laws are promulgated, the more thieves and bandits there will be. So long as I do nothing the people will of themselves be transformed. So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go straight. So long as I act only by inactivity the people will of themselves become prosperous.

Long’s essay tries to compare Taoism and Confucianism in terms of their concepts of liberty and which is closer to modern libertarianism; I have nothing to say on that matter. I am a magpie; as I have explained before I pick and choose whatever philosophy I fancy from wherever I find it. But if we have to make a real contrast, I would bunch Taoism and Confucianism together, and compare them to the various shades of collectivist imperialism, most recently manifested in China as Maoism.

Joshua Snyder elaborates:

Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sun Tzu all lived and taught in pre-imperial China. In 221 B.C., Ch’in Shih-huang united the various Chinese states into an empire and set about to burn the Confucian classics and bury their scholars alive. The Legalism of Han Fei Tzu, which centered on the totalitarian power of the ruler, replaced the humanistic teachings of Confucianism and Taoism.

The modern Chinese regime, of course, is a strange muddle of imperialism, Maoism, and Confucianism, and I think all of these instincts are in constant conflict (sometimes within one individual) which is why the Chinese regime is such a self-contradictory creature.

On the other hand (and rather bizarrely) here in the West, imperialism is far and away the dominant establishment instinct. That’s why both sides (Romney & Obama) of the 2012 American Presidential election are running on a platform of extending and expanding authoritarian centralist legislation like the Patriot Act, and the indefinite detention provision of the 2011 NDAA.

Confucius or Lao Tzu would reject such things; the more prohibitions there are, the more ritual avoidances, the poorer the people will be. The more laws are promulgated, the more thieves and bandits there will be.

15 thoughts on “Lao Tzu on Liberty

  1. Thanks for the post. I will read more of their philosophies.

    However what worries me is all these philosophers from Socrates to Chines Philosophers ( “Ch’in Shih-huang united the various Chinese states into an empire and set about to burn the Confucian classics and bury their scholars alive”- Joshua Snyder) met untimely deaths from the establishment.

    We are indeed rocking the boat for the World Financial mafia.

  2. I thought there was a tension between confucias and Lao Tsu, perhaps I have been misled. Reading orientalist scholars describe sufism for instance misled me into thinking there are two schools of sufism, one is sober and the other intoxicated. Now I know better. Leaving things alone, accepting things as they are with minimal intervention and management is counter intuative to people who have been educated to beleive that ceaseless action and always doing something is productive. It is not. Non action is action and can be productive. Ezra Pound the America poet was put in a insane asylum by the American empire when all he did was critique the Federal Reserve Bank, usury and wanted to impliment confucious.

    • @ Mo – “Non action is action and can be productive.”

      And that folks is the answer. Because the economy and human action is so complicated we can not control or manage it. Unintended consequences will always follow.

      But how do we stop the muppets voting in Politicians who promise action and make a promise to “meddle” I mean manage the economy?

      Do you think we’ll ever reach a point where we just leave things alone?

        • I like the asian religions (Taoism, the vedic traditions especially) because they are the few school of thought not based on jewish lore. When you think about it, all of the western world is based on the Jewish tradition (old testament beggets new, addopted by rome and spread far and wide). It’s nice to have a different point of view every now and again.

    • Taoism and Confucianism certainly have differences and disagreements, but I don’t see them as fundamentally opposed philosophies (neither do I see that of the Dionysian and Apollonian). I see them both as two complementary wings of one body of ancient thought.

  3. @Buddy

    “Do you think we’ll ever reach a point where we just leave things alone?”

    Not unless we have a complete change in everything. Democracy implies politicians making promises to the electorate if they said we plan to do nothing and we will leave everything to sort themselves out…they would not get voted in. The seeds of destruction are built in. into the system.

    • A fair point. And that I dare say is the main issue with Democracy. Could you imagine if the founding fathers of the USA, saw the US situation and said that Politicians were limited in their ability to interfere in trade and commerce. i.e. The forseen the perils of Socialism, Statism, and Keynesian folly.

      A Republic is great in principle so long as the Constitution is framed in a way that limits human frailty and the abuse of the democratic process.

      Perhaps it is time to create a new World Constitution, and for the world to take sides.

  4. Remember, the most complicated things back 2000 plus years ago were humans and their relationships. The philosophers have examined the human condition, and have provided prescient advice.

    But how do we educate the billions who are finding greater stimulation watching soap operas, reality TV and MTV music videos?

    We can’t. The only solution is for the enlightened to form a powerful political group and directly challenge the current powers. It is almost like we are becoming protectors of the Sheeple, Muppets, the tired poor masses. Shepherds in a den of wolves.

    How do we do this? Not over the internet. Like all groups there needs to be international branches. I have discovered in Australia, that you need 500 registered voters to form a registerd Political party. This is a tough ask. But achievable with financial backing.

    Damn the 1%!

    • The irony about what you are saying is that in order to change the world and help others, one has to believe he/she knows better than the other they wish to change. Isn’t it this oddly enough the train of thought that got us in the mess we are in?

      Just a thought.

  5. It’s always nice to show someone something new and have them in turn show you something new thanks to the reflections prompted by your initial exchange!

    Thinking … is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colours and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas ~ Rudolf Steiner

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