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.

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Confucius on Central Planning

The natural Universe maintains order without giving commands, and the ruler should do likewise, remaining motionless like the North Star and letting the people revolve spontaneously around him. If you yourself are correct, even without the issuing of orders, things will get done; if you yourself are not correct, although orders are issued, they will not be obeyed.

Did Confucius detect the inherent fragility in central planning? That is, that the pushier and more micro-managerial that rulers become, the more they elicit big unwanted side-effects? The relevant example, of course is Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Mao sought to bring the entirety of Chinese society under his yoke, and drag China quickly forward to equal Western industrial development that had taken place organically at a much slower pace.

From Wiki:

Before 1949, peasants had farmed their own small pockets of land, and observed traditional practices connected to markets—festivals, banquets, and paying homage to ancestors.

By 1958 private ownership was entirely abolished and households all over China were forced into state-operated communes. Mao insisted that the communes must produce more grain for the cities and earn foreign exchange from exports.

While collectivisation was eventually achieved (though not without resistance), the largest unsolicited side effect in this case was mass starvation.

Dutch historian Frank Dikötter explains:

The Great Leap Forward began by collectivising rural farms. Farmers were no longer allowed to grow food for themselves and for profit; instead, they grew it for the collective and the nation. Kitchens were also collectivised; in many places, people were not allowed to own pots and pans because they were required to take all their meals in community dining halls.

To boost crop production, planners took people who once grew grain and put them to work on new irrigation projects. Other farmers were told to work on community iron smelters, thousands of which were built in the campaign to overtake Britain. To produce “steel,” party leaders required many villages to melt down all metal in the community, including farm tools. The resulting pig iron was often of much poorer quality than the source metal.

The lack of incentives to work combined with the lack of people and, in some cases, the lack of farm implements led almost immediately to reduced crops. But provincial leaders who were rewarded for meeting targets didn’t want to admit declines to the central party, so they reported great successes. The national government appropriated 25 to 33 percent of the reported crops for export and to feed the cities. But with actual crops much less than reported, this didn’t leave enough to feed the villages, who in many cases were forced to eat the seed reserved for next year’s crops.

Given that collective farmers had no positive incentives to work, party officials quickly began using negative ones, namely violence against anyone not working hard enough. One county leader considered violence a “duty” and told people working for him, “having a campaign is not the same as doing embroidery; it is impossible not to beat people to death.” Another county leader told cadres, “There are so many people working, it doesn’t matter if you beat a few to death”.

The people who passed out food in the community dining halls knew who worked and who shirked; they would dip to the bottom of soup pots to provide the former with meat and vegetables while the latter would get a watery gruel skimmed from the top. Eventually, some people were denied access to food at all and beaten if they were found with food. One boy who stole a few ounces of grain was stripped, bound, and thrown into a pond where he eventually died of exposure. In some regions, as many as 10 percent of the deaths were due to violence, not food shortages.

If the steel mills were failures, the poorly engineered irrigation projects were no better, often actually reducing the productivity of the land. Within a few years, thousands of poorly built dams collapsed. The failure of one set of dams during a storm in 1975 led to floods that killed 230,000 people.

It is hard to understate how far Maoism was a departure from Confucianism. And it is telling that China only dragged herself out of her great slumber when she ditched Mao’s regressive centralism and returned to a closer approximation of Confucianism under Deng Xiaoping, and to a greater extent under Wen Jiabao’s present regime.

Readers trying to understand the present clash between two factions of the Chinese Communist Party, would do well to see it in terms of Wen’s Confucian faction being challenged by Bo Xailai’s Maoist faction.

From Tom Doctoroff writing in the Huffington Post:

Bo Xilai’s brand of populism was a threat to the nation. He championed the interests of Everyman, but his modus operandi was steeped in Cultural Revolution hysteria. The flip side of massive investment in low-income housing was manipulation of economic insecurity. His anti-mafia zeal, heralded as a campaign against corruption, was a bid to monopolize power within the Party, exacerbating an accountability deficit that tarnishes credibility amongst both rich and poor. His “red song” campaigns, reactionary homages to the Cult of Mao that continue even now to chill both foreigners and mainlanders. To advance his own agenda, he tapped into a latent but enduring impulse to worship, and blindly follow, imperial god-kings, false leaders whose anti-rational policies lead to disaster.

Perhaps then the greatest threat to China — Confucian, not Maoist — as regional and global superpower has just fallen…