Regular reader Alister Cyril Blanc reminds me of Roderick Long’s Austro-Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism, an 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.
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.
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.