Monday, September 24, 2007

Ancient Chinese Thinkers On Liberty

From: The American Spectator "The Case for Market Taoism" by James A. Dorn, vice president for academic affairs at Cato Institute (24 September}:

Lao-tzu, thought to have been an older contemporary of Confucius, may have been the first libertarian. In the Tao Te Ching ("The Classic of the Way and Its Virtue"), he argued that if government followed the principle of wu-wei (non-intervention), social and economic harmony would naturally emerge and people would prosper.”

”The essence of Lao-tzu's liberal vision is stated concisely in Chapter 57 of his book: "The more restrictions and limitations there are, the more impoverished men will be....The more rules and precepts are enforced, the more bandits and crooks will be produced. Hence, we have the words of the wise [ruler]: Through my non-action, men are spontaneously transformed. Through my quiescence, men spontaneously become tranquil. Through my non-interfering, men spontaneously increase their wealth

"That passage, written more than 2,000 years before Adam Smith's call for a "simple system of natural liberty," is a reminder that China's legacy is not the commands of Mao Zedong Thought but the freedom of Lao-tzu Thought.”

The corruption that plagues China today stems from too much, not too little, intervention. When people are free to choose within a system of just laws that protect life, liberty and property, social and economic harmony will occur naturally. Top-down planning cannot impose spontaneous order; it can only evolve from decentralized market processes.

Good government must be in harmony with each person's desire to prosper and to expand the range of choice. By emphasizing the principle of non-intervention, Lao-tzu recognized that when government leaves people alone, then, "without being ordered to do so, people become harmonious by themselves." He thus understood, at least implicitly, that central planning generates social disorder by destroying economic freedom. When coercion trumps consent as the chief organizing principle of society, the natural way of the Tao and its virtue (Te) will be lost.

Disorder arises when government oversteps its bounds -- when it overtaxes and denies people their natural right to be left alone to pursue their happiness, as long as they do not injure others. Lao-tzu saw taxes, not nature, as the primary cause of famine: "When men are deprived of food, it is because their kings [rulers] tax them too heavily." Likewise, he recognized that rulers could easily destroy the natural harmony people cherish by destroying their liberty: "When men are hard to govern, it is because their kings interfere with their lives

Freedom requires some boundaries if it is to be socially beneficial and not lead to chaos. Lao-tzu understood the need for rules but, unlike later liberals, did not develop the ideas of private property and freedom of contract that underpin a market-liberal order.”


James Dorn develops the theme to circumstances in Mao's Communist China and it current more heavily controlled market regime, and you should Google The American Spectator and follow links to the current issue to read the full article (sorry, but this laptop is restricted in space and does not always pick up URLs).

With its two thousand years of literacy, China contains within its some surprisingly modern analysis of society and it would be surprising if such thoughts could not be found written down somewhere in Chinese.

I am reading a scholarly paper at present written by a Chinese academic economist on 'Adam Smith and Confucius' and it is most interesting, to say the least about it. I shall report on it in due course on Lost Legacy.

With John Dorn's piece, there is an encouraging trend in bringing Chinese contributions into western thinking. Another benefit of freedom of expression.


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