Taoism, Anarchism, and the Divergence of Han Feizi

My colleague Chhay Lin Lim has an excellent article on Chuang Tzu, Taoism, and living libertarianism as a philosophy of life rather than a mere political philosophy. You can find it here.

His post reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for some time: Chinese Legalism. For those not in the know, Legalism was a school of thought that competed with Confucianism, Taoism, Moism, and other ideologies during the Warring States Period of Ancient China. It attained its greatest prominence under the Qin dynasty, after its compiler, Han Feizi, contracted himself to then-prince, Shi Huang.

What is most notable about Legalism is that it is the most notable extension of Taoist life philosophies into the sphere of rulership, an example of when quietism becomes political. The book he wrote, often titled simply Han Feizi, details a variety of methods rulers might understand their people, attain leadership, and maintain it in perpetuity. In a chapter titled “The Way of the Ruler,” Han Feizi describes the attributes of the prudent ruler, and then the state he will naturally develop from his personality and his penetrating insight into the nature of things. He begins with a poem of several very cryptic sentences:

  1. The Way is the beginning of all beings and the measure of right and wrong.

  2. The enlightened ruler holds fast to the beginning in order to understand the wellspring of all beings, and minds the measure in order to know the source of good and bad.

  3. He waits, empty and still, letting names define themselves and affairs reach their own settlement.

  4. Being empty, he can comprehend the true aspect of fullness; being still, he can correct the mover.

  5. Those whose duty it is to speak will come forward to name themselves; those whose duty it is to act will produce results.

  6. When names and results match, the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed.

In (1) and (2), Han Feizi argues that the ruler must know the conditions of the world in order to govern properly, because it is those conditions that provide the basis for his laws. There is no such thing as a transcendental morality for Han Feizi. He compares the ruler who attempts to implement laws based in supposed eternal truths to a “farmer of Song,”[1] who had serendipitously caught a rabbit when it hit a tree stump on its land, broke its neck, and died. The farmer “…laid aside his plow and took up watch beside a stump, hoping that he would get another rabbit in the same way,”[2] but he failed, and was consequently mocked by all the people of the land. Attempting to govern by old rules is similar, for the ruler does not possess the fortunate conditions of his forebears, and so he cannot use the same tools that they did. To know the measure of things, then, is to understand the present and act accordingly, to “bring together the ideas of the pattern (li) of the universe, and the law (fa) of the ruler in order to produce a harmonious society.”[3] This marks out Han Feizi’s political economy as one of balance, with the realities of the modern world on one hand tallied exactly with the movements of the ruler on the other. If reality is neglected in favor of nostalgic idealism or futuristic novelty, the ruler will not “mind the measure,” his actions will be out of balance, and therefore so will the state.

To understand (3), we must begin by understanding Han Feizi’s Legalism. His system fundamentally depends on a sharp distinction between those who obey the law, or fa, and those who rule by the policies and methods of power, or shu. The ruler, “who is the author of law and outside and above it,”[4] operates under a different set of rules because the basis of the state is firmly set in his ability to exercise power, which by definition is not limited by anything but his own material ability to act. While his subjects must obey the limits he has prescribed in the law, which are firm and unyielding, he must himself obey the unwritten laws of power, those “policies and arts which he applies in wielding authority and controlling the men under him.”[5] Part of a leader’s shu is not only to be a shrewd political manipulator, but also to understand the limits of his power as constrained by the fundamental laws of existence: “there is nothing inherent in the commands of the sovereign, not in the laws that he promulgates, that necessitate their according with the pattern of the universe.”[6] However, if they do not accord with the pattern, then the laws will be useless, and so the ruler will be powerless because of them.

The distinction between fa and shu is not between men who ought to be led on the one hand, and men who ought to lead on the other, for Han Feizi’s dim view of human potential caused him to conclude that most people are utterly without merit. Rather, it is solely between the man who has found himself in a position of power, and the mass of men, women, and children he must exercise that power over. If the distinction depended on merit, then the kingdom would in turn be hamstrung by the lack of meritorious men to run it. Instead of being dependent on the vagaries of human ability, the nature of fa is to self-perpetuate what it contains within the apparatus created by the ruler through shu. The world, its people, and those who minister to it are like the waters of a river, and the laws are like a dam that controls the movement of the waters. The ruler is the gate of the dam, and he alone causes the waters to move in a certain way, whether to rise and form a reservoir, or to be released and form a continuous river.

But if they overflow the dam, the gate must open, and the ruler must act. This is the concept of xingming, or ‘names and forms,’ that Han Feizi refers to in (3), which represents the overarching concept of Legalist governance. The ‘names’ are the promises of men in the service of the ruler, or the roles they are expected to fulfill, while the ‘forms are the deeds in actuality that correspond to those promises and roles. If the two aspects of xingming are at equilibrium, “the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed,”[7] as with (6). However, if those aspects do not match, the ruler can “correct the mover,”[8] as with (4). To do either, he must be “empty and still,” for in emptiness alone can he “comprehend the true aspect of fullness,” which is nothing but the movement of the Way – the changing circumstances of the times – and the functioning of the state qua ruler in response to it. The ministers of the state “will come forward to name themselves,” thereby setting up their precise roles within the apparatus of government, and then “those whose duty it is to act will produce results,” fulfilling the exact role within that government they have been assigned. Names and forms tally only if the ministers do not go above or below their station, but they are in discord if the ministers transgress their bounds by doing too much, usurping the power of the ruler, or too little, thereby defying him. The true purpose of xingming, then, is to subordinate the self-interest of the minister, and perhaps of the ruler himself, to the overarching plan of the state – as people only do things for “selfish reasons… [for] abundant material benefits,”[9] the ruler must be selfless in his pursuit of the interests of the state, which are equivalent with his own but simultaneously beyond them.

What I find quite interesting is where this intersects with Chuang Tzu and Chhay Lin, but also diverts from them. Chhay Lin writes:

Left to themselves they live in natural harmony and spontaneous order. But when they are coerced and ruled, their natures become vicious. It follows that princes and rulers should not coerce their people into obeying artificial laws, but should leave them to follow their natural dispositions. To attempt to govern people with manmade laws and regulations is absurd and impossible: ‘as well try to wade through the sea, to hew a passage through a river, or make a mosquito fly away with a mountain!’. In reality, the natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids. People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature.

Han Feizi laughably rejects this. To him, there is no such thing as a transcendent human nature that, if left to its own devices, would assert itself as a lover of harmony and spontaneous order. Man is made by the age, culture, and circumstances in which he finds himself, far more than any essential nature bubbles up in the age in which he lives. Behold Han Feizi’s beginning to the chapter “The Five Vermin”:

In the age of remote antiquity, human beings were few while birds and beasts were many. Mankind being unable to overcome birds, beasts, insects, and serpents, there appeared a sage who made nests by putting pieces of wood together to shelter people from harm. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven and called him the Nest-Dweller. In those days the people lived on the fruits of trees and seeds of grass as well as mussels and clams, which smelt rank and fetid and hurt the digestive organs. As many of them were affected with diseases, there appeared a sage who twisted a drill to make fire which changed the fetid and musty smell. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven.

In the age of middle antiquity, there was a great deluge in All-under-Heaven, wherefore Kung and Yü opened channels for the water. In the age of recent antiquity, Chieh and Chow were violent and turbulent, wherefore Tang and Wu overthrew them.

Now, if somebody fastened the trees or turned a drill in the age of the Hsia-hou Clan, he would certainly be ridiculed by Kung and Yü. Again, if somebody opened channels for water in the age of the Yin and Chou Dynasties, he would certainly be ridiculed by T’ang and Wu. That being so, if somebody in the present age praises the ways of Yao, Shun, Kung , Yü , Tang, and Wu, he would, no doubt, be ridiculed by contemporary sages.

That is the reason why the sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times but examines the things of his age and then prepares to deal with them.


For Chuang Tzu, it seems that spiritual quietism ought to be reflected in political quietism as well. Leaving the people to govern themselves, thereby creating a society of spontaneous order, is superior to governing them like a band of corralled horses with brands and bridles.

Han Feizi rejects this because he represents a different form of political quietism. His philosophy is one of balance between the ruler and the forces he must deal with. If the people are angels, then the ruler’s yoke will be light, or even non-existent, for this is the greatest exponent of xingming. However, if the ruler is faced with an unruly, thieving, murderous people, then he must reign them in to restore the balance they have caused. He argues that people are products of their time, and in so doing dismisses any imputations of agency – they cannot be controlled by appealing to the better angels of their nature, but by beating that nature into submission.

The point of Han Feizi’s reliance on reward and punishment is to accept the realities of human nature, that by default they are lazy, weak, and reprobate, and change that behavior without changing its basic conditions: “when properly applied, [punishment and favor] can change the way that people act on their desire and interest sets without the need to actually change those sets.”  If a man loiters in his property, does not till his crops, and does not pay taxes, his inherent personality will never change. However, his behavior stemming from that personality may be changed through reward or punishment, which must be commensurate to the sin or the virtue – if not, with a punishment an “individual may prefer to loiter doing nothing even when subject to the punishment.”

Indeed, the ruler only corrects their incorrect course, and though he is called harsh, he is only conforming to the natural pattern of the world, so it is simultaneously true that the ruler “deferred [questions about] right and wrong to rewards and punishments” and that “the Way is the guideline of right and wrong.”  Knowing the Way allows the ruler to know proper rewards and punishments, for without knowing the way of things there is no way to “mind the measure,” for the measure is relative to the Way! Although xingming is often implicitly referred to as an aspect of fa, it is evident that even the ruler himself is a part of it, for his own actions must tally with his role, lest he lose his ability to exercise power effectively, and thus become weak – “if you do not guard the door, if you do not make fast the gate, then tigers will lurk there.”  This is ultimately because xingming is also a cosmic concept, with the tally of names and roles being only a particular instance of a complete balance between the state and the pattern of the universe.

Ultimately, Chuang Tzu and Han Feizi are not different, but their emphases – at least as articulated by Chhay Lin and myself – are on different movements in political development, and more fundamentally, on human nature. Chuang Tzu questions the very nature of the state, and argues it is a useless and even harmful appendage to the proper flourishing of the human being. Han Feizi believes the state is a necessary outgrowth of cosmic imbalances, which are cyclical and unstoppable, because human beings develop in cyclical and unstoppable ways. Only the ruler’s machinations, handed down by the decrees of heaven, can possibly halt the imbalances and restore order to the world.

What we’re dealing with are two competing worldviews: the world as full of promise because people are so, and the world as fallen, degraded, and in need of redemption because people are so (forgive me if this has overtones of Christianity and grace. I am only a Westerner, after all). Humanity deserves liberty when it proves itself worthy of it, and it deserves strict rule and terrible punishments when it shows itself in need of them. The world of Chuang Tzu is in balance, and so is Han Feizi’s. What’s fascinating is the extremely different conclusions they can come to, not just in terms of personal liberty, from the very same source.

[1] Han Feizi. Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003): 99

[2] Ibid.,99

[3] Eirik Lang Harris, “Is the Law in the Way? On the Source of Han Fei’s Laws,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38.1 (2011): 76

[4] Han Feizi 8

[5] Ibid., 8

[6] Harris 77

[7] Han Feizi 15

[8] Ibid., 15

[9] Paul R. Goldin, “Han Fei’s Doctrine of Self Interest,” Asian Philosophy 11.3 (2001): 152

Chuang Tzu: The natural disposition of man is Political Anarchism

Chuang Tzu

I just read this great article on ‘Anarchism and Taoism’. I find the Taoist case for anarchism extremely compelling. They sought after the harmonious nature of spontaneous order, the Tao, and internalized it into a tremendously rich personal philosophy of life. It makes me wonder: can a person ‘live’ a Libertarian life? Libertarianism is mostly regarded as a political philosophy in the west, but can it, like the Taoists believe, be regarded as a way of life that is most fulfilling on a personal level as well? These are questions that I still have to find out for myself.

After reading the article on Anarcho-Taoism, I’d like to share a small part of Chuang Tzu’s thoughts on the natural disposition of man here:

Horses live on dry land, eat grass and drink water. When pleased, they rub their necks together. When angry, they turn round and kick up their heels at each other. Thus far only do their natural dispositions carry them. But bridled and bitted, with a plate of metal on their foreheads, they learn to cast vicious looks, to turn the head to bite, to resist, to get the bit out of the mouth or the bridle into it. And thus their natures become depraved.

As with horses, so it is with human beings. Left to themselves they live in natural harmony and spontaneous order. But when they are coerced and ruled, their natures become vicious. It follows that princes and rulers should not coerce their people into obeying artificial laws, but should leave them to follow their natural dispositions. To attempt to govern people with manmade laws and regulations is absurd and impossible: ‘as well try to wade through the sea, to hew a passage through a river, or make a mosquito fly away with a mountain!’. In reality, the natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids. People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature.

In an essay ‘On Letting Alone’, Chuang Tzu asserted three hundred years BC the fundamental proposition of anarchist thought:

There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind. Letting alone springs from fear lest men’s natural dispositions be perverted and their virtue left aside. But if their natural dispositions be not perverted nor their virtue laid aside, what room is there left for government?

Lao Tze, The First Libertarian

Lao TzeFrom the very first moment I read into Taoist philosophy, 5 years ago, I had grown extremely fond of Taoism. It also bears many similarities with the political philosophy of libertarianism. In this post I would like to trace the libertarian concept of Spontaneous Order to the Tao.

Lao Tze (~6th century BC) is regarded as the founder of Taoism. He is also the writer of the Tao Te Ching, one of the most translated books in history, which consists of 81 short chapters about leadership, modesty, and how to live in accordance with your own nature.

From the perspective of a personal philosophy of life, the Tao Te Ching teaches you to flow with life and to be in touch with your inner self so that your actions never contradict your personal being, and so that you can live a truly authentic and enriched life. This may sound too lofty to some, but reading the book one will realize how practical the philosophy actually is. To illustrate the practicality of Taoism, I have written about an interesting application of Taoism in Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do – the martial arts that Bruce Lee had developed – in this post of mine.

One can also read the Tao Te Ching from the perspective of political philosophy. Taoism proposes a society in which there is little or even no central authority (government), since the government is counterproductive and the grand source of social misery. Taoism is therefore libertarian, and stands very much in contrast with Confucianism with its multifarious laws and regulations. Mr. Libertarian, Murray Rothbard, had recognized that Lao Tze was the first libertarian intellectual who saw the government as “a vicious oppressor of the individual, and ‘more to be feared than fierce tigers’” (Rothbard, 1995, p. 23). Taoists and Libertarians believe that society functions most efficient and most just when the government does not meddle and regulate the people.

The skeptics may ask: how can there be order without a central authority? Some modern philosophers, like for example Hobbes, have referred to this anarchistic state as the ‘state of nature’; a state of “a mere war of all against all; and in that war all men have equal right unto all things” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 34). Taoists and Libertarians however, believe that this view is wrong. They believe that it is in the nature or instinct of individuals to be collectivist, because the person who lives in solitude is hardly able to survive in nature. In order to survive, human beings will naturally develop collective customs and laws to work out their disputes. The collective coordination of human beings has therefore always “depended decisively on instincts of solidarity and altruism” (Hayek, 1988, p. 12).

What, according to the Taoist and the Libertarian encourages society to become well-functioning? The Taoist calls it the ‘Tao’, and the libertarian calls it ‘Spontaneous Order’.

Tao and Spontaneous Order

The two concepts, Tao and Spontaneous Order, are similar to one another. Spontaneous Order is a spontaneous emergence of self-organized order out of seeming chaos. One can find such examples in language, the internet, the free market etc. Without any central authority we have realized language, internet, and productive orders that are so complex that not a single person would have been able to create by himself. No one can predict how the order will look like, because it is forever in flux. It can therefore only be experienced and observed. From our observation we can find that the Spontaneous Order is better than any artificial human construct.

Likewise, the Tao is an underlying natural order of the universe whose essence cannot be described in words, but which can only be experienced and observed in nature. In the first verse of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tze writes:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1).

The Tao is neither a thing nor a substance. It is a universal trend that flows in the natural world. According to the Taoist, one can be in touch with the Tao and achieve most when one does not act against the nature of things (‘wu wei’). Lao Tze therefore writes:

Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao,
Counsil him not to use force to conquer the universe.
For this would only cause resistance.
Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed.
Lean years follow in the wake of a great war. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 30)

Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things [world] would develop naturally. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37)

The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.

Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57)

Why are the people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.
Why do the people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take death lightly.
Having little to live on, one knows better than to value life too much. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 75)

The Taoists have this concept called ‘mutual arising’, which means that order comes into being through a harmonious interplay of different forces. This is expressed as follows by Lao Tze:

The Tao begot one. One begot two. Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42)

We, human beings, are incapable of understanding how these forces play out against each other. Every time we interfere with the Tao, unintended consequences will happen. Since we cannot apprehend what forces have led to the unintended consequences, we will create more unintended consequences by trying to offset the previous unintended consequences. Man can therefore fall into a state of perpetual interference with nature and become evermore unnatural. Is that not the state we are in right now; the state of unnaturalness due to our thousandfold petty laws that attempt to regulate our conduct, relationships, and ethics?

Is it realistic to have no central government and expect spontaneous orders to emerge?

It certainly is realistic. Bruce Benson has written an insightful book called The Enterprise Of Law: Justice Without The State (2011) in which he discusses historic examples of how law and order emerged spontaneously. Many scholars are currently acknowledging that during the time of the expansion of the American frontier, those areas where people moved faster westward than the central government was not wild or lawless. It was actually more peaceful than modern day America. For an interesting read into this issue, see Anderson & Hill’s ‘An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The Not So Wild, Wild West’ (1979).

See also this talk of Thomas Woods on the ‘not so wild, wild west’:


Anderson, T.L. & Hill, P.J. (1979). An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The Not So Wild, Wild West. Journal of Libertarian Studies, 3, 1, 9-29.

Benson, B. (2011). The Enterprise Of Law: Justice Without The State. San Francisco: Independent Institute.

Hayek, F.A. (1988). The Fatal Conceit: the errors of socialism. London: Routledge.

Hobbes, T. (1651). De Cive. (H. Warrender, Ed.) New York: Oxford University Press.

Lao Tze. Tao Te Ching. Retrieved from http://www.schrades.com/tao/taotext.cfm?TaoID=1

Rothbard, M.N. (1995). Economic Thought Before Adam Smith: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought Volume I. Retrieved from http://mises.org

From the Footnotes: Race, Nationality, and Empire

We have more to say than space allows about ‘race’ and ‘community’ as an imperial organizing category, especially in the British Empire, and about complex transformations and incongruities in decolonization as plural, hierarchical fields of multiply ‘races’ and ‘communities’ were constituted into new nation-states. A return to the dictionaries shows that while definitions of ‘nation’ before World War II sometimes connected nations to states, they invariably defined nations as ‘races’ and made the connection to race, not state, primary. Challenges to this linkage of nation and race were available at the time, notably Renan’s 1882 lecture rejecting race, language, and territory as bases for nationality. This argument eventually became famous. But the dictionaries changed only after that crescendo of failure of nations seeing themselves as races destined to dominate empires, the global catastrophes following the German effort to found an Aryan Third Reich and the Japanese effort to build a Co-Prosperity Sphere with the Yamato race as nucleus. Benedict Anderson deserves credit for insisting upon annihilation of the shared descent definitions of nation, for insistence that the nation is first of all imagined, ideal, and realized in co-dependence with a state. Yet in this, we think, he is the theorist observing at dusk, theorizing the world-order of quiescent nation-states built decades before by the architects of a United Nations in the rubble of the Second World War – and theorizing them not as 20th-century contingencies but as a modern necessity. To Anderson, the disconnection of nation from race or descent group and its connection to the state was, ironically, not an historical development but something intrinsic to the nation. The fact of the Nazis notwithstanding, he found scholarship seeing any connection between nationalism and racism simply ‘basically mistaken’.

This from “Nation and Decolonization: Toward A New Anthropology of Nationalism” by John D Kelly and Martha Kaplan in Anthropological Theory (gated, unfortunately).

Around the Web: Notewriters Edition

Woah, it’s been a slow week here at NOL. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve been busy. Michelangelo and Edwin have both recently had their work published by the Cato Institute, and that’s cool.

I wish, of course, that my fellow Notewriters would toot their own horns a little more often, especially on the blog, but rest assured loyal readers, we’re staying busy.

Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant to ideas of individual liberty for the contemporary reader in ways that Plato may not and Aristotle’s own criticisms of his teacher are likely to seem appropriate to such a reader.

Harrington’s texts are not an easy read in that their structure is not clear and he does not have much in the way of literary style. This explains to a large degree why he is not a familiar name now along perhaps with the appearance of more recent writers in English concerned with liberty and democracy who are both more readable and more concerned with liberal democracy as it has developed since the late eighteenth century, particularly John Stuart Mill. In comparison Harrington seems stuck in early modern idea of democracy and republicanism which are expressed through a knowledge of texts which though not forgotten now are less obviously known to the educated reader. That is the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible. The educated in Harrington’s time were likely to read Latin and often read Greek as well, with major classical texts forming a common frame of reference. The Bible was widely known in the seventeenth century because Christianity was a very dominant force, and Harrington was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation which led to the translation of the Bible into modern languages and encouragement to the faithful to read the Bible carefully and frequent was still a very living force. Catholics of course read the Bible, but the Catholic authorities resisted translating the Bible into modern languages before the Reformation and gave comparatively less importance to the individual study of it than the Protestant churches. So in short, Harrington’s writing comes from a  time of intimate and shared knowledge of ancient and religious texts, and his way of writing is not too suited to expressing itself to those not acquainted with that culture.

In addition Harrington, assumes some familiarity with the British and European politics of his time, though much of it is of lasting interest with regard to understanding of the formation of modern European states and ideas about the most just form of politics for those states. Venice is a very important example of a republic for Harrington, reflecting its status as the longest lived and most powerful republic known to Europeans at that time. The formation of the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth century promoted a possibly stronger republic, but Harrington regards it as a loose assembly of city and regional republics, so still leaving Venice as the most powerful republic with a  unified sovereignty. Italy was not united politically at that time and Venice had existed since the eight century as an aristocratic republic in which aristocratic government combined with merchant wealth to an extent that made Venice a leading trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire appears fleetingly as the model of monarchy, an image which dissipated in the eighteenth century when the Ottomans began to seem backward and despotic, and to be at the head of a declining power. The power and the sophistication of the Ottoman state applying a system of laws and justice across a large and diverse territory made a rather different impression in a seventeenth century Europe suffering from religious wars and internal conflict even within powerful states.

Harrington himself lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the The English Civil Wars (because it was a series of wars), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (because it comprised separate conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland), and the English Revolution (because it resulted in the execution of King Charles I along with a period of constitutional innovation in the commonwealth and lord protector systems), which included religious conflict between different forms of Protestantism and political conflict between crown and parliament. Harrington was himself part of the section of the gentry supporting parliament against the king, though he also appears to have had friendly relations with Charles I while he was detained by parliamentary forces.

Oceana was originally banned while being printed during the Lord Protector phase in which the head of the parliamentary armies, Oliver Cromwell had become something close to a king. The book was legally published after negotiations between the Lord Protector’s government and Harrington’s family, with a dedication to Cromwell. Harrington was however accused of treason after the restoration of the monarch and though he was released after a short period of punishment never recovered in mind or body. So Harrington’s life and publication history is itself marked with the historical traumas of the time and the failure to establish enduring republican institutions.

Let’s clear up the liberal mess

It appears there are as many liberalisms as there are liberals. To name just a few: libertarianism, classical liberalism, bleeding heart liberalism, economic liberalism, political liberalism, social liberalism, high liberalism, minarchism, objectivism, anarcho-capitalism, neoliberalism. And in international relations theory there is for example neoliberal institutionalism, liberal internationalism or embedded liberalism. Clearly this all amounts to a liberal mess. I attempt to sort it out in my forthcoming book Degrees of Freedom. Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, April 2015).

Getting a decent grasp of liberal political thought does not have to be this complicated. You only need to keep in mind a perennial question in political philosophy: what is the just relation between the state and the individual? Roughly, there are three answers: the state should have (almost) no role in individual life, the state should have a limited role, or the state should have a fairly large role. The liberal variants that are associated with these answers are libertarianism, classical liberalism and social liberalism, respectively. To be sure, these three are not completely mutually exclusive, while the thinkers associated with these do not always neatly fit the categorization.

This is not the right place to discuss the methodological underpinnings in detail. Suffice it to note that the divide is based on the analysis and ranking of the main political concepts in classical liberalism, social liberalism and libertarianism. This method originates in the writings of British political theorist Michael Freeden. Put briefly, every political ideology should be seen as a framework made of a number political concepts, who vary in importance. Accordingly, all three liberal variants have core, adjacent and peripheral concepts. Sometimes the individual concepts overlap, but in total there is significant variation, leading to the three liberal variants.

Classical liberalism originates from the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment, not least in in the writings of David Hume and Adam Smith. It is also associated with thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and James Buchanan. It has a realistic view of human nature, which means that man is seen a mix between rationality and emotion. Individual freedom is the main classical liberal goal, which is best preserved by protection of classical human rights (freedom from), the rule of law in public affairs and reliance on spontaneous ordering processes in society, such as the free market. The classical liberal state is limited, which means it does have to perform or arrange for a number of important public tasks. Besides defense, police and judiciary this mainly concerns a minimal amount of welfare arrangements, some environmental regulation, or other issues that cannot be dealt with through the markets.

Libertarianism and social liberalism both originate from the nineteenth century and they constitute the two contrasting poles of the liberal spectrum. Libertarians think the classical liberals allow the state to grow too big. They favor a stricter protection of individual rights to life, liberty and property which to them ensures a just and good functioning society, where free people will be able to use their talents and cooperate in strictly voluntary ways. Some, like Murray Rothbard or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, argue this society can totally rely on spontaneous order for the provision of all necessary services and therefore want to abolish the state completely. Others, such as Ayn Rand, think there is a need to publicly organize defense, police and judiciary.

The social liberals (liberals in the contemporary American sense), such as John Stuart Mill or John Rawls think the libertarian and classical liberal ideas lead to social injustice. They argue that individual flourishing demands a fuller, positive kind of liberty (rights to), which enables individuals to fully develop themselves. Individuals should be able, especially through education, to learn skills and get knowledge to use their natural talents, at the labor market and elsewhere. Otherwise the idea of liberty is just formal, lacking any practical meaning. Concern for social justice also entails the redistribution of income (through taxation), to ensure a welfare system (social security, public health) that takes care of the less fortunate. This leads to a much bigger role for the state than in the other two liberalisms.

Interestingly, these differences also show up in the liberal views on international relations. Libertarians favor the least active (state) interference in world politics, classical liberals recognize the implications of uneven power distributions and believe in the spontaneous ordering effects of the balance of power, while the social liberals are supporters of international organizations and international law.

Needless to say this is just a very short description of the three liberal variants. Much more can also be said about the reasons to discard the other forms of liberalism that figure in the public debate. Still, in my view, this division into three stands up to critical scrutiny, is methodologically sound and therefore by far the best way to sort the liberal mess.