From 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
4 thoughts on “Lao Tze, The First Libertarian”
Thank you for posting this. I have been a follower of his for over 30 years.
Governing a large country is like frying a small fish.
You ruin it with too much poking.
Haha 😀 I love it.
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