The Freedom of a Confucian

by on July 27, 2004 at 11:27 am in History | Permalink

The great free-market economists and libertarian philosophers of China were not Taoists, but Confucians, according to Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long. I often say that I never doubted the value of history of thought until someone tried to convince me of it, but Long’s “Rituals of Freedom: Austro-Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism” Journal of Libertarian Studies 17(3) is an amazingly interesting and learned paper. It is true, Long admits, that the Taoists have a few grand libertarian passages. The favorite from Lao-tzu has to be:

The greater the number of laws and restrictions,
the poorer the people who inhabit the land.
The sharper the weapons of battle and war,
the greater the troubles besetting the land.
The greater the cunning with which people are ruled,
the stranger the things which occur in the land.
The harder the rules and regulations,
the greater the number of those who will steal.
The sage therefore does not contrive,
in order to bring about reform,
but teaches the people peace of mind,
in order that they might enjoy their lives.

Tao Te Ching Section 57

Unfortunately, Long points out, a much stronger theme in Taoist is primitivist hostility to modern civilization. Listen to Lao-tzu describe the Taoist utopia:

Lessen the population. Make sure that even though there are labor saving
tools, they are never used. Make sure that the people look upon death as a
weighty matter and never move to distant places. Even though they have
ships and carts, they will have no use for them. … Make sure that the
people return to the use of the knotted cord [in lieu of writing]. … Then
even though neighboring states are within sight of each other, [and] can
hear the sounds of each other’s dogs and chickens … people will grow old
and die without ever having visited one another.

In contrast, Long finds much of value in the Confucians:

The early Confucians, by contrast, may not be as radical in
their anti-statism as the Taoists, but in my estimation they make up for this flaw by firmly
yoking their anti-statism to the cause of civilization, commerce, and the Great Society;
their overall program thus looks a lot more like contemporary libertarianism than the
Taoist program does. One Confucian text, while noting approvingly Laozi’s hostility to
despotism, sharply criticizes Laozi for wanting to “drag the present age back to the
conditions of primitive times and to stop up the eyes and ears of the people”; the best
ruler instead “accepts the nature of the people,” which is to long for “beautiful sounds
and forms,” “ease and comfort.”

The highlight of Long’s article is his discussion of the Sima Qian (c. 145-85 B.C.). Almost two thousand years before Adam Smith, Qian opined that “Wealth and currency should be allowed to flow as freely as water!” and had arguments to defend his position. And who said that Chinese intellectuals had no appreciation for the merchant class? Few Western thinkers match Sima’s appreciation of entrepreneurship:

These, then, are examples of outstanding and unusually wealthy men.
None of them enjoyed any titles or fiefs, gifts, or salaries from the
government, nor did they play tricks with the law or commit any crimes to
acquire their fortunes. They simply guessed what course conditions were
going to take and acted accordingly, kept a sharp eye out for the
opportunities of the times, and so were able to capture a fat profit. …
There was a special aptness in the way they adapted to the times …. All of
these men got where they did because of their devotion and singleness of
purpose. … [T]here is no fixed road to wealth, and money has no
permanent master. It finds its way to the man of ability like the spokes of
a wheel converging upon the hub, and from the hands of the worthless it
falls like shattered tiles. … Rich men such as these deserve to be called the
“untitled nobility” …

Murray Rothbard praised Sima in his history of economic thought, but Long notes that he neglected to mention that he was a Confucian!

It is hard to read this piece and not stand in awe of Long’s command of the Chinese literature. This is a body of thought comparable to Western philosophy in its intricacy and depth. Even if you couldn’t care less about Chinese proto-libertarians, this article exemplifies the true meaning of scholarship. And so the Sage says: check it out!

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