by Richard Ebeling
We are told in The Analects of the famous ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC),
Once Confucius was walking in the mountains and he came across a woman weeping by a grave. He asked the woman what her sorrow was, and she replied, “We are a family of hunters. My husband was bitten by a tiger and died. And now my only son!”
“Why don’t you move down and live in the valley? Why do you continue to live up here?” asked Confucius. And the woman replied, “But sir, there are no tax collectors here.”
Confucius added to his disciples, “You see, a bad government is more to be feared than tigers.”
On another occasion, Confucius was asked by a nobleman how he should rule over the people. Confucius replied,
One who governs through virtue may be compared to the polestar [the North Star, or directing principle], which occupies its place while the host of other stars pay homage to it…. Lead them by means of regulations and keep order among them through punishments, and the people will evade them and will lack any sense of self-respect. Lead them through moral force and keep order among them through rites [customs of right and good behavior], and they will have a sense of shame and will also correct themselves.
Negative effects from paternalist and coercing government
Confucius was not really a precursor of classical liberal thought. He believed in the right of rulers to rule, with the subjects under his control expected to obey for purposes of order and stability. And he believed that each generation needed to be subservient to the traditions and customs inherited from its ancestors, with each person restricted in his expression of individuality.
Nonetheless, his words in these two quotations capture certain and important essential truths about man, society, and government. First, rule by force does not and cannot fundamentally dictate or determine the thoughts and actions of people in society. The use of force may intimidate or constrain people in various ways for particular periods of time. But at the end of the day, moral suasion is a far more powerful means of persuading others to modify or change their behavior or attitudes.
Think of the woman crying by her son’s burial site after he had been killed by a wild animal, as had already happened to her husband. Deadly dangers are worth facing and risking when a government extends its oppressive arm — in this case the burdens of heavy taxes.
Tens of millions of people came to America in the 19th century at their own expense, many of them escaping from religious persecution, political oppression, or closed-off economic opportunity owing to privileges and favors given to some in the “old country.” Traveling across an ocean and then journeying through sometimes uncharted land in America, in which the forces of nature and hostile Indians threatened the settler’s life and that of his family, were worth facing to leave behind governmental tyranny, political abuse, and religious intolerance.
The power of peaceful persuasion
In the other quotation, Confucius tries to educate a ruler that violent means to enforce regulations brings about avoidance and evasion by those upon whom the government interventions have been placed. It also results in a disregard for law, since the regulations may seem unjust or oppressive.
It is fairly clear from the passage from the Analects that the ruler was attempting to compel his subjects to act in ethical or moral ways, as the ruler defined them. Resistance and evasion were the response by those under his rule when they did not share his particular code of moral conduct in some areas of social life.
So if we want to convince others that there is a better way to live, a more ethical manner of conducting oneself, Confucius tells the nobleman that he is far more likely to have success if he uses his own behavior as an example of the more virtuous life. That will work far better on other people’s sense of the right and good and proper than any resort to fear and force.
Those words and ideas are attributed to Confucius from more than 2,500 years ago. Looked at from the perspective of all that has happened around the world since his time, one can see in his words kernels of the ideas that have become premises of the philosophy of political, social, and economic freedom.
Freedom and prosperity
Another instance of this may be found in the writings of the ancient Chinese historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien (145–86 BC), who is often said to be China’s equivalent to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 BC), in terms of the originality and significance of his Records of the Historian, recounting the history of ancient China.
He was also a man of unflinching principle. Challenging the policies of the Emperor Wu, Ssu-ma Ch’ien was condemned to death. The sentence could be commuted through either payment of a sizeable sum of money, or suffering the punishment of castration, or “saving face” by committing suicide. He did not have the money to pay the fine, and he could not bring himself to take his own life, since he was determined to finish his history of China. So he endured the punishment of castration and three years in prison. He then spent the rest of his life as a eunuch in the emperor’s palace and successfully completed his history before dying of natural causes.
What is of note in Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s Records of the Historian is a passage in a chapter titled “The Biographies of the Money-Makers.” In two paragraphs, he captures part of the essence of Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand,” which Smith offered in The Wealth of Nations (1776), almost 1,800 years after Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s death. The following was explained by our ancient Chinese historian:
Society obviously must have farmers before it can eat; foresters, fisherman, miners, etc., before it can make use of natural resources; craftsmen before it can have manufactured goods; and merchants before they can be distributed. But once these exist, what need is there for government directives, mobilizations of labor, or periodic assemblies?
Each man has only to be left to utilize his own abilities and exert his strength to obtain what he wishes. Thus, when a commodity is very cheap, it invites a rise in price; when it is very expensive, it invites a reduction. When each person works away at his own occupation and delights in his own business then, like water flowing downward, goods will naturally flow forth ceaselessly day and night without having been summoned, and the people will produce commodities without having been asked. Does this not tally with reason? Is it not a natural result?
One of Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s own policy conclusions from all this was, “Wealth and currency should be allowed to flow as freely as water.” Again, this is not to suggest that Ssu-ma Ch’ien was a proponent of unrestricted economic liberty; far from it. But in this passage is the essential element of an economic philosophy of laissez-faire, the notion of economic order and coordination without political design or direction.
Limiting arbitrary government through the rule of law
A concern about the rule of men instead of a rule of law was also understood among some of the ancient Chinese writers. One such person was Han Feitze (280–233 BC), remembered as an early formulator of Chinese “legalism,” that is, the importance of an impartial system of law in place of arbitrary government by those in political power.
He pointed out that the number of truly honest, trustworthy, and knowledgeable people able to hold any public office is always far smaller than the number of such offices to be filled. Hence, it is always certain that dishonest, unscrupulous, and incompetent people will be manning the vast majority of positions in government. Said Han Feitze,
You can expect generally about ten honest men in a country (which is a pretty good average). But there are on the other hand probably a hundred offices. As a result, you have ten honest men and ninety crooks to fill all the positions. Hence there will be more likelihood of a general misrule rather than a good government. Therefore, the wise king believes in a system and not personal talents, in a method and not in personal honesty.
Thus, Han Feitze concluded that it was essential for clearly defined functions and responsibilities to be assigned to those appointed to political or bureaucratic office, with limited discretion for personal enrichment and abuse while holding their governmental position.
Lin Yutang: Chinese author and anti-Communist
Unfortunately for the people of China, those seeds of liberty and limited government never took firm or secure root in their country. Some modern Chinese scholars and writers have lamented that sad turn of fate, and that the idea of individual freedom never was triumphant in their own land. One of them was Lin Yutang (1895–1976), one of the most insightful, informed, and humorous of China’s intellectuals in the twentieth century.
Lin Yutang’s father was a Chinese Christian minister, and he did his graduate studies at Harvard University and then earned his doctoral degree at the University of Leipzig in Germany in the 1920s. Professor, editor, author, novelist, and social critic after returning to China, Lin Yutang moved to the United States in the mid 1930s. His two most famous books from that period were My Country and My People (1935) and The Importance of Living (1937).
He was also a staunch anti-Communist while still in China before coming to the United States. The American political Left tried to skewer him after he published The Vigil of a Nation (1946), based on an extended journey back to his homeland during the Second World War, when much of eastern China had been occupied by the invading Japanese. His crime in the eyes of American Progressives was that he reported that the Communist guerrilla forces under Mao Zedong had been more interested during the war in weakening and betraying the central Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek than actually fighting the Japanese enemy.
The anger and campaign against him by those sympathetic to the communist cause continued in the 1950s when he published The Secret Name: Communism Is the Secret Name of the Dread Antagonist (1958), a political and historical account of the dangers from communism and socialist planning. In addition, his attempt to reorganize a university in Singapore on the basis of liberal ideas in the mid 1950s was partly blunted by communist agitators, which finally led to his resignation.
His 1935 book, My Country and My People, is an attempt to present an interpretation of the character and qualities of the Chinese people in a sweeping discussion of Chinese history, culture, social attitudes, and political and economic beliefs. It is also a statement of his own views of Chinese values and senses of life compared to what he had studied and learned from his years in Europe and then in the United States in terms of the meaning and nature of Western civilization and its fundamental ideas.
He explained that when the Chinese government kept out of people’s affairs, local communities lived in harmony and prospered. The Chinese people, he said, had very successfully governed themselves in their respective towns and villages. He explained,
If the thing called “government” can leave them alone, they [the Chinese people] are always willing to leave the government alone. Give the people ten years of anarchy, when the word “government” will never be heard, and they will live peacefully together, they will prosper, they will cultivate deserts and turn them into orchards, they will make wares and sell them all over the country, and they will open up the hidden treasures of the earth on their own enterprise and initiative.
China’s problem: unrestrained “parental government”
The problem, he pointed out, is that since ancient times, China had never had a constitution formally limiting government or the Western idea of civil rights. Instead, the Chinese political order was based on political paternalism, or as Lin Yutang called it, “parental government,” by which was meant “to look after the people’s interests as parents look after their children’s interest, and to whom we give a free hand and in whom we place unbounded confidence…. We give unlimited official power without the thought of safeguarding ourselves.”
He contrasted that with the Western view of government. If in China the presumption was that the government was a caring parent, in the West it is presumed that every political figure is a potential plunderer and the purpose of the political system is “to prevent him from carrying out his crooked intentions.” Lin Yutang went on:
In other words, instead of expecting our rulers to be gentlemen and to walk in the path of righteousness, we should assume them to be potential prison-inmates and devise ways and means to prevent these potential convicts from robbing the people and stealing the country. One can readily see that the latter [Western] system is more likely to be effective as a check for political corruption than waiting for a change of hearts in these gentlemen.
Political crooks for better government
What Lin Yutang wanted for China was the Western-type ideas that he found in ancient Chinese writers such as Han Feitze, who wished to replace arbitrary government with a government of laws rather than men, in which there were favors for none and an equality of rights to freedom for all. Indeed, Lin Yutang wondered why anyone would want any other type of political system than one of liberty for the individual, with honesty expected from those in government. Quoting Lin Yutang once more,
The idea of a government by virtue and by benevolent rulers is so fantastic that it cannot deceive a college sophomore. One might just as well regulate motor traffic on Broadway by trusting to the drivers’ spontaneous courtesy, instead of by a system of red and green lights.
The plain, inexorable political and historical truth is that when you treat officials like gentlemen, as we have been doing in China, one-tenth of them will be gentlemen and nine-tenths of them will turn out to be crooks; but when you treat them as crooks, with prisons and threats of prisons, as they do in the West, considerably less than one-tenth succeed in being crooks and fully nine-tenths of them succeed in pretending to be gentlemen. As a result, you have at least the semblance of a clean government.… What China needs, then, is not more morals but more prisons for politicians.
America is following the Chinese way of political paternalism.
What do we now find in modern-day America? Lin Yutang’s ideal of Western-style limited government, with impartial rule of law, and the suspicion that every politician is a potential plunderer ready to pick our pockets? Or something closer to the “parental government” that Lin Yutang lamented he saw in his home country of 1930s China?
To paraphrase William Graham Sumner, we seem to see the philosophical conquest of the United States by China. Not the China of Confucius’s weeping woman facing tigers to avoid government taxes; not the China of Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s understanding of the spontaneous order of production and trade; and not the legalist ideal of Han Feitze of a rule of law rather than a rule of men.
No, we have been conquered by the idea of “parental government.” Not that that this idea actually came to America from China. The migration of paternalism came to the United States from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. And it is as old in the West as Plato’s ideal Republic, possessing a fully planned society.
But, nonetheless, we have become more like the China portrayed by Lin Yutang, and less like the America of individual liberty and limited government that he praised as a model for his homeland. Just watch the political parade going by in this election year. Those offering themselves for the presidential candidacy of the Democratic Party all are aggressive paternalists promising to do so much for so many, and somehow at someone else’s expense.
Paternalists all, in this year’s election cycle
To do so, they call for wider control and discretion by government over all facets of social and economic life. They all imply that they can be trusted to do the right thing in all the right ways, with no restraints needed on their political power to do so. They will save the planet, guarantee everyone a good job at a comfortable wage, and secure health care and higher education for all at little or no expense to those who are asked to support and vote for them. They all have a central plan to take care of everything.
The Republicans have all surrendered to their own form of parental government. Daddy Trump will save American jobs, save American industry, keep out “bad” foreign goods, and make America great, all the while using his own type of double-talk and arrogant hubris that he knows what the country needs, and that he can be trusted with power to restore the America that he knows is right for the nation.
What we need to do, as friends of freedom, is rediscover and articulate some of those truths that are a lot older than either Adam Smith or the Declaration of Independence, insights that Chinese from millennia ago were seeing incompletely through a glass darkly, but nevertheless sometimes with keen awareness: tigers are less dangerous than oppressive taxes; peaceful persuasion is more powerful and effective than physical force; cooperative coordination in the market can bring prosperity without government directive; and impartial rule of law matched with vigilant suspicion of all that is done by those in government are surer ways of securing freedom and material plenty for that society as a whole than any paternalism promised by politicians hungry for power over our lives.
This article was originally published in the February 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.
Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Dr. Ebeling is the author of Austrian Economics and Public Policy: Restoring Freedom and Prosperity (2016); Monetary Central Planning and the State (2015) as well as the author of Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (2010) and Austrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom (2003). And the editor of the three-volume, Selected Writing of Ludwig von Mises, published by Liberty Fund.
He is also the co-editor of When We Are Free (Northwood University Press, 2014), an anthology of essays devoted to the moral, political and economic principles of the free society, and co-author of the seven-volume, In Defense of Capitalism (Northwood University Press, 2010-2016).