1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar
Source link: http://archive.mises.org/4400/the-ancient-chinese-libertarian-tradition/

The Ancient Chinese Libertarian Tradition

December 4, 2005 by

Lao TzuThe first libertarian intellectual, writes Murray Rothbard, was Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism. Two centuries after Lao-tzu, the great Taoist Chuang-tzu pushed the master’s ideas of laissez faire to their logical conclusion. He argued that the only difference between State rulers and out-and-out robber chieftains is the size of their depredations. FULL ARTICLE


quitacet December 4, 2005 at 11:58 pm

Just to bring your attention to this paper (http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2004/07/the_freedom_of_.html) by Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long, Rituals of Freedom: Austro-Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism Journal of Libertarian Studies 17(3). Refutes Rothbard and David Boaz’s lib reader.

Regardless of who is correct neither are particularly relevant to their contemporary followers in Asia, so I wonder what’s the point of prolonging this 80s ‘asian values’ debate.

Curt Howland December 5, 2005 at 7:36 am

Quitacet, I’m actually quite pleased by the argumentation. The investigation into historical events, or in this case historical minutia, is refreshing.

Supposedly smart people believe what they are taught in public school regardless of the accuracy of the information. I am thrilled that these folks are putting forth efforts to discover what we are actually building upon rather than myths and propaganda. That such luminaries disagree is fascinating in of itself because where they disagree demonstrates new information too.

Allen Weingarten December 5, 2005 at 8:24 am

It is true that Lao-Tzu favored the freedom of the individual, but misleading to write that he was a libertarian intellectual, as though his aim were political, rather than conformity to the Tao. Moreover, although his philosophy was that of inaction (Wu Wei) this was not a matter primarily of non-intervention by the state, but of all individuals, to wit “the world is governed by no acts at all.”

Lao-Tzu opposed a multitude of laws, but not all law. Rothbard is correct to say that “Government, in sum, must be limited to the smallest possible minimum” but not to suggest that Lao-Tzu was an anarchist.

Rothbard writes “It surely was unthinkable for Lao-tzu, with no available historical or contemporary example of libertarian social change, to set forth any optimistic strategy, let alone contemplate forming a mass movement to overthrow the State.” Yet Lao-Tzu did not forego that approach for lack of historic example, but precisely because of his belief in inaction. His withdrawal from society was existential, not political. Mr. Rothbard is then precisely wrong when he writes that “it is very possible that Lao-tzu called for retreat not as a principle, but as the only strategy that in his despair seemed open to him.” As for Chuang-tzu, he writes that the sage “accepts things as they are and does not try to improve upon them. This surely is not the mark of an activist.

I believe that there is great gain in studying the outlooks of the Taoists, including their positions on Government and liberty. However, this is misdirected if one tries to view them in political rather than existential or theological terms.

Nathan Shepperd December 5, 2005 at 10:40 am

Perhaps Rothbard was thinking of it being an anti-political position. There’s not really a huge distinction between “political” withdrawal and existential where a society is heavily politicized. My personal position tends towards simply giving up on hope in the democratic system and trying to focus on being a worthy individual, not seeking to blame my situation on some external agent.
There are many who view the current (dis)order as merely transient, and it will eventually fade away, despite the fact that people cling on to the way things are. Has a sort of eastern flavour to it, certainly allows one to avoid wasting time on politics.

Jim Bradley December 5, 2005 at 12:07 pm

Wish I could withdraw from my tax liability …

Paul Edwards December 5, 2005 at 1:04 pm


When I read that Lao-tzu, felt that government, because of its “laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox,” was “more to be feared than fierce tigers.” I take it to be a political observation, rather than any form of existential or theological position. Is there some reason you read it the opposite?

Again, the statement “The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.” just seems to address life under the state, as opposed to being some comment about the consequences of individual action.

But Chuang-tzu really sums it up with this:

“A petty thief is put in jail. A great brigand becomes a ruler of a State.”

What is truer than this? I haven’t studied Taoism, but I know an anarchist’s observation when I read it.

Philip Dimon December 5, 2005 at 4:11 pm


I agree with you, but I haven’t completely given up hope. For me, Disillusionment in government and the realization that government is incapable of resolving society’s problems led me to more Existentialists reading materials. The result was a stronger faith in the individual. Can a group of individualist actually make a difference? I think so. We have the benefit if having history on our side. There is one thing we can be certain about is that government will continue to fail. Perhaps in the wake of government failures we will see more people running from government, instead of running to it.

Kitty Antonik Wakfer December 5, 2005 at 5:12 pm

Like many I’d heard Lao-Tzu’s name mentioned as the founder of Taoism and knew vaguely of its followers retreat from society, but had never read any quotes by him in reference to the purpose of the individual and society. So it was very interesting to read, “..Lao-tzu developed a radical libertarian creed. For Lao-tzu the individual and his happiness was the key unit and goal of society.” The truly minimally restrictive social order described by Paul Wakfer and myself in the Self-Sovereign Individual Project is based in part on the principle that happiness is the purpose of each individual’s life, best determined using hir (his/her) widest view longest range thinking. From Social Meta-Needs: A New Basis for Optimal Interaction:

“With their conscious, self-aware, rational faculty of analysis, humans appear to be the only species on Earth for which each individual has the ability to formulate for himself a purpose for living. Thus, as opposed to procreation and survival of the species, which had previously been the “purpose” of a blind evolution, the advent (by evolutionary development) of rational, introspective, conscious thought created the possibility of a new, self-generated purpose for a life-form that has these abilities. Although, the physiological pleasure/pain attribute that humans retain from their evolutionary origins requires that psychological egoism must be the initial guiding principle of human action, just as its counterpart is for other life-forms, the fully developed analytical faculty of humans necessarily modifies this principle away from merely directing immediately satisfying actions, as with most non-human life-forms, toward directing those wider-seeing, longer-range human actions whose purpose is to maximize an individual human’s total lifetime happiness. Thus, does the thinking of a fully developed human transform psychological egoism into ethical egoism by causing mere animal behavior directed toward immediate gratification to become thoughtful behavior directed toward his longest-range, widest-view self-interest, and even to make such behavior mandatory if he wants to maximize his lifetime happiness. This self-imposed “ought” (actually a statement of necessity for the perceived causation of some desired occurrence) is as close in meaning to what has been termed an ethical imperative as any valid abstraction can be, and in this particular context a fully proper reply to anyone who asks: “Why do you want to maximize your lifetime happiness?” is: “Because I do – I want to maximize my lifetime happiness simply because I exist”. The nature of my existence as a human being is such that that existence would not be consistent (and thus would not exist as what it is – what evolution has wrought it to be) if my life purpose were not to maximize my lifetime happiness.” [footnotes omitted]

In regards to Lao-Tzu’s counsel of “withdrawal from society and the world, of retreat and inner contemplation”, this is an extreme form of negative social preferencing. I contend, though, it could have been and is currently more effective to remain within society and severely limit one’s interactions with the enforcers and other supporters of the State. Now that each individual has the technological opportunity to make hir reasons for such withdrawal of approval widely known to others, it is possible to both easily disseminate information and practice of such tactics and have that spotlighted public openness be some protection from reactions by the State. As more individuals come to practice this form of shunning of state supporters, particularly of the direct enforcers, the actual impotence of the regulation/law makers will become evident and the withering and dying of the State will begin.

**Kitty Antonik Wakfer

MoreLife for the rational – http://morelife.org
Reality based tools for more life in quantity and quality
Self-Sovereign Individual Project – http://selfsip.org
Rational freedom by self-sovereignty & social contracting

lucretius December 5, 2005 at 5:49 pm

I disagree with Allen and agree with Paul here. It turned out that Lao-tzu(Lao zi)’s views have always been viewed, correctly I think, as political statements, and the tao te ching has always been read as a political tract though it certainly contains some metaphysics. Lao-tsu and Chuang-tsu (zhuang zi) were clearly among the world’s first libertarians. The article by Long challenged Rothbard by claiming that Confucious was more libertarian than Lao-tsu. He made some good points, but Rothbard was more correct here. The basis for Long’s argument was that the tao te ching also contained passages which appear to be against commerce and trade and large cities. But these passages are not central ones, and it’s not clear that they are written by the same author, since the tao te ching is more of a compilation rather than a treatise written by a single author. Moreover, the key message in Lao/Zhuang thought is the dignity of the individual and the worthlessness of the state. Whereas Confucianism entirely justified the state (monarchy in this case), and advocated obedience to the benign ruler. Now Confucius and many of his followers certainly appreciated the importance of free trade and of limited state power, but they are more similar to the old-school conservatives than to radical anarchists. It’s not surprising, though rather moving, to me that Rothbard regarded Zhuang zi as a personal hero.
I could write an article on this if there’s sufficient interest in Chinese thought.

Paul Edwards December 5, 2005 at 6:09 pm


The history of libertarian thought is always interesting! I’d read your article.

Allen Weingarten December 5, 2005 at 6:36 pm

Nathan Shepperd writes that “There’s not really a huge distinction between “political” withdrawal and existential where a society is heavily politicized.” That may well be, but characterizing Lao-Tzu is another matter, for that is not how he viewed existence. Whether or not society was politicized was not his primary concern, but only how it related to the inner man.

Paul Edwards correctly writes that ‘government was more to be feared than tigers’ is a political statement. My point is that his primary concern was not political but existential or theological. I appreciate Lao-Tzu’s outlook and political activism, but they are not the same. Lao-Tzu for example would not accept a position of advisor to the emperor, nor did he believe in directly changing the laws. Conversely, no activist would accept:
“Though so close to their own town another town grows,
They can hear its dogs bark and its roosters crow,
Yet glad of life in the village they know,
Where else in the world shall they need to go?

An anarchist is primarily involved in changing the political situation, and especially the powers of the rulers; a quietist is primarily concerned with attunement to the Tao. The activist has ambitions that the quietist would have nothing to do with.

Curt Howland December 5, 2005 at 6:41 pm

I recently read a book entitled _East Asia at the Center: 4000 Years of Engagement with the World_. The Confucians, which made up a substantial portion if not the entirety of the entrenched bureaucracy of China over time, certainly acted against trade and commerce where they found it, established trade barriers, tariffs, material prohibitions, etc. Very isolationist in the negative, insular use of the term. The author is quite consistant in showing how it was the Confucians who exhibited the anti-liberty policies.

The court, on the other hand, was very engaging. The court eunuch Zeng He and his treasure fleet sent out to make contact with, and give stuff to, as many people as could be discovered is an excellent example. It was the push-pull between these two groups that accounted for the variation in foreign policy of China.

The Confucians finally achieved a stranglehold, and we all know how ill prepared China was when Europe showed up and out-empired the biggest and oldest empire on earth.

But one thing I noticed that even the author (who in the last chapter goes off on socialist diatribe trying to explain present (when the book was written) monetary circumstances instead of just relating history, which he did quite well) seems to have missed. In what seems to be 200 year cycles, the bureaucrats would crack down on trade, this would cause poverty. Poverty would eventually reach the bureaucrats themselves, who would have their power decrease. The decrease in power would allow a black market, smuggling, etc, which would create wealth. This wealth would eventually enrich everyone, including the bureaucrats, would would then crack down on trade. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

lucretius December 5, 2005 at 8:13 pm

Yes, the later confucians, e.g. those of the Ming dynasty as you mentioned, were very much against free trade. But that doesn’t mean Confucius himself held such a view. The early Confucians, such as the historian Sima Qian, had a deep knowledge of trade and emphasized its importance. Before the Song dynasty, China was a very open country in general, perhaps the most cosmopolitan in the world. Interestingly, just as Mises noted the role the socialist/protectionist economic policies in the decline of the Roman empire, so similar events took place in ruining the Chinese empire, particularly during the Ming dynasty (time of European renaissance)… The remarkable voyage of Zheng He was perhaps the last trace of the cosmopolitan, open China.

Nathan Shepperd December 6, 2005 at 5:57 am

“An anarchist is primarily involved in changing the political situation, and especially the powers of the rulers; a quietist is primarily concerned with attunement to the Tao. The activist has ambitions that the quietist would have nothing to do with.”

Is this confusing “anarchist” with “activist”? I detect that there may be two opinions about terms floating about here. Personally I would have thought an anarchist was trying to oppose political “action” and encourage others to abandon the system rather than go anywhere near it.

“Lao-Tzu for example would not accept a position of advisor to the emperor, nor did he believe in directly changing the laws.”

As has been pointed out at various times, and this seems to be the way Rothbard looked at it, getting involved in the political machine almost inevitably leads to corruption, unless you happen to be Ron Paul, and that is probably only because he keeps his distance. The closer you get to the “emperor” the more dangerous it gets.
So with an anarchist hat on I’d consider political activism to be a waste of time, like trying to put out a large fire with a water pistol. One’s time is better spent building associations outside of the government trap, spreading ideas and so on.

lucretius December 6, 2005 at 6:57 am

Very insightful comments. Indeed, the closer you are to the emperor the more dangerous it gets. You appear to be a true follower of the Lao/Zhuang tradition in our time!

George Giles December 6, 2005 at 8:29 am

Costs of Brigands and their failures ( in nice round numbers)

1) World War I ($50 billion)
2) World War II ($100 billion)
3) Cold War ($2000 billion)
4) Moon Race ($20 billion)
5) War on Poverty ($500 billion)
5) Social Security ($5000 billion)
6) Medicare Drugs ($1000 billion)
7) Looting of 401K’s ($1000 billion)
8) Interest on National debt ($2000 billion)

In average performing investments this would have led to the retirement of all of America, with full employment to the 3rd world servicing our needs using this capital. Perhaps saving the needless deaths of 100 million people?

Allen Weingarten December 6, 2005 at 9:12 am

Nathan Shepperd may be correct in differentiating between an anarchist and an activist. If there are non-activist anarchists, my comments about Lao-Tzu are misplaced. My intention was to differentiate between those who are mystically, rather than politically oriented, e.g., ‘the Tao takes no favorites, it is always on the side of the good man.’ I repeat that the Taoist is less concerned with what occurs in the world or in government, and primarily concerned with how the individual is attuned to the Tao. To clarify, the Tao Te Ching has been referred to as “the Way”, where what one does is less important than how he does it, as in ‘do nothing through acting, do everything through being.’ The attitudes of the Taoist preclude many of the practices of anarchists (including Rothbard) who are quick to conflict. (I should add that libertarians such as Leonard Read and Reverend Opitz are in the Taoist tradition, but they are the exception.) I do not know of anarchists or libertarians who have little concern with who is elected or with which laws are passed. Ludwig von Mises was asked if he were given absolute powers in government, what he would do. He replied “I would resign” but that was not the same as whether he would welcome a role in non-dictatorial, or representative, government.

Now I respect Nathan’s approach that “one’s time is better spent building associations outside of the government trap spreading ideas and so on” but let us note that Lao-Tzu would not do so. He rejected telling people what they did not wish to hear. Moreover, legend has it that his *only* publication (the 81 paragraphs in the Tao Te Ching) were written, regrettably, at the behest of the gatekeeper. So he would not for example have been a contributor to this Blog. Moreover, he believed that evil was essentially in ourselves, and not in the world or in government. Nor was that evil removable, for ‘we could only face it and choose.’ If this is Nathan’s view, then I will concede that Taoism and his anarchist position are the same.

Lucretius writes “I disagree with Allen and agree with Paul here. It turned out that Lao-tzu (Lao zi)’s views have always been viewed, correctly I think, as political statements, and the tao te ching has always been read as a political tract though it certainly contains some metaphysics.” I do not know on what basis he says this, as Taoism has traditionally been viewed in the field of Eastern religion, and is rarely covered in political tracts. (I should clarify that the Tao does not quite correspond to the Western view of God, for it does not intervene.) Lao-Tzu was a mystic, viewing the world as a reflection of the Tao. His followers might say that Taoism was their religion, but not that it was their political organization.

I have read several books and articles about Lao-Tzu, and these do not support the view that his key message “is the dignity of the individual and the worthlessness of the state.” Instead it is: the attunement to the Tao, the intangible, the spiritual, acceptance of destiny, balancing Yin and Yang, with such statements as “listen to the sound of rock growing” and “before creation a presence existed.” Does lucretius consider such concerns as political in nature, or not essential to Taoism?

Ralph December 6, 2005 at 9:27 am

Lao-Tzu arrived at a conclusion thAt can also be concluded from a certain biblical scripture, Romans 8:7:
“The carnal(fleshy,physical)mind is enmity against God. It is not subject to the laws of God and neither indeed can be”.

If this is true, then Lao-Tzu’s conclusions would be demonstrated by every attempt to organize coercively “in God’s name”. If our natural minds cannot be subject to God’s law, then all attempts at that purpose would end in diversity, speciation, confusion, anger, hatred, and war. History has shown this to be the case.

But since “God’s law” in the form of the Ten Commandments, is no different from human ideals of law, constant attempts at government regulation would result in lawlessness.

Further, if we cannot be subject to “God’s law”, then we are not subject to God’s law, or in other words, no human authority can impose “God’s law” over us, since no natural mind can be subject to God’s law. All definitions of the “spiritual mind” are definitions created by humans and subject to human interpretation, and therefore applicable only to the individual who has interpreted them.

The more we attempt to apply “moral laws”, the greater the resulting chaos.

Jason December 6, 2005 at 11:19 am

As someone struggling to come to grips with the implications of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, I cannot help but draw some parallels between the the Taoist idea of withdrawl to the storyline in “Atlas Shrugged” I would have never seen this connection before had it not been for Rothbard’s article. It would seem to me that Objectivism may well have it’s roots in Taoism.

lucretius December 6, 2005 at 12:13 pm

First, I agree with you that there’s much mysticism in the tao te ching.
But, without getting into a detailed discussion, let me point out that what you read on the tao te ching is probably not very reliable. My views, though certainly not infallible, are based on a reading of the original text and of various commentaries on it. Scholarly commentaries, not the kind of commentaries found in the eastern religion section at your local Barnes and Nobles. The Tao Te Ching is traditionally known/memorized by all educated Chinese people, and occupies a central place in Chinese political philosophy–this is, I’m afraid, the universal concensus. It’s about as controversial as saying that the new testament has an important role in Western morality.

The taoist political philsophy was for example repeatedly denounced by the communists–interesting intellectual history actually.

The story of the gatekeeper is pure myth–and there’s no evidence that the text was written by a single author. And “the way” is a translation of the character “tao(dao).” Ching means scripture/text. te means virtue. For thousands of years this book was viewed as a political text, but that doesn’t mean it’s not mystical. Not mutually exclusive.

I personally view this book as a compilation of original taoist teachings, mostly reflecting the teachings of one man. It covers a number of topics, just as many philosophy books do.

Again, I think Rothbard, with his fine instinct for intellectual history, was essentially correct, despite his relative ignorance of Chinese culture.

Nathan Shepperd December 6, 2005 at 12:22 pm

“You appear to be a true follower of the Lao/Zhuang tradition in our time!”

It has to be said that I haven’t actually read Taoist literature, and considering Allen Weingarten’s comments I may not exactly be a follower of any tradition so to speak. I suspect I am more Rothbardian than anything else.

It’s not necessarily a good idea to consider oneself as following some pattern of thought, I simply see some similarities between the way I’ve been thinking lately and some elements of Tao philosophy, as presented by Rothbard.

lucretius December 6, 2005 at 1:54 pm

that was not meant to be a serious statement. Though follower in the taoist sense is very permissive. Lao-Tzu was against dogmatic beliefs of any kind.

Allen Weingarten December 6, 2005 at 7:18 pm

Lucretius writes “let me point out that what you read on the tao te ching is probably not very reliable. My views, though certainly not infallible, are based on a reading of the original text and of various commentaries on it.” I do not know on what basis he concludes that my readings are not based on the original text, for I have read several interpretations. I grant that my first exposure was by the TV series “Kung Fu”, and then by commentaries of the original text. Yet I went on to read several versions of the original text. All along, the views presented were fairly similar to one of the writers of the TV series, with whom I communicated.

However, the issue of what kind of outlook Lao-Tzu had, does not require an appeal to authorities, for whichever version of the Tao Te Ching one uses has the same 81 paragraphs, and although there are minor differences in interpretation, all follow from reference to a sense of the Tao. For example, Witter Bynner (relying on Kiang Kang-hu as a check) translates the first paragraph as:

“Existence is beyond the power of words to define;
Terms may be used, But none of them are absolute.
In the beginning of heaven and earth there were no words…”

Different translations provide the same framework, wherein Lao-Tzu grounds his outlooks in a mystery that precedes creation. This inner sense is the final desideratum for the sage, and I do not know of any translation that does not depend on it. Lao-Tzu does not begin his work aiming at political resolution, but with the requirements of the Tao. One can compare it to religious works, such as the Bible or the New Testament, but not to a political treatise, for it deals with all of existence rather than with a discipline aimed at man’s needs. Surely the Tao applies to politics, and to science, art, and everything else, for it constitutes a Weltanschauung. That however does not categorize it as any of its components, for its basis is not only universal, but of that which transcends the universe.

One can give different interpretations about myth, the singularity of the author, and the translation of any particular symbol. Chinese letters are made to reflect different levels of existence. However, no matter which interpretation is given, it maintains a view that is not confined to a component of reality (such as a political treatise) but to all of reality, including what is beyond reality.

It is true that Taoism was denounced by the communists, but that was not only because of its political positions, but also because it provides a very different framework than dialectical materialism, which also constitutes a Weltanschauung. Similarly, communists denounced the Bible and the New Testament for its politics, but that in no way indicates that these are defined as political documents.

Note that by the same reasoning Objectivism is a Weltanschauung, and cannot be defined as a political philosophy, for at the very least it contains metaphysics, epistemology, and morality as well.

lucretius December 6, 2005 at 10:14 pm

Well, Allen. You really lost me here. But instead of arguing any further, let me just give you a more correct translation
of the first paragraph.

The Tao could be described.
Not the eternal Tao.
The name could be named.
Not the eternal Name.
Nameless, the beginning of heaven and earth.
Named, the mother of all things.

The translator you quoted did not grasp the Chinese very well. Mainly imposing his own views on the text. Typical example of translation from texts of “eastern mysticism.”

Instead of talking about things like “reality” and “existence,” I think it’s better to understand the text first. Basic scholarship is not too difficult, but more difficult than vague mysticism.

Lao-Tsu’s political philosophy is simple: the government that interferes the least is the best. All considered, the tao is very similar to Hayek’s spontaneous order.

KY Leong December 6, 2005 at 11:38 pm

I have read several translations of Tao Te Ching, and the best one (most faithful/accurate, in my opinion) is that by Gia Fu Feng and Jane English: Full Translation of all 81 Chapters available on http://www.daily-tao.com/. In classical Taoist spirit, I quote from Chapter Fifty-Six:

Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know.

Keep your mouth closed,
Guard your senses.
Temper your sharpness.
Simplify your problems.
Mask your brightness.
Be at one with the dust of the earth.
This is the primal union.

He who has achieved this state
Is unconcerned with friends and enemies,
With good and harm, with honor and disgrace.
This therefore is the highest state of man.

So, Allen W would be correct in saying that “…he (Lao Tzu) would not for example have been a contributor to this Blog.”

But on the question of whether Lao Tzu and/or Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) were anti-statists/libertarians I will have to go with lucretius: “Moreover, the key message in Lao/Zhuang thought is the dignity of the individual and the worthlessness of the state… Confucianism entirely justified the state (monarchy in this case) and advocated obedience to the benign ruler.”

I take from the book “True Classic of the Southern Flower Country” (Nanhua Zhenjing) containing many Zhuang Zi anecdotes, one of which is:

Outer chapters: Autumn Floods
Zhuangzi was fishing on the Pu River when the Prince of Chu sent two high officials to see him and said, “Our Prince desires to burden you with the administration of the Chu State.” Zhuangzi went on fishing without turning his head and said, “I have heard that in Chu there is a sacred tortoise (metaphor for sage or wise man) which died when it was three thousand years old. The prince keeps this tortoise carefully enclosed in a chest in his ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its remains venerated, or would it rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?” (http://www.chinaknowledge.de/index.html)

Nathan Shepperd December 7, 2005 at 4:36 am

“The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.”

That’s a helpful site, Mr. Leong. Having read through the Tao Te Ching I can see that while Lao Tzu is clearly against governing people with violence, he does not advocate trying to do something about it. Maybe Rothbard is right that it was a philosophical way of dealing with the situation in China at the time. Still, Allen Weingarten is probably right that Lao Tzu is not being specifically political, although general inaction will imply political inaction as well.

I suppose anarchism is different because it deals with avoiding politicial systems of human organisation, however, it isn’t a ascetic withdrawl from all social interaction. Like Rothbard, and anarchist is going to stay outside of the political system (and politically soiled economics), even if it means a certain amount of isolation.
Ultimately Rothbard had a huge effect because of his perseverence, and that is the sort of example we have.

KY Leong December 7, 2005 at 7:03 am

Or, how about Chapter 75:

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

Allen Weingarten December 7, 2005 at 9:22 am

Ky Leong writes, and I agree, that Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu took anti-statist and libertarian positions. At issue however, is whether that was their *primary aim*. I cannot see by Ky’s writing that concern with the state was their primary aim, nor does addressing the dignity of the individual, or Confucious, help that case. (Note that although Galileo made a fine telescope, he was not primarily an engineer.)

Ky quotes a passage that is precisely my point, namely that of the tortoise. Anarchists & activists (and perhaps the reader) would take an offered position as advisor to the prince, whereas Lao-Tzu would not. Even those of us who are not constructed to fill such positions, would prefer it if a Lao-Tzu were our president (or his advisor, or a Justice of the Supreme Court). If you believe otherwise, I will concede that you, as an anarchist, are a true follower of Taoism. Will you, the reader, concede that if you would want Lao-Tzu to replace our president, you would not be a true Taoist?

As an aside, in 1909 von Mises joined the Vienna Chamber of Commerce and Industry (a semi-governmental organization) and worked there for 25 years. He briefly became an adjunct member of the new republican government of German Austria in 1919. Are there any Taoist anarchists out there who think he should not have been a participant in these govermental matters?

I agree with Nathan Shepperd that “Lao Tzu is not being specifically political, although general inaction will imply political inaction as well.” However, I would word it as not being ‘primarily’ political.

Nathan Shepperd December 7, 2005 at 2:04 pm

You’ve just reiterated the problem we’ve been discussing – there’s no particular reason for an anarchist to want to be advisor to the prince, as he would know this to be a waste of time, as if he could convince him to dismantle his own government.
Surely it has been demonstrated that working within the system often leads to being eaten up by it?

Paul Edwards December 7, 2005 at 2:35 pm

“Anarchists … would take an offered position as advisor to the prince…”

If the prince were sincerely seeking advice on and appeared intent on implementing such advice as to how to most quickly dismantle the state, or even portions of the state, like the FED for instance, i would hope an anarchist would step up to the plate, execute the operation, and resign.

But if the advice sought was how best to optimize the operations of the state, i would expect and hope he would decline the kind offer.

Perhaps the Taoist would decline both offers. Or perhaps only the latter form of the offer was ever made.

Allen Weingarten December 7, 2005 at 2:57 pm

Lucretius writes that I lost him by differentiating between a world outlook and one focused on the political component. Since I see no way to say this more simply I shall drop the issue.

As to his different translation of the first paragraph, he is again speaking about minor disparities. Lucretius mentions distinctions without a difference, for both translations begin with ultimates that transcend reality, and not with political considerations. I had encountered the given translation, as well as a number of others. My point was that “Lao-Tzu grounds his outlooks in a mystery that precedes creation” and is as easily made by use of any one of them, such as “The Tao could be described. Not the eternal Tao. The name could be named. Not the eternal Name.”

I cannot see how anyone can view this, or any of the many translations, as an introduction primarily for a political perspective, rather than a mystical one. It is as though one said that the “Sermon on the Mount” was an introduction for social work.

Again, I agree that Lao-Tzu’s political perspective is that “the government that interferes the least is the best.” In this sense his philosophy of inaction is similar to Hayek’s spontaneous order. However. Lao-Tzu’s view is universal and transcendent, while Hayek’s is specific to society. Lao-Tzu was primarily concerned with what cannot be described, and cannot be named, whereas Hayek was primarily concerned with what can be named and applied.

lucretius December 7, 2005 at 5:57 pm

Allen, since you now admit that Lao-Tzu had an obvious political philosophy, no need to dwell on that further. Just wanted to point out that the simple political philosophy in tao te ching has been discussed and debated for thousands of years in the Chinese world. Of course other aspects of Lao-Tzu’s thought have also received much attention.

But the translation I offered was entirely my own. It’s highly literal–so much so that I doubt anyone else (or myself for that matter) would translate it this way for publication. So you haven’t seen it before.
Now it’s not accurate to say that Lao-Tzu was primarily concerned with what cannot be described or named. This is probably the most common misunderstanding of Lao-Tzu. He said that what can be described and named is not eternal. That’s merely a distinction drawn without any bias. He certainly did not want to say that what can be described and named is of no significance. “Named, the mother of all things.”

In the next lines (now I paraphrase) he stated that, without desire, as a disinterested observer you see certainly aspects of the world (the character is impossible to translate exactly); but with desire, as a participant (interested party), you see other aspects (again the character is very general). Here too he does not prefer the one over the other.And this distinction is similar to the named/nameless distinction.

The Chinese communists/marxists did correctly say that Lao-Tzu anticipated by some two thousand years Hegel’s dialectical methods. Lao-Tzu is always dialectical in the Hegelian sense, but not as confused and verbose as Hegel.

KY Leong December 7, 2005 at 11:37 pm

It’s easy to miss the “next” critical level of the parable of the Chu Prince here.

Zhuang Zi also said to the high officials: “The prince keeps this tortoise carefully enclosed in a chest in his ancestral temple…” (it later died of suffocation?) This, to me, reads like “silencing” of dissent. The Prince was obviously concerned with Zhuang Zi “wagging its tail in the mud” – spreading anti-statist sentiments or libertarian teachings amongst the populace (an activist anarchist working outside the “system”.)

The Prince had no genuine intention of engaging Zhuang Zi as state advisor.

Allen Weingarten December 8, 2005 at 9:29 am

Lucretius writes “Allen, since you now admit that Lao-Tzu had an obvious political philosophy, no need to dwell on that further.” That is a misleading statement. I have always said that that he had a political philosophy, and that I generally agreed with it, but claimed that he was not primarily a political theorist but a theologian. That is, although his Weltanschauung included a political component, it was far broader, just as Ayn Rand’s Weltanschauung included a political component but was much broader.

It is not quite true that I haven’t seen “The Tao could be described. Not the eternal Tao. The name could be named. Not the eternal Name” for I have read translations that say very much the same thing, namely that the eternal Tao cannot be characterized or named. I have read many translations, and they say virtually the same thing, namely that we can never capture the quintessence that directs existence. Lao-Tzu says for example that “My teachings are very easy to understand and to put into practice, but no one can understand them or put them into practice.” Since I couldn’t have read the very words of lucretius, I apologize, and stand corrected. Still, his translation said the same thing as other translations, namely that what is ultimate cannot be characterized or named.

Next, I did not say Lao-Tzu wrote “what can be described and named is of no significance” but that what cannot be described or named is of greater significance. To a Taoist, the door is not as important as the space provided when it is moved aside. This is the essence of mysticism, namely subordinating reality to what transcends it. As an aside, Chuang-tsu wrote ‘that which is the universe is my body; that which directs the universe is my spirit.’ Can there be any doubt that he viewed his spirit as more fundamental than his body?

Yet let me explain why I fundamentally depart from lucretius’ claim that Taoism should be viewed primarily as a political document. First, if one were to ask what are the religions of China, the standard answer would be Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Second, the first three Google entries for ‘Taoism, definition’ are “Chinese religion over 4000 years old; A principal philosophy and system of religion of China; the basic, eternal principle of the universe that transcends reality”.

Although Taoism has a sound political perspective, it cannot hold a candle to those of von Mises, Hayek, Rand, et al. Conversely, when it comes to dealing with ultimates, these scholars cannot hold a candle to Lao-Tzu. The Tao Te Ching is the guide for dealing with the intangible, the intuitive, the subjective, and the inexpressible. It is there that it shines, and brings out what is within the individual, rather than giving him what comes from without. To suggest that Lao-Tzu was as concerned with worldly and tangible matters, as with other-worldly intangibles, would go against the essence of being guided by the Tao, and being a mystic.

How can one seek the true meaning of the Tao Te Ching? Not by authorities, for they differ from one to another, but from what it educes from deep within, which can be said to be attunement to the Tao.

Ky Leong points out another mistake of mine, when he writes that the tortoise of the Chu Prince, referred to Zuang Zi. I thought he was giving an interpretation of the legend where officials offered Lao-Tzu the position of advisor to the Emperor. There Lao-Tzu spoke of the tortoise carved onto a vase, and asked whether it was as happy as it would be if it became alive and crawled in the mud. When an official said it would be happier in the mud, Lao-Tzu replied ‘then do not place me in the position of being on the beautiful showcase of the Emperor, but allow me to move around freely in the mud.’ Again, I apologize and stand corrected.

Michael A Clem December 8, 2005 at 10:08 am

I, too, had an interest in Taoism for a while. I would have to say that, like Objectivism, Taoism as a philosophy is more fundamental, dealing with many aspects of philosophy, and not just political philosophy. Its political philosophy seems to be libertarian/anarchist, but given its fundamental metaphysics, not strictly so. You might say that Lao-Tzu never really expected the state to go away, and this could be considered a “pragmatic anarchist” position.

Given the language and the nature of Taoism, though, it’s easy to read what you want into it, as if it were deliberately vague and paradoxical. So I’ve tried to adapt certain concepts and ideas from Taoism without accepting it unreservedly.

Allen Weingarten December 8, 2005 at 10:17 am

I wrote “It is not quite true that I haven’t seen “The Tao could be described. Not the eternal Tao. The name could be named. Not the eternal Name” for I have read translations that say very much the same thing…”

Now I have acknowledged that I didn’t see the exact words of lucretius. Yet, consider the following, via

Byrn: The tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name.

Chan: The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Maybry: The Tao that can be described in words is not the true Tao. The Name that can be named is not the true Name.

Mitchell: The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

Wu: Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao; Names can be named, but not the Eternal name.

Can anyone say that there is some essential difference between these wordings, or be confident that if he reads one of these translations, he could not remember it as one of the other translations?

lucretius December 8, 2005 at 11:31 am

Allen appears to have a very narrow sense of the word “political.” But pointless to dispute that.
One thing to keep in mind about Chinese culture though–China has never had freedom of speech. Consequently esoteric writings have been the norm, and what westerners believe are descriptions of flowers and trees are often widely regarded as political statements. Leo Strauss stressed this sort of principle in a book, but his ideas are more accurate if applied to Chinese writings. Things are always more political than they seem in China. This is for instance true of Chinese poetry as well.

I have never disputed the fact that Lao-Tzu had much to say about many topics–particularly metaphysics and aesthetics. I am well aware of his impact on Chinese culture. e.g. it’s why Chinese people love to paint bamboos, which are hollow inside, flexible yet strong outside. They symbolize certain desirable features in human beings. Another interesting example–the most influential weichi(go) player ever claims to be inspired by the tao te ching, that his aim is not to win but to gain the tao. countless examples–gardens and martial arts, etc.

However, to characterize his thinking as “believing in things that transcend reality” is inaccurate. What does that mean?

I think Lao-Tzu was the first thinker to have grasped the spontaneous and complex organization that characterize many phenomena, including human society. That’s his primary importance as a thinker.

Sione Vatu December 8, 2005 at 2:29 pm


It would be very interesting to read your essay about Chinese thought.

Some years ago there was an argument about “Asian values” and how they were different to “Western” ones. It was really little more than some tyrants and their cronies attempting to justify their own moral corruption on racial grounds. There was one bright spot. An intellectual from Singapore (unfortunately I do not recall this brave man’s name) disputed the comments issuing from the govt. apologists. He stated that there was a long history of Asian people who supported individual freedom and opposed the ideas being promoted by the “Asian values” gang. He went on to state that many of these people had met “severe fates” at the hands of their opponents but their ideas had not been extinguished.

With the increasing importance of Asian countries such as China, politically and economically, it is important to know the argument that they are “morally different” is false. It is important to know something of the history and intellectual inheritance from this part of the World.

Lucretius, please do go ahead and write your article.



lucretius December 8, 2005 at 3:22 pm

Thanks for your encouragement. I might get to it one day. problem is while it’s easy for me to type my random thoughts for this blog during the workday, I don’t have much free time to sit down for long periods and think carefully about these issues.
But I agree that some clarification of “Asian values” would be helpful. Maybe K.Y. Leong can try it first, since he appears to be an expert in this matter.

Allen Weingarten December 8, 2005 at 3:29 pm

Lucretius writes that to characterize Lao-Tzu’s “thinking as “believing in things that transcend reality” is inaccurate. What does that mean?”

I could go into a lengthy discourse about Taoism to give my interpretaion. Suffice it to say instead that the Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes “Lao-Tzu equated Tao with Heaven…it is eternal, spontaneous, nameless, and indescribable…It is absolute and mystical.”

If one wishes to understand the meaning of those terms, he might begin by examining mysticism. However, my aim is not to argue about it, but to point out that those I have read on Lao-Tzu accept his mysticism as a belief in something (specifically the Tao) that transcends reality. Similarly, to repeat “Chuang-tsu wrote ‘that which is the universe is my body; that which directs the universe is my spirit.’ Since the universe contains all of reality, what he means by the spirit is something else.

Lucretius may have an argument, but it is not with me, for I did not create the phrases about transcending reality, but took them as standard interpretations given on Taoism and on many other outlooks.

KY Leong December 9, 2005 at 12:16 am

Thanks, Lucretius. I am no expert. Besides, the “Tortoise” (accroding to Allen W) warned us from the very beginning – Chapter 1, 1st para, 1st sentence:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao…

So, how does one even begin? It’s a treacherous path that only a fool or a Sage will dare tread.

But fortunately for us mortals, Lao Tzu went on to write another 5000 words to explain himself, the whole time treading the thin line between the fool and the Sage. Or, the tortoise.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: