Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Frying a Small Fish

Many years ago, as a young undergraduate at the University of South Carolina studying ancient Chinese thought, I made the observation that the philosophy of the 4th century BC sage Lao Tzu was really that of a small-government, free-market, economic conservative.

My professor derided the idea. He insisted that Lao Tzu's philosophy of wu-wei, or non-intervention, was a cleverly disguised attempt to diffuse political tension, not a call for liberty.

Fast forward to the present. Lo and behold, James Dorn, vice president for academic affairs at the Cato Institute, writes in The American Spectator that Lao Tzu was the intellectual forerunner of famous free-market thinkers like Adam Smith, F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Here are a few of the sayings of Lao Tzu from Dorn's article. They leave little room for doubt.

"The more restrictions and limitations there are, the more impoverished men will be....The more rules and precepts are enforced, the more bandits and crooks will be produced. Hence, we have the words of the wise [ruler]: Through my non-action, men are spontaneously transformed. Through my quiescence, men spontaneously become tranquil. Through my non-interfering, men spontaneously increase their wealth."

"...without being ordered to do so, people become harmonious by themselves."

"When men are deprived of food, it is because their kings [rulers] tax them too heavily."

"When men are hard to govern, it is because their kings interfere with their lives."

"Governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking."

The intriguing question then becomes, why didn't a philosophy of liberty take root in China? The answer, according to Dorn, was that Lao Tzu never developed the idea of private property rights, and the importance of the rule of law.

The legend is that Lao Tzu grew disillusioned with society, and left China on a water buffalo heading west. It would be over two thousand years before his dream of liberty would become a reality. Fittingly, it would happen in the strange lands far to the west of China.

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