Chinese Libertarians Back in the Day

I can't vouch for its authenticity, but someone we knew at Hillsdale (Rachael found this) had the following blog post:

The quintessential statement of libertarian individualism from 500 BC:

The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57

If you want to be a great leader,you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself.
The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be.

Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law, and people become honest.
I let go of economics,and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion, and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes as common as grass.

Gene, you're into this stuff... Is this legit? (The attribution, not the advice itself.)


  1. The Tao Te Ching has always been one of my favorite ancient texts, very mystical and I personally think very compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    The excerpt that you quoted is somewhat of an inaccurate translation, but it is more or less true to the spirit of the text. Economics was not a word, for example. A better translation is:

    Govern the realm by the right,
    And battles by stratagem."

    The world is won by refaining.
    How do I know this is so?
    By this:

    As taboos increase, people grow poorer;
    When weapons abound, the state grows chaotic;
    Where skills multiply, novelties flourish;
    As statutes increase, more criminals start.

    So the Wise Man will say:

    As I refrain, the people will reform:
    Since I like quiet, they will keep order;
    When I forebear, the people will prosper;
    When I want nothing, they will be honest.

    You can see all of the various interpretations sentence by sentence here:

    Mitchell uses the word economics, but Mitchell is well known for "reading into" texts to produce a translation that will resonate with modern times. I actually like Mitchell's translations a lot (The Book of Job was probably his best), but you can't rely on it's accuracy.

    You will find devotees to all the various translations, I like the Gia-Fu Feng version best, it's supposedly quite accurate while still retaining the original spirit. It reads:

    Rule a nation with justice.
    Wage war with surprise moves.
    Become master of the universe without striving.
    How do I know that this is so?
    Because of this!
    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.


    Very laissez-faire.

  2. I well remember Gia-Fu Feng. What a wily old rascal he was--and I hope still is.

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