To control by doing nothing

Sections from the famous Daoist work the Dao De Jing on how to govern a big country.


To control by doing nothing

Lao Tzu 老子 (Lao Zi or Lao Tzu) is believed to be the founder of Chinese Daoism. That means he was a famous blogger from the Before Time: a dark age in history when there was no iPhone, no Facebook and no Internet. In his famous ... er, blog, the Dao De Jing, he wrote:

57. ... The more prohibitions there are, the more the people are filled with poverty. The more people use weapons, the more chaos the country will have. The more people use their skill, the more wonderful things are created. The more laws you enact, the more theft you will have.

Therefore the wise man says: If I do nothing, the people will change on their own. If I love tranquility, the people will become righteous on their own. If I stop creating problems, the people will become rich on their own. If I am without ambition, the people will become guileless on their own.

58. When the government is lazy and bored*, the people are pure (i.e., virtuous). When the government is always investigating the people, they become deficient in virtue. Disasters come out of good fortune. Good fortune is concealed in disaster. Who knows where this will lead?

How unjust it is. The normal becomes strange. Good becomes unlucky. People are confused. Such has it always been. Therefore the wise man measures things square before cutting; is honest but not injuriously so, upright but not wantonly so, bright but not dazzlingly so.

Over two millennia ago Lao Tzu advocated a laissez-faire model of government that we associate today with libertarianism. His insight was that when a ruler exerts too much control, the people become untrustworthy because the normal social pressure to be virtuous is replaced by coercion. As with any externally imposed morality, such virtue quickly degenerates into cynicism. Lao Tzu's views on government are much more specific than those of Confucius, who merely opined that good government makes the people happy. Lao Tzu's description of the ideal ruler, in Chapter 17, has become famous:

17. The best rulers are those that the people don't know exist. Second best are those who are thought of as parents. Next are those who are feared. The worst are those who are despised. When the leaders' belief is lacking, the people have little belief in the leader and become untrustworthy themselves. The wise ruler guards his words. When his work is done, the people say: we did it ourselves.

His best ‘tweet,’ however, was: “Govern a big country as you would cook a small fish,” which is generally taken to mean “don't overdo it.” But let's resist the temptation to make sushi jokes and discuss the Old One's most profound idea: to control by doing nothing (wu wei er zhi). This is introduced in Chapter 48, the one that is the hardest to translate:

48. In studying, you gain more every day; for the Way you lose more every day. By losing more and more, one finally achieves doing nothing: Doing nothing and not doing nothing. Conquering the world is routine if you don't make problems, but if you do make problems, you will be inadequate to conquer the world.

By both “doing nothing” and “not doing nothing,” Lao Tzu probably meant that you should act spontaneously, not consciously trying to “do nothing,” but somehow still making it happen. By letting things follow their natural course, as in judo, one avoids pitting opposing forces against each other, which only creates a new problem: the conflict resulting from the two forces.

In other words, he is not talking to some guy sitting on his couch, but to a political leader who is possessed by the urge to do something. A country, Lao Tzu was saying, would be much better off if the leaders would just stop f*cking with it. It was as true then as it is now.

Or as the old Swedish saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The people know how to make the country great, so stop getting in their way. And as my Swedish grandmother always used to add, stop putting that in your mouth, or you'll break it.

So ends today's lesson in Eastern philosophy, and our daily mangling of Chinese.

* Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall use 閔 min, which means “sympathetic” instead of 閟 men “bored,” which is found on several Internet sites. Ames and Hall translate the line as “When the government is at sixes and sevens,” which means when the “government is in disarray.” I'm not sure I understand this translation, but the meaning of the paragraph doesn't change much. That's not the case with Chapter 48. Every translation I've seen of this one is different.

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