How much do we know about Confucius? What type of world were the Taoists and early Confucians living in? Were early Confucians pro free-market and pro individualism as we understand the terms today?
Roderick T. Long joins us this week for a discussion on the thought of the early Confucians, who were precursors of modern libertarians.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Long’s new book is Rituals of Freedom: Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism (2016).
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Roderick Long. He’s professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, Director and President of the Molinari Institute, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Stateless Society and a regular contributor to Libertarianism.org. His new book is Rituals of Freedom: Libertarian Themes in Early Confucianism. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Roderick Long: Hi, thank you. Good to be here.
Aaron Powell: So, I wanted to start not with Confucianism but actually with something you mentioned right at the beginning of the book, which may be slightly more familiar to our audience which is Taoism. A lot of libertarian works, the libertarian mind by our colleague, David Boaz, for example, begins by saying the earliest libertarian thinker we can see at work in Taoism is Lao Tzu and you begin by pushing back on that, by saying that’s not quite right, that not only is Confucianism a better fit for that but that the interpretations of Taoism we get from libertarians are not accurate. So can you tell us maybe what Taoism is first and how libertarians get it wrong?
Roderick Long: Okay. Well, I mean Taoism and Confucianism are two of the earliest schools of Chinese thought. Exactly how early Lao Tzu is a matter of controversy because traditionally he’s dated to the 6th Century B.C. or thereabouts, which is one reason that, you know, to the extent this libertarian thinker is often thought to be the first because it’s so early. But the modern view is that probably his book, the Tao Te Ching, dates from something closer to the 4th or 3rd Century B.C. that actually it’s the later. So even—to whatever extent, he is a libertarian. He’s not the first—they got Confucians before him. But, certainly there is a strong anti-status, anti-authoritarian strain in the Taoists. I don’t deny that. But there’s also kind of anti-civilization theme in the Taoists, the tendency to think—for example, Lao Tzu says that the ideal society would be one which people live in little villages and they have lost the art of writing and so they only keep records by tying knots of string and they can hear the dogs barking and the roosters crowing in the next village over the hill, but they’ve never been over there. And more broadly, a kind of suspicion of conceptual thought, the idea that conceptual thought falsifies, that conceptual thought misleads us, that language misleads us and the idea that we should return to a kind of primitive simplicity, you know, we should be like an uncarved block.
And, you know, those are sentiments that most libertarians are not really that into. Most libertarians are fans of language, conceptual obstruction. They’re fans of trade and civilization and technology. And so that’s a theme. The Taoists are complicated. So you can find—you know, you can find strands that they push in other directions, but the two main Taoists, Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu, both—you know, I think there was a strong primitivists element in them that may remind us more of Rousseau than of—or one aspect of Rousseau’s since he’s also complicated and this kind of primitivist anti-civilization, the anti-rational theme. Now, there are a lot of good things with the Taoists too. I don’t want to just come here and dump on the Taoists. But I think they are—you know, they are in many ways not as close precursors for libertarianism as the Confucians are.
Trevor Burrus: What type of world—if it was Lao Tzu that was in the 3rd or 4th Century as you said as scholars now think, were they living in—for the Taoism and also we can talk about this for Confucius—in a state, a kind of thing that we would recognize as a modern state where maybe even if we apply libertarian concepts to them, we might be doing that illegitimately because they weren’t really part of a government, more of a community, for example?
Roderick Long: Well, they were—so, what had happened, the Chinese philosophy arises in the wake of the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty. And once you get—when you go back to the Zhou Dynasty, history starts becoming a little murky. Our recorded history really starts around the time of this collapse. So, we don’t know that much about the details of the Zhou Dynasty, but it collapsed and fragmented and so we have a period where lots of new little states are popping up. You have—and you have various, you know, generals and princes and so forth who are starting, you know, carving out new little states for themselves. So I think—I mean I think they count it as states more or less. I mean they’re territorial monopolies, you know, ruled by some jumped up prince or other. And really Chinese philosophy starts from this because you have all these educators and scholars and bureaucrats who are suddenly, you know, wondering out of a job with the collapse of the previous dynasty and they are—you know, and they’re going from one to another, these little states, offering their services as political advisers. And so, you know—and two different political advisers show up at the same state and they wanted to advise the prince of what to do and so they have to give arguments as to why the prince should listen to him rather than the other one. You start getting debates and so forth. And the early primitive Chinese philosophy seems to grow out of that context.
So, yeah, I think that—you know, it was a context of states—new states rapidly forming states, competing states, states in particular that are competing for population. These states were—you know, the new states were trying to get people to move from neighboring states to them, you know. It was—they were strongly encouraging immigration because they wanted, you know, more workers in more industry and so forth. And so one of the things that these travelling scholars would do is try and give the prince advice about what policies would attract more people into their states.
Aaron Powell: I guess let’s turn to Confucius then and maybe—so when was he and give us a bit about his background and character before we get into his thought.
Roderick Long: Okay. Well, Confucius himself lived around the late 6th, early 5th Century B.C. and he was one of these displaced scholars who have travelled offering his services. And he started a movement—I mean we call Confucianism. They didn’t call themselves that. They called themselves by a phrase that means something like the literati it’s sometimes translated. Confucius himself concludes that—what we have by him—it’s not clear whether it’s something he wrote or whether it’s something that was assembled by his students. What we have by him is, you know, is very cryptic and elliptical and—when I talk about Confucianism, really I have in mind less Confucius himself than the people in the next few centuries that came along and developed the thought and considered themselves continuators of Confucius. So, I have in mind in particular Mengzi or Mencius as he was called who was in the 4th Century, Sun Tzu in the 3rd Century and then the historian, Sima Qian in the 2nd Century. When we’re looking for libertarian ideas, I think it’s really in those 3 above all that we find them. If you’re trying to figure out, you know, trying to get philosophical ideas out of Confucius himself is tricky. It’s really hard to figure what’s going on, although people have—I think people found them. People have argued that there’s a kind of emphasis on voluntary interactions, interactions of respect for other people and suspicion to state power that you get in Confucius himself. But really I think it’s the later Confucians to come after that who are—you know, so the clearest precursors of libertarianism.
Trevor Burrus: So I wanted to clarify. You said that his students put together his writings for Confucius. So we’re not sure—kind of like Aristotle. We’re not sure what exactly is original to him.
Roderick Long: Yeah. And that’s a case with a lot of the early thinkers. I mean the—a lot of the early thinkers, they have this book, you know, a book or two that’ll be their great work and often each chapter will begin with, you know, with—for example, with Mengzi, each chapter begins “Mengzi said, blah-blah-blah.” And then with Sun Tzu, we don’t get that. I think that Sun Tzu might just be sort of his own straight writing in his own words. So as time goes on, we have a clear idea who’s doing what. But with the early writings, it’s often not clear. With Lao Tzu, we don’t even know—with Lao Tzu, we know virtually nothing about the author.
Trevor Burrus: And further clarification because I’ve studied a lot of early Christianity and I’ve read a little bit of Confucius and it is sort of this poetic elliptical, aphoristic kind of thing, but some of the early types of sayings of Jesus, we see this too which is interesting by itself, sort of this wise men speaking in elliptical sentences that maybe later people interpret. But also another—
Roderick Long: Yeah. And with the—you know, with that, we have the—a lot of scholars think that there’s some early collection of Jesus’ sayings that different gospels are drawing on and we don’t have the original collection.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly. But the figure of Confucius himself, did he ever warrant more divine type of respect more than a philosopher from his followers? Or did he always kind of stay a philosopher?
Roderick Long: Well, he certainly didn’t—you know, did not claim any kind of divine or semi-divine status and I think he would have been, you know, rather upset to find out, but later generations started elevating him. The real elevation of him comes—you know, but later than this, he’s getting sort of later Confucianism. In retrospect, he becomes more and more of a semi-divine supernatural figure. But, you know, in early Confucianism, he’s a great teacher. He’s very greatly respected, but there’s nothing supernatural about the way he’s portrayed early on.
Aaron Powell: So the risk of asking something slightly off topic, but this notion of writing in this elliptical way, an aphoristic way raises something that I’ve long wondered about with eastern philosophy. So, while I have you, I’ll ask. So I’ve not read a ton of eastern philosophy and part of that is because I find it very difficult to read and very difficult to get like a mental grasp of in a way that I find relatively straightforward with western philosophy. And it’s often—it’s that style that it feels like, and so tell me if I’m—if this is like an accurate characterization for one that the writing does seem to be more aphorisms and metaphor and poetic as opposed to like the treatises the you’d get from, say, the ancient Greeks where it’s “I’m going to make an argument and here’s the steps and I’m going to give support and I’m going to deal with objections,” and it looks like a traditional argumentative form. In eastern philosophy, I’ve read a decent amount of like Buddhist writings and it’s a similar thing. It’s like—it’s much more slippery and it’s harder to see exactly what the arguments are versus the kind of poetic images. Is that accurate at all?
Roderick Long: I think that perception is an artifact of the fact that westerners who are interested in eastern philosophy are usually looking for something different from western philosophy and so the texts that are best known in the west tend to be the more poetic aphoristic ones. But you can find—in both Chinese and Indian philosophy, you can find treatises that are full of arguments and logic-chopping and so forth, the kind of stuff that western philosophers love. It’s just that those have not been the text that have been the most popular in the west precisely because people are looking for something else, but—I think, for example, in China, there’s a philosopher named Mo Tzu who’s kind of an utilitarian—semi-utilitarian, semi-contractarian thinker and his works are just, you know, straight arguing up and down. But that’s one reason that, you know, he hasn’t been that popular in the west—well, or in China either really because he sort of became eclipsed by the Confucians and the Taoists.
Trevor Burrus: So, westerners are looking for sort of clichés of Chinese thought and they find them, if that’s all they’re looking for.
Roderick Long: Yeah. They want the things that look like a fortune cookie.
Trevor Burrus: Or like that—the guy who gives the mogwai to the guy in Gremlins. That’s the kind of philosophy. You actually write that—this kind of surprised me that spontaneous order, the sort of Hayekian or at least Scottish enlightenment kind of idea seems to have originated or arguably was first articulated in the Confucian tradition. How does that work?
Roderick Long: Well, there’s this line of Confucianism that the way for the emperor to rule is simply for him to hold still and let everything happen around him, which the Taoists say too and that is a spontaneous sort of idea from the Taoists, but the Confucians seem to have said it first. And so the idea is that if, you know, if things are properly set up, you don’t need to be tinkering with micromanaging them. Now the Confucians think that a lot of what happens can be done through moral inspiration. If you’re a morally inspiring leader, you don’t actually have to go around giving orders. You just stand, you know, moral inspiration emanates from you that inspires people to go do stuff on their own. But also a lot of the Confucians—some of the Confucians talk about spontaneous order being created by market incentives. They were fast in particular Mengzi and Sima Qian, those two, were fast by market relations and by the way in which without any sort of planning, goods from all over, you know, the world end up, you know—the people are able to enjoy stuff that came from the distant north and south and east and west simply as a result of market incentives. So that’s not a moral inspiration case. The moral inspiration case is sort of the more famous thing that people know about Confucianism, but you also find this thing you’re just thinking that market relations are really cool for this ability to produce order without anyone planning it.
Aaron Powell: So were they free market people like as we would understand that today?
Roderick Long: I think Sima Qian comes pretty close. Mengzi has a mixture of, you know, sort of free market and non-free market ideas. But, you know, Sima Qian—in Sima Qian, you find this kind of—this praise of entrepreneurs. It sounds almost, you know, a mix of curse and rant and his enthusiasm for, you know, the ability of entrepreneurs to identify profit opportunities and so forth. And you also find in Sima Qian a lot of criticism of government regulations. There’s also a text called The Discourses on Salt and Iron which is a record of a debate during the early Han Dynasty between the Confucians and the legalists about government policy. And the legalists were sort of, you know, constructivists, bureaucratic top-down micromanagers who wanted to, you know, unify everything into common standards and so forth and regulate everything. And the Confucians are saying this is—you know, all these regulations have—the piling up of taxes and the regulations have impoverished the people and the socioeconomic order were just causing chaos. They can just, you know, ease up, leave them alone and, you know, let people do what they want to do and that will produce wealth and prosperity and peace. So, you know, there’s strong libertarian themes there even if, you know, they probably wouldn’t—the might not check off every box on the libertarian quiz precisely as we might want, but they were, you know, definitely headed in that direction.
Trevor Burrus: Where are they coming from in terms of like ethically if we were to put them into a western philosophical school for why they’re supporting these free markets or at least observing that they work? I mean they could be just completely observational and saying, “Hey, these markets will work.” But it sounds like they’re supporting them. Are they basically consequentialists? Or is this sort of a harmony kind of thing? And I don’t mean to completely bottle up Chinese philosophy with the word harmony as westerners want to do. Or are they—is there like a rights theory undergirding this in some way?
Roderick Long: Well, they were—they were critical of—certainly there’s consequential aspects to the thought, but they are critical of the consequentialism of the Maoists and the Yangists. So, to oversimplify a little bit, the Maoists were sort of universalists utilitarians. They said, “You should do whatever is best for everyone, universal benefit.” And the Yangists were egoists and said, “You should do whatever is best for your own personal benefit.” And the Confucians didn’t like either of these accounts. They thought they were too, you know—too “end justifies the means” kind of approaches. They—well, the closest—you know, apparently there’s lots of differences, but the closest parallel would be sort of the virtue theory you find with Plato and Aristotle, this idea of a—that the right way to act or the way that expresses the virtues, expresses what it means to be a properly functioning human being with the right source of attitudes. The Confucians also plays a very strong emphasis on tradition and this is one reason that they’re often thought of as being closer to conservatism than to libertarianism. Of course, it depends on the details and the mood and so forth. So, they were very strongly traditionalists. They felt that tradition embodied the kind of historical wisdom. They were suspicious of innovation. You can take that in the Hayekian direction where it, you know, looks more compatible with libertarianism or you can take it in a more conservative direction and you could find those impulses pushing both ways in Confucianism. But they thought of tradition as sort of the, you know, the oil of civilization, that tradition is what enables us to, you know, to interact without compulsion the fact that we share these common traditions that give a kind of a grace to our interactions.
Aaron Powell: One of the maybe stereotypes of Confucianism that was this—so there’s in tradition but also have a really strong sense of social hierarchy that would seem to cut against a libertarian interpretation?
Roderick Long: Yes. They—you know, they certainly were more dissocial hierarchy than, you know, than we would like. They wanted the social hierarchy not to be maintained by coercion but nevertheless, you know, they certainly were into it. Their version of the Golden Rule says basically “Treat your ruler the way you would want your subordinate to treat you. Treat your subordinate the way you’d want your ruler to treat you. Treat your parents the way you’d want your children to treat you.” So it’s like that. So they have this relations of reciprocity, but they build in, you know, this hierarchy into it and that’s a less libertarian aspect of them. On the other hand, they also think that if people—when people act virtuously in fulfilling the social roles, they lose the title to that respect of the role. So, for example, in Mengzi, there’s a little exchange where the prince is talking with Mengzi about some prince in a rival state who was overthrown and killed by the people and the prince said, “Are you sure you don’t think it’s okay to kill the prince, do you?” And Mengzi says, “Well, a prince is someone who rules properly. I heard that they executed some common criminal, but I don’t consider that they executed a prince.” In other words, if you don’t act the way a prince is supposed to act, you no longer have title to be considered a prince.
Aaron Powell: I mean that seems pretty hard core.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that’s completely hard core. Do they have some sort of view of the illegitimacy of power? Because I’m trying to also imagine the empires that they lived in. You said that the Han Dynasty, for example, the rulers of these dynasties, they weren’t—were they in a divine right of kings kind of situation? Do they have a skepticism toward government power that also let them believe in markets more? For example, do they have use on taxation that it could be wrong or illegitimate in some way that just because they thought the state wasn’t fully powerful, imbued with God-like powers?
Roderick Long: Well, Confucians tended to favor low taxation. They never say that they’re against it entirely. They had this idea of a—roughly 10% taxation should be the maximum.
Trevor Burrus: So this is like Herman Cain like the 999 program. We didn’t actually know where Herman Cain was getting that. Now, we figured it out.
Aaron Powell: I thought it was Pokemon that he got it from.
Trevor Burrus: Okay, that too, yes.
Roderick Long: Yeah. That was just, you know, just slightly to the east of China. I mean so the context here is—so we have—first we have the, you know, the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty. You’ve got all these new little states popping up. It’s called the warring states period, the ever brief period where China is united under the Qin Dynasty, really brief. It was like 15 years. This was the period when the legalists that I mentioned before, the top-down micromanagers became the dominant ideology. That’s the—the Qin Dynasty is the one that—well, I would say built the Great Wall of China. Now, what we have now is, you know—what we have now is a later addition to that wall. But I mean they built the original first Great Wall of China. And also, you know, the famous imperial tomb with all the terracotta warriors, you know, that’s in the Qin Dynasty. The Qin Dynasty was overthrown and it was in history how it was overthrown which was the legalists view that light offenses should be punished just as heavily as major ones because the idea is, well, you want to prevent all offenses not just the major ones. And so, all offenses, major or minor, should be treated really severely.
So there was this group of soldiers that was supposed to be making their way from point A to point B and they had to go through this swampy area and realized they were quite a bit late for, you know, the point they’re supposed to show up at. The penalty for being late was death and so they said, “Well, you know, what’s the penalty for trying to overthrow the government?” Death. “Well, we’re definitely going to be late, so—” you know, they had no incentive. This is likely—
Trevor Burrus: Well, if we’re going to do that, we might as well overthrow the government.
Roderick Long: Yeah. This is likely where the libertarians have raised about “3 strikes, you’re out” law, which is, you know, if you’re—you know, if I’m going to rob you and, you know, it’s my third strike, I might as well kill you, the witness since there’s no—you know, since there’s no worst penalty for that and for robbing. Anyway, so the Qin Dynasty gets overthrown and they bring in a new dynasty, the Han Dynasty. So we do get a unified China. And, of course, when I say unified China, the area that’s unified is much smaller than with the China today, but what they would have considered unified now. So, the early Confucians are writing, you know, during the warring states period before the unification. Then Sima Qian, the historian, he’s writing an afterword in these Discourses on Salt and Iron about the salt and iron monopolies is written during the early Han. So the early Han is, you know—the Confucians all agreed that it’s an improvement on the Qin. Qin was a particularly impressive regime.
According to the Confucians, the Qin Dynasty burned lots of books and buried scholars alive. Historians have, you know, debated as to how much of that is true and how much of that is just, you know, the next dynasty telling nasty stories about the previous one. But still it does look so— you know. If you look at who the political advisers were and you read the kind of things that political advisers advocate, you’d think, “Well, it probably was pretty bad whether or not it was as bad as they say.” So, you know, the early Confucians are writing during a period when China is not yet unified and the later ones are writing, you know, after it has been. Of course, they all wanted it to be unified. The Chinese—most of the Chinese philosophers, it’s kind of like, you know, Renaissance Italy where all the theorists are talking, “Well, won’t it be wonderful when, you know, we finally get unified.” Part of the reason they wanted this unification and centralization is that they, you know, thought it would end the warfare among the states. But the Confucians didn’t want unification to be done by military conquest, which is what the legalists were doing. They wanted it to be done by, you know, ineffective competition by having the successful rulers be imitated, having the successful rulers have everyone else come and want to join them and want to, you know, want to be ruled by them rather than whoever the wealthy are ruled by. So they had this vision of China becoming unified through a kind of competition in good ruling.
Aaron Powell: So if they thought that there should be competition between rulers and that you should just move to the one who’s doing a better job and then if he starts doing a worst job, up and leave it to somewhere else that rulers were fairly constrained because if they weren’t ruling properly, then they weren’t rulers in the first place. They were fans of trade, fans of markets opposed to coercion. They sound an awful lot like market anarchists.
Roderick Long: Yeah. The problem though is that they wanted the competition to end with, you know, the best one winning, you know. In other words, they didn’t think of the competition as an ongoing way of maintaining order, although sometimes they begin to look like they’re moving in that direction. But most of the time, they think that, you know, the competition is a way for the best rulers to end up in-charged and so you’ll eventually have all China reunified under the best ruler. So, they’ve thought of competition as having an endpoint where the best one wins and then you’re done.
Trevor Burrus: That seems almost Nozickian in like overlapping security agencies, one single big one emergence due to deficiencies in the process maybe.
Roderick Long: Yeah. Yeah, and I do—I think that they were assuming that. I mean they were—I remember the Confucians are coming, you know, they or their predecessors had been, you know, minor functionaries in the Zhou Dynasty and they had it pretty good and then came all the social chaos and the fragmentation into all these fighting states. And so a lot of them I think just assumes that the best result was unification again. I don’t think that they really thought of—you know, there was something that was an alternative to both of those things. On the other hand, Sima Qian is a big fan of these—there were these private vigilantes who was sort of half-bandits and half-freelance cops.
Trevor Burrus: Batman. You should have said Batman just for Aaron. We always like to put Batman as much as we can.
Roderick Long: Yeah, they were—they were Batman. Anyway, he had—you know, he’s a big fan of them and they would offer their protective services to various people and he has a perhaps more romanticized image of them, maybe Robin Hood is a sort of the closest thing. Robin Hood in the Batman costume. But anyway, that’s a—you know, his enthusiasm for them is—and entrepreneurs in right protection is a—you know, you see that’s an anarchist strand in his thought even if he doesn’t carry it through.
Trevor Burrus: Do you have an y idea how many people living in—normal people living in China at the time? Because the Confucians, the ones we’re talking about, they were occupying governmental roles mostly. Were they professional intellectuals? What were they actually doing?
Roderick Long: Well, they were—initially, they were going from state to state trying to become officials. Once the Han Dynasty gets started, then you ended up with a sort of bureaucratic class of Confucians, although the legalists were still around too as a bureaucratic class and there’s competition within them. So, yeah, they’re either state officials or they’re trying to become state officials for the most part.
Trevor Burrus: Are they teaching it? I mean are there universities? Because I’m trying—I want to know how many people—normal people, like the guy selling fruit in the street was a Confucian. Would any of those people had been like, “Oh, I’m a Confucian” and another person would be like, “No, I’m a legalist.” Was that where the debate was also happening?
Roderick Long: I mean the vast majority of the population were peasants. It’s not clear whether they were even literate in most cases. So I would guess that the average person had no idea what are the stuff going on. But, you know, it’s hard to say. You know, the people whose writings we have don’t talk that much about what the average person was doing. No, certainly we find stories about, you know, someone arising among the peasantry who’s some kind of a wise man or inspirational figure or something and then various stories and actions will get attached to him, but it’s hard to know how much of that is history and how much isn’t.
Aaron Powell: I wanted to ask about—you mentioned this thing called the well-field system. That was pretty interesting.
Roderick Long: Yeah. So this is an idea that Mengzi has. It’s a system where you have a grid of 9 squares like a tic-ta-toe. Like I said, it’s called the well-field system because the—it has nothing really with an actual well. It’s just that the Chinese character, the symbol for well looks kind of like a tic-tac-toe. And so the—so you have 8 private farms centered around the central common square. So the idea is that the people all work on their individual—each family has its own individual farm, then the families together all cultivate the common farm and then the taxes are paid to the state from the common farm, not from the private ones. So it immediately looks like there’s a serious free-rider problem here because, you know, if taxes are paid from the common farm, it seems like you have incentive to spend most of your time cultivating your private farm and not cultivating the common one. So a lot of people thought, “Well, you know, Mengzi seems to have bad economic ideas here.”
But, Mengzi says his reason for the system is to limit taxation. It’s to make it—he has one reason for it. It’s to make it harder for the state to tax people by saying they’ve taken only tax to common farm. So I think that the free-rider aspect is sort of part of what he wants and that is to say you’re not going to spend a lot of time cultivating the common farm unless you really feel pretty patriotic and pretty inspired by the existing regime and you actually want to give it some kind of support. So, it’s a way of making taxation—as I see it, it’s a way of making taxation contingent on the rulers doing a good job of inspiring the people and getting their support. And so, you know, it’s actually a way of giving the people a kind of veto power and what the state is doing is—the less inspired they are by what the state is doing, the less inspired they are and could have just spent most of the time working on the common plot and so the less taxes the state gets. Mengzi doesn’t say that explicitly but that’s sort of my—you know, the impression that I’m getting from what it’s about.
Trevor Burrus: Listening to all this and haven’t read all of this, the thing that struck me today is that this seems like a fairly individualist philosophy in a lot of times and maybe this is just western ignorance or my own ignorance. But, when we think about China today and a lot of the east, we don’t really think about individualist philosophies carrying much weight. They’re far more communitarian and their discussion of society and the value of community. Did Confucianism change—? First of all, is it accurate to call it a pretty individualist philosophy? And then, has it changed to a more communitarian as it evolved into modern times?
Roderick Long: Well, it depends what exactly you mean by those words because essentially what the Confucians was very communitarian. They’re very social. They think that your property role as a human being has to do with your participating in these various social relations, you know. Of course, that’s not necessarily inconsistent with individualists. I mean Hayek certainly wouldn’t think so, for example. And often, you know—often, it’s—Hayek, one is reminded of in reading some of this stuff because if you want an example of someone who combines strong individualism with the kind of communitarian traditionalism, you know, is Hayek an individualist? Or is he a communitarian? Well, there are aspects of both.
Trevor Burrus: But it’s interesting when it’s like limiting taxation, for example. This kind of things where it would seem that the reason you would do that is because you care about the individual, one of the reasons, not wanting to take too much from them; whereas if you were saying the community, you wouldn’t have a view of limiting taxation and just say, “No, as much as the community needs” kind of thing.
Roderick Long: Well, I think the thinking of the rulers are to—you can think of it this way. The rulers are taking money from the community and, you know, the rulers are supposed to have interested in the community at heart, but if they—you know, if they’re taxing all these people, you know, I mean all the people together are the community and the rulers are, you know, are individuals extracting money from the community. So—
Trevor Burrus: True, true. So, maybe I completely mischaracterized it. But the part of the question I said is Confucianism today, is it different in a meaningful—because it is still a pretty popular religion if I remember correctly.
Roderick Long: Yeah. And I think, you know, certainly Confucianism has made its peace with the state power a lot more than it had in those days and I think, you know—you can sort of see the process because initially the Confucians are trying to get political influence, but eventually they get it. Eventually they become a privileged bureaucratic class within the state and becoming a privileged bureaucratic class within the state does tend to, you know, offer you incentives. So, I think the Confucians are at their best during the period when they still have to compete for influence with rival schools. Once they become sort of this established monopoly within the state, you know, I think then—although there’s interesting continuities with the earlier tradition, they become—one thing they become much less fans of trade because the—you know, the early Confucians especially people like Mengzi and Sima Qian were really fans of trade and commerce and they’re really impressed by the fact that economic incentives are bringing these goods from all over the world.
Later on, the Confucians become very suspicious of trade and travel and interaction with foreign cultures and in effect they end up sort of clamping down on China’s economic relations with other countries because there’s that period when the Chinese are sending these giant ships all over the world. And the Confucians were against all that. They’re against these trade things, the later Confucians were. So, I think that the Confucians lose a lot of their libertarian edge when they become, you know, a profession class or privileged class within the state.
Aaron Powell: So given how strong this libertarian edge appears to be for at least the early Confucians, why isn’t that they then seemed to get as little play as they do from modern libertarians and when we’re discussing the history of liberty, I mean going back to the beginning like the Taoists get mentioned fairly frequently as earlier part of libertarians and the Confucians don’t. But if they were this strongly libertarian, why don’t we see more of them?
Roderick Long: Well, again, I think—I’m not sure—I mean most westerners who’ve read any Chinese philosophy have probably read Lao Tzu and some Confucius maybe. So they, you know, not that many westerners have read these other thinkers. I guess Mengzi, very few people have read him, but a lot of cases, it’s not that well-known. And Sima Qian is not as widely read as he ought to be. His history is just as fascinating.
Trevor Burrus: So why should our listeners read them then other than what you’ve said? I mean you mentioned a bunch of it today, but what additional thing do they bring to the libertarian tradition?
Roderick Long: Well, it’s just—it’s a contribution that isn’t—this isn’t quite the same as, you know, the rights-based Lockean approach or the utilitarian approach or the Randian egoist approach. It’s another approach that has some things in common with other things, but it’s different. I think one thing that’s interesting is that, you know, a lot of people tend to think that libertarianism is a distinctively western value and that it’s not appropriate for Asian cultures and so on. By pointing out some of the aspects of this tradition, you can show that it isn’t just a, you know—it isn’t just a western thing. I start off with this quote from text from Mises at the beginning of the book. It says, “The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the west. What separates east and west is first of all the fact that the peoples of the east never conceived the idea of liberty. The east lacked the primordial thing, the idea of freedom from the state.” And I quoted that because, you know, that’s something that a lot of people believed not just Mises and I think that if not reading enough of the things people have to be reading.
Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s show, please take a moment to rate us on iTunes. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.