Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Tao of Republicanism

Being a Taoist Unitarian informs my politics as a Republican. At their best, political conservatives have been taoistic in outlook, if we look closely.

The taoist doctrine of wu wei is often translated as 'inaction' or 'not-doing' but these are misleading terms. Lao Tze lived in the Warring States period, when scores of small kingdsoms constantly battled, and whole cities were routinely put to the sword. His answer to the central question of his time--how can this be stopped?--was to observe that whenever a state acts against another, equal and opposite forces are raised up. There is an 'inertia' in human affairs; people resist any change.

What is it about a given action which creates the resistance? It is aggression, the attitude or intent to subject another, to make him inferior. This cause-and-effect law can be applied to other state activities in economics, law, and diplomacy (or interpersonal relations, but that's beyond the scope of the post). These views generalize beyond being a brand of pacifism.

Lao Tze specifically counselled rulers to rule as little as possible. This was not out of some proto-Enlightenment notion of checks and balances[ or laissez-faire, but an observation that attraction (the modern term might be 'incentives' but this does not capture it) is a more reliable and durable method of getting what you want than compulsion is. So conservatives would not support many of the New Deal proposals, not because they disagree with the goal of employing people and ending poverty, but because compelling the economy to do those things is not a sustainable solution if they work through subjection of the economy's natural processes to the political goals of the state. The economy will push back, through inefficiency and decreasing marginal returns.

In international relations, Lao Tzu wrote that the large kingdom's relation with small kingdoms should be like the large river being lower than the tributaries but allowing gravity to attract them. In like fashion, Eisenhower's dealing with our post-WW2 allies kept them loyal, by treating them with humility though we were clearly superior by any measure of national power.

Wu wei has been criticized as a doctrine which paralyzes one into inaction--that a Taoist would stand idly if a burglar threatened to kill his family for instance. But a Taoist does not eschew all violence, though he sees any exertion of aggression as regrettable, the result of an unfortunate inability (hopefully not unwillingness) to wait for the effects of wu wei. He would intervene and even kill the burglar, or support a necessary war, or support an economic band-aid for the Depression, but it would be with regret and with an eye to ending the aggression as soon as possible. It bears repeating that the attitude of regret toward aggression is what makes taoistic aggression less harmful. If the Iraq and Afghani people percieved our occupations as reluctant it would be more palatable and engender less opposition--but instead we announced our arrival into Afghanistan by leaving photocopies of scenes of 9/11, as if to say with glee "Payback time."

Rather than picking out microgoals and muscling toward them through bold policies and massive resource allocation, a Republican prefers to tweek the incentives to bring about the desired results. Instead of funding free clinics in inner cities nationwide, let's make it profitable for doctors to provide healthcare to that population. Instead of cleaning up Superfund sites and listing endangered species, let's create an infrastructure where it is more cost-effective to participate in clean disposal of waste than to dump, and build environmental strategy around ecosystems rather than species. Instead of declaring Bin Ladin evil and only taking him on militarily, let's act towards ambivalent Muslims with humility and compassion, so that they would rather live in our sort of pluralistic society than an Islamist one. This approach is slower, but more effective over time.

Wu wei is a bit of 2500 year old practical advice, not merely abstruse mysticism. I hope that modern politicians begin to take it to heart.

For a great discussion of wu wei, see Taoism: Parting of the Way. For a light read on Taoism itself, I recommend The Tao is Silent.


At 8:11 PM, Anonymous Jeff Wilson said...

Howdy, interesting application of Daoist philosophy to modern issues. The Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi have been significant influences on me, we could stand to see more thoughtful considerations of Daoist philosophy in UU circles. You might be interested in a book I found in the used book store over the weekend: "The Tao of Universalism: The Thoughts, Teachings, and Writings of Dr. John Murray Atwood," compiled by Rev. John Stewart MacPhee (Vantage Press, 1989). Haven't read it yet.

Incidentally, you're treating Laozi here as if he were a historical figure. But modern historians consider "Lao Tzu" to be a literary fabrication, a name stuck on a heterogenous collection of texts in order to give them a semblence of order and authority. These days we tend to talk instead of a "Laozi group," a sort of proto-school of numbers of individuals who collectively produced such words as the Dao De Jing. All the stories about who Laozi was and what he did and thought during life are just that, stories, which came along long after the texts had been produced as a way of fleshing out a mythical figurehead for the tradition.


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