Chinese Liberalism vs. Western Authoritarianism

Posted: September 7, 2007 in Uncategorized

Chinese Liberalism vs. Western Authoritarianism
by Bevin Chu

Taipei, China
September 7, 2007

It is by no means easy to feel one’s way into such a remote and mysterious mentality as that underlying the I Ching. One cannot easily disregard such great minds as Confucius and Lao-tse, if one is at all able to appreciate the quality of the thoughts they represent; much less can one overlook the fact that the I Ching was their main source of inspiration. I know that previously I would not have dared to express myself so explicitly about so uncertain a matter. I can take this risk because I am now in my eighth decade, and the changing opinions of men scarcely impress me any more; the thoughts of the old masters are of greater value to me than the philosophical prejudices of the Western mind.
— Carl Jung, famed Swiss psychologist

300 (2006) directed by Zack Snyder, written by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad
The Asiatic hordes arrive on the doorstep of the Civilized World!
Dilios: For 500 years they’ve served the dark will of Persian kings. Eyes as dark as night . Teeth filed to fangs. Soulless. The personal guard to King Xerxes himself. The Persian warrior elite. The deadliest fighting force in all of Asia. The Immortals …

… commanded by a ruthless and decadent Oriental Despot

… who “hates our freedoms”

Faceless ciphers, devoid of humanity and individuality

Monstrous subhumans

Queen Gorgo: Freedom is not free, it requires great sacrifice. The price is paid in blood.

King Leonidas: A new age has begun, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.

King Leonidas: This is where we hold them! This is where we fight! This is where they die!

Dilios: The enemy outnumber us a paltry three to one. Good odds for any Greek. This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny and usher in a world brighter than anything we can imagine. Give thanks men, to Leonidas and the brave 300! To Victory!

The ‘300’ stroke, Hamid Dabashi writes on pride, prejudice, Persia and other empires

Let’s try a little experiment.

Sit down in front of your PC and Google the words: “authoritarianism, liberalism, Western, Chinese”.

Type them into the search box in any order you choose, hit return, and see what you get.
Come to think of it, save yourself the trouble. I’ll tell you what you’ll get.

Except for a link to this article, and a solitary Wikipedia article on “Chinese liberalism,” you will get page after page on “Western liberalism” and “Chinese authoritarianism”.

Every one of these pages will assume that the West is heir to a noble tradition of democracy and republicanism rooted in Periclean Greece and Republican Rome. Every one of these pages will demand that a “congenitally authoritarian” China emulate the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave by adopting “American style democracy.”

Never mind that the Founding Fathers of these United States made quite clear that they detested democracy, and went to great pains to note that they founded a constitutional republic, not a democracy.

Every one of these pages will assume that China is heir to an ignoble tradition of “Oriental Despotism”. Every one of these pages will demand that China jettison its benighted “Oriental Despotism” in favor of enlightened “Western Progressivism”.

Never mind that China’s unfortunate “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a Western European political invention, devised in Great Britain by two progressive Western European political philosophers named Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

As the old joke goes, “When you assume, you make an ass of you and me.”

Economic history tells us a different story. It tells us that China, for much of her history, was as free or even freer than the West, “Athenian democracy” and “Roman republicanism” to the contrary notwithstanding.

China is the most populous nation in the world. More to the point, China has been the most populous nation in the world for most of recorded history. Most people are aware of this. But most people aren’t aware of its political implications.

Economics tells us that only a society that is free is capable of generating sufficient wealth to support a large population. Large human populations are simply unsustainable without freedom. Any society that limits freedom, limits economic productivity. Any society that limits economic productivity, limits its population, through a process called famine.

Without knowing anything else about a civilization, one can confidently conclude that if a civilization has a large population, it is free or was free in the recent past. This is not feel good speculation. This is hard economic fact.

And so it is with China.

China was a hereditary monarchy for millennia. But China was hardly alone. China in this respect was no different from Europe before The Enlightenment. China had her “Mandate of Heaven”. Europe had her “Divine Right of Kings”. China had her Son of Heaven. France had her Le Roi Soleil (Sun King).

Where was the legacy of Athenian democracy then? Where was the legacy of Roman republicanism then? Nowhere to be found.

In fact, the Chinese people often enjoyed a high degree of de facto freedom under China’s nominally “absolute” monarchy, as evidenced by the popular expression “Tian gao, huang di yuan”, meaning “Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.”

This de facto freedom enabled the Chinese people to prosper and multiply, and enabled China to become the most populous nation in the world.

To be sure, the freedom the Chinese people enjoyed was not unbroken. It came and went, just as freedom came and went in the West. But when it came, it was real. And when it went, it was missed.

Between 1958 and 1961, a Western political system introduced into China by champions of Western style political reform caused widespread famine, resulting in an estimated 30 million deaths. The name of this Western political system was Marxism-Leninism.

The champions of Western values responsible for this man made catastrophe tried to blame Mother Nature, referring to it as the “Three Years of Natural Disasters”. More disinterested, less self serving observers say the disaster was 35% natural misfortune, and 65% the folly of central planning.Rabid Sinophobes would have us believe that China has never been free, that it has been either authoritarian or totalitarian for the entirety of its 5,000 year history.

But three short years of totalitarianism caused the death of 30 million Chinese. If China was no freer during the remaining 4997 years of her history, how did she get to be most populous nation on earth? Obviously these self appointed “champions of freedom and human rights” are asking us to ignore a total non-compute.

In case anyone thinks the de facto freedom individual Chinese enjoyed in ancient times was mere accident, mere happenstance, mere serendipity, think again.

Ancient China had no lack of philosophical arguments for individual liberty. Western critics of “congenitally authoritarian” China to the contrary notwithstanding, the earliest arguments in favor of small government (limited government, or minarchism) and no government (anarchism), were advanced by Chinese, not Western political philosophers. 

The ancient Chinese philosophers Laozi (老子), Zhuangzi (莊子), Bao Jingyan (鮑敬言), and Sima Qian (司馬遷) were the first explicit champions of libertarianism and anarchism in recorded history. 

As the late, great Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard wrote in Chapter One of his book, “An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought”:

The Taoists (Daoists) were the world’s first libertarians, who believed in virtually no interference by the state in economy or society.

Laozi 老子 (Lao Tzu), the World’s First Libertarian

To the individualist Lao Tzu, government, with its “laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox,” was a vicious oppressor of the individual, and “more to be feared than fierce tigers.” Government, in sum, must be limited to the smallest possible minimum; “inaction” became the watchword for Lao Tzu, since only inaction of government can permit the individual to flourish and achieve happiness. Any intervention by government, he declared, would be counterproductive, and would lead to confusion and turmoil. The first political economist to discern the systemic effects of government intervention, Lao Tzu, after referring to the common experience of mankind, came to his penetrating conclusion: “The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished. The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

The worst of government interventions, according to Lao Tzu, was heavy taxation and war. “The people hunger because theft superiors consume an excess in taxation” and, “where armies have been stationed, thorns and brambles grow. After a great war, harsh years of famine are sure to follow.”

The wisest course is to keep the government simple and inactive, for then the world “stabilizes itself.”

As Lao Tzu put it: “Therefore, the Sage says: I take no action yet the people transform themselves, I favor quiescence and the people right themselves, I take no action and the people enrich themselves.” 

Zhuangzi 莊子 (Chuang Tsu), the World’s First Individualist Anarchist

Two centuries later, Lao Tzu’s great follower Chuang Tzu (369—c.286 BC) built on the master’s ideas of laissez-faire to push them to their logical conclusion: individualist anarchism. Chuang Tzu, who wrote in allegorical parables, was the first anarchist in the history of human thought. Chuang Tzu’s fame spread far and wide throughout China.

Chuang Tzu reiterated and embellished Lao Tzu’s devotion to laissez-faire and opposition to state rule: “There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind [with success].” Chuang Tzu was also the first to work out the idea of “spontaneous order,” independently discovered by Proudhon in the nineteenth century, and developed by F.A. von Hayek of the Austrian School in the twentieth. Thus, Chuang Tzu: “Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone.”
Chuang Tzu concluded, the world “does simply not need governing; in fact it should not be governed.”

Chuang Tzu, moreover, was perhaps the first theorist to see the state as a brigand writ large: “A petty thief is put in jail. A great brigand becomes a ruler of a State.” Thus, the only difference between state rulers and out-and-out robber chieftains is the size of their depredations. This theme of ruler-as-robber was to be repeated, as we have seen, by Cicero, and later by Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages.

Bao Jingyan 鮑敬言 (Pao Ching-yen), China’s own “V”
no image available

Taoist thought flourished for several centuries, culminating in the most determinedly anarchistic thinker, Pao Ching-yen, who lived in the early fourth century AD. In the earliest days, wrote Pao, “there were no rulers and no officials. Placidly going their ways with no encumbrances, they grandly achieved their own fulfillment.” In the stateless age, there was no warfare and no disorder.

Into this idyll of peace and contentment, wrote Pao Ching-yen, there came the violence and deceit instituted by the state. The history of government is the history of violence, of the strong plundering the weak. Wicked tyrants engage in orgies of violence; being rulers they “could give free rein to all desires.” Furthermore, the government’s institutionalization of violence meant that the petty disorders of daily life would be greatly intensified and expanded on a much larger scale.

To the common charge that he has overlooked good and benevolent rulers, Pao replied that the government itself is a violent exploitation of the weak by the strong. The system itself is the problem, and the object of government is not to benefit the people, but to control and plunder them. There is no ruler who can compare in virtue with a condition of non-rule.

Pao Ching-yen also engaged in a masterful study in political psychology by pointing out that the very existence of institutionalized violence by the state generates imitative violence among the people. The common idea, concluded Pao, that strong government is needed to combat disorders among the people, commits the serious error of confusing cause and effect.

Sima Qian 司馬遷 (Ssu-ma Ch’ien), the World’s First Laissez-Faire Economist

The distinguished second century B.C. historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien (145-c.90 BC) was an advocate of laissez-faire, and pointed out that minimal government made for abundance of food and clothing, as did the abstinence of government from competing with private enterprise.

He saw that specialization and the division of labor on the market produced goods and services in an orderly fashion. To Sima this was the natural outcome of the free market. “Does this not ally with reason? Is it not a natural result?” Furthermore, prices are regulated on the market, since excessively cheap or dear prices tend to correct themselves and reach a proper level.

But if the free market is self-regulating, asked Sima perceptively, “what need is there for government directives, mobilizations of labor, or periodic assemblies?” What need indeed?
Sinophobic “champions of freedom and human rights” assume that China is heir to a long and unsavory tradition of “Oriental Despotism”. They demand that Beijing jettison its
“Oriental Despotism” in favor of “Western Progressivism”

Their simplistic calculus is: 

China is Communist
Communism is authoritarian
China is congenitally authoritarian

The first problem with this facile calculus is that Chinese Communism was not a Chinese form of authoritarianism. It was a Western form of authoritarianism, correction, Western form of totalitarianism, imported into to China.

In a sense, it was a lot like the opium imported into China at gunpoint by Great Britain. To turn Karl Marx’s aphorism back on him, “Marxism was the opiate of Western style reformers.” Today of course, the opium being imported into China by Western reformers is not Marxism, but another defective and dysfunctional political system known as “democracy”, or is it “Democracy”?The second problem with this facile calculus is that China is not “congenitally authoritarian”. China does not need to emulate an “intrinsically liberal” America. China boasts an ancient and venerable tradition of liberal political thought all its own. 

Did I say liberal political thought? That is far too mild. That is damning with faint praise.
Ancient China boasts a legacy of hardcore individualist thought, libertarian thought, anarchist thought. This priceless legacy may serve China well in the coming century. More importantly, it may serve mankind well in the coming millennia.

Who knows? The day may come when Googling the words: “authoritarianism, liberalism, Western, Chinese” may yield page after page on “China’s Historic Contribution to Global Freedom in the 23rd Century.”

See:It all began, as usual, with the Greeks: Taoism in Ancient China, by Murray N. Rothbard

  1. Mike Holmes says:

    Bevin, it was very refreshing to read again your essay, which I know I read at least once before close to the time you first published it. Great stuff! And very nice graphics, etc. (Where can we get that postage stamp?)
    Western ethno-centrism is a malicious practice which we (in America, Europe, etc.) need to work to overcome. Ancient Chinese civilization “discovered” libertarian principles first. Why not? Great thoughts do arise spontaneously, and therefore old civilizations should be the initial incubators. Even Mongol warlord Genghis Khan (not so loved by the Chinese I think) while a despot, had many advanced ideas on religious tolerance, favored free and unhindered trade and communication and compared to many of his peers was very liberal in a modern sense. No libertarian, but for his time and place and background, was far more advanced than many of his Western contemporaries.
    As the first generation of modern libertarians self identified, we have always had the rewarding duty of researching the past for our intellectual antecedents. These are few enough in Western history and philosophy. But to go back 2500 years and discover this in China, one of the earliest civilizations with literacy, is very inspiring. And as you note, not mushy or diluted concepts but hard core and pure. Such a wonderful history of the great ideas.
    Libertarians have to recognize our ideas no matter where, when or what context. It is great fun. And your essay and website does a great service. (I found it via a link on a web essay on the failure of state planning in the modern Japanese economy.)

    • Bevin Chu says:

      It’s often surprising where stuff one has written shows up in the Internet Age.
      One often thinks of what one wrote as a message in a bottle, tossed into the ocean.
      But years later someone writes to thank one for writing it.

  2. Vigilant Citizen visitor says:

    Here’s another set of thoughts to fit in that time capsule.

    I would imagine the issues the Chinese face are nearly if not precisely the exact same faced by Westerners: these matters are universal – and also, simple. Not many high-worded essays are required: We don’t want corrupt, power-mongering officials to rule our nation. Power corrupts, and limiting powers of government to only the bare minimum managable to ensure the safety and functionality of a nation is the only sensible choice. I believe that goes regardless of what particular country one inhabits.

    I question whether the high praise you espouse of Chinese government (or alleged absence of government) and shaming of ‘ignorant Westerners’ reflects reality much. While it is true many Westerners have a rosy-tinted [plainly: ignorant, and dumb] view of their own civilization, your apparent assumption of Western ignorance of an enlightened Chinese past is hardly fair – on the contrary, I believe most in the West look positively on ancient China, as a bearer of light in a darkened age and, indeed, the center of the civilized world. Yet, to the Western mind, what stands out and defines China today are not the actions and ideas of Chinese statesmen thousands of years old but those of recent years: The communist party, the million-mass murderer Chairman Mao (whom I believe many Chinese still prefer to have gracing their home walls in paintings as some sort of Big Brother deity, unless you will dismiss this as propaganda faux) and the actions on 1989 Tiananmen square. What relevance does it hold what the great ancient thinkers opined when these are the events that were allowed to unfold in the ‘Middle Kingdom’ so many years later, and in recent memory?

    No – I have a very negative opinion of both Western AND Chinese government. It is indeed government itself that is the problem, regardless of where or how it shapes itself. The fallacy of the Western mind is not that it has correctly identified the Far East giant as a threat and a monster but rather that it has failed to identify, too, the masquerading wolf residing in its own White House midst. The end of government means the end of theft, oppression and war regardless of where in the world it happens – it is as simple as that, and does not need to be complicated. The human desire for liberty, justice and self-determination is universal, as are man’s errors permitting those who would do evil to serve their own ends. Lao Tzu would undoubtedly have agreed.

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