The Tao Of Good Government


Most government and military leaders throughout history have felt it wise policy to extol the doers of good deeds, and to honor them with titles, awards, or wealth. However, Lao Tzu (the traditionally accepted author of the Tao Te Ching), is dead set against using such a reward-system in society. “Do not glorify the achievers so the people will not squabble,” he advises.

As a former teacher, I can see some wisdom in this. In certain academic situations, a sense of competition arises.  Some of the students thrive under such a competitive environment, but others wilt. Some of the successful ones remain humble, but others brag about their achievements and begin acting superior. And, though some of the less successful students either try harder next time or else shrug their shoulders, others grow resentful against the successful students, and their attitude can begin spiralling downward.

But there’s another side to this situation also. If a society is constructed in which the talented and hard-working receive no more acknowledgement then the slackards, do we not wind-up sacrificing the virtues of skill and industry to the vices of indolence and envy?

The easy answer is, of course, to strive for a balance– but such an answer is a cinch to talk-up but almost impossible to achieve, or know for certain you’ve achieved, in reality. But at least in theory, those who are successful, since they are likely already enjoying much prestige and other rewards, should not go about flaunting their achievements, and neither should the group-as-a-whole heap an overabundance of praise upon them. Such displays could prove detrimental for the general group since it would serve to aggravate the community’s envy.

If a man has tried to rise but has fallen, he may very well get up and try again, bettering society with his continued work-effort and with every improved attempt.  However, if he has fallen and his face is then rubbed in the dirt, he may grow bitter and resentful of those who succeeded where he failed, and even his spirit could be broken, which would not work at all to the benefit of society.

And there is something to be said about the contention that the truly noble hearts will continue to be benefactors of mankind even without their vanities or purses being rewarded.  That said, on the balancing side, I have to say that it seems to me that a society should in some way make certain that noble successes are rewarded and ignoble lapses are not.

But Lao Tzu insists that the State should bestow neither praise nor censure, since “favor and disgrace make one fearful.”  When one is favored, he fears losing that favor. When one is held in disgrace, he fears facing the world without the full support of his society and dreads the loss of the feeling belongingness such society provides.

The Tao Te Ching also advises against status symbols of no intrinsic worth, valued only because of their rareness, like gold or jewels. Again, bitterness and envy are the implied reasons why rare treasures should not be ostentatiously displayed. “Do not treasure goods that are difficult to obtain,” writes Lao Tzu, “so the people will not become thieves,” adding elsewhere that the rich should not “show the desired things” in order that the hearts of the less fortunate “will not be confused.”

Lao Tzu’s notion of the ideal society sometimes seems to me to be that of a good, well-fed, tame-hearted flock of sheep. Says the Master… “Thus the governance of the sage empties their hearts, fills their bellies, weakens their ambitions, strengthens their bones.”

Lao Tzu stresses several times that his ideal society is not one in which the people are constantly conniving to get ahead. “End cunning, discard profits,” he instructs, and you’ll find that “bandits and thieves no longer exist.”  Yeah, well, duh… In a world without honor and praised virtue, where the exercise of one’s wits is frowned upon and profits are not allowed– there won’t BE anything for bandits and thieves to still.

To tell the truth, the more I contemplate a society built upon the principles of the Tao Te Ching, the more like a nightmare the scenario strikes me. In a society where the noble are not encouraged and the industrious are not rewarded, the ignoble and the parasitical will thrive in the vacuum of activity, for men are not angels, and few great or helpful deeds are accomplished merely out of boredom or on a whim, but instead, they are done for the sake of honor or profit– without which, good hands grow still. And we all know that all Evil needs to succeed is for good men to do nothing.

Something I AM onboard-with when it comes to the Tao Te Ching’s advice on good government, is its call for a relatively inactive government.  For Lao Tzu, experience has shown that “when there are many restrictions, the people become impoverished,” and “the more laws are posted, the more robbers and thieves there are.”  If, on the other hand, the government does not interfere with the enterprise of the people, “the people enrich themselves.”

Lao Tzu also believes that a simple, hands-off government style creates a simple, honest folk. But when government becomes overly “scrutinizing,” the people grow “shrewd and crafty” as a matter of self-defense. This “excessive cleverness” of the people makes them harder to govern. Government should instead “manage without meddling.”

The government should also not pass laws or restrictions making it more difficult for people to earn their living. If you “do not reject their livelihood,” says Lao Tzu, and the people “do not reject the ruler.”  Lao Tzu is also opposed to a policy of taking from the poor to give to the rich, for this is against the fundamental principle of Balance contained within the Tao. “The Tao of Heaven reduces the excessive and adds the deficient,” he writes; it does NOT go about further “reducing the deficient in order to offer to the excessive.”

Basically, good governance is not rocket science… Just govern so that the people may “savor their food” and “admire their clothes,” and they will be “content in their homes” and “happy in their customs.”

As for national defense, Lao Tzu calls a strong military a “tool of misfortune,” commenting that “all things detest it.” Lao Tzu seems to accept that armed force may be necessary for a nation to use, but he cautions, “when using it out of necessity, calm detachment should be above all.” […] “The great generals are not warlike; the great warriors do not get angry.” One should not glory in war-making for “those who glorify are delighting in the killing.” Instead, “victory in war should be treated as a funeral.”

Next post:  The Tao Of Management and Authority


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