By Andrew Lepore | United States
Although the word “libertarian” was coined in the late 1800s, The philosophy of individual liberty existed far before then. Many consider Lao Tzu, the founder of the ancient Chinese tradition Taoism, to be the very first libertarian philosopher.
Lao Tzu lived in 6th century B.C China during the authoritarian Zhou dynasty. The philosophy of liberty is especially novel for a time when those who expressed “anti-establishment” sentiment too loudly would be exiled or executed.
Though the overall tradition of Taoism is not a political philosophy (although Taoists vehemently opposed coercion and state interference), it is described as a way of life, to live in balance and harmony with “the natural order.”
Sun Tzu described the state to be a source of violence and coercion, and as a disruptor of the natural order. He believed peace and individual freedom was the best path to spiritual serenity and “harmony with the natural order”
Murray Rothbard had a well-known admiration for the 2600-year-old philosopher, which is no surprise as his teachings compliment, and take a different path to arriving at the same conclusions as, Austrian economics. Lao Tzu takes a “Spiritual” Eastern philosophical approach as the Austrian school takes the western approach of logic and reasoning. He believed individual liberty led to not only the happiness of the people but the overall prosperity of the people.
He defended the happiness of the individual to be the key unit of society.as of more importance than the demands of the collective. And with the individual achieving his own personal happiness, society will benefit in the process.
This is Similar to the Austrian praxeological approach that self-interest is beneficial to society as it drives making profits by providing others with a good or service that they will benefit from. Lao Tzu believed, as the Austrians do, that any interference by the state can only work to hamper the individual’s happiness and self-betterment.
During the Zhou dynasty taxes hurt innovation, and in the 21st-century taxes hurt innovation. His conclusion, the state must be limited to its smallest possible form. His “Watchword” reference to the role of the state is “inaction” as no action from the state will bring prosperity.
An interesting fact about Lao Tzu’s teachings, almost two centuries later, Chuang Tzu built on the original idea of government inactivity and followed it to its logical conclusion: individualist anarchism, or “Anarcho-capitalism” as we now call it.
Here are some interesting liberty minded quotes by Lao Tzu himself:
“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.”
“Act for the people’s benefit. Trust them; leave them alone.”
“where armies have been stationed, thorns and brambles grow. After a great war, harsh years of famine are sure to follow.”
“When taxes are too high, people go hungry. When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit.”
“The people hunger because theft superiors consume an excess in taxation”
“Therefore the Master says: I let go of the law, and people become honest. I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. I let go of religion, and people become serene. I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass.”
” [ The state ]laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox, is to be more feared than fierce tigers”
“Governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking”
The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be.
A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.
“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—”