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Laozi: The First Libertarian?

"There are four levels of government. The worst is the one that the people hate. The second is a government that draws nothing but complaints. And the third is the one the public showers with praise. The fourth and best of all is the one whose existence the people are blithely unaware of."



Out of all of the Chinese philosophies, there is perhaps none more complicated for westerners to understand than Daoism. Interestingly, Daoism is also probably the philosophy which is visually more familiar. All westerners have seen the yin and yang symbol, representative of the Daoist belief of harmony. Qi gong is not only practiced in China, but also throughout the world. Yet, Daoism seems to exist within a series of contradictions. Is Daoism a religion or a philosophy?


It is actually practiced as both, and seems to exist as a flexible entity, coexisting in the grey space between both religion and philosophy. It is even recognized as one of the five state-recognized official religions of China, along with Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Yet, as a religion, Daoism exists as something entirely different than to what we are accustomed to in the West. Daoism lacks core commandments and also lacks a strong narrative. In fact, its founder Laozi is described as an obscure figure. Some modern scholars question his existence, while other stipulate that more than one Laozi could have existed. If he did exist, legend says that he was even older than Confucius, living in China in the 6th century BCE.


Unlike the other philosophies existing in ancient China, Daoism focused mostly on the individual, without a robust discussion about how to apply Daoist principles to government. Many political philosophers espouse that Daoist focus on the individual means that the government should have extremely limited influence. In their opinions, when a government practices wu-wei, or nonaction, the Daoists expect that social and economic harmony will naturally emerge, based on the actions of individuals. This application of Daoism means that it fits very well within the laissez-faire concept of economics with British philosopher Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of self-interest bringing prosperity to humans. In the United States, Daoism would thus fit particularly well with the libertarian ideals of limited government, or with the liberals of Europe.


I doubt that this interpretation of Laozi as the world’s first libertarian (as declared by CATO Institute Vice-President James Dorn) is ultimately correct, however. In the Daodejing, the sacred book of Daoism, it is stated: “The more sharp weapons the people have, the more disorder is fomented in the family and state. The more adroit and clever men are, the more deceptive things are brought forth. The more laws and ordinances are promulgated, the more thieves and robbers there are.” Although Laozi does say that there should be less laws, this passage is mostly geared toward individual behavior rather than a prescription for government policy. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand is ultimately about the pursuit of an individual’s self-interest. Daoism goes one step further by stating that man’s self-interest should be shaped and formed, according to harmony and equilibrium.


Applying Daoism to international politics is equally problematic. While Confucianism can easily be compared with today’s modern-day liberal school of thought and while Legalism can be easily compared to the realist school of thought, Daoism defies expectations. Ralph Pettman delves into this subject in his article, “Taosim and the concept of global security.” He begins by making a single observation: theories on international relations and international politics have one core assumption that states are rational actors. Daoism does not put the emphasis on rational behavior. When applying wu-wei to international politics, we do not get an overall policy of complete non-intervention, but rather a policy based on the situation. Even in war, he states, “Human warring can also be analyzed by meditating… the results of these meditations can then be used to practice neither offence, defence, or preemption, but a kind of watchfulness, a kind on non-anticipation, a way of being in the world-moment that is equanimious, open, and aware.” In other words, he argues that there are no fixed policy alternatives within the Daoist paradigm.


The Daoist applications to politics are ultimately problematic. In both domestic and international politics, Daosim defies fixed policy ideas and suggestion. Just like its fluid nature between philosophy and religion and its lack of fixed commandments, Daoism defies western expectation, making it extremely difficult to be applied to western concepts and ideas.