Buddhism and Libertarianism

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Buddhism and Libertarianism

Finding libertarian parallels in the Asian philosophy

By Justin Hartfield

 

In my previous article, we've discovered that Buddhism is only interested in discerning what's real from what isn't. We've also learned that what's real exists in all times and all places, and is not subject to change nor to blackout dates, which means I have to assume my Wild Rivers season pass isn't real either.


To a Buddhist, base human nature is something that never changes, despite advancements in technology, medicine and government. The famous Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (born ~600 B.C.) said, "The way of nature is not contrived, yet nothing which is required is left undone."

Pointing to nature, he saw that animals didn't establish governments because they had no ideals to hold onto. Nor does the cricket hatch out a darkroom scheme to become the Grand Supreme Ruler of all his fellow crickets. Nor does the bird sing in an attempt to acquire a nest with two and half baths, no Mello-Roos, and a whitewater view of the ocean.

This is in direct opposition to the way most human beings feel, and what most humans believe they need. Nature is not contrived, but human action most certainly is. We humans are constantly attempting to one-up each other, or in some way improve ourselves, all of which are forms of contriving. But in nature, and in Buddhism both, there is no room for improvement because everything is already perfect (and there's nothing to improve anyway). Whenever you try to suppress these (un)natural urges, it's like trying to hold your hand up to a waterfall in an attempt to stop the water from flowing off the cliff. Ya just can't.

 

This idea has tremendous implications for the way one looks at government because it means that a good leader is someone who can control their base impulses and rule the country in a way which most closely follows nature. Allow me to quote from the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu's most remembered work, so you can have a better idea of what it means in Lao Tzu's mind to "follow nature".

 

On governing a country:

To rule a country,

one must act with care,

as when frying the smallest fish.

If actions are approached,

and carried out in the natural way,

the power of evil is reduced,

and so the ruler and the ruled

are equally protected.

They will not contrive to harm each other,

for the virtue of one refreshes the other.

 

If you've ever cooked a small fish before, you know that excessive prodding and stirring will cause the delicate fish to fall apart, thus rendering your lunch inedible. In this view, the natural way is always through the path of the least resistance. For example, when water is poured onto the ground, it will always follow the path of least resistance in trying to reach a lower level.

So the way to good government is identical- without any unnecessary action or contriving, a government which governs best is one which governs the least. This is Lao Tzu's most elementary lesson, and all other axioms about government invariably come back to this central idea.

 

On a good leader:

The work of the leader should ensure

the prosperity of the populace.

It is of no advantage to have too much success,

so do not sound loudly like jade bells,

nor clatter like stone chimes.

 

Since the most extravagant things begin their life as something lowly (the Grand Canyon from a tiny stream, the mighty Oak Tree from the acorn), a good leader should take little credit for his success. The Buddhist would say that instead of holding parades, banquets and other public celebrations for the President of the United States, he should rather perform his job like that of the head of sanitation for a small city. Both are simply jobs; each should be devoid of special privilege.

Without fanfare, the head of sanitation does his job. He doesn't look for accolades or public praise because he knows they are of secondary importance to his actual job, maintaining the health of the people in his community.

 

On national defense:

The biggest fish stay deep in the pond,

and a country's best weapons

should be kept locked away.

That which is soft and supple,

may overcome the hard and strong.

 

Notice how Lao Tzu accepts the fact that a state must have weapons in order to continue its survival. He's certainly not advising to destroy the armaments of the country, but more precisely he's implying that in nature, those who are strong will some day be weak, and those who give will also have to receive. To the Buddhist, maintaining good relations is more important in the long term than war. But realistically, the country must still possess its "best weapons" in order to defend itself against invasion.
****

These are just some of the many parallels ancient Chinese philosophy has to modern day libertarianism. If you found this interesting, I encourage you to read Stan Rosenthal's fantastic English translation of the Tao Te Ching here.

 

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Andrew Seeran said:

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Your article is entitled Buddhism and Libertarianism, however you only quote Taoist philosophers. Certainly Taoism had a significant impact on Chinese Buddhism and Zen in particular. However, this is only a fraction of world Buddhism. Furthermore, it still neglects the Mahayana scriptures foundational to these Taoist influenced traditions.
 
January 06, 2009
Votes: +1

Victroia said:

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You quoted a good leader is "The work of the leader should ensure

the prosperity of the populace." and Buddhism is almost solely based on compassion for others to me in this interprets into social programs and wealth equality. This is much more akin to socialism than libertarianism.
 
May 27, 2009
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January 21, 2010
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