Chapter 57 – Govern Best, Govern Least
Govern the state with correctness.
Operate the army with surprise tactics.
Administer the empire by engaging in no activity.
How do I know that this should be so? Through this:
The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world,
The poorer the people will be.
The more sharp weapons the people have,
The more troubled the state will be.
The more cunning and skill a man possesses,
The more vicious things will appear.
The more laws and orders are made prominent,
The more thieves and robbers there will be.
Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and the people of themselves are transformed.
I love tranquillity and the people of themselves become correct.
I engage in no activity and the people of themselves become prosperous.
I have no desires and the people of themselves become simple.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
It is “Tao Te Ching Tuesday” and Spring – when a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of . . . politics[?].
This chapter and the next several chapters discuss issues relating to governing a country or a kingdom. It has been my impression that the wise and sagacious generally do not participate in politics. Even I, who am neither, go out of my way to avoid anything political.* With the prevalence – especially in national elections – of negative campaigning, special interest groups, a divided and ineffective Congress and everything else that has become associated with modern politics, you would have to be crazy to want to run for any major office. Consequently, government often seems to be made up of crazy men and women with oversized egos. The wise, on the other hand can look at it all from the sidelines, 25 centuries in the past, and shake their heads muttering, “It’s not supposed to be like this.”
From these next few chapters one learns that Lao Tzu did not view big government favorably and felt that if a people had to be governed it should be by a sage-like leader. The advice given here is simple and straightforward: Govern in a moral and correct fashion; if war is necessary, strike quickly and get it over with; and the proper action is usually inaction (wu wei).
He tells us that having more laws simply makes it harder for people to be law-abiding. This is similar to the bumper stickers that proclaim, “When Guns Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Guns.” However, he does not seem to favor an armed citizenry, seeing that situation as bad for the state.
In Chapter 17, Lao Tzu told us that the best rulers are not loved or praised or feared or despised. The best are those who are merely known by the people to exist way off in the capital. Such rulers quietly do what is necessary to govern. Their unintrusive ways permit the populace to live in accord with the flow of Nature.
Lao Tzu was not alone in his view of government. In the Analects, Confucius says:
To have taken no [unnatural] action [i.e., to follow the principle of wu-wei] and yet have the empire well governed, Shun was the man!. What did he do? All he did was make himself reverent and correctly face South [in his royal seat as ruler]. (Analects 15:4, translated by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963).)
Chuang Tzu tells us:
The wise man, then, when he must govern, knows how to do nothing. Letting things alone, he rests in his original nature. He who will govern will respect the governed no more than he will respect himself. If he loves his own person enough to let it rest in its original truth, he will govern others without hurting them. Let him keep the deep drives in his own guts from going into action. Let him keep still, not looking, not hearing. Let him sit like a corpse, with the Dragon power alive all around him. In complete silence, his voice will be like thunder. His movements will be invisible, like those of a spirit, but the powers of heaven will go with them. Unconcerned, doing nothing, he will see all things grown ripe around him. Where will he find time to govern? (Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (1965) at 71)
The views of these Chinese sages are not so different from those the Greek sage Plato expressed in his Republic. In that work, Socrates and others are depicted discussing things such as the meaning of justice, how justice relates to happiness and forms of government. He argues that the ideal government is one which fosters harmonious cooperation among its citizens. Such a utopia would be possible only under the rule of a philosopher-king who was intelligent, dedicated, reliable and willing to live according to the simple laws of nature along with his subjects.
Moving farther West, the transcendalist-Unitarian thoughts of Henry David Thoreau seem relevant. His essay Civil Disobediance was published in 1849, based on a series of lectures he had given the previous year. He was extremely concerned with the immorality and injustice of both slavery in the Americas and the Mexican-American War. He argued that governments typically cause more harm than good and that it is the moral duty of all people to follow their conscience and do what is right rather than merely follow the laws – especially if the laws themselves are not just.
Thoreau recognized that there were people willing to oppose the injustices of slavery and of the war, but most of those good people dutifully followed the government’s laws and paid the taxes that were levied to support what he thought were immoral actions. He said that it is not enough to follow the political process to try to effect change. Rather, the morally correct response would be to withdraw all support from the government and stop paying taxes.
Those views are not exactly what Lao Tzu is saying in this chapter. They have been mentioned to give some perspective to the most famous quotation from Thoreau’s essay, which is:
I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.
Note that Thoreau says we will finally be able to experience the best government, which does not govern at all, “when men are prepared for it.” It seems that Lao Tzu, Confucius, Chuang Tzu and Plato all recognized that caveat. Until that time – and it is not here yet – some form of government is necessary. We should all hope that we can find a sage-philosopher-king/president to lead it.
A legitimate question, then, is what can we expect if the people are not prepared and our leaders remain the crazy folks who are dragged through the election process. Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt seems to be popular among pop-historians these days, and something he said that may point us toward an answer. In a famous speech he gave at Paris’ Sorbonne in 1910 he said:
The gravest wrong upon his country is inflicted by that man, whatever his station, who seeks to make his countrymen divide primarily in the line that separates class from class, occupation from occupation, men of more wealth from men of less wealth, instead of remembering that the only safe standard is that which judges each man on his worth as a man, whether he be rich or whether he be poor, without regard to his profession or to his station in life. Such is the only true democratic test, the only test that can with propriety be applied in a republic. … There have been many republics in the past, both in what we call antiquity and in what we call the Middle Ages. They fell, and the prime factor in their fall was the fact that the parties tended to divide the line that separates wealth from poverty; It made no difference which side was successful; it made no difference whether the republic fell under the rule of oligarchy or under the rule of a mob.In either case, once loyalty to a class had been substituted for loyalty to the republic, the end of the republic was at hand.
At least to some extent, those divisions are being seen in societies around the world. Poverty and unemployment played an important role in the violent demonstrations that have been called the “Arab Spring.” In the United States, the disparity between the 1% and the 99% has been discussed and debated for several years. I mentioned these issues in my discussion of Chapter 53, and I don’t intend to discuss them further here.
We should remember to that if the wrong leader – one who is not a sage and does not have concern for the people – does nothing, we may not be closer to utopia. As the other President Roosevelt – Franklin – said in 1936:
For 12 years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. … Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government, with its doctrine that the government is best which is most indifferent.
* As full disclosure, I need to mention that I was a member of the Board of Education in Clear Creek County for a time. I was appointed to fill a vacancy. When the election came around, I agreed to “run,” but refused to campaign. The lady who won my seat was a practicing witch. Leading up to the election, I found things like dead cats left at the top of our driveway, and I came to believe that she was doing some evil “spells” against me. Thinking that was ridiculous, I closed my eyes and said, “I now invoke the rule of three, and as I will so mote it be.” I let it go at that. Over the next couple of years the new school board member-witch brought about a very divisive situation in the district, she lost her job and lost her house to foreclosure. I’m not saying it was the “rule of three”; I’m just saying …. There was another candidate for the position, who was an elderly, childless, born-again fundamentalist Christian. I am pretty sure he did not cast any kind of spell against anyone.