Taoism and the first liberals

A history of (classical) liberalisms, Chapter One

Liberalism has many distinct historical traditions. Contemporary liberal theorists often assume a level of familiarity with that history of ideas which has made the project more difficult to understand for those new to the ideas. This is my attempt to make intelligible the most influential ideas and theorists in the liberal tradition. Each chapter is written to be self-contained, so they can be read in any order you like. Despite that, I will do my best to publish them in an approximate historical order. However, ideas inevitably influence each other and often it’s difficult to definitively say what came ‘first.’ If I’ve left something critical out or misrepresented an idea, please don’t hesitate to let me know! If you’re interested in collaborating on this project I would also welcome help as the chapters begin to approach modernity.

This Chapter is on the original laissez-faire form of Taoism, as expressed by the most influential writers in that tradition. The next chapter is on early Christianity, and will be finished whenever I feel like it and no sooner. 😉

Laissez-faire Taoism (~400 B.C.-400 A.D.)

Lao Tzu (~4th century B.C.)1

“The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished; the more useful implements the people possess, the more the state becomes disorderly; the more artifices and clever skills men acquire, the more harmful things they will produce. The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

“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, I am without desires and the people are themselves pristine.”

Lao Tzu’s philosophy of Taoism is the first surviving written record we have of a liberal philosophy. The foundations of Taoism have to do with only taking actions which are in accord with the natural course of the universe. Foundational for Lao Tzu is the idea that the universe is constantly evolving, moving, or transforming. And wu-wei as used by him is the way of acting and moving with the flow of the universe, rather than attempting to force your own will upon things. Water is the symbolic embodiment of wu-wei in this sense, as water acts without motive. The phrase ‘non-doing’ (the English word for wu-wei) has recently begun to re-enter the Western lexicon thanks to a recent resurgence in the popularity of both Taoism and Alexander Technique. Lao didn’t believe that acting on the world around you or having an independent will was bad in and of itself, rather he advocated for placing your will in harmony with the universe, rather than going against the flow of life. But he did believe that this would inevitably lead people to have fewer desires. He also applied this philosophy to government, and therefore advocated for a government that governed through inaction. “By doing it without taking action, there is nothing that is not well-governed.” He believed that all forcible interventions into the natural state of affairs by governments would lead to what he called the ‘evil harvest’ that an activist government was destined to reap. He believed that the most injurious actions the State could force upon people were taxation, war, and punishments.

Zhuangzi (Zhuang Zhou, 369-286 B.C.)2

“The common people have a constant nature; they spin and are clothed, till and are fed. This is called 'the natural capacity, te, which they all alike possess.' They are as one in this, and not so because of conscious inclina­tion; it is what may be called their 'natural freedom.'”

“Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone.”

Master Zhaung is the author and namesake of the Zhaungzi which remains perhaps the single most influential work of Chinese literature, and one of the foundational texts of Taoism. He expanded upon Lao Tzu’s laissez-faire ideals of non-interventionism and espoused the earliest written theory of natural rights, which included at its foundation the belief that all things were equal and that all people had the natural capacity to act which implied a natural right to the freedom to do so. Applying his philosophy to government he believed that if one did not “permit them [people] to follow freely the course of their natures” that chaos was inevitable. Even well-intentioned attempts to instill higher values in people like benevolence, righteousness, and knowledge, would inevitably result in hatred and war; and “the blame for it all must be put on working on people’s minds.” Zhaung’s writings are therefore not only the first written record of a theory of natural rights, but also mark the first formal critique of forcible knowledge acquisition, something that would later become a focal point of the liberal project for thinkers two millenia later including Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, and John Holt. Zhaung Zhou strongly believed that all people had an incalculable and absolute value, that all men were chen-jen or ‘true men’ already without the need for education or outside intervention. He believed in the innate goodness within all people, saying that men were “upright without knowing about righteousness, all have concern for each other without knowing about benevolence, they are genuine without knowing about loyalty, reliable without knowing about trustworthiness.”

Sima Qian (145-90 B.C.)3

“Society obviously must have farmers before it can eat; foresters, fishermen, miners, etc., before it can make use of natural resources; craftsmen before it can have manufactured goods; and merchants before they can be distributed. But once these exist, what need is there for government directives, mobilizations of labor, or periodic assemblies. Each man has only to be left to utilize his own abilities and exert his strength to obtain what he wishes. Thus, when a commodity is very cheap, it invites a rise in price; when it is very expensive, it invites a reduction. When each person works away at his own occupation and delights in his own business then, like water flowing downward, goods will naturally flow forth ceaselessly day and night without having been summoned, and the people will produce commodities without having been asked. Does this not tally with reason. Is it not a natural result?”

Sima Qian, with the help of his father before his passing, produced the first written chronological historical record of China: Shiji or The Records of the Grand Historian. The work is considered the foundational text of Chinese history and mythology and many consider him to be the first historian in the modern sense. Though it would be flatly incorrect to label him a Taoist, the early seeds of his laissez-faire Spontaneous Order Theory (what would later famously be called the ‘Invisible Hand’ by Adam Smith) which Qian was the first to formally espouse were undeniably influenced by Zhaung. Unlike the Taoists of his day, Qian believed that it was both natural and good for everyone to desire to accumulate wealth, and that it was to the benefit of everyone else that they do so. He believed that prices were a natural reflection of the availability of both resources and money. And he also provided the first historical record of a currency debasement and the resulting price inflation.

“It had been over forty years since Emperor Wen changed over to the lom-shu copper coins. From the beginning of Emperor Wu’s reign, because revenues in coin had been rather scarce, the district officials had from time to time extracted copper from the mountains in their areas and minted new coins, while among the common people there was a good deal of illegal minting of coins, until the number in circulation had grown beyond estimate. As the coins became more numerous and of poorer quality, goods became scarcer and higher in price.”

The Poets: Juan Chi (210-263 A.D.) and T'ao Ch'ien (365-427 A.D.)4

Though neither Lao Tzu or Zhuang Zhou shied away from critiquing the state both merely advocated for a state that avoided interference into people’s daily lives. These two poets took things a step further and advocated explicitly for no rulers. Both T’ao Ch’ien and Juan Chi often expressed a nostalgia for a time before rulers when man was in his ‘naturally free’ state. Juan Chi believed that the only way to achieve true contentment was to eliminate all desires and aspirations. The desire to gain fortune too would inevitably lead to one to ruin. He believed that politics was evidence of man’s degeneration from his natural state of delighting in nature, being fully free to act in harmony with the flow of the universe. T’ao Ch’ien in his most well-known fable The Peach Blossom Spring describes his protagonist’s encounter with a people who had long since escaped from a tyrant, and had been thriving free from rulers in secret.

Pao Ching-yen (sometime between 200-340 A.D.)5

“The Confucians say that heaven produced the masses of the people and erected the ruler over them. But is it likely that August Heaven ["Nature"] in its earnest words would have declared such an intent? Rather, the strong coerced the weak, and the weak then submitted to them. The intelligent deceived the simple-minded and in consequence the simple-minded came to serve them. From that submission arose the way of ruler and servitor; from that servitude the people, being devoid of strength, were brought under control. Truly, then, that submis­sion and that servitude result from the contest of strength and the match­ing of wits and have nothing to do with a vast and distant heaven.”

Nothing is known about Pao Ching-yen’s life except his writings. Among them are blistering attacks on the Divine Right of Kings and repeated assertions that all people are naturally born both free and equal, both of which would later come to define the liberal tradition in the West. He believed that government was never instituted to benefit people, but instead was created to steal from and control them. Pao Ching-yen’s belief that ruler’s authority came from neither divine will, nor the consent of man is the earliest record of an explicitly anarchist tradition within liberalism that would not gain popular recognition for nearly two millennia. Though many of his writings critique the State, his work was undeniably building upon the Taoist foundations of Lao Tzu and Zhuang Zhou, taking their ideas about nature and wu-wei to their logical conclusions.

The end of the Beginning6

As Confusionism fell out of favor with the ruling class of China for the new Taoism of thinkers like Wang Pi (226-249 A.D.) who didn’t universally condemn rules and rulers, Taoists began to reject the liberal laissez-faire ideal towards governance espoused by Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi. Later Taoists, most notably Ge Hong (or ‘Ko Hung’, 238-343 A.D.), also believed that the anarchist expression of this ideal espoused by Pao was unreasonable. Ge Hong believed that the establishment of hierarchies and rulers was a natural state of the universe, which also benefitted the common people. He rebuked Pao’s belief that the State arose from a struggle of the strong against the weak, saying instead that “the sage ruler receieved a mandate from heaven to carry on his work… The common people gladly supported, upheld them and venerated them. How then can one speak of cheating the ignorant or abusing the weak?” Ge Hong proposed a different vision of life before rulers than the poets did too, believing instead that the institution of rulers was neccesary to bring people out of both chaos and destitution. As one might imagine, Ge Hong’s romantic view of governments remained wildly popular with the ruling classes of ancient China for centuries until Buddhism arrived, presenting a new competing cultural and religious force. By the early 4th century and the end of the Jin Dynasty, the liberal chapter in Taoism had been mostly closed and the original laissez-faire form of Lao Tzu’s philosophy would not see a popular revival for over a millenium.

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Hsiao, K.-C. (1979). Reversal is the Movement of Tao. In History of Chinese Political Thought (Vol. 1, pp. 283-300). Princeton University Pres.


Hsiao, K.-C. (1979). Letting People Alone. In History of Chinese Political Thought (Vol. 1, pp. 306-318). Princeton University Pres.


Sima, Q. (1961). Records of the Grand Historian of China. (B. Watson, Trans.). Columbia University Press.


Hsiao, K.-C. (1979). No Ruler. In History of Chinese Political Thought (Vol. 1, pp. 619-630). Princeton University Pres.




Hsiao, K.-C. (1979). Ko Hung. In History of Chinese Political Thought (Vol. 1, pp. 644-656). Princeton University Pres.