Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.
Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.
Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 60, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We have been talking a lot the last few days about the art of governing, of how to be a great leader. Yesterday, we talked about the virtue of self-restraint when governing. The reason self-restraint is such a virtue is because it is so very tempting to interfere. Few are those that would let the world govern itself. Though that is precisely what would happen if our rulers could restrain themselves.
Lao Tzu thinks there is a lesson they could learn by simply frying a small fish. Anyone who has ever fried a small fish knows this lesson well. You must restrain yourself. Oh, but that frying fish is screaming out to be poked at. And so we do. We poke and poke and poke. And dinner gets ruined. Governing a large country is just like this. Don’t poke! Don’t interfere! Don’t meddle! Restrain yourself! Why won’t we learn?
Long before I ever had read anything about philosophical Taoism. Before I ever heard of Lao Tzu, I came home from college having been introduced to the likes of Milton Friedman and his book “Free To Choose.” My econ professor introduced me to Austrian economics. I was reading scandalous articles about limited government. Why we needed to have a free market. One that wasn’t interfered with. I told my father that we needed to decriminalize all victimless crimes. That drug prohibition didn’t actually solve the problems associated with drug use. That it only produced more and more problems. We needed to decriminalize not just marijuana but all drugs. Get rid of the FDA. We don’t need the government telling us what is good and bad. Let people be free to choose for themselves what they wanted to do with their own bodies. That prostitution should be decriminalized. If consenting adults wanted to trade sex for money or money for sex, that was their own business. As long as one person wasn’t harming another, it wasn’t any concern of the government. My father wasn’t pleased. He tried to assure me that there was just one flaw with my reasoning: That people have to be protected from themselves. People just couldn’t be trusted with the kind of freedom I was envisioning. I listened to my wise father. But I couldn’t agree with him. Freedom was too important. If some people couldn’t be trusted that was just too bad for them. The rest of us shouldn’t suffer for the foolishness of others. My father, wise as he was, was a slave to fear. He was especially fearful of the problem of evil. We needed to have a strong government to deal with the problem of evil.
I wish I had had a copy of the Tao Te Ching for my father to read in those days. But that was many years ago. Before Stephen Mitchell’s translation, which really changed my life. My father was long gone before I came across it. But Lao Tzu understood something, more than two thousand years ago. He understood how to deal with the problem of evil. A problem which has plagued all generations for as long as recorded history.
The problem of evil. Read through history books and you will be told that if it is left alone it gets stronger and stronger. Read all of the great works of fiction and you will see a common theme. Evil must be confronted and dealt with. Good will win out in the end. But only after a mighty struggle.
How naive Lao Tzu must be! Here he tells us that all we need to do to deal with the problem of evil is center our country in the Tao. That will deprive it of its power. Lao Tzu doesn’t deny its existence. He doesn’t even promise that it will ever go away. He merely tells us how to render it powerless. How we can step out of its way.
I will admit to you, my friends, that when I first read these words, I thought much the same of Lao Tzu. How naive! For I had read the history books. I had read many of the great works of fiction. I knew better. The problem of evil wasn’t something we could simply ignore.
But I kept reading Lao Tzu’s words. And slowly they began to work their way into my heart. Then I started to do some critical thinking while I read the histories. Who was writing these accounts? The victors. Could I really trust their accounting of history? What was it that had caused evil to rear its ugly head? Had it happened because countries were centered in the Tao? That they just sat back and did nothing? And evil, left alone, just grew and grew? That didn’t seem to be the way things were. No, it seemed to me that what caused wars of aggression, were people, on both sides, that wanted to be aggressive.
I began to realize that works of fiction thrived on a grand battle between good and evil. Lao Tzu, as a fiction writer, wouldn’t have sold many copies.
And my libertarian leanings were finally leading me to an understanding of the State. The State doesn’t want to do away with evil. It delights in it. Our rulers thrive on it. Where there is no enemy they will manufacture one or more out of thin air. War is the health of the State. Our rulers want us to be afraid. Just like my father was afraid. They want us afraid and dependent on them to “rid” the Earth of this problem. Though they never do get rid of the problem either. They just make it spread. So their own health grows, by leaps and bounds. I realized who our real enemy is: Leviathan.
Still, I wish that there were people who were truly great leaders. We need them now more than ever before. People who understand that if you give evil nothing to oppose, it will disappear all by itself. Call me naive. Go ahead, I can take it. But I have looked in my own heart, and I know it is true.