If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.
The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.
Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 57, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We now arrive at a series of chapters which will deal with how to properly govern. It is a manual for would-be leaders. I sometimes think our rulers have taken a page out of Lao Tzu’s book on the art of living, and decided to do just the opposite of what he tells them to do. For me, from the moment I first encountered this chapter, and the ones that follow, it just made perfect sense to me, intuitively. I understand that it defies conventional wisdom. But I also understand that it is conventional wisdom that has gotten us in the mess we find ourselves in. If only, I find myself muttering to myself repeatedly, if only powerful men and women would follow Lao Tzu’s sage advice.
For Lao Tzu, has just the perfect prescription. If you want to be a great leader, you must first learn to follow. Humble yourself. You don’t know all that you think you know. You only think you know. Spend some time in the low places. Get acquainted with the way things actually are. Then you can understand better, how you might be able to lead. Learning to follow the Tao means we stop trying to control. And, learning to follow the Tao means letting go of fixed plans and concepts.
If would-be leaders would do these two things – stop trying to control, and let go of fixed plans and concepts – the world would govern itself. The rest of the chapter is where Lao Tzu breaks down these two things to properly explains them for us.
We will start by taking a look at our control issues. What are the three ways that the ruling elite tries to control us? First, they try to control us through a multitude of prohibitions. Second, they try to control us with weapons. Third, they try to control us through subsidies.
Who can begin to number the prohibitions that have been put in place to try and control us? The number seems to grow exponentially with each succeeding administration. I can’t speak for those of you that live outside the United States, though I suspect things are quite the same. But, here in the United States, where we are told we are free, I have heard it said that the average person commits felonies on a pretty regular basis, in complete ignorance of that fact. There are so many prohibitions on the books, we can’t possibly know them all, let alone keep from violating a good number of them. If the goal of all these prohibitions, whether stated or unstated, is to make of us a virtuous people, Lao Tzu has news, which isn’t really news to anyone with a lick of sense. Far from making us virtuous, the result is to make us less virtuous. Most of us are now felons, whether we know it, or not. Which might explain the reason the powers that be want to eavesdrop on every word we speak and every move we make. As if our prisons aren’t already overcrowded. But the prison industry is big business. There is lots of money to be made in locking up non-violent offenders.
Then there are the weapons arrayed against us. Oh, they don’t tell us those weapons are meant to control us. They are meant to defend us. I am talking about our armed forces and our police state. Plenty of people continue to believe the lie. We are supposed to honor our men and women in uniform who are “defending our freedoms.” And, everyone who has ever had a run-in with police, must have done something bad. Of course we have. We commit x number of felonies all the time. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. We really need to be controlled. Now, let me ask just one question. Why do you feel less and less secure with each passing day?
And, there are the many subsidies they use to control us. As if the first two weren’t insidious enough. The purpose of subsidies, which will never be admitted by the powers that be, is to render the recipients of said subsidies, dependent on the giver. That, and the reality that subsidies to corporations favor some over others, creating monopolies, and limiting consumers’ freedom to choose alternatives. I simply cannot believe that anyone in government can be so ignorant as to not understand exactly what they are doing. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be. But that is just the point. Like I said, it is insidious. They don’t want self-reliant people. They don’t want people to feel secure. They don’t want virtuous people. They want people dependent on them. They want us scared. They want us compliant.
A great leader would learn to follow the Tao. They would stop trying to control. And they would let go of fixed plans and concepts. Those fixed plans and concepts are merely their designs for controlling the population. Let’s take a look at them, one by one.
First, there is the law. Lao Tzu tells us the Master says, I let go of the law, and people become honest. Is Lao Tzu promoting lawlessness? Is that what letting go of the law, means? It isn’t lawlessness that Lao Tzu is promoting. It is simply understanding the way things are. The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. That is the corollary. That is the way things are. Likewise, by letting go of the law, by letting go of law as a fixed plan or concept, people become honest.
Second, the Master says, I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. If you want to get under my skin tell me that our current economic system is a free market. Or, better yet, tell me that a free market would be a terrible thing. There have been times in my nation’s history where the markets were more free than they are today, but there never has been a time when the market was truly free of government intrusion. And it has always been captains of industry that were seeking favors from the government to get the government to meddle in the market. Our current economic system is some monstrous blending of capitalism and socialism, and it wouldn’t be fair to either one of them to straight out call it one or the other. It is a Chimera. Everything that is bad about it is always blamed on either capitalism or socialism but never the fact that both of them have been blended into one unholy and unnatural union. But I wouldn’t be pleased, even if it could truly be called one or the other. If I wanted to be gracious I would say that powerful men and women simply don’t understand that economics, as a fixed plan and concept, is not something they have any business meddling in. The only way for all people, rather than just some people, to become prosperous is to let go of the need to try and control people through economic means.
Third, the Master says, I let go of religion and people become serene. Serenity. That is the stated purpose of religion, I believe. I am not going to bad mouth any religions, here. I think they do enough damage to themselves, all by themselves. But letting go of religion doesn’t mean being irreligious, so much as it means being free from religion as a fixed plan and concept designed to control the masses. You are free to worship or not worship whoever or whatever you wish. You are free to abide by or not abide by whatever doctrine you wish. But you are not free to force others to abide by the dictates of your religion. Let go of your need to control; and all will become serene.
Finally, the Master says, I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes as common as grass. This is the one that always trips us up. Every new piece of legislation is always trumpeted as being for the common good. Or, one of my favorites, “it’s for the children.” You would think, as desirous as we all say that we are for the common good, that the common good would already be quite common. But the problem lies in desire. And meddling. In trying to control. In trying to make people virtuous. In fixed plans and concepts. The world can actually govern itself, if we would just let it, if we let go of our desire.
We need to understand how the Universe actually operates. We need to learn to follow the Tao. All our efforts to get what we want by means at odds with the Tao are doomed to end in failure. Would-be leaders, take note.