When the Master governs,
the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say,
‘Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!’
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 17, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
For those of my followers who are going through the Tao Te Ching with me for the first time, today’s chapter is almost an introduction to the art of governing, governing in a way that follows the Tao. Back in chapter eight he mentioned it for the first time when he said, “In governing, don’t try to control.” Short and sweet, it really said everything that Lao Tzu will go on to say about the art of governing. But, today, he begins expanding on this theme. How do you govern people without trying to control them? Some people think governing is all about trying to control. So, how does governing without trying to control even work? And, today’s chapter is only the beginning; as we continue, we will have chapter after chapter devoted to the art of governing. That is good news for me, since I was a libertarian, interested in limited government, for decades before I ever encountered Lao Tzu’s philosophy. I know I tend to start ranting when I get to chapters like today’s. It is one thing that I have been passionate about for a very long time. But, I hope to keep the ranting to a minimum, today. I have so many future chapters to look forward to. No need to get all worked up, today.
Murray Rothbard, among other libertarians, consider Lao Tzu to be the first libertarian. And, I readily admit it was how very libertarian the Tao Te Ching seemed to be to me, as I read it for the very first time, that drew me into philosophical Taoism.
Lao Tzu begins by listing four different types of leaders. He lists them from best to worst. The best is the one who governs in perfect harmony with the Tao. That would be when the Master governs. When he governs, people are hardly aware that he exists. He doesn’t talk, he acts. And, when his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it all by ourselves!”
That is certainly the ideal. And, I am certain there are those who will say, it is idealistic and unrealistic. It just can’t and won’t ever happen. Which is why, I suppose, Lao Tzu offers us the next three leaders in descending order.
Next best is a leader who is loved. If we can’t and won’t have the ideal leader, at least we can settle for one we can love. A leader who is loved can’t be all that bad, can they?
I guess that would depend on how universally loved dear leader is. I know people that love our current leader. I also know people who fear him. And, people who despise him.
The problem with a country that is trying to be a democracy is pleasing a majority at the expense of a minority doesn’t bode too well for the minority. Oh, but just wait until the present minority is able to sway enough voters to their side, then we’ll have the new majority pleased at the expense of the new minority. This is the constant game being played in politics in my country and all around the world. Where every new election we are told, when our candidate loses, just wait until the next election for your next chance for power.
I am always in the minority because I don’t want power. I just want to be left alone. And there has never been a majority that wanted that. Sorry, I won’t vote for evil, for your lesser evil is always someone’s greater.
It would be nice, I will concede, if we could clearly delineate between a leader who is loved, one who is feared, and one who is despised. But politics is never that clear. The reality has always been that while some will love you, others will fear you, and plenty will despise you. For my own part, I have cleared things up for myself as much as I can. I despise anyone who aspires to power, anyone who desires to control others. The only person fit for the position of leader over all the people wouldn’t aspire to the position in the first place.
I can see that this is getting dangerously close to a rant, and I really want to avoid that today.
So, getting back to today’s chapter, what does Lao Tzu have to say about what separates the leader who is loved, feared, or despised, from the Master when he governs?
It all comes down to trust. The Master trusts the people. And the people prove themselves to be trustworthy.
That is what sets the Master apart from everyone else. The rest, whether they are loved, or feared, or despised, don’t trust the people. And that is what ends up making the people untrustworthy.
Forget all the promises the candidates for office make. We know they are meaningless. They have such good intentions. Just ask them. They’ll tell you. But their motivation for running for office is always the same. They don’t trust us to govern ourselves. They need to control us. People can’t fend for themselves. They need me and my government to fend for them. They need the subsidies that I will offer them. They need me to lead their armed forces. They need me!
So, while having the Master govern may seem idealistic to some of you, I know that having the Master governing is the only acceptable form of governing for me. Forever in the minority, perhaps. But, Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”
I am happy to take that one step today.