It’s Because of Those Above

“The reason people are hungry
is that those above levy so many taxes
this is why they are hungry
the reason people are hard to rule
is that those above are so forceful
this is why they are hard to rule
the reason people think little of death
is that those above think so much of life
this is why they think little of death
meanwhile those who do nothing to live
are more esteemed than those who love life”

(Taoteching, verse 75, translation by Red Pine)

DUKE AI approached YU JUO: “The year is one of famine, and my revenues are wanting. What am I to do?” Yu Juo replied, “Return to the 10 percent rate of taxation.” Duke Ai said, “But I cannot get by on 20 percent. How will I survive on 10 percent?” Yu Juo replied, “When the people don’t want, why should the ruler want. When the people want, why should the ruler not want?” (Lunyu: 12.9).

WANG PI says, “The people hide and disorder prevails because of those above, not because of those below. The people follow those above.”

LI HSI-CHAI says, “If those above take too much, those below will be impoverished. If those above use too much force, those below will rebel. This is a matter of course. When people think their own life is more important, and they disregard the lives of other, why should others not treat death lightly? Sages don’t think about life unless they are forced to.”

TE CH’ING says, “Robbers and thieves arise from hunger and cold. If people are hungry and have no means to live, they have no choice but to steal. When people steal, it’s because those above force them. They force people to turn to stealing and then try to rule with cleverness and laws. But the more laws they make, the more thieves appear. Even the threat of the executioner’s ax doesn’t frighten them. And the reason people aren’t frightened by death is that those above are so concerned with life.”

SU CH’E says, “When those above use force to lead the people, the people respond with force. Thus do complications multiply and the people become hard to rule.”

WANG CHEN says, “‘Forceful’ refers to the ruler’s love of might and arms. But once arms prevail, disorder is certain.”

HUAI-NAN-TZU says, “The reason people cannot live out their allotted years and are sentenced to death in midlife is that they think so much of life. Meanwhile, those who do nothing to stay alive are able to lengthen their lives” (Huainantzu: 7).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Only those who do nothing to stay alive, who aren’t moved by titles or sinecures, who aren’t affected by wealth or advantages, who refuse to serve the emperor or run errands for lesser lords – they alone are more esteemed than those who love life.”

YEN TSUN says, “The Natural Way always turns things upside down. What has no body lives. What has a body dies. To be alive and to seek advantages is the beginning of death. Not to be alive and to get rid of advantages is the beginning of life. Those who don’t work to live live long.”

WANG TAO says, “The meaning of the last two lines is: If I didn’t have this body of mine, what worries would I have?”

WANG P’ANG says, “If you understand only one of these three, you can understand the other two.”

With today’s verse, Lao-tzu continues teaching on the art of governing. And I feel like I am picking up on a particular tone from Lao-tzu in this verse. It is a tone I have become quite adept at whenever I am trying to reason with people about what I think should be common sense, but is all too uncommon.

What is the reason people are hungry? What is the reason people are hard to rule? What is the reason people think so little of death? These are questions those who govern us should understand the answers to, but they don’t.

And as Lao-tzu takes these questions, one by one, he makes his point as clear as he possibly can, by repeating it again.

Those above levy so many taxes! Those above are so forceful! Those above think so much of their own lives!

Need I say it again? Taxation is theft. And everywhere we turn, every thing is taxed. Producers are taxed. What they produce is taxed. And consumers get taxed for having the audacity to want to purchase some of what is produced. Everything costs much more than it would if it wasn’t for all this taxation, and what do we get back for all this taxation? Nada. Don’t even start with me about all the wonderful government programs which get funded by that thing you call necessary, taxation. If the government really wanted to do something for the people, they should stop stealing so much of our hard-earned money. Our very livelihood is taxed, and you wonder why people are hungry? Don’t be stupid.

Force and the threat of force, that is how we are governed. Our governments don’t understand elementary laws of physics when it comes to the use of force. Newton’s Third Law of Motion for instance, which states: for every force, there is a reaction force that is equal in size, but opposite in direction. Therefore, whenever one object pushes another object, it gets pushed in the opposite direction equally as hard. That is what makes people hard to rule. When you push, expect to be pushed back. If you don’t want the reaction, then don’t do the action.

For the last couple of verses Lao-tzu has been talking about people not fearing death; so what’s the use in threatening them? And he said, then, it is because those above keep making up new rules and punishments, to the point people no longer care about their life. Now, Lao-tzu says it is because those above love their life too much.

I always enjoy rereading the account of Duke Ai approaching Yu Juo (from the commentary today). Duke Ai was in great distress. It was a time of famine, and his tax revenues were “wanting.” Yu Juo’s response was priceless: Cut the taxes in half! Duke Ai was astounded by this advice. What? Are you mad? I can’t survive on the tax revenue as it is. If I cut it in half, how will I survive? This reminds me of the kind of talk we hear coming out of capitols everywhere, whenever anyone has the temerity to suggest taxes should be cut. How they wail! How will we be able to pay for all this largess? Except they don’t call it largess. They call it necessary expenditures. Don’t believe it. As Yu Juo said to Duke Ai: “When the people don’t want, why should you want. When the people want, why should the ruler not want?” Tighten your belt Duke Ai. The people you rule have tightened theirs.

Meanwhile, says Lao-tzu, those who do nothing to live (in other words, they don’t steal, they don’t use force, they don’t value their lives to excess, they actually care about the lives of those beneath or around them), are more esteemed than those who love their lives. Yep! And I will go on esteeming them, and not those above.

RED PINE introduces the following with today’s verse:

DUKE AI (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Ruler of the state of Lu and interlocutor of Lunyu 12:9.

YU JUO (FL. 5TH C. B.C.). Disciple of Confucius known for his resemblance to the sage as well as for his love of antiquity. After Confucius’ death, many of his disciples wanted to render to Yu Juo the same observances they had conferred on Confucius. But this was opposed by Tseng-tzu.

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