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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 60, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
We have been talking for the last few days about the art of governing. Of how to be a great leader. Of how to govern a country well. Yesterday, we talked about the virtue of self-restraint. For governing a country well, nothing is better than practicing self-restraint.
Today, Lao Tzu begins by comparing governing a large country to frying a small fish. You might think this is a strange comparison. But Lao Tzu has a way of using common occurrences from every day life to make his point. And, in this case, he is perfectly illustrating the need to practice self-restraint. Both that small fish and that large country are only going to be spoiled with too much poking.
Those of us that have fried small fish, know exactly what Lao Tzu is getting at. The temptation is so great and very hard to resist. We want to poke and prod. We have good intentions. We are trying to fry up that fish. But all our poking and prodding, however well-intentioned, only results in us making a big mess out of dinner.
Carrying that metaphor over to trying to manage a large country, we get the same results. Our rulers, even those with the best of intentions, simply can’t resist the temptation to meddle in our affairs. I recently watched a pretty well done documentary on the one hundred year history of the Federal Reserve System. It is called “Money For Nothing” and you can find it on Netflix. I thought they did a good job with the documentary. With only one minor complaint. I thought they wrongfully placed the blame for the 2008 housing bubble solely on an unregulated market. While it is true that the banks were running amok while the Federal Reserve stood idly by, that wasn’t really the free market at work. In a free market, you are held accountable for your boneheaded decisions. But the Federal Reserve had already set previous precedents that they would come in to save the day if the banking schemes came crashing down. The crazed bankers, were given constant reassurances that they had no market consequences to fear if they failed. They would be bailed out. And bailed out they were. To the tune of multiplied trillions of dollars. And no lessons seem to have been learned from this. They just keep poking away. More bubbles are growing all over the world’s economy. Bubbles are never the result of a free market. They are always the result of government meddling.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu isn’t talking about monetary bubbles though. Instead, he addresses the problem of evil. Something that humanity has been wrestling with as long as recorded history. The presence of evil is a delight to our rulers. War is the health of the State, after all. They will manufacture evil where they can’t otherwise find it, all to make us afraid and dependent on them to “rid” the Earth of this problem.
Is it any surprise to any of you, my friends, that Lao Tzu has a completely different take on how to deal with the problem of evil? Instead of trying to take on evil wherever it may be found, Lao Tzu wants great leaders that will practice self-restraint. Don’t poke at it! You’ll only get it riled up. Center your country in the Tao and evil will have no power. But… But… Evil is still there. Of course it is still there. Evil will always be there. You can’t rid the Earth of it with your interventions. Not with your poking. Not with your meddling in other people’s affairs. The only way to deal with evil is to render it powerless. That means minding your own business. Leaving it alone. Evil thrives on confrontations. It grows bigger and more powerful the more it is messed with. Stop poking it. Leave it alone. If you center your country in the Tao, you’ll be able to step around it. And evil, won’t have anything to feed on.
I understand that many of you are thinking that this is hopelessly naive. But, Lao Tzu understands what we all need to understand. The way things are. The way the Universe operates. We are going to be covering this more in upcoming chapters. I hope for today that it will suffice for me to say that actions have consequences. Many of them are unintended. But that doesn’t change the eternal reality that there are going to be consequences for failing to center your country in the Tao. We are already encountering them. And, we still have many more dire consequences to come. All because our rulers refuse to learn the lessons of history. Because actions have consequences, Lao Tzu has been encouraging us daily to do less and less, until we are doing nothing at all. Wu-wei, not doing, is what this self-restraint in governing is all about.