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!’
-Lao Tzu –
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 17, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Trust. The issue is trust. Nobody trusts anyone anymore. We don’t trust our families. We don’t trust our friends. We don’t trust our neighbors. And we sure don’t trust strangers. While we are on the subject, we don’t trust our leaders, either. And they don’t trust us.
And we like to pin our trust issues on the people we don’t trust. After all, it is their fault that they aren’t worthy of our trust. Right?
Whenever I return to this chapter in the Tao Te Ching, I always remember the countless times I came home, from college and even after college, and would have discussions with my dad on my new found political philosophy, libertarianism. My dad was a good man. He was conservative. Believed strongly in his faith and his family and his country. Probably in just that order. He liked the idea of limited government. But he wasn’t too keen on the idea of personal freedom. And I was making some pretty radical statements. Suggesting that drugs and prostitution should be decriminalized didn’t go over so well.
He was all for limiting government in general. But when you got down to specifics, well, there wasn’t a lot to limit. And that was 30 some odd years ago. Now, I am going to cut my dad some slack. He grew up in a different time. A simpler time. He didn’t know any better. My dad just didn’t want his own children using drugs. So no one should be using drugs. And no one should be having sex outside of marriage. This is just the way he thought. Any suggestion that people should be free to live their own lives outside of his own personal morality was just not something that he was capable of considering.
I tried to explain that decriminalization was not condoning immoral behavior. But he insisted that people need to be controlled. That left to their own devices, the people couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing. It was important that there be laws. Moral laws. Unambiguously condemning anything that didn’t fit into a righteous framework. It was for their own good.
Something that never occurred to me, at the time, is why we have these issues of trust, anyway. Why is it that people are so untrustworthy? Why can’t we trust people? Why are we so convinced that they won’t do the right thing if they aren’t forced to do so?
And then Lao Tzu comes along. Well, that is putting it all backwards. Lao Tzu was around a long time ago. He understood it long ago. But I hadn’t read Lao Tzu. Not until many years later. After my dad was gone. The reason people are untrustworthy is because we make them untrustworthy. We make them untrustworthy by not trusting them. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, I know that some people are going to scoff at this. Trust is something that must be earned. Once it is earned, then they can be trusted. But you know what? It wasn’t always like this. We have all heard it before, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” We say that lightly now. Not really taking the time to consider exactly what that means. It is a code of ethics. You begin with trust. You don’t start out demanding proof of trustworthiness. You start out with trust. And only after that trust has been betrayed does someone become untrustworthy. That is the way it was. Yes, those were simpler times. And I’d even say they were good old days. Because I am feeling kind of nostalgic for that. I want us to start trusting each other again.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. When you trust people, you are going to get burned. But that isn’t your shame. Not the first time, anyway. But just because your trust has been betrayed by one, or even a handful of people, doesn’t mean you can’t trust everyone, at least to begin with. Let people earn your continued trust by proving they are worthy of your trust from the start. Because it is their shame when they betray that trust.
Lao Tzu wrote this chapter talking about why it is that people are untrustworthy, specifically in relation to how people are governed. And, I am sure it is no surprise to anyone that I would prefer the Master to be governing. And why not? When he is governing, people are hardly aware that he exists. That is my kind of leader. He doesn’t talk, he acts. But when his work is done, the people say, “Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!” And they are right. Because he trusted them. And they proved themselves worthy of that trust.
That is so much better than the alternatives. What difference does it really make if our leaders are loved, or feared, or despised? Oh, we may think that having leaders that we love couldn’t be all that bad. But I am not so sure that there is any negligible difference between those that are loved with those who are feared, or despised. I just know that they don’t trust people. And because they don’t trust people, well, you know where this is going. But then again, I don’t trust that kind of leader, either. Oh, I used to. Once. To their shame. But never again.