Nothing Surpasses Economy

“In governing people and caring for Heaven
nothing surpasses economy
economy means planning ahead
planning ahead means accumulating virtue
accumulating virtue means overcoming all
overcoming all means knowing no limit
knowing no limit means guarding the realm
and guarding the realm’s mother means living long
which means deep roots and a solid trunk
the Way of a long and lasting life”

(Taoteching, verse 59, translation by Red Pine)

LI HSI-CHAI says, “Outside, we govern others. Inside, we care for Heaven. In both, nothing surpasses economy. Those who are economical are economical in everything. They are watchful within and on guard without. Only if we are still, does virtue have a place to collect.”

MENCIUS says, “The way we care for Heaven is by guarding our mind and nourishing our nature” (Mencius 7A.1).

WANG TAO says, “‘Caring for Heaven’ means preserving what one receives from Heaven. It means cultivating oneself.”

Linking this with the previous one, SU CH’E says, “Economy is the reason the edges of sages don’t cut, their points don’t pierce, their lines don’t extend, and their lights don’t blind. Economy means possessing without using.”

WANG PI says, “Economy means farming. Farmers cultivate their fields by weeding out different species and concentrating on one. They don’t worry about pulling out the withered and diseased. They pull out the causes of withering and disease. Above, they accept the will of Heaven. Below, they nourish others.”

HAN FEI says, “Most people use their mind recklessly. Recklessness means waste, and waste means exhaustion. Sages use their mind calmly. Calmness means carefulness, and carefulness means economy. Economy is an art born of an understanding of the Tao. Those who know how to govern others calm their thoughts. Those who know how to care for Heaven clear their openings. When their thoughts are calm, old virtue remains within. When their openings are clear, new breath enters from without.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Someone whose virtue knows no limits can guard the gods of the realm and bring happiness to the people.”

THE LICHI says, “Those who guard the realm are ever careful” (27).

LI JUNG says, “When rulers maintain the Tao, their countries are at peace. When they fail to maintain the Tao, their countries are in chaos. Their countries are the offspring. The Tao is their mother.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The realm here is a metaphor for the body. Breath is the body’s mother. Breath that has no limit can preserve the body. Those who fill themselves with breath can conquer the world and remain unharmed. Breath rises from below as if from the roots of a tree. By nourishing the roots, the roots grow deep. Breath flourishes above just as the trunk of a tree does. By nourishing the trunk, the trunk becomes firm. Thus, the tree doesn’t wither.”

LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The roots are in the dark, and the trunk is in the light. The roots refer to life, and the trunk refers to nature. What nothing can fathom is deep. Only life can match this. What nothing can topple is firm. Only nature can match this.”

Nothing surpasses economy! But, what does Lao-tzu mean by economy?

I have come to understand that what he means by “economy” is the practice of the Tao, the practice of non-action, wei-wu-wei, doing not-doing. In the West, we may be more familiar with the term “laissez faire” which was how Francois Quesnay (1694-1781) translated the Chinese. The doctrine of “laissez faire” gave birth to Physiocracy (the Rule of Nature), perhaps the first well-developed theory of economics; which preceded the first modern school, classical economics; which began with the publication of Adam Smith’s, The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Does that ring a bell?

Taoism is all about this Rule of Nature. Let Nature take its course. Don’t interfere with it. Let it be. This, Lao-tzu envisioned, is the best way to govern your own life, and others, as well. With regards to governing people, leave them alone, let them be. In doing so, you are “caring for Heaven” as well.

I only recently discovered that laissez faire was a translation of wu-wei. I had long understood that Lao-tzu’s teaching was libertarian. But, I had no idea libertarianism actually had, as its root, philosophical Taoism. I guess that just goes to show that I chose well in referring to myself as “libertariantaoist.”