“If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
And the world will govern itself.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
The gnomic character of the Daodejing makes it a kind of spiritual and philosophical Rohrschach blot. For instance, it’s not terribly hard to read a kind of vague libertarianism into the Daodejing: Lao-tzu as the free spirit on the fringes of society rolling his eyes at all of Confucius’ oppressive rules. But this would be a mistake.
Libertarianism is a schizophrenic ideology. For one, it attacks the institutions that make its liberty possible; it free rides off of a system it wants to dismantle. For another, it presumes a level of control over one’s life of which most people aren’t capable. For another, if implemented it would result in a domestic and global anarchy that would infringe on the liberty it prizes above all. For another, it is a uniquely American ideology produced by a rare set of historical and geographical circumstances. It’s desire to secede from the body politic to form a paradise is like colonialism in reverse, an extension of the voyage to the New World. If the Singularity is the Rapture for geeks, the libertarian island paradise is the New Age for socially liberal capitalists. In the end, the libertarian’s quarrel is not with government, but with reality itself. There is a reason libertarian billionaires are obsessed with New Zealand, psychedelics, and space.
But most importantly, libertarianism doesn’t see itself as an ideology (to be fair, few do). A good rule of thumb: ideology hides best where it is most decried. This is true not just for many Marxists, but many on the Right who see Marxism where there is none.
Ideology is a secular form of idolatry. It is worshipping a set of ideas about the world, elevating the human power to understand and control the world above the world itself. It presumes a lack of faith in other people to determine their destiny, and a lack of trust in the world to right itself.
We see this taking shape in the debate about the American Rescue Plan, which is an assault on the Reaganomic ideology that has dominated for the last 40 years. Reagan didn’t actually govern like this, but the ideological cult that formed in his wake was committed to the following creed in a manner that can only be deemed theological: Taxes must be cut. Regulations must be slashed. Budgets must be balanced. Work must be incentivized. Inflation must be kept at bay. The market must decide. As these things tend to go, the dogma was somehow followed both slavishly and selectively.
But when the winds change, the great leader—of even just a decent one—pays heed and changes course. He embarks, as FDR said, on a process of “bold, persistent experimentation,” not with blind faith in the power of government to fix and control everything, but mindful of his or his predecessor’s errors, and with trust that something will work—that if we “follow the Dao” and fumble through the darkness, we will stumble into light and “the world will govern itself.”
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”