“When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
People lose their spirit.
Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
Do not be misled: the Dao is not a supporter of the GOP. For one thing, the cult of individualism that is the bedrock of modern conservatism—and classical liberalism more broadly—is alien to Asian cultures generally. Part of this passage, especially the notion of an intrusive government, is a dig at Confucianism, the original “Big Brother” of antiquity, but Daoism still embraces a relational view of humanity and reality. Lao-Tzu’s point is that that at some point, rules become not only restrictive and oppressive, but insulting to people’s intelligence and disrespectful of their humanity.
But if he were around today, Lau-Tzu would hardly be praising the cult of the entrepreneur, advocating trickle-down economics, or dancing the Republican two-step of cutting taxes and slashing regulations. We often assume that what we call neoliberalism is premised on “free markets” and deregulation, but as Quinn Slobodian documents in his book on the topic, neoliberalism was actually about re-regulation and “encasing” markets in a legal and political architecture that resulted in the dizzying levels of inequality we see today.
What that means is that, paradoxically, in order to “leave the people alone” in today’s age, government is not the problem but the solution. Taxes must be raised on corporations and the wealthy because “taxes are too high”—not marginal tax rates, but the increased cost of living for the average person in terms of education, healthcare, and housing, combined with stagnant wages. For the longest time, we have mistaken “government intrusion” for something called “late capitalism,” forgetting that economic waves, however driven by powerful global currents, are downstream from politics to the extent that the decisions leaders make determine how nations surf them. In perhaps the most contorted ideological pose conceivable, the notion that capitalism is the problem is a kind of ideology that masks the real threat: a misunderstanding of the optimal relationship between politics and economics, between democracy and capitalism, and of the true nature and proper role of values in determining the shape of society. The tectonic shift we are just beginning to undergo away from Reaganism and toward a “New New Deal”—one more racially inclusive and environmentally conscious than the original—is a return to values-based governance, and a rejection of the fantasy of value-neutral public policy, which neuters the people’s will and neutralizes the very idea that there is such a thing as society.
To act for the people’s benefit, remember there is such a thing as the common good.
To trust them, decouple welfare from work.
To leave them alone, pass laws as if they aren’t.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”