Chapter 57: Being Simple
“The more restrictions and prohibitions in the world,
The poorer people get.
The more experts the country has
the more of a mess it’s in.
The more ingenious the skillful are,
the more monstrous their inventions.
The louder the call for law and order,
the more the thieves and con men multiply.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
The Daodejing often presents as a Rorschach test: you can see what you want to see—or what your unconscious wants to see. It is guided by the “law of the infinite cornucopia.” The text has an absorptive quality, on the one hand, welcoming whatever mold you try to press into it, and yet is elusive, on the other, since for that very reason you can’t quite pin it down. Though generally turned to for personal enlightenment, it can be just as illuminating for political enlightenment. Not least because, more than ever, the personal has become the political.
But in this respect, the Daodejing is not exactly like a Rorschach. The ink blots can handle the aperspectival madness of the netherworld of the psyche. There are an infinite number of shapes a psyche can adopt; there are a finite number of shapes a polity can take.
In today’s excerpt, you can reasonably detect notes of traditional social conservatism, libertarianism, and progressivism.
The libertarian is allergic to “restrictions and prohibitions” because they limit personal freedom, particularly economic freedom. A more restricted economy is a poorer economy, and a poorer economy means less freedom.
The traditional social conservative is fine with “restrictions and prohibitions” when it comes to morality and, within limits, economics, but not if they are imposed in a top-down fashion by technocratic experts. Catholic social teaching, for instance, follows the principle of subsidiarity: problems should be solved at the lowest level possible. The restrictions and prohibitions should primarily be inherited from tradition—seven generations are smarter than one—and transmitted through education in the family and community instructions. They should be expressions of character, not dictates of compliance.
The progressive is on guard against an oligarchy masquerading as a meritocracy. The “skillful” who design the social architecture of our lives—think Big Tech today—are like Dr. Frankenstein, building monsters their genius deludes them into thinking they can control. Concentrated economic and thus political power must be disrupted.
When traditional norms have broken down, experts have failed us, and the meritocracy has devolved into corporatism as the continuation of politics by other means—what Michael Sandel was called “the tyranny of merit”—people will be drawn to demagogues barking about law and order like moths to a flame. Just as the valorization of “leadership” means that following is in high fashion, talk about law and order is a sure sign of the normalization of chaos, and issues most loudly from those who wish to sow it.
By surfacing our dominant political categories, the Daodejing can free us up to organize them more creatively. Each of these values—virtue, liberty, and equality—has an important role to play. An integral or post-progressive approach can help us think about how to build back better once we have clearly perceived our situation. We need law and order, liberty and prosperity and, yes, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Balancing them is an art, not a science. As Plato understood long ago, there is no such thing as political science, only political philosophy, and even this is at the mercy of poetry.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”
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