Saturday, May 20, 2017


316. Intervention or laissez faire in East and West

Taoist political philosophy is non-interventionist, libertarian, approaching anarchism. It criticizes Confucian interventionism in ethical rules, civic and familial values and the imposition of ceremonies. Taoism aims to avoid what it considers to be artificial constructs (wuwei). Human design cannot cope with the richness and variability of holistic nature. Such design is bound to misfire and is in the way of natural processes that are best left to themselves.

This seems analogous to the split, in the West, between socialist interventionism and libertarian liberal laissez faire. However, a fundamental difference is that the latter is based on views not of holistic nature but of freedom for individuals. Those have a craving and see it as their right to exploit nature to their material advantage. And that has dire consequences for the environment.

However, liberal libertarianism does recognize the natural urge in Man for gratification and self-manifestation (and Nietzsche’s will to power). And in nature there is not only harmony but also brutality in the struggle for survival. Taoism seems hesitant to face those realities.

I side in part with Confucianism and in part with Taoism. Such mixes have also arisen in neo-confucianism, as I indicated in item 131 of this blog. I also object to the constraining regimentation of Confucianism, which threatens the variety and variability that are inherent in nature, evolution, humanity and society.

I think there is some similarity between Taoist thought and modern evolutionary thought, which I have endorsed in this blog. Like Taoism, the latter also yields a need for restraint of the urge to engage in ‘intelligent design’. 

For example, and in particular, it is odd to try and plan programmes for innovation while the crux of innovation is that it produces things that were unforeseeable (or else it would not be innovation). By planning innovation one obstructs it. So, here I would go along with Taoist thought.

This does not mean, however, that nothing needs to be done. It does not yield laissez faire. It does entail going along with the natural flow of processes, but one may help evolutionary processes of development to proceed, by facilitating and directing the core processes of the generation of variety, selection and proliferation of success. I think that is consistent with Taoist thought: the growth of plants can be enhanced by seeding, watering and pruning.

Similarly, I appreciate the value of markets, to let people do their own bidding in supply and demand, but institutions are needed to enable markets and constrain them in their perverse effects. In the next item of this blog I start an extensive series concerning economics and markets.  

Will human beings act well when allowed to act freely according to natural impulse? In this blog I have argued that human nature is ambivalent in this respect. It harbours instincts of both self-interest and altruism (within limits). Under existential threat self-interest for the sake of survival is the stronger. Cultural means, in an ethics of conduct, and institutional means, in the rule of law, are needed to curtail egotism. Here I side with the Confucian view.

Institutions are needed to limit obstacles to the manifestation and flourishing of positive natural impulse towards fairness, solidarity, and justice. For example, they may be needed to break through prisoners dilemmas where individually people may be willing to act ethically but collectively find that they are unable to do so unless others do so as well. Society in general, and the economy in particular, are rife with such dilemmas. Intervention is needed to allow for escape from the dilemma’s.

In sum, I side with Taoism in restraint of planning of activities, intervention in natural processes, and regimentation of values and conduct, but I side with Confucianism in the need to curtail perverse instincts and solve social dilemmas.