The Confucians and Spontaneous Order Ep. 005: Flashes of Liberty Series8 min read
The Confucians & Spontaneous Order
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Austrian Economist Murray Rothbard has called the ancient Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, “the first anarchist,” and others have said he’s the first to work out the concept of spontaneous order. But is this true?
Zhuangzi and the Daoists did have valuable insights against authoritarianism and supported aspects of spontaneous order, but he and the Daoists weren’t the first. Zhuangzi stood on the shoulders of another well-known ancient philosopher by the name of Kongfuzi. You’re more familiar with his westernized name: Confucius. Confucius (whom I will refer to by his Chinese name, Kongfuzi) is known as the father of Confucianism.
It was Kongfuzi and the early Confucians who first developed the ideas of spontaneous order. Some historians got this wrong, it seems, because the Daodejing, had been attributed to a 6th century B.C. Daoist philosopher named, Laozi. However, there is now near universal agreement among Sinologists that this writing was produced in the 3rd century B.C. This puts the Daoist teachings about spontaneous order three centuries later than the Confucians.
It’s important to draw the distinction between the early Confucians and the Daoists. The Daoists were certainly anarchist, but they were also primitivists, which meant they were opposed to technologically developed and organized societies. In this manner, they were diametrically opposed to the economics of libertarian thought precisely because such technological development and organization are natural consequences of spontaneous order.
So, what is spontaneous order, and how did the Confucians support it? Spontaneous order is the idea that patterns naturally arise from the routine actions of individuals. These spontaneously formed patterns provide an order to society that was not dictated by a central planner. It involves at least two corollaries: Human interdependence, and trade and specialization.
Human interdependence rejects the concept of the self-made man. We all depend on the production of other people in order to survive. No human being has all the knowledge and resources necessary to thrive and progress. The mechanic, doctor, and farmer are all necessary for society, but none can survive without the others.
One early Confucian, Xunzi, wrote:
“Goods and grain shall be allowed to circulate freely so that there is no hindrance or stagnation in distribution. . . . Thus, the people living in lake regions have plenty of lumber and those living in the mountains have plenty of fish. . . . ”
Human interdependence drives the need for trade and specialization. By focusing on the labor in which we have more skill, we can trade with others who have specialized in areas in which we’re less skilled, thus building wealth for all involved, avoiding war, and allowing for overall improved quality of life.
Another early Confucian, Mengzi, wrote:
“To trade grain for implements is not to inflict hardship on the potter and the blacksmith. The potter and the blacksmith, for their part, also trade their wares for grain. In doing this, surely they are not inflicting hardship on the farmer either. . . . [I]t is necessary for each man to use the products of all the hundred crafts. If everyone must make everything he uses, the Empire will be led along the path of incessant toil.”
Another early Confucian, Sima Qian, wrote:
“[T]he physical strength of people may vary; in some regions, they are stronger, and in others weaker, presenting quite different conditions. The need may be for larger or smaller implements, circumstances may demand here one shape, there another; localities vary and practices change, and in each particular situation, each implement has its advantages. As the government imposes a single standard for all, iron implements are deprived of their specific aptness, and the farmers lose thereby the particular advantages of each.”
These corollaries are summed up well by Sima Qian:
“Society obviously must have farmers before it can eat; foresters, fishermen, miners, etc., before it can make use of natural resources; craftsmen before it can have manufactured goods; and merchants before they can be distributed. But once these exist, what need is there for government directives, mobilizations of labor, or periodic assemblies? Each man has only to be left to utilize his own abilities and exert his strength to obtain what he wishes. … When each person works away at his own business then, like water flowing downward, goods will naturally flow forth ceaselessly day and night without having been summoned, and the people will produce commodities without having been asked.”
While Zhuangzi and the Daoists were opposed to the state and its intervention, the heart of their primitivism goes against the libertarian ideas of spontaneous order. To that end, it’s important to properly credit the early Confucians for their proto-libertarian thought and their keen understanding of how society is spontaneously ordered.
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