Sunday, August 22, 2010

Confucian Liberalism

This post adds to my series of posts over the past few months on the possibility of a Confucian liberalism supported by Darwinian science.

The distinction between state and society is fundamental for classical liberal thought. This supports the crucial insight that social order arises not just from the coercive government of the state but also from the natural and voluntary associations of civil society. Through family life, economic trade, and social interaction generally, human beings manifest their natural sociality in the spontaneous order of civil society as an intermediate realm of moral order between the individual and the state. Although the coercive government of the state is required to enforce the legal and political conditions for social cooperation, cultivating the customary moral order of civil society minimizes the need for governmental coercion and maximizes the liberty of an open society.

This liberal distinction between state and society is never fully developed in Confucian thought. But it is implicit in the Confucian teaching that the Dao of moral order can arise through the social traditions of family life, economic exchange, and social groups, while the coercive powers of government are limited. The survival of Confucianism in modern China despite the resolute efforts of Mao's Marxist government to extinguish it testifies to the power of Confucian civil society to prevail against a hostile government. Confucianism could become even more successful in ordering the moral life of China if the Chinese government were to continue along its present path towards a fully liberal order.

Confucius tried to convince political rulers that political order was better secured through the persuasive influence of morally virtuous rulers than through the coercive force of governmental regulations. He advised: "If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations (zheng) and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame. If, however, you guide them through virtue (de), and keep them in line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves" (2.3).

In the Shang and Zhou dynasties, "virtue" (de) was regarded as a charismatic power conferred on rulers by the ancestral spirits that would allow rulers to acquire and retain power under the Mandate of Heaven. Confucius continued to teach the need for virtue in rulers, so that they could rule through moral persuasion rather than coercive threat. But Confucius also taught that virtue no longer belonged exclusively to the ruling class. Anyone who followed the Dao could become virtuous and thus claim the Mandate of Heaven.

In fact, Confucius observed, most rulers of his time did not follow the Dao, and they continued to rule, despite their lack of virtue, as long as they were surrounded by competent, but not virtuous, advisers and ministers. In these circumstances, the moral order of virtue was to be found, not in the ruling offices of government, but in the social life of individuals outside of government who lived virtuously in their families and social groups (2.21, 11.26, 14.19, 15.7).

Confucius advised rulers as to the importance of minimizing governmental intrusion itno the social life of their people, particularly through reducing the tax burden. If the harvest was poor, rulers might complain that they could not satisfy their need for tax revenue. The Confucian advice was to lower tax rates to 10%. Rulers needed to understand that reducing tax rates could actually increase the government's revenue, because the people would be more productive (12.9).

Mencius offered the same advice in recommending a flat tax of 10%. While a rate of 5% might be enough for a primitive tribal government, this would be too low to pay for the governmental services necessary for a civilized society like China. But tax rates higher than 10% would impede the economic activity of the people, and thus make it hard for the people to provide for their needs (3A3, 3B8, 6B10).

For Mencius, a low tax rate was part of a program of economic and social reforms that he proposed, all aimed at limiting the power of government, which had become too oppressive. Mencius warned that all of the governments of his time had lost the support of the people, because all the rulers had "a taste for killing people." If there were even one ruler who did not have this thirst for killing, all the people of the world would be attracted to him, and this would show that he was favored by Heaven (1A6). A ruler who would reduce or even eliminate the taxes ta ht interfered with the economic life of merchants, travellers, farmers, and shop-keepers would attract people from around the world. And "one who has no enemies in the world is the agent of Heaven" (2A5).

Mencius understood that originally human beings lived in primitive foraging groups that sustained themselves in a nomadic way of life by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, for which there was no need for formal governmental institutions. But as human beings moved to farming, which allowed for a sedentary life and growing populations, they needed governmental rule to manage irrigation, the control of flooding, and other public services necessary for an agrarian state. This required an elaborate division of labor in which most people were farmers, and others constituted a ruling class of shamans, soldiers, aristocrats, bureaucrats, and royalty. But while initially the early rulers governed for the public good, later rulers became tyrannical, particularly in seizing the property of their people for the benefit of the ruling class. The popular resentment against tyranny exposed the rulers to assassination, and this popular rebellion manifested the Mandate of Heaven as expressed through the feelings of the people (1A1, 2A5, 3A4, 3B9, 5A5, 5B2, 5B9). So while agrarian states made a civilized life possible, they also created the conditions for tyrannical rule. (The remarkable parallels here with John Locke's history of government in the Two Treatises is noteworthy.)

One of Mencius' most famous proposals for limiting the power of government and protecting private property was the "well-field system." Instead of taxing each farming family by taking a portion of each year's farming production, Mencius proposed an allocation of farm land so that the revenues for the state would come from a public field. In the countryside, each village should share the same well. "They go out and return from the fields together. They keep watch against thieves and assist each other. When ill, they support each other" (3A3). The land would be divided into nine equal plots--one plot would be the public field cultivated by all the families for the benefit of the state, and eight plots would be held separately as private property by eight families. So eight-ninths of the land would be held as private property. The state's revenues would depend on the shared cultivate of the one-ninth allocation for the public field. This system would also create small, local communities organized for mutual aid and the local enforcement of moral norms. Social order would thus arise through social cooperation from the bottom up rather than being imposed by governmental coercion from the top down.

So while both Confucius and Mencius believed that in principle the best regime would be the wise rule of virtuous kings, they were realistic in seeing that this was almost never possible, because most rulers would always lack wisdom and virtue, and consequently their lust for power would lead them into tyranny.

Confucius and Mencius saw that in practice the best regime would limit the power of the central government, while promoting the spontaneous moral order of economic exchange, family life, and social groups in civil society, which indicates how Confucianism could support a liberal social order.

In China today, the remarkable resurgence of Confucianism and proposals for organizing a new Chinese regime based on Confucian morality suggests the possibility of an emerging Confucian liberalism.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Thought experiment; is the widespread practice of filial piety(xiao) by ordinary people under ordinary leaders, actually compatible with liberalism, or does it so inculcate anti-liberal values that it undermines liberal values and liberal government? I was reading a blog post by Manyul Im last night, and he was pointing out that while Confucius and Mencius argued that, under the right, highly improbable circumstances, people would naturally show filial piety, in practice, filial piety was imparted as a duty in his own observation of traditional Korean families. Extrapolating from that, I bet that filial piety was supported by shared social norms of shame and of hierarchy, i.e. that one's parents were one's betters. Is filial piety inextricably linked with a strong sense of hierarchy and also an obligation to maintain that hierarchy? Would such a strong sense of social hierarchy, one that is strongly advocated in the Classic of Filial Piety(one of the four books, no?), be compatible with liberalism of any sort, or must liberalism be an egalitarianism of some sort?

Sometimes I wonder, if somewhere, in some Chinese University, there is a Chinese professor, working away at reconciling Marx's radical egalitarianism with everything that has been learned since then. If China's leaders want to continue under a Marxist banner, to credibly do so they would have to invent a whole new ideology. But hey, Marx was Hegelian, so if it was the synthesis of his thesis and its antithesis, he couldn't complain. Or maybe the idea of something like a Hayekian-egalitarian state would be utter nonsense.