Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Confucian Way (6): Mao, Mencius, and Human Malleability

When I was a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s, one of my friends was a fellow graduate student in political science who was writing a dissertation on the political thought of Mao Zedong. He became one of the leading scholars in the study of Chinese politics and Chinese Marxism. Some years later, we were colleagues in the political science department at Northern Illinois University. Through all those years, our conversations about Mao were tense, because my friend thought Mao was a great political philosopher, while I thought he was the worst tyrant in human history. He was exhilarated by the thought of Mao as a philosopher-king with absolute power over 600 million human beings whom he could shape according to his vision of a communist utopia. Many Western intellectuals felt the same excitement. But to me this denied the reality of human nature--including the natural tendency of rulers to be corrupted by absolute power.

We can't know exactly how many innocent people were killed as a result of Mao's utopian experiments--particularly, the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Cultural Revolution." But estimates range from 20 million to 40 million. In a century of bloody tyrants, Mao stood out as the bloodiest of them all. So we have to wonder what it was about Chinese history that allowed this to happen.

Many Westerners are inclined to talk about "Oriental Despotism" as a deeply rooted historical tradition of popular submissiveness to centralized imperial power. Confucianism seems to be part of that tradition, because it seems to teach unquestioning respect for hierarchical authority reaching up to the Emperor as the "Son of Heaven." Even now that the Chinese government has turned away from Maoist communism towards economic development through competitive markets, the central power of the Communist Party as the ultimate authority over China still remains unchallenged.

As I have indicated in previous posts, I think Confucianism does offer some intellectual resources that would support a liberal or libertarian alternative to the sort of Chinese authoritarianism represented by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.

The crucial challenge to Maoism and communism comes from the Confucian belief in human nature. The sinologist Donald Munro has written a series of three books on Chinese conceptions of human nature--The Concept of Man in Early China (1969), The Concept of Man in Contemporary China (1977), and Images of Human Nature: A Sung Portrait (1988). His most recent book--A Chinese Ethics for the New Century (2005)--summarizes the conclusions from his earlier books and argues that a sociobiological science of human nature largely supports the Confucian conception of human nature, while denying the Maoist conception of human malleability.

Mao promoted a campaign of attacking Confucianism, and one of his reasons was that Confucianism suggested that human nature would limit the possibility for the sort of radical social experimentation that Mao desired. Mao saw the Chinese people as a blank slate. He once declared: "A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it." As Jonathan Glover has argued in Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999), it was this assumption of the utter malleability of humanity that sustained Mao's tyrannical utopianism, because it assumed that human beings were formless material that could be formed by the Maoist ruler in any way he wished.

Munro rightly shows how the Mencian conception of human nature--the idea that at birth human beings have natural emotional dispositions to moral order--opposes the Maoist idea of complete human malleability. But Munro also rightly shows how Mencius--and the Confucians generally--do recognize that human nature has to be nurtured through social learning and individual judgments over the human life span. So there is some degree of malleability, because human nature is not simply fixed and fully formed at birth. But the course in which a human life develops is constrained by the natural potentials. Human beings naturally learn some things more easily than others. So, for example, when Mao sought to abolish private families and private property in developing a totally collectivized life, the disastrous consequences of this showed that this was going against the grain of human nature. Sociobiology explains this as showing the complex interaction of genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and individual judgment.

And yet Munro hardly notices what I see as the weakness in the Confucian understanding of human nature, which indirectly prepared the way for Maoist tyranny. The writing of Mencius suffers from a fundamental contradiction that arises from the failure of Mencius to recognize how the ambivalence in human nature creates the need for limited government under the rule of law.

From the beginning of his text, we see Mencius trying to persuade King Hui of Liang to rule benevolently. Those who do not rule benevolently, Mencius warns, can be assassinated. But those who do rule benevolently can expect to win the support of the people, which will secure their rule (1A1). Later, he summarizes what a benevolent ruler must do:

"When a ruler honors those who are exemplary and employs those who are capable, so that outstanding persons hold positions of authority, all the world's scholars will be pleased and will want to stand in his court. When in his marketplace he levies a ground rent, but without levying a tax on goods, or else enforces the regulations but without levying any ground rent, all the world's merchants will be pleased and will want to store their goods in his marketplace. When at his frontier passes there is an inspection but no tax is levied, all the world's travelers will be pleased and will want to travel on his roads. When tillers are required to render their assistance but are not taxed, then all the world's farmers will be pleased and will want to till his fields. When individuals are not fined and no levy of cloth is exacted, all the world's people will be pleased and will want to reside within his state. If one is truly able to do these five things, the people of neighboring states will look to him as a father and mother and follow him like his children. Never, since the birth of humankind, has anyone ever succeeded in causing people to attack their parents. So the ruler will have no enemies in the world, and one who has no enemies in the world is the agent of Heaven. Could he then fail to become a true King?" (2A5).

The reference here to farmers "rendering assistance" but without being taxed is apparently a reference to Mencius' famous proposal for a "well-field" system of farming. In the capital city, the people might be taxed at a rate of 10%. But in the countryside, the public contribution to government would come through the farmers laboring on a public field. In each village, the land would be divided into nine equal plots. The central plot would be the public field, and the production from that field would go to the government. The other eight plots would belong individually to eight families working each plot for their private benefit. So, in effect, the government would extract only one-ninth of the agricultural production of each village. "The fields of the village 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. In this way, commoners are affectionate toward one another" (3A3).

As Roderick Long has suggested, this looks like a system of voluntary taxation in which the farmers would make public-spirited contributions to the working of the public plot in response to good rule, while apparently they could reduce their contributions during bad rule. The good order of the village depends on the mutual aid and mutual enforcement of social norms that arise in small communities with most of the property privately owned.

For Mencius, benevolent government is based on low taxes, private property, and free trade, where the freedom and prosperity of the people produces power and wealth for their benevolent rulers. But Mencius doesn't expect his policy advice to be taken seriously by rulers. Most rulers prefer to extract exorbitant taxes, to force farmers to work on public projects, and to draft men into military service, which interferes with farming and economic trade to the point of creating mass famine.

Mencius laments: "Nowadays, there are none, among those who shepherd the people, who do not have a taste for killing people. If there were one who did not have a taste for killing people, the people of the world would crane their necks to look for him. If it were genuinely like this, the people would turn to him like water flowing down, copiously" (1A6).

So here's the fundamental contradiction in Mencius's teaching. One the one hand, he teaches that good government requires the paternalistic authority of a benevolent ruler who recognizes that his power is enhanced by the freedom and prosperity of his people. On the other hand, he teaches that most rulers are incapable of such benevolent rule because they have "a taste for killing people." The same contradiction appears in the Analects of Confucius.

In some of his writing, Mencius suggests that this contradiction arises from the dilemma inherent in the move from a foraging way of life to an agrarian way of life. As foragers, human beings had no need for systems of social ranking with sharp distinctions between rulers and ruled. But the foraging way of life was uncivilized. Human civilization came with agriculture. But an agricultural way of life required a clear division of labor between those who did the farming and those who did the ruling, because ruling became a specialized activity devoted to tasks such as flood-control, irrigation, taxation, dispute-resolution, and military defense. Good rulers were followed by bad rulers who used the power of their centralized state bureaucracy for tyrannical oppression of the people. So while the agrarian state made possible a civilized life, it also made possible tyrannical rule (3A4, 3B9, 5B2).

One consequence of agrarian civilization was that people like Confucius and Mencius could pursue a leisured life of philosophic study, and a big part of that philosophic life would be trying to figure out how to secure the civilizing benefits of agrarian state rule while avoiding its propensity to tyranny. The history of political philosophy is largely a continuing intellectual struggle to resolve this dilemma of the agrarian state.

Those in the Legalist tradition of ancient Chinese political thought--like Han Feizi--saw that the Confucians were mistaken in relying on the benevolence and wisdom of rulers for good government. "People naturally submit to the power of position"(shi), Han Fei observed, "but few are able to yield to righteousness" (chap. 49). Those like Confucius and his followers who value virtue are too few to be reliable. People are naturally inclined to obey whoever fills a powerful position in government. The benevolent rulers will use their position for good, while those without benevolence will use their position for evil. To secure good government over time, we can't rely on good rulers. Rather, we must rely on having legal institutions that structure power so that the harm from bad rulers is minimized. One can see here an anticipation of the modern liberal constitutionalist idea that limited government under the rule of law must work without assuming virtuous or wise rulers.

One can also see in the Confucian dilemma the need for separating state and society. Consider the following exchange in the Analects:

"Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governing.
"Confucius responded, 'To govern (zheng) means to be correct (zheng). If you set an example by being correct yourself, who will dare to be incorrect?'"

"Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governing, saying, 'If I were to execute those who lacked the Way in order to advance those who possessed the Way, how could that be?'

"Confucius responded, 'In your governing, Sir, what need is there for executions? If you desire goodness, then the common people will be good. The virtue of a gentleman is like the wind, and the virtue of a petty person is like the grass--when the wind moves over the grass, the grass is sure to bend.'" (12.17, 12.19)

Here one sees the Confucian version of the political paternalism that modern conservatives sometimes manifest when they teach that "statecraft is soulcraft"--that the purpose of government is to form the souls of its subjects to be virtuous. But this assumes that those who fill the offices of government will themselves be supremely virtuous, an assumption that Confucians and modern conservatives deny when they lament the lack of virtue in government.

When Confucius is asked why he is not participating in government, he answers by suggesting that anyone who is a filial son and good brother is already participating in government by setting an example of virtuous behavior that can influence others (2.21). If Confucians were to think through the implications of this idea, they might see that moral order can arise through the spontaneous order of social life--in families, in social groups, and in other voluntary associations--independently of the formal offices and bureaucracy of government. The "statecraft" of formal government could then be limited to enforcing the conditions necessary for the "soulcraft" of a free society.

This separation of state and society is the means by which a modern liberal order combines freedom and virtue in a civilized way of life.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

Not only that moral order can arise through the spontaneous order of social life, but that that is the only way moral order can arise. It cannot be imposed from above. Top-down imposition is disruptive of compelx orders -- it cannot create them.