Noted by Murray Rothbard as the first libertarian intellectual in recorded history, Lao Tzu profoundly influenced the course of Eastern philosophy and his works have inspired generations of anarchists and libertarians in China for millenia after his death. Writing in China in the 6th century B.C., Lao Tzu created a complete and fulfilling philosophy of life known as Taoism in his magnum opus known as the Tao Te Ching, which has found few rivals in modern libertarian thought. Ayn Rand’s voluminous philosophy of Objectivism, with its profound and many-faceted insights into art, morality, science, and civil society, is often cited as a close comparison. For many libertarians, the philosophy of the Tao, or the natural creative and destructive flow inherent in all things, offers a refreshing alternative to the self-centered and feverishly industrious philosophies of today’s capitalists.
At the core of Taoist thinking lies the concept of ‘wu wei‘. Wu may be translated as not or without; Wei may be translated as do, act, serve as, govern or effort. The literal meaning of wu wei is “without action”, “without effort”, or “without control”, and is often implied in the paradox wei wu wei: “action without action” or “governing without governing”. This retreat from effort, control, and attachment informs the entirety of the philosophy. The same organic and spontaneous order which drives the free market is also to be found in the ordered patterns of nature, in the evolution of life on earth, and is the solution to human suffering. This is what is known as the Tao.
Listed below are ten select quotes from the works of Lao Tzu, and his prolific disciple Chuang Tzu:
1) “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
2) “Therefore the Sage says: I take no action yet the people transform themselves, I favour quiescence and the people right themselves, I take no action and the people enrich themselves.”
3) “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
4) “The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”
5) “Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Too much handling will spoil it.”
6) “By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.”
7) “In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.”
8) “Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone.”
9) “There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone with success; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind with success.”
10) “A petty thief is put in jail. A great brigand becomes a ruler of a state.”
Lao Tzu’s masterpiece, the Tao Te Ching, can be read for free here.