Most libertarians count Murray Rothbard as one of their mentors. They will know that Rothbard’s primary mentors were Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. But Rothbard dug deeper in his search for libertarian thinking. Here is a little-seen paper that he wrote in 1967:
The first libertarian intellectual was Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism. Little is known about his life, but apparently he was a personal acquaintance of Confucius in the late sixth century BC and like the latter came from the state of Sung and was descended from the lower aristocracy of the Yin dynasty.
Unlike the notable apologist for the rule of philosopher-bureaucrats, however, Lao-tzu developed a radical libertarian creed. For Lao-tzu the individual and his happiness was the key unit and goal of society. If social institutions hampered the individual’s flowering and his happiness, then those institutions should be reduced or abolished altogether. To the individualist Lao-tzu, government, with its “laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox,” was a vicious oppressor of the individual, and “more to be feared than fierce tigers.”
Government, in sum, must be limited to the smallest possible minimum; “inaction” was the proper function of government, since only inaction can permit the individual to flourish and achieve happiness. Any intervention by government, Lao-tzu declared, would be counterproductive, and would lead to confusion and turmoil. After referring to the common experience of mankind with government, Lao-tzu came to this incisive conclusion: “The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished… The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”
The wisest course, then, is to keep the government simple and for it to take no action, for then the world “stabilizes itself.” As Lao-tzu put it, “Therefore the Sage says: I take no action yet the people transform themselves, I favor quiescence and the people right themselves, I take no action and the people enrich themselves…”
Lao-tzu arrived at his challenging and radical new insights in a world dominated by the power of Oriental despotism. What strategy to pursue for social change? It surely was unthinkable for Lao-tzu, with no available historical or contemporary example of libertarian social change, to set forth any optimistic strategy, let alone contemplate forming a mass movement to overthrow the State. And so Lao-tzu took the only strategic way out that seemed open to him, counseling the familiar Taoist path of withdrawal from society and the world, of retreat and inner contemplation.
I submit that while contemporary Taoists advocate retreat from the world as a matter of religious or ideological principle, it is very possible that Lao-tzu called for retreat not as a principle, but as the only strategy that in his despair seemed open to him. If it was hopeless to try to disentangle society from the oppressive coils of the State, then he perhaps assumed that the proper course was to counsel withdrawal from society and the world as the only way to escape State tyranny.
It would seem that little has changed in 2500 years. The drive by some individuals to control others is clearly a permanent condition in every era. The only remaining question is how to deal with it.
In my belief, the number of libertarians will always be few. Just as there will always be those who will stop at nothing in seeking to control others, the great majority of people will always respond like Pavlov’s dogs to the empty promise of greater security, in trade for diminished freedom. Even a country that begins with a people determined to control their own lives and create their own destiny will, over generations, succumb to the empty promises. The deterioration may take one hundred years, two hundred years, or even longer, but historically, every culture eventually gives way, bit by bit, to the empty promises and becomes completely dominated. In the end, each country collapses in economic ruin—the people having lost the desire to produce, as the leaders have bled them dry.
But there is one saving grace to this historical pattern. After a collapse, it all has to start over. Parasitic leaders become anathema. The country begins anew. Those who are productive lead the way, and liberty becomes the byword.
This being the case, anyone who is inspired to believe in the libertarian principle has two choices if he lives in a country that is in the final, most oppressive stages: he can either remain there, swimming against an overwhelming tide, or he can vote with his feet. He can seek out other locations—those that are in the early stages of development, where the residents think as he does, where he is not a threat to “the system” but, by being a libertarian, is actually swimming with the tide.
Certainly, as we can see above, this is what Lao-tzu concluded over 2500 years ago (and that was before his government had the ability to fly a drone over his house.)
Of course, today, we have more options than Lao-tzu. Not only is transportation so good that we can fly anywhere in the world, but the Internet keeps us posted on the information we need to learn of locations in the world that might suit our liking better than the one we presently reside in. There are unquestionably those out there who prefer to be proles—to accept an Orwellian existence. For those who do not—those of a more libertarian bent—the good news is that there are choices—many of them. A better life elsewhere.
Here are a few closing comments from Lao-tzu that I’m fond of, taken from his Tao Te Ching. They further exemplify the fact that the problem of the libertarian is perennial. All that remains is whether we have the wisdom to effect the solution—to seek out those locations in the world that offer a better alternative.
Those in power are meddlesome …
The greater the restrictions and prohibitions,
The more people are impoverished.
The more advanced the weapons of the state,
The darker the nation …
Thus the virtuous attend to contracts
while those without virtue collect taxes …
Act before things exist
Manage them before there’s disorder
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