Tenth Taoist Contemplation: Laissez Faire

Laissez Faire is a French term that translates as “allow doing“, or “let it be“. The Taoists have frequently been labeled libertarian. Their attitudes towards government are consistent with everything else about them: by not engaging in forceful action, and by having a strategy of action that highly values flexibility and allowing things to take their course naturally, government is most effective.

When there are many restrictions in the world
The people become more impoverished
The more laws are posted
The more robbers and thieves there are

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57

When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people’s benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 75

Lao-Tse is basically arguing against government meddling and taxation, and saying that too much government makes people difficult to govern. Instead, he believes that sovereigns should “Take the world by constantly applying non-interference” (chapter48).

There is, however, a problem with the interpretation of Taoism in an economic and political system where the government and business act alike, and where big business often exhibits many of the features of government. Here, the warnings against intervention by the powerful can apply to both government and big business. For instance, in Taoist scripture a comparison is made between the laws of men and the laws of nature in this regard. The Tao of heaven (of nature) is said to be balanced and self-regulating, wheres the Tao of the people is like Wall Street: it increases the gap between rich and poor.

The Tao of heaven
Reduces the excessive
And adds to the lacking

The Tao of people is not so
It reduces the lacking
In order to offer to the excessive

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 77

Which then raises the question: how, other than through government, can we ensure that big business does not meddle and allow small business to also flourish? Under normal and healthy circumstances, government should function so that it naturally has an effect that “reduces the excessive and adds to the lacking”.

Please enjoy and share the entire series of Contemplations On Tao blog entries

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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6 Responses to Tenth Taoist Contemplation: Laissez Faire

  1. Very good post highlighting the Taoist approach to governing. Indeed Taoists do their best to follow the natural course and seek balance in all things.

    The only caution I offer is your last paragraph. It seems to indicate that big business operates in its own sphere, squeezing out smaller ones and that government is the only way to control big business.

    Unfortunately big business and government are more and more intertwined with the former very involved in crafting legislation that favors them. I know this for a fact, having been in a small business that was negatively affected by regulations designed with the “advice” of large corporations. Also, large companies are happy to see tax rates they can afford which are too onerous for their smaller competitors to pay.

    So be cautious about assuming that governments and large businesses are on opposite sides of the fence. It is not the case. Many big businesses got that way by partnering with governments to influence policy to put their competitors out of business. Sad but true.


    • hiramcrespo says:

      I think precisely that’s where I was going by asking “how then, other than through government …” … in other words, government must regulate big business instead of allowing itself to be purchased by it.

      But yes, part of the point I was making here was that, while Taoist teachings in theory are sound, big business creates certain distortions in laissez faire capitalism that make them challenging in practice.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric Reynolds says:

    Yes, I understand. Just keep in mind that big business/government is a partnership. That’s where the distortion you mention actually originates. So regulations will always serve the partnership. One will never regulate or deny support for the other. Perhaps if the various powers would read the Tao Te Ching and meditate on it…. alas, sometimes I live in a dream world!!


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