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Friday, August 28, 2009

It is a natural process for modernization to reduce the influence of traditional belief systems. Such a tradition hinders progress by favoring traditional practices over developing a system based on the rule of law, sacrificing individual freedom and self-interest. These points are supported by the thorough analysis by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel in their book Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy:

The shift from traditional to secular-rational values becomes slower and stagnates, while another change becomes more powerful – the shift from survival to self-expression values, through which people place increasing emphasis on human choice, autonomy, and creativity.
The Confucian tradition fit China well for its stage of development when it was largely an agrarian society. Before agrarian societies reach proper levels of industrialization, farmers are at the mercy of nature (or in many societies, gods of the earth) for their existential security. Farmers in China found this sense of security in the Confucian tradition and trust in a strong central government.

Every society begins to shift away from traditional beliefs and practices once a certain point of industrialization is reached. Yes, it is a good thing that China has moved away from such a traditional system that hindered its growth and development. However, history has consistently shown that top-down reform movements orchestrated by the central government are not necessary to produce such a change. As a result of the infamous Cultural Revolution, economic growth stagnated or declined, the education system halted (with illiteracy reaching as high as 40% in some areas), priceless cultural artifacts were destroyed, and an estimated 400,000 to 3,000,000 people lost their lives. These atrocities could have been avoided had the natural course of modernization been followed.

The only beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution were the Communist Party. According to Friedrich von Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom:
The most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people.
As a result of the revolution, the Confucian tradition, which already valued a strong central government, was replaced by a more secular belief structure through the use of extensive government propaganda, reprogramming, and occasionally violence. It was risky to destroy a system that already favored authoritarian rule to institute a new, secular system. Inglehart and Welzel have stated:
But these secular beliefs are no less dogmatic than religious ones. Secular beliefs and doctrines do not necessarily challenge unlimited political authority; they usually legitimize it, as did fascist and communist ideologies.
The Cultural Revolution was only necessary as means for the Communist Party, specifically Mao Zedong, to further consolidate power over the people.

Of course, perhaps even Confucius would agree with this quote on the virtues of self-interest by the American environmental essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson:
It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.
If not Confucius, then perhaps the leaders of the Han dynasty would agree with this statement, as is implied by the historical records of Sima Qian:
When all work willingly at their trade, just as water flows ceaselessly downhill day and night. Things will appear unsought and people will produce them without being asked. For clearly this accords with 'the Way' and is in keeping with nature.
I believe Emerson, who greatly appreciated environmental symbolism, would agree with this statement, as would the great free market economists of our times. This appears to be the Chinese historical equivalent of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”.

However, I do wonder if perhaps Sima Qian, in writing “the Way” (note the capitalization), was not referring to market forces but rather to Daoism, which began during the Han dynasty. In fact, this passage from his historical account seems to conform to the Daoist concept of wuwei (无为). The forces of nature, like a river, work harmoniously with the world. Problems only arise when outside forces (such as government) exert its will against it, disrupting the harmony.

Posted by Eleutherian

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1 Responses to Libertarianism, China, and the Confucian Tradition

  1. bbrian017 Says:
  2. Another amazing article very nice Chris. I enjoyed every minute of it. Tho I don’t have some smart interesting comment to post I still enjoyed learning from it. I have to Google agrarian society and Confucianism as I had no idea what they meant lol.

    This was a great insight on why the west differs so much from the east. Seeing how our culture and learning lessons have paved the way to where our society is today. It’s amazing the grip the Communists had on their people and even to this day it still has dominate control over the people.

    Sorry if I missed your point... I'm trying lol


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