The Reading Room

The Market for Liberty in Ancient China

In his 1956 book The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, free-market economist Ludwig von Mises wrote:
“The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West. What separates East and West is first of all the fact that the peoples of the East never conceived the idea of liberty. ... The East lacked the primordial thing, the idea of freedom from the state. The East never raised the banner of freedom, it never tried to stress the rights of the individual against the power of the rulers. It never called into question the arbitrariness of the despots.”
But is this really true?  A case can be made that some of the oldest philosophical texts in the world, those of ancient China, contain powerful ideas about individual liberty and the dangers of unchecked state power, ideas that owe nothing to the West.  I have in mind, in particular, the contributions of the Confucian, Mohist, Yangist, and Taoist schools – although even the ultra-authoritarian Legalist school, which stood for the antithesis of liberty on most points, was not devoid of the occasional pro-liberty idea.
Chinese philosophy arose during the so-called Eastern Zhou period (771-221 BCE), during which the formerly dominant Zhou Dynasty was undergoing a slow process of disintegration, its hegemony over what was then China (a smaller region than China today) growing increasingly ceremonial rather than actual.  (The preceding period of Zhou dominance, c. 1046–771 BCE is called the Western Zhou; the change of names corresponds to a change in the location of the royal capital city.)  As with Renaissance Italy centuries later, political decentralization led to quite a bit of inter-state warfare (the latter half of the Eastern Zhou period is even called the “Warring States Period”), but also to economic and cultural flowering fueled by competition.
As the Zhou regime began to fragment into independent states, many local rulers found themselves enjoying a newly free hand to shape policy according to their liking, but at the same time found themselves lacking the experience to know which policies would be the most effective ones to enact – a particularly pressing concern as neighboring states often eyed one another’s territory with avaricious eyes, and an unpopular ruler might have trouble motivating his subjects to offer enthusiastic resistance to invasion.  
Luckily for these rulers, the gradual collapse of the Zhou regime, as the historian Ban Gu (32–92 CE) tells us, had also largely thrown the shi class, the lowest rung of the former ruling class, out of work; this class comprised stewards, scholars, and minor officials of various kinds.  The new rulers desperately needed political advisors, and here were a bunch of potential political advisors in equally desperate need of jobs.  Hence many of these shi scholars would wander from state to state, seeking a ruler who might hire them.
So imagine you’re one of these itinerant scholars, newly arrived at a royal court, and you’re hoping to convince the local prince to take you on as an advisor.  But to your annoyance, there’s another scholar competing for the same job, a scholar whose theories on rulership are quite different from yours.  You’re not in a position to silence your rival by simply killing him.  (At least usually you’re not.  Though this did sometimes happen.)  So you have to use arguments and reasoning to persuade your prospective employer, and your rival likewise has to use arguments and reasoning to rebut what you’ve said.  As an unintended consequence of such rivalries, scholars had to make greater use of argument, and became increasingly better at it.
If there’s a generally accepted traditional body of elite wise elders, and you’re in it, you don’t necessarily have to give reasons for your positions; you just pronounce your edicts and they’ll be accepted on the basis of your authority.  But in a situation where scholars had to compete for influence, ideas about justice and rulership and good human society became something that had to be defended by rational debate rather than merely imperiously asserted, which is how early Chinese thought became recognizably philosophical.  And as scholars acquired and trained students, there soon arose a variety of competing philosophical movements and traditions debating each other, with the result that the Eastern Zhou period is also often called the Hundred Schools period (though the number of surviving texts that we possess represent a rather smaller number of schools). 
So Chinese philosophy owes its origin to a competitive market process – to freedom, in other words.  But that doesn’t guarantee that the content of Chinese philosophy would necessarily be pro-liberty. Nevertheless, it often was (even if the different schools tended to stress different aspects of liberty and different styles of arguments for it).  Thus in ancient Chinese philosophical texts we find arguments critiquing taxation, regulation, militarism, and bureaucracy, and supporting free speech, free trade, entrepreneurial insight, spontaneous market order, and limits on the power of rulers.  In future installments I’ll explore some of these arguments.


Garth Bond

This is extremely interesting. Hope to learn more from future posts.

Bruno Licio Marques

I would very much like to receive the future posts. Thanks!!