For governing a country well / there is nothing better than moderation (64). This idea of a hands-off approach to governance drives Lao-Tzu’s central philosophy on the state. He believes that the government which governs the least, governs the best. This libertarian, laissez-faire perspective on government was extraordinarily unique in a world run by authoritarian regimes. Rather than put faith in government intervention to keep civilization in order, he hypothesized that when individuals were left to their own devices, society would improve as a whole. Even though Lao-Tzu lived over two thousand years ago, his groundbreaking ideas on topics such as prohibitions, subsidies, and weapons, are both relevant and important in the modern day.
In his revolutionary philosophical document, the Tao-te Ching, Lao-Tzu states that The more prohibitions you have, / the less virtuous people will be (63). People often think that outlawing peaceful behavior that they deem immoral will lead to a more ethical society. However, more often than not, this belief usually proves false. This kind of authoritarian governance, restricting the rights of people to voluntarily partake in actions that affect nobody but themselves, lead to societies riddled with crime and black markets. A prime example of this can be found in early 20th century America. At the time, many religious moralists saw the consumption of alcohol throughout the country as immoral, and believed it was the cause of many societal issues across America. In response to this, the Temperance movement was born in the attempt to regulate the consumption of alcohol. This movement eventually saw success, and on January, 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment was passed, outlawing the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of alcohol throughout America. The members of the Temperance movement believed this would decrease crime and greatly improve morals throughout the country, but the reality of Prohibition would prove detrimental to society. While Prohibition did stop some from drinking, alcohol consumption remained around 70% of its original amount (Miron & Zwiebel 5). Because manufacture and sale of alcohol had been outlawed, these drinkers turned to illegal sources in order to obtain their liquor. Organized crime stepped up to fulfill this demand, gaining a complete monopoly on the alcohol market. Bootleg alcohol provided illegally became far more dangerous, and was on average 150% more potent than previously legal substances (Thornton 3). Furthermore, this reliance on criminal organizations to supply illegal alcohol cause the national crime rate to skyrocket, with the homicide rate rising 78% and the federal prison population increasing 366% (6). As Lao-Tzu had predicted, a prohibition for moral reasons had not led to a more virtuous society.
On the topic of subsidies, Lao-Tzu believes that The more subsidies you have,/ the less self-reliant people will be(63). In a completely free market, businesses are able to survive based solely on the value they provide to the consumers. Profit and loss mechanisms help these businesses gauge whether or not they are providing an adequate amount of value to their customers. However, sometimes governments decide to interject themselves in the economy, doling out subsidies to companies that they feel are deserving. When this occurs, profit and loss mechanisms are distorted, as these businesses no longer have to please customers in order to continue generating profit. These industries become dependent on subsidies, making it extremely hard to repeal these subsidies because of the damage it would do to the business. Thus, instead of a helping hand, these subsidies become a crutch. A shining example of this sort of subsidy dependence can be found within the American Railroad company, Amtrak. This is a corporation that loses hundreds of millions of dollars each year due to unacceptable levels of inefficiency. In a free market, any company that suffers losses of that caliber would be unable to survive. However, because Amtrak receives well over a billion dollars in federal subsidies per year, it does not suffer from the incredible inefficiency and lack of value that it produces (O’Toole 2016). Instead, it is able to continue operating solely due to the mountain of taxpayer dollars it receives every year. This does not only apply to businesses, however, as individuals are also subsidized with taxpayer dollars. Billions of dollars are given out each year in unemployment benefits to workers who are unable to find a job. When these workers have low skills and are unable to find well paying jobs, they are often incentivized to stay on unemployment benefits. This leads to a cycle of dependence in which the unemployed do not improve their skills and are unable to get themselves off of government subsidies.
Lao-Tzu’s position on weapons is also very intriguing. It is his belief that the more weapons you have/ the less secure you will be (63). On the surface level, this argument makes sense. Adding weapons to a weaponless society most definitely increases the risk of these weapons being abused in order to maintain power over the weak. However, this is exactly why weapons are needed in society. This world is not perfect, and malevolent people will always be able to get their hands on weaponry. The only way for people to provide security for themselves and their families is through arming themselves in preparation for the worst. Even though it is important to arm yourself, that does not mean it is always appropriate to make use of your weapon. As Lao-Tzu says, Weapons are the tools of fear;/ a decent man will avoid them/ except in the direst necessity/and, if compelled, will use them/ only with the utmost restraint (60). It is important that you use weapons solely in defense of yourself and those you care about. When one uses their weapons to aggress against peaceful people, they immediately lose any moral standing they once had.
While Lao-Tzu lived over two thousand years ago, his ideas of peace, individualism, and self-reliance still hold massive importance in modern society. However, more often than not, his prophetic advice is ignored in the political environment of today. Modern governments still believe that prohibiting immoral behavior in pursuit of the common good will result in a positive outcome, as showcased by today’s war on drugs. However, this is having effects similar to those of the 18th Amendment, with narcotic consumption still occurring and being monopolized on the black market. Drugs are more dangerous than they would be in a free market, being distributed exclusively by violent gangs. The crime rate is also much higher than it would be without the war on drugs, with 20% of the prison population being made up of drug offenders (Wagner and Rabuy 2017). This prohibition certainly does not make a more virtuous society. Government subsidies are at unprecedented levels, with hundreds of billions of dollars being spent each year being spent out on handouts (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities 2017). Furthermore, governments all over the world engage in aggressive, unprovoked warfare. In conclusion, it is time that societies begin putting Lao-Tzu’s revolutionary ideas into action. If applied, his vision would make the world both a more peaceful and more prosperous place.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Policy Basics: Where Do Our Federal Tax Dollars Go?
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 4 Oct. 2017, https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/policy-basics-where-do-our-federal-tax-dollars-go. Accessed 10 Sept 2018. Lao-Tzu. Tao-te Ching. A World of Ideas, edited by Lee A. Jacobus, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017, pp.60-64.
Miron, Jeffrey and Jeffrey Zwiebel. Alcohol Consumption During Prohibition. National Bureau of Economic Research, 1991, pp. 5.
O’Toole, Randal. Amtrak’s World-Class Losses. Cato Institute, 21 Nov. 2016 https://www.downsizinggovernment.org/amtraks-world-class-losses. Accessed 9 Sept 2018
Rabuy, Bernadette and Peter Wagner. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017. Prison Policy
Initiative, 14 Mar. 2017, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html. Accessed 11 Sept 2018.
Thornton, Mark. Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure. Cato Institute, 1991, pp.3-6.
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