Taoism and Libertarianism – From Lao Tzu to Murray Rothbard



Lao Tzu and the work he is supposed to have authored entitled Tao Te Ching and was the foundational text of the spiritual and philosophical schools of Taoism. It has been estimated to have been written in the sixth century B.C. and is largely a collection of “Various cryptic passages suggesting the Dao pervades all reality…”1. A basic introduction to Taoism must include the path of wu-wei, or roughly translated “Do nothing, and nothing will be left undone”. Taoism evolved in a religious landscape that practiced the rigid Statism that Confucian ideals led to, and it was only a matter of time before the political implications of such a philosophy would become evident. Asian religious expert John Esposito noted “The Daoists felt that the Confucians harmed society through imposing rules and artificial practices that interfered with humanity’s natural inclinations.”2. It would take over 2500 years before the Western school of Classical Liberalism would pursue the political implications promoted by the Tao Te Ching. In the meantime however, the philosophical Taoists political theories have unwittingly become entwined with modern libertarian movements.

Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard

Twentieth century political philosopher, historian, and economist Murray N. Rothbard wrote about Lao Tzu in the Fall 1990 edition of The Journal of Libertarian Studies. The first section of this essay was entitled “Retreatism: Taoism in Ancient China”. Rothbard argues that Lao Tzu was “The first intellectual libertarian”3.  Rothbard is often noted as the founder of the anarcho-Capitalist school of the libertarian political ideology. While ultimately believing that all human interaction should be free of force, fraud, and coercion; Anarcho-Capitalists also understand the government as an institution based solely on the monopoly of the legal use of force. Whereas Lao Tzu and his Tao Te Ching preached minimal intervention in society as the most efficient means, Rothbard and others argue that there is no room in society for the State at all. The goals of the two political movements are almost entirely compatible however, with agreements on 99% of the issues. The first move is to limit governmental intervention.

Rothbard said of the State “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.” 4 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.” 5. Anarchist libertarian theory fully appreciates the limiting of State intervention along the way towards statelessness.

Directly from the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu said “The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be.”6 The libertarian parallels are obvious here, and in very simple but straightforward terminology, Lao Tzu illustrated one of the most important points that libertarians have been attempting for decades. It was not until his 1978 book For A New Liberty: A Libertarian Manifesto that a political philosopher offered such a similar perspective regarding government sponsored welfare. Rothbard said “If people wish to be ‘spontaneous’, let them do so on their own time and with their own resources, and let them then take the consequences of this decision, and not use State coercion to force the hardworking and ‘unspontaneous’ to bear those consequences instead. In short, abolish the welfare system.”7

Neither Lao Tzu, nor Murray Rothbard felt that it was unnecessary to help the poor. In fact the majority of the Welfare chapter in For A New Liberty is devoted to historical evidence in which private charity has done a far more effective job at taking care of the less fortunate. It was in fact out of concern for the less fortunate that motivated Rothbard, and it is likely Lao Tzu would have agreed with Rothbard’s final criticism of the welfare state, “Perhaps one of the grimmest consequences of welfare is that it actively discourages self-help by crippling the financial incentive for rehabilitation”8.

While attempting to determine what led Lao Tzu to these philosophical conclusions, but kept him just short of advocating complete anarchy, Rothbard says “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.”9 Rothbard felt it was intellectually possible to imagine a stateless society in his day, but under the strict rule of ancient regimes, the only possibility for Lao Tzu and his followers to avoid State oppression was to retreat from it, hence the name ‘Retreatism’ that Rothbard applied.

Through the works of Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek and other free market economists, the ideas of Lao Tzu have been unwittingly represented to the world. There is an emerging Austrian school of economic thought coupled with an emerging ferocity within the libertarian movement. The intellectual and philosophical links have been established between Lao Tzu and Murray Rothbard, and the spiritual aspects of Taoism will weave an interesting story as it makes its way through the libertarian anarchist movement.

– Adam Alcorn, Editor, the Humane Condition

As always, you can contact the author at thcondition@gmail.com or on twitter @AdamBlacksburg

NOTES (Thanks to Mises.org for the free literature)

  1. Esposito, John L., Darrell J. Fasching, and Todd Vernon Lewis. Religions of Asia today. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 271. Print.
  2. Esposito p. 271
  3. Rothbard, Murray. “Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Toward Laissez Faire*.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies IX.2 (1990): 44. Ludwig von Mises Institute. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
  4. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
  5. Rothbard, p. 46
  6. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
  7. Rothbard, Murray Newton. “Welfare and the Welfare State.” For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Rev. ed. San Francisco, Calif.: Fox & Wilkes, 1978. P. 191. e-Book.
  8. Rothbard, Murray Newton. “Welfare and the Welfare State” For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Rev. ed. San Francisco, Calif.: Fox & Wilkes, 1978 p. 193. e-Book.
  9. Rothbard, Murray. “Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Toward Laissez Faire*.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies IX.2 (1990): 47. Ludwig von Mises Institute. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.