Laotze Chapter 17: The Taoist View Of Optimal Governance


The supreme rulers are hardly known by their subjects.
The lesser are loved and praised.
The even lesser are feared.
The least are despised.

Those who show no trust will not be trusted.
Those who are quiet value the words.
When their task is completed, people will say:
We did it ourselves.


The Four Grades of Governance

This chapter gives four grades of governance, from better to worse. The barely known, the loved, the feared, and the despised.

The Barely Known

The best kind of management is to not have to manage anymore.

When the culture and norms are in place, people will have the tools to solve problems themselves, and say “we did it ourselves”, yielding no further problems to justify any sort of intervention.

Hence why the supreme rulers are hardly known by their subjects.


The Loved and Praised


Ruling through love and praise would be a lesser form of governance compared with the former, for people lose sight of themselves in the worship of idols, and more or less lose agency in dealing with their own problems this way.

Secondly, love and praise is also a reciprocal relation between subject and ruler. To explain the sub-optimality of this, we could reference two other traditions Taoism has spawned.

Chinese Legalism and Militarism. The former deals with rulership, the latter would be The Art of War, which people would be familiar with.

Legalism states that a ruler who exhibits obvious likes and dislikes will have his preferences arbitraged by those below him, and corrupt governance as a whole.

The Art of War states in its chapter on Adaptations(8th chapter) that “those who love their people may be troubled”, stating it as one of the obvious preferences of leaders that could be exploited as weakness.

The Feared

One could argue that governing through fear yields the same results as governing through love, for it’s just a different set of incentives, and it matters little the aesthetics as long as results are achieved.

But fear in contrast with the more positive notion of love and reverence would be more knee-jerk and relatively lacking of personal initiative in problem-solving, its inclination being to avoid pain, and not confront it.

Rulers may prefer it for its more predictable results, but the relative lack of active problem-solving initiative would become a major obstacle when scaling and encountering ever more problems of variety.

The Despised

Rulers that are despised have no legitimacy anymore, and their orders carry no weight.

The question goes then, whether it is better to be loved or feared?

For governance, as this chapter points out, better to be loved than feared, and the worst is to be despised and irrelevant.

And the best is to be none of the above, to be barely known but strongly relevant.


Regarding Trust


This small caveat near the end may seem strange to people:


Those who show no trust will not be trusted.
Those who are quiet value the words.


For, at first sight, it bears little relevance with the rest of the chapter, and does not seem to complement it well. This would be Laotze’s style.

Laotze’s style is often plain and simplistic because complex explanations will most definitely be corrupted by different interpretations and lingual shifts through the ages.

So when speaking of complex concepts, he would often just give the conclusions and omit complex proofs, trusting direct intuition of the reader to make a better case than the convoluted textual interpretations that may come out of people “explaining his explanations”.

My personal interpretation of the caveat would be a lingual one based upon Wittgenstein, that value is subjective, and perfect communication of subjective values is impossible with language; and so it would be, that only people themselves have the potential to fully understand their own problems.

For even elder couples that have lived with each other for decades may not fully understand each other, who are we then to make the claim of understanding another?

So it is hereby for finer problem-solving, we have no choice but to trust people to act as they will, for it is only people themselves that can ultimately comprehend their own problems, and solve them.

Trust is therefore needed for advanced problem solving, and trust in a social context is often a reciprocal thing. What you trust people to be would affect your attitude and interactions towards them, and also theirs in reaction.

Respectful, reciprocal dialogue is only possible if someone initiates it, so that others may follow accordingly. The same goes also for other relations.

If one initiates a relationship of praise, people will reciprocate accordingly.

If one initiates one of fear, people will also reciprocate accordingly.

Such is why it’s important how one interacts with people, and we watch our own words in interaction, hence:

Those who show no trust will not be trusted.
Those who are quiet value the words.


You can read more from Thomas Chang on Think Liberty here.


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