“Wu wei” and the Coolidge way

Chinese characters for the term “wu wei,” or effortless doing.

It may be something of a stretch to draw a parallel between the timeless teachings of Taoism and the political philosophy of Calvin Coolidge. But while it is highly probable that Coolidge never in his life read a single line of Taoist teachings, anyone interested in Taoism and its central tenets such as “Wu wei,” meaning “not doing, doing” or “effortless action,” will see some interesting connections.

Just as the ideal of Taoism is effortless, anticipatory behavior that reduces antagonism and tension, the Taoist ideal in politics is a government that is not activist and “busy,” but rather gets out of the way and thereby facilitates people’s natural impulses and actions. According to Taoism, a good leader is one who stays close to nature and resists being activist in promoting a conception of what is good for people. The attitude is to leave people free to choose and pursue their own way of life, their own conception of what is good. This is called “holding the center,” and to my mind it sounds a lot like the Coolidge way. It certainly is in marked contrast to progressive, statist conceptions that proceed from the assumption that some people know better what is good and right for everyone else – an attitude on which Taoism is very skeptical.

Just as the best government, according to Taoism,  is one which is unobtrusive and hardly makes its presence known, an exemplary leader is one who speaks infrequently but effectively. While we do know that Calvin Coolidge was not as silent as his public and historic persona might suggest, he was a tremendously effective speaker who chose his venues and themes wisely.

The dichotomy between the male, hard, active etc. side of human nature (the yang) and the female, soft, passive side (the yin) is a well-known central figure of Chinese, and again particularly Taoist philosophy. Usually in our Western ways, we associate politics with ideas of activism, change, progress, and expansion – all of which are reflections or aspects of the male, or yang, side of human nature. To succeed as an effective leader, the Tao te Ching informs us, we must instead be willing to emphasize retreat, intuition, reduction, and passivity – the “way of the female.”  This advice has less to do with one’s actual gender than with one’s outlook on the job of governing. Coolidge has been accused of being a largely “passive” or certainly non-activist president, and while this, again, may be something of a stretch, I do see in him and his political style a representation of this “female” outlook (Theodore Roosevelt comes to mind as a good example of a male, yang-oriented leader). Taoism submits that good leaders avoid activism for its own sake; they know such activism very often produces unintended consequences. They trust society to self-correct, self-enrich, and self-simplify if left alone; they trust people (in the aggregate, as per Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand) to ultimately act for the good of all.

I have marked a few lines in this chapter from the most important Taoist work, the Tao te Ch’ing (or Dao de Jing) that seem to me to exemplify Coolidge as a leader in the Taoist mold:
“Govern your country with integrity,
And use weapons of war only with great cunning.
Change the world with not-doing.
How do I know the way things are?
By these:
The more prohibitions you make,
The poorer people will be.
The more weapons you possess,
The greater the chaos in your country.
The more knowledge that is acquired,
The stranger the world will become.
The more laws that you make,
The greater the number of criminals.
Therefore the Master says:
I do nothing, and people become good by themselves.
I seek peace,
And people take care of their own problems.
I do not meddle in their personal lives,
And the people become prosperous.
I let go of all my desires,
And the people return to the Uncarved Block.”

(Tao te Ching, chapter 57)

 

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