“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.

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Coolidge Slept Here

Apparently, today, March 15, is National Napping Day. If true, this certainly is a “holiday” not celebrated in Calvin Coolidge’s day; but the fact that Coolidge enjoyed an early afternoon nap whenever possible was widely lampooned by the wits of his era and has entered into the public perception of him just as much as his “Silent Cal” persona.

Of course, recent years have produced some scientific evidence that napping has numerous health benefits. While humans have somewhat varying “internal clocks”, there is usually a low point of cognitive and even motor capability somewhere around mid-day. Power naps, and the re-charging of energy they produce, have been the practice of outstanding people from Thomas Alva Edison to Ronald Reagan.

Beyond the health benefits of napping, isn’t there something soothing about a president who is confident enough in the ability of the nation to go on functioning while he gets in a few winks? What better way to proclaim a philosophy of “laissez faire” than to nod off for a little while in the early afternoon? Rather than overly involving himself in the day-to-day details, Coolidge (echoed 50 years later by Ronald Reagan) chose capable and trusted associates, delegated authority to them, and never overestimated his own importance. I’d rather have this type of president than one who burns the midnight oil and pores day and night over state papers, exhausting himself in the task of building his legacy. All in all, a president does less damage when he’s napping… or golfing, as Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner.

But given the growth of presidential power and responsibilities over the past 80-some years, and the possibly even greater and indeed unrealistic expectations of superhuman capabilities associated with the job, it is a wonder that contemporary presidents get any sleep at all, let alone a midday nap!