“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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