In Part II, Chapter 60, of the Daodejing, the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi declared, “Governing a country is like cooking a small fish.” The gist of the aphorism is that a ruler must be careful and measured in the application of laws and power, or else his country, like a hastily prepared fish, will turn out poorly.
Laozi has always been a significant voice of laissez-faire in Chinese philosophy, and unlike the Confucian schools of thought which promote obedience to authority for the sake of social harmony, numerous passages in the Daodejing set forth the idea that a rulers are quite capable of making mistakes, especially when they use force to control the lives of people. Instead, rulers should follow ziran (nature) and intervene only when wise and necessary, such as in times of disaster. Laozi’s views have led some libertarians to look to him as one of the earliest libertarians in history, and certainly there’s a connection between Laozi’s line of thinking and the Hayekian school of economic and political theory. Reform-minded Chinese economists who analyzed the success of the “responsibility system” among China’s peasant farmers in the 1980s invoked both Hayek and Laozi to explain how the farmers prospered when no longer under the thumb of state control.
The story of the 20th century might well be that despite our self-conception as rational beings, most “rational” plans for ordering society produced undesirable results, whereas stable political and economic outcomes were generally obtained naturally and democratically, without constant top-down control. From the Nazis to the Soviets to Mao-era China to the former Yugoslavia, this phenomenon was witnessed again and again, and it is no less true today. For example, many Iraq War supporters have pointed to the relatively safe and economically thriving* Iraqi Kurdistan as a model for the rest of Iraq. However, this ignores the fact that plans for Kurdish self-governance, unlike the structure of the coalition government, was not dictated by Washington; rather, America and Britain simply created the free environment that allowed the Kurds to succeed.** In the rest of Iraq, however, America has tried and seemingly failed at state-building precisely because the power-sharing conditions being imposed are not “natural” to the Iraqis.
In the larger picture, I regard Laozi’s saying as reflecting the rational bounds all policymakers must operate within and the speed with which policy can be implemented without harm to the people being governed. It’s also, arguably, a warning against the effectiveness of America serving as the world’s policeman, a role I was skeptical of during the Clinton administration and have become downright hostile to during the Bush years. As this has long been a principle I’ve adhered to as a libertarian-minded conservative, the name of the blog seemed to me a natural fit.
(For the record, I am not adept at cooking fish of any size.)
* The above holds true until the point at which Turkey invades and stops the Kurdish experiment in spontaneous organization.
** Tellingly, the Kurds have succeeded because their territory is ethnically homogenous, whereas Iraq as a whole faces a “Belgium problem” — only in this case, people are wielding suicide bombs and AK-47s instead of fine chocolates.