Friday, May 26, 2017

Mencius: Advice for the Emperor Trump and His Mandarins

In Hinton's translation of the Mencius I've gotten to chapter VII, or, Book One of Li Lou. I think it's especially apropos to what is currently happening in Washington.

Mencius starts off by emphasizing the importance of tradition to a good ruler. It isn't enough to just set out with good intentions, a ruler has to follow the "Way"---or traditions---that has been set by previous leaders. He quotes an unattributed saying:
Virtue alone isn't enough for government,
and law cannot alone put itself into action.
The point is emphasized by an analogy with skilled craftsmen. Even the best of them rely upon tools like a compass or square to draw their circles and right angles. In the same way, a leader needs to rely upon the traditions of his predecessors in order to get things done.

This can sound odd to modern people, but I'd ask readers to try to understand how a government bureaucracy works. Ultimately, it is a huge collection of people who have been hired to make sure that certain policies will be acted upon. And the problem is that getting something done is always a lot more difficult than people think. This requires expertise and myriads of individual choices being made by individual bureaucrats. And to do this, every government requires high officials who have a great deal of authority delegated to them by the sovereign. In effect, every complex society requires a class of Mandarins.
A Mandarin official, Late Qing China, by John Thomson, 1869.
c/o the Wiki Commons

"Mandarin" is the Portuguese/English word that we use to describe the scholar/officials that governed ancient China for centuries. It is also the word that Canadians routinely use to describe the higher officials in our government bureaucracy, though I've never heard an American call any of their officials "Mandarins". Donald Trump ran for office and pledged to "drain the swamp" in order to "get things done". Many people thought that the swamp he was going to drain was the influence of big money in politics, whereas it appears that what he really meant was to destroy the influence of high officials.  

A key principle of modern governance is the idea that the sovereign is not above the law. This is part of the "Way" of American society. It is the square or compass that the president is supposed to use when he is governing the nation. It is also a key principle that allows American mandarins---like FBI Director James Comey---to guide the way they do their job. That is why the President's attempt to get Comey to swear personal loyalty to him, and, his decision to fire him when he refused to take direction on the Russia file, is viewed by the law as "obstruction of justice". No one---even the President---is supposed to be able to stop an independent official from doing his job. This is especially true when the mandarin in question is a law enforcement official who is investigating claims of wrong-doing aimed specifically at the President himself.

A Modern US Mandarin, James Comey
Federal Govt Photo, c/o Wiki Commons
This principle, that the sovereign is not above the law, came about because it is the only way to stop officials from using their power to make themselves rich at the expense of the general public.

It is tremendously important for an efficiently functioning society to create institutional "firewalls" between the politicians and the bureaucracy (eg the Mandarins.) If you do not, you will have government officials "pulling strings" in order to get special favours for wealthy "friends". This is not only unfair, it damages the economic life of a society. Business people need consistency to be able to make long-term plans. And if they have no idea how to tell if something is going to be accepted by a planning commission, for example, because the issue is settled not by legal precedent but by bribing the local official---it becomes very expensive to do many types of business.

Mencius understands the importance of following the "Way" of society to the point where he suggests that it is not only necessary, it can actually be sufficient to sustain it.
If city walls are unfinished and weapons scarce, it doesn't spell disaster for the nation. If people aren't plowing new fields or piling up wealth, it doesn't spell ruin for the nation. But if a leader ignores Ritual and officials ignore learning, the people turn to banditry and rebellion, and the nation crumbles in less than a day. 
This is an important point. What is at stake in the Trump Presidency isn't the economic or military might of the United States. It isn't even it's influence on the world stage. These are ephemeral. What makes America "America" are the such esoteric principles as the rule of law instead of the sovereign. And because these only exist insofar as the bureaucracy keeps them in existence, something that keeps America being America are the Mandarins like James Comey---who refused to put loyalty to the President ahead of loyalty to the law.

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One of the memes that has been bandied about a lot recently is the existence of the "Deep State". This term was originally coined with reference to the way the military in Turkey and Egypt, as well as the Security Apparatus in Russia control the organs of government without any significant influence by elected officials. It has also been suggested that this is also happening in the USA through the machinations of what Eisenhower called "the military industrial complex". Supporters of Donald Trump are arguing that the work of the FBI, the CIA, and, the Judiciary, to investigate his administration for ties to Russia and also to block his orders banning Muslims from entering the country is evidence of the Deep State's opposition to a democratically-elected president.

This is a profound misuse of the term "Deep State". What is happening in the US is that the bureaucracy is doing its job of defining and limiting the ability of elected officials to trample over the rights of its citizens. The constitution and the traditions of the USA mean nothing if they are just words on pieces of paper. A society also has to have effective leaders who devote their lives to making sure that the spirit of the law remains enforced. Mencius said:
When all beneath Heaven abides in the Way, small Integrity serves great Integrity, and small wisdom serves great wisdom. When all beneath Heaven ignores the Way, small serves large, and weak serves strong. Either way, Heaven issues it forth---and those who abide by Heaven endure, while those who defy Heaven perish.
What he is talking about is the rule of law versus the rule of the powerful. The only defense that any society can have is the existence of honourable people who put their allegiance to what they believe is right ahead of their own personal careers. That is to say, in a large society like ours, an essential element of its defense against the abuse of power is the existence of Mandarins like Jame Comey.

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This isn't to say that the man is a saint. His behaviour during the election with regard to Hillary Clinton's emails was ridiculous. I don't know the man, so he could be totally and utterly wrong about any number of things from civil rights, the environment, to, Black Lives Matter. In fact, I suspect that he's the sort of patrician Republican that I would consider an ignorant boob if I ever met him. But within his understanding of right and wrong, he was unwilling to put his own career ahead of the constitution. As such, he did his job as a Mandarin. That is all anyone can ask of him. Being a Mandarin doesn't require any great insight into the great issues of the day, it just requires a personal commitment to the principles that sustain the nation---even at the cost of your own career. I may not particularly like the USA as it presently exists, but I have no illusions that it could not get significantly worse. I believe in the importance of change, but I want the change to be for the better.  

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One last point. Once the United States loses its ability to find and appoint Mandarins to high office, it will be totally destroyed as a nation. Mencius said:
---only after a person has demeaned himself will others demean him. Only after a great family has destroyed itself will others destroy it. And only after a country has torn itself down will others tear it down. The "T"ai Chia" says:  
Ruin from Heaven
we can weather.
Ruin from ourselves
we never survive. 

If the USA cannot continue to find Mandarins of integrity (however they define it) and place them in positions of responsibility, the nation will be destroyed. It is that simple. We have to see who will win in this battle between demagoguery and integrity.

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Walk lightly on this beautiful earth!

3 comments:

ArtDeco said...

Hello

Thank you for a well thought out essay on the present drama from Washington. I know the Tao Te Ching but not so much the works of Mencius ... was he also speaking from the warring states period like Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu ? That seems like a period of decline much like what we face from here on out. The Chinese have a history of going up and down the path of empire so many times that I can often find they have wisdom stories that sound a lot like advice for our present times.
ArtDeco

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Yes, Mencius does come from the time of the warring states. I've been working through his book in this blog because I think a lot of people who are interested in Daoism are told that it is a response to a hide-bound, and idiotic philosophy known as Confucianism. I'm trying to point out that the truth is a lot more subtle. There is a lot of worth in the Confucian worldview, and Mencius is one of its key exponents. As Westerners wrestling with the ancient Chinese tradition of Daoism, it helps us to understand it if we can learn something about the context it came from.

ArtDeco said...

OK. My impression of Confucianism is probably biased by my reading Chuang Tzu who pokes fun at Confucianism (of course) as a rival philosophy - but the quotes you posted seem quite rational. I think I will find some translations and attempt to tie it together. I came at Chinese thought through the lens of Kung Fu and Tai Chi so my knowledge is very spotty. Anyway, nice post, will follow.

ArtDeco