The principles of wu-wei had many admirers—even among its ideological enemies. The Legalist School was comprised of people that upheld a notoriously totalitarian philosophy popular in the second century B. C. Ironically, they would prefer a country where government is no longer necessary; unfortunately, they believe that human nature is so corrupt that a strong, punitive government is necessary for order. Their ideal is a body of laws so perfect that they work seamlessly all the time.
If this ideal can be attained, then “the Taoist ideal of taking no action” would become the highest law and the need for a government would be eliminated (Chan, 255). If one were to completely examine their philosophy, they would justify any law, no matter how cruel, to cement the power of the ruler in question. They were responsible for the brutal reign of the Ch’in leadership at the height of their power.
While they persecuted many schools of thought, they left Taoism alone because they failed to realize that a strong violent totalitarian state is incompatible with the Taoist political philosophy. In the twentieth century and beyond, advocates of small, non-intrusive states were put to death for their “counter-revolutionary” ideas. Many governments in Europe, Asia, and the Americas had embraced the Legalist doctrine of state supremacy and the era of skillful non-action in the arena of government characterized by the Emperors of antiquity had vanished from the earth.
In communist China, Taoist masters and their students were “re-educated” or executed. For political reasons, governments around the world murdered more than one hundred million private citizens in the twentieth century alone. Lao-tzu feels that the most powerful people are the ones that do not seek to control others. “The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done. If powerful men and women would center themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms”(Lao-tzu, 37).
Political movements that advocate the ideal of non-interference include the American Libertarian Movement, Anarchism, and the Transcendentalist Movement of the early nineteenth century. Perhaps a time will come when totalitarian dictatorships go out of style and a new order of skillful non-interference will guide the destiny of the world. Shall this philosophy take root in the majority; it is safe to say that life will never be the same again. Maybe it would be the closest mankind would ever come to a paradise on earth.
Needless to say, the Old Philosopher leaves behind this admonition for all governments no matter what ideological schema guides them, “When taxes are too high, people go hungry. When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit. Act for the people’s benefit; Trust them; leave them alone”(Lao-tzu, 75).
Chan, Wing-Tsit. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973 Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Harper Collins, 1988 Lin, Derek. “Wu Wei”. Tao Living. 3 http://www.truetao.org/enter.htm.