Though it was written in the 4th century B.C.E., Mengzi’s philosophy, especially his democratic tendencies, his policy recommendations, and his humanistic outlook, can still be inspirational to the left today.
The Mengzi is a text by a Chinese philosopher of the same name (his family name is Meng and -zi is an honorific; “Mengzi” is sometimes romanized as “Mencius”), and is part of the Confucian canon. The text is freely available online, although I read (and quote from) Bryan van Norden’s 2008 translation, which includes philosophical notes and commentary from the translator, as well as translations of traditional Chinese commentaries on the text.
Reading the Mengzi is a delight, partly because in reading various dialogues between Mengzi and his students, you strongly get the impression that Mengzi is a pissy, rules-lawyer pedant who also manages to have passionate humanistic ideals. It’s a striking illustration of how people with good politics can still be grating human beings on a personal level. But setting Mengzi’s personality traits aside, I will focus on some of the uplifting and encouraging elements to Mengzi’s political philosophy here.
Confucians believed in the correctness of a very hierarchical feudal society (not only invested in a political hierarchy of various levels of feudal lords (think barons, counts, and dukes), but also private hierarchies between parent/child, husband/wife, older sibling/younger sibling, etc.). However, they struggled with a recurring problem: While dynasties usually started with “great kings” who had successfully waged war that united a large portion of China and ushered in an era of peace, their dynasty would eventually grow corrupt and devolve into tyranny that necessitated another violent uprising and establishment of a new dynasty. In other words, they struggled with two crucial things: the consistent selection of just/fair/talented rulers, and (when that inevitably failed) the removal of tyrants. In the case of ancient China, the position of emperor (Son of Heaven) was NOT necessarily handed down in patrilineal fashion, but rather the next emperor could be selected by the current one based on merit — who had the skills needed to maintain the empire. However, even with this meritocratic mode of succession, inevitably the line would get corrupted. Either it would become tempting to pass the throne to one’s children, or a poor decision would be made (or power would corrupt what appeared to be a good decision). Democracy is useful for both of these problems: while it cannot guarantee selecting a good ruler, it arguably comes closest to reliably doing that by requiring rulers to accord with a large number of people’s notions of quality, and it is the (only?) way to peacefully revoke a mandate to rule via a loss of public support (implemented e.g. through term limits and re-elections).
Although the Confucians would not advocate democracy, Mengzi comes the closest. First, he advocates regicide as a response to tyranny, although not in those terms. In the most stone-cold dialogue in the book, a king asks Mengzi if it is permissible for subjects to kill their king, an act of murder that also violates hierarchy. Mengzi responds that a person who has violated laws of benevolence and righteousness is no king but merely a “fellow”. “I have indeed heard of the execution of this one fellow Zhou, but I have not heard of it as the assassination of one’s ruler” (1B8.3).
Second, before it comes to something so extreme as violent revolution (which Mengzi and other Confucians saw as justified, at least for a canonical set of cases in the past), Mengzi argued that good rulers naturally attract people who want to live in their territory. In this way, peasants, who were capable of packing up some minimal farming equipment and moving to a neighboring land, were therefore capable of voting with their feet, which then increases the power of the nation they move to (how large of an army that nation can field, for example). Mengzi consequently believes that lords who prevent people from freely leaving their territory are unethical. Such actions reveal their failure to embody benevolence in two ways: first, the unethical action of restricting free movement, and second, their shitty government that would encourage people to want to leave in the first place. (The text suggests that Mengzi believed that he lived in a time where unfortunately all the rulers were shitty, so people largely did not have the ability to exercise this proto-democratic voting action.)
Third, Mengzi advocates a view that the opinions of a large group of people is more informative than the opinion of one person, regardless of how good that person’s taste is. “If one’s attendants all say that someone is worthy”, Mengzi says, “that’s not enough. If the Chief Counselors all say that someone is worthy, that’s not enough. If the people of the state all say that someone is worthy, only then examine him” (1B7.4). The same applies for someone who people claim is unworthy, or for determining whether someone should be executed. This method of gathering information from a wide group of people, and the faith that this is the right thing to do, underpin democracy.
Though written in a highly hierarchical feudal system, which it did not criticize, I think the Mengzi nevertheless manages to lay out fairly clearly the issues with monarchy and how democracy could solve those issues.
The role of government as a tool for socializing risk
One thing that is interesting about the Mengzi is that it delves fairly deeply into specific policy. At one point, Mengzi discusses how the government should tax crop yields. He talks about three different systems: a policy that taxes a flat ~10% of the current year’s harvest (equality method); a policy that collects ~10% of the average of several years’ harvest (contribution method); and a policy that allocates the center of nine squares of farms (~10%) as communal land that the surrounding farmers are collectively responsible for tilling; the yield of this plot is collected by the government (assistance method). Mengzi views the second method to be the worst as it is unresponsive to the strength of the yield — in bad years and good years, the total amount collected remains roughly the same, which is rough on the farmer. He praises the third method, which not only is responsive to the yield but also encourages cooperation and camaraderie: “The fields of the village share the same well. They [the farming families] go out and return from the fields together. They keep watch against thieves and assist each other. When ill, they support each other. In this way, commoners are affectionate toward one another” (3A3.18).
In all cases, the lord collects grains to subsidize his lifestyle but also is responsible for disbursing the collected grain during times of need back to the people. I don’t know if Mengzi ever makes the connection between taxation and disbursement 100% explicit — it is implied in places where Mengzi analogizes rulers who blame mass-starvation on poor harvests to a person who murders someone and blames it on his knife (1A3.5). However, a traditional commentary by Fan Zuyu does state it explicitly: “One has granaries and treasuries for the sake of the people. In prosperous years one taxes them, In bad years one disperses to them” (commentary on 1B12.3). The implication is that, through wise taxation and allocation of resources, a ruler is directly responsible for preventing starvation.
In other words, Mengzi’s ideal taxation system serves two purposes: a social purpose that helps people build community, and a way to mitigate risk by socializing it.
(It should also be noted that Mengzi also had strong opinions on taxing merchants (a sales tax) viewing this kind of tax to be unethical. This suggests that Mengzi considered the justification/function of the tax to be important.)
Also, while I’m here discussing the minutiae of political policy, I also want to comment on wages in ancient feudal China, in particular the wages under the Zhou dynasty, which Mengzi views as a time when wages were well-ordered/appropriate:
Note: I believe that 1 “league” (li 里) = 900 “acres” (mu 畝) = 8 families with 100 mu each, plus the communal field. The Son of Heaven was allocated 1000 li.
As you can see, this feudal system was highly hierarchical, where each tier in the pyramid was very consciously compensated more than the last, reinforcing the idea that those higher up were worth more and had higher position than those in the rungs below. By my calculations, a farmer (farming family), makes (hopefully) enough to support themselves, so ~1 person’s worth of food. The rest that they produce (enough for 5-9 (other?) people) will be appropriated and used to support the non-farming lifestyle of the officials/lords in their government. With some calculations, you can get that the ruler of a large state makes about the wage of 1600-2880 farmers i.e. the base of the feudal pyramid. If we assume the Son of Heaven has an income of 1000 li, that means the salary of the most preeminent person in Zhou dynasty China maxed out at around 40,000-72,000 peasants (8 families, producing food for 5-9 people each * 1000 li of this). Today, in the U.S., the median pay for CEOs is roughly $11.5 million. Assuming we manage to raise minimum wage to $15/hour, that results in a low-wage worker making $31,200. The wage of a typical CEO is then worth 369 of the workers at the base of its pyramid. Let’s take a look at Jeff Bezos, though, who last year gained roughly $32 billion in wealth. Working in a warehouse pays roughly $12/hour, or $24,960 annually. Jeff Bezos earned a salary of over 1,200,000 of the workers at the base of his pyramid. A less extreme example: the CEO of Walmart Doug McMillon earned $22.4 million in 2016, while Walmart’s cashiers earned roughly $9/hour or $18,720 annually, meaning McMillon earned the salary of 1196 of his workers.
What I like the most about Mengzi is that moral cultivation is at the center of his philosophy and his politics. Mengzi uses various anecdotes and thought experiments to demonstrate that human beings have some kind of instinctive sense of not just right and wrong but also empathy as well.1 The most famous is a thought experiment of a child falling into a well:
In this case, the feeling of apprehension comes too quickly to be the result of rational calculation; the apprehension happens regardless of whether people are observing you or not so is not mere “virtue-signaling”; and the apprehension seems to not be traceable to any self-interested reason — it is pure concern for the well-being of another. Other examples Mengzi provides in this genre are the discomfort that one would feel if, having not buried one’s dead parents, one were to walk by and see insects and wild animals feasting on their corpses (3A5.4), or the pity a king felt at seeing a frightened ox being led to its slaughter (1A7.4-7.8).
Rather than viewing humans as inherently and unavoidably self-interested (a view that I hate), Mengzi uses these examples to argue that humans actually contain an instinct for empathy and concern for fellow life. Humans may also be self-interested, but they cannot pretend helplessly that empathy is somehow beyond their abilities when they use it so casually and effortlessly at times.
Mengzi views these kinds of emotions (alarm, discomfort to the point of breaking into a sweat, pity, etc.) as signals of our morals and values. By reflecting on their presence, we are able to understand morality and to cultivate virtues such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. This especially applies to “negative” emotions such as shame. As Mengzi says, “Shame is indeed important for people! […] If one is not ashamed of not being as good as others, how will one ever be as good as others?” (7A7). Mengzi viewed this cultivation of virtue to be the calling of those in a position to decide policy — rulers, advisers, officials, and anyone who aspired to those titles. However, I believe that in a democracy, such moral cultivation is the calling of all.
The connection between emotions and morals/values… the importance of consciously reflecting on this connection and rendering it explicit… the importance of criticism and negative emotions to a project of self-improvement… and the skill of empathy underpinning it all… If these things sound familiar, that’s because these ideas are a recurring theme on my blog.
In Mengzi, I see a lot of traits of a modern leftist — the humanistic faith in people, which is related to a faith in proto-democratic governance, the advocacy for policies designed to promote mutual aid, even a deep dislike of warmongering and a principled commitment to punch up and never down (I didn’t cover these last two features in this post, but you can go read him if you want to know more). Even today modern equivalents of his policies would be progressive relative to the status quo of the U.S. The fact that he argued so passionately for a more humane society so long ago should be inspiration for the left today.
↑ 1 Empathy and morality are themselves tightly linked in my mind: the way to do right by other people is by perspective-taking and adhering to the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule features in Confucian thought as well as in many other philosophies and religious traditions (in Mengzi: “that which you desire, share with them in accumulating, and that which you dislike, do not inflict on them” (4A9.2)).