“Measure the self with the self, the family with the family, the neighborhood with the neighborhood, the country with the country, and the world with the world.” At first glance, the meaning of this advice, which appears in Chapter 54 of the early Chinese text, the  Daodejing, seems rather opaque. However, a more careful reading of the classic text — also known in English as the Tao-te Ching (The Classic of the Way and Virtue) — reveals how strikingly precise, relevant, and timely it is.

A ragged fragment of a manuscript of the Daodejing dating from approximately the 2nd century BC. Ink on silk, this specimen was found in a tomb in Mawangdui, an archaeological site in Changsha in China’s Hunan province.

The Daodejing is often misunderstood as a metaphysical treatise on methods of self-improvement. But the text, compiled around 400 BC, is better understood as a work of political philosophy — or, more precisely, as a collection of advice on how to establish political order. Written at a time in which Chinese kingdoms were being ravaged by war, conquest, combat, and pillage, the work seeks to help rulers build a peaceful and ordered polity.

The main idea espoused by the texts that comprise the Daodejing is a naturalistic one: the world has a precise way of unfolding, and if people and polities would only follow that way, order would then come about. I hasten to add that this is far from a Hayekian “spontaneous order.” To the contrary: it is people conforming to some pre-established natural standard. In the book, this standard is called the Dao or “the Way.”

For the contemporary reader, this might come across as rather crude — and it probably is. However, while thinking about how to let “the Way” unfold, the Daodejing makes various interesting and helpful political claims. The one quoted above is such a statement. Rendered in contemporary English, Chapter 54 of the Daodejing urges responsibility, proportionality, and subsidiarity.

This needs some unpacking. The first words of Chapter 54 make its intentions clear: “What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.” The message here is that ‘political order’ emerges bottom-up, like a plant. And it is only if this order is firmly and well established at the grassroots level that it can last — and eventually form, for example, a country or a global entity.

The metaphor of a living plant is no coincidence. In fact, the Daodejing uses it in different passages, partly because of its naturalistic appeal and partly because of its symbolism per se. Embodying a rather ‘conservative’ opposition to the power struggles of its day among feuding kings, the Daodejing focused instead on small-scale community — on the local — as a more organic, more resilient, and even better (in a moral sense) entity.

Before reaching the passage quoted at the start, Chapter 54 first discusses at which level “the Way” should be learned and followed. “[W]hen fomented within one’s self,” it explains, “the Way becomes vigorous; if it rules the family, its effects will become abundant; if it is cultivated by the neighborhood, it will thrive; if it is pursued by a country, it will prevail; it can be the whole order of the world.”

Veiled in this rather dense style, the structure of the text is quite systematic. First, it asserts the superiority of — and expresses a preference for — bottom-up approaches. Second, it makes clear that following “the Way” is first a matter for the self and the small-scale community — and only then can it become a matter of state-wide policy. (In contemporary words, this amounts to the principle of subsidiarity.) Finally, it asserts that the benchmark for the self is the self, and for the small-scale it is the small-scale. In contemporary words, this is the principle of proportionality.

Late 17th century print of a family carrying a load. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, licenced under CC BY 4.0.

Chapter 54 twice enumerates the order of agency: the self, the family, and the neighborhood. (These can also be understood as the village, the country, and the world.) Thus, the primary responsibility for finding “the Way” remains with the self. The Daodejing explicitly puts the family as the first and primary instance of political coordination. This is only partly due to the size of the family at the time of its writing. It is also because it relies on kin as the first locus of the experience of community, — particularly through, for example, education and economic organization.

The neighborhood (or village) then appears as the second social agent. The Daodejing conceives of the village as a fully-fledged political organization, which has the responsibility of coordinating the affairs of its constituent families. Only a few ‘coordination problems’ remain to be dealt with at the level of the country or higher (e.g., worldwide). In fact, the concept of a ‘worldwide order’ seems to be conceived solely as the end result of the chain of responsibility, proportionality, and subsidiarity — and not as a governance structure as such.

The ancient Daodejing makes a very clear point: “the Way” emerges from grassroots organizations. This is especially true in political organization. No matter how much strength it projects, the state that plans and dictates from above (the top-down approach) will never be a stable or resilient organization. In contrast, the polity that is built on or results from the grassroots — that is, from organic expressions of responsibility, proportionality, and subsidiarity — is instead a stable and sustainable political order.

Ironically, the contemporary response to the Covid-19 pandemic seems to prove the ancient Chinese text right. While most governments have chosen to shut down their respective economies with heavy-handed measures, those allowing bottom-up approaches seem to be showing much better results. The grassroots level simply works better. It works because it aligns results with responsibilities.

The last passage of Chapter 54 of the Daodejing begins with the question: “How do I know the universe is like this?” The response to this is the very apt: “By looking!” It’s worth keeping this in mind as we look at polities around the world today, and note that those relying on grassroots approaches seem to be in a much better position to be able to eventually emerge from the pandemic less severely damaged. ◼️