RALEIGH – Sometimes the lessons of history are unambiguous.
In 221 BC, one of the greatest tyrants of Chinese history inaugurated the Chin dynasty (from which the modern-day name of the country derives). He was Shi Huang Di, or “First Sovereign Emperor,” arising from the Western state of Chin to conquer and rule much of central China.
The first Chinese dynasty not purely the stuff of legend was the Shang, who ruled a rump state from the 1600 BC until 1027 BC. The Chou dynasty overthrew the Shang and ruled, first in the west and then in the east, until about 400 BC. A period of “Warring States” ensued during which three great schools of Chinese philosophy arose: the Confucians, the Taoists, and the Legalists.
Shi Huang Di was a Legalist – in the Chinese context, one who saw no need for “civil society” or any other institutional or religious challenge to the ruling class. He eradicated traditional local authorities, made war to the north and south, and burned the books of Confucians, Taoists, and others outside the official government orthodoxy.
Huge expenses for war and massive public works projects led to a crushing tax burden throughout the Chinese heartland, which even during the Warring States period had enjoyed relatively enlightened and limited government. Based on archaeological finds, historians believe that the effective rate of taxation on the average peasant during the Chin dynasty was 50 percent of all harvests.
Maybe that’s one reason why the Chin dynasty barely survived its founder. In 202 BC, the Han dynasty replaced Shi Huang Di’s centralized state with a decentralized yet well-organized and defended government. Its better rulers melded the teachings of the Confucians and Taoists to yield a regime that more or less stuck to its core responsibilities – defending China against domestic brigands and the Northern Barbarians, enforcing the law, and facilitating the growth of trade and enlightenment.
One ruler, Han Jing Di, adopted a Taoist precept as his governing philosophy: “Do nothing in order to govern.” It wasn’t actually an endorsement of anarchy; understood correctly, it was a call for government not to intrude forcibly into the affairs of private individuals, but to seek its proper role in aligning government policy with the “way of the world,” the Tao. This was a similar concept to Hayek’s “spontaneous order,” describing how patterns can evolve from chaos through voluntary interactions. The result of such a governing philosophy was an economical state. According to historians, the tax rate during Han Jing Di’s reign was only 3 percent.
This free-market approach served the Han well. As contemporaries of the Roman Empire, they ruled China for more than 400 hundred years, leading the world in science, technology, and economic progress.
And while the government of China continues to bear the namesake of a tyrant, the largest ethnic group in the country, representing the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants, is still called the Han.