Sincerity As the Basis for Long-Term National Power

Conservatives and liberals can probably agree that national power is nice to have; the argument is over how to get it and what to do with it. It is a very old argument.

Sima Guang’s assessment of legalist prime minister Shang Yang’s policy of centralization and strict enforcement of laws designed to use the population to maximize state power is a timeless defense of morality, rather than power, as the most effective long-term approach to governance. Sima Guang does not deny the effectiveness of Shang Yang’s harsh maximization of state power, which put the fourth century B.C. state of Chin firmly on the road to conquering all of China, instead letting the historical record of the new Chinese state speak for itself.

Rather, historian Sima concentrates on explaining that reversal, using Confucian language to express the height of Confucian moral vision. This moral language still stands, but it is interesting that to put it in the most modern terms of social science (focusing on explaining why the moral approach works), Sima’s vision is straight complex-adaptive systems theory: all parts of society, from bottom to top, are connected and co-evolving. Evil or good at the top will thus provoke the emergence of evil or good, respectively, at the bottom, resulting in the logical consequences.

Since no translation of Sima Guang’s classic 12th  century history of China exists in a Western language, to my knowledge, the translation is mine.

Sincerity is the greatest treasure of people and rulers. When the country cherishes the people, the people cherish sincerity. Without sincerity, there is no way to use the people; without the people, no way to protect the country. This is why the kings of old did not oppress the world. Tyrants did not oppress neighbors; virtuous rulers did not oppress their people; virtuous family heads did not oppress their relatives. The evil, in contrast, oppressed neighboring states, oppressed their people. More, they oppressed their brothers; they oppressed their fathers and sons. When superiors do not treat subordinates with sincerity, subordinates do not treat superiors with sincerity. Superiors and inferiors have separate minds, leading to defeat. [Sima Guang, Zizhi Tongdian, Ch. 2, year B.C. 359.]

夫信者,人君之大宝也。国 保于民,民保于信。非信无以使民,非民无以守国。是故古之王者不欺四海,霸者不欺四邻,善为国者不欺其民,善为家者不欺其亲。不善者反之:欺其邻国,欺其 百姓,甚者欺其兄弟,欺其父子。上不信下,下不信上,上下离心,以至于败。[]

So much for theory. A recent example presenting evidence illustrating how theory plays out in practice is given by Solzhenitsyn in his discussion of the development of the Soviet legal system in the earliest post-revolutionary days in Gulag Archipelago.


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