19 November 2009

Confusion of names and forms

It is time to give careful thought to the doctrines of the Chinese Legalists, the most radical of the ancient Chinese schools of thought, who flourished towards the end of the third century B.C. The Legalists accepted no authority except that of the ruler and looked for no precedent. The aim of politics was control of the state and of the population, a control to be achieved through an intensive set of laws, backed up by generous rewards and severe punishments.

The Legalists rejected the moral standards of the Confucians, with their dedication to the cultivation of virtue, the development of the personality of the individual, government for the people, social harmony, and the use of moral principles, moral example and moral persuasion.

In many ways the ethos of contemporary Australian politics is closer to that of the Legalists than the Confucians; every smart young professional politician knows that politics is about gaining and clinging to power, whatever it takes, and that bleating about ethics and standards of public behaviour is for the naïfs who do not understand politics.

This being the case, let us introduce that great Legalist principle, the absolute requirement, on pain of severe punishment, for strict correspondence between “names” and “forms”, or as we might say, between the form and the substance. In his great synthesis of Legalist thought, the Han Fei Tzu, Han Fei Tzu, prince of Han (d. 208 B.C.) writes:

Whenever a ruler wants to suppress treachery, he must examine the correspondence between actuality and names. Actuality and names refer to the minister’s words and deeds. When a minister presents his words, the ruler assigns him a task in accordance with his words and demands accomplishments specifically from that work. If the words correspond to the task and the task to the words, he should be rewarded. If the accomplishments do not correspond to the task or the task not to the words, he will be punished. If the minister’s words are big but his accomplishment is small, he will be punished. The punishment is not for the small accomplishment but for the fact that the accomplishment does not correspond to the words. If the minister’s words are small and the accomplishments are big, he will also be punished. It is not that the ruler is not pleased with the big accomplishments but he considers the failure of the big accomplishments to correspond to the words worse than the big accomplishments themselves.

This would be a fine standard by which we the people, collectively the ultimate power in the land, could judge the promises, pretensions and general ducking and weaving of those who set out to rule us and exercise power over us – a good ruler to run over the delivery of election promises, for example, and the nomenclature which is applied to various policies, programs, institutions and offices.

What are we to make, for example, of the following:

(1) A Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme which does no such thing, which ostensibly sets out to put a price on carbon but then seeks to protect everyone from adjusting the way they do business to such an extent that there is a net outflow of funds from taxpayers to energy intensive industry?

(2) The Coalition members and business people who run around describing this pathetic excuse for an emissions reduction program as a massive new tax? A massive new tax that transfers incomes from taxpayers to heavy industry?

(3) “Tough but humane” policies for asylum seekers? When I hear that phrase I hear “tough”. When Malcolm Turnbull hears it he hears (horror of horrors) “humane”. Which is it?

(4) Ministers who call their minders “advisers” but permit them to act as Vice-Ministers, taking decisions and giving instructions,  although they have been elected by no-one and have no authority to do so (more on this subject later).

The list goes on ad infinitum. I think we should set very rigorous requirements for Ministers to perform strictly in accordance with their undertakings, and deal very harshly with any behaviour that smacks of “confusion between names and forms”. Otherwise there is treachery which undermines the power of we the people.

Source: A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 251-261.

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