Akina on the question: Was Confucius a libertarian?

The great philosopher’s ideas are “authentically Chinese,” which makes it more likely they can make headway in China


Was Confucius a libertarian?

That was the question Keli‘i Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, addressed during a July 16 presentation at the latest annual FreedomFest, held this year in Las Vegas and attended by about 2,500 people from throughout the world.

Akina is an expert in East-West philosophy and ethics, and has taught at universities in China and the United States, including Hawaii Pacific University. 

Confucius, of course, is one of China’s most important philosophers and teachers. He lived from 551 to 479 B.C. and wrote about ethics, leadership and political governance. 

Speaking to a highly engaged audience, Akina left open the answer to the topic question. 

However, he said, “We do see that the [libertarian] themes of individual liberty, limited accountable government and free entrepreneurial markets are alive and well in the original teachings of Confucius.”

In that sense, Confucius taught principles that modern China could easily adopt, since they are not necessarily Western values that China would otherwise be loath to import.

Akina said a core principle in Confucianism is that the individual is autonomous. One’s life is not determined by family, upbringing, social status, luck or some force in the universe. 

Regarding government, Confucius held that noncoercive governance was ideal. Akina said that meant governments should model character and principle through their leaders. 

Akina quoted Confucius: “If you lead the people with administrative injunctions … and keep them orderly with penal law, … they will avoid punishments, but will be without a sense of personal ethics.”

Akina also shared some Confucius’ thoughts regarding commerce:

>> The more stringent the rules and regulations, the greater the number of those who will steal. 

“Now, think about that,” Akina said. “You make more rules and more laws, you set up more goals for people to achieve as criminals.” 

>> The greater the number of laws and restrictions, the poorer the people who inhabit the land. 

“I love that,” Akina said to the audience. “I want to take that to every Land Use Commission or City Council meeting that we have.” 

To see Akina’s entire 49-minute presentation, click on the video below. A complete transcription is provided.

7-23-22 Keli‘i Akina on the question: “Was Confucius a Libertarian?”

Keli’i Akina: Well, good afternoon, everyone. Aloha.

Male Speaker: Aloha.

Keli’i Akina: I should say “Ni hao.” Or how about “Howdy”? [chuckles] Good to see you all here. Thank you so much for coming, especially on the final afternoon of FreedomFest. Hasn’t this been a whirlwind here at FreedomFest?


Have you seen everything you wanted to see? There’s so much more. I’m just really honored that you’re here on the final afternoon rather than in bed taking a nap. But for those of you who are here and still awake, I’m Keli’i Akina. I happen to be the president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, which is the freedom organization — [applause] — many people are here from Grassroot Institute. We’re delighted you’re here today. 

But in addition to that, I have, for many years, been a scholar of Confucian studies. I have a Ph.D. in both Western philosophy and Eastern philosophy, and I’ve spent several years writing and comparing the two and teaching in Asia and in Hawaii.  

And the reason we’re here today is because Mark Skousen and I started a dialogue several years ago, about eight or nine years ago. It was: What was Confucius really all about? And it’s Mark I owe the title “Was Confucius a Libertarian?” to.

Unfortunately, Mark’s not here today. Right now, I’d love to have some banter with him. Why would the founder of FreedomFest be so interested in an ancient philosopher named Confucius? I’d like to make the point as we go on a little bit in the presentation. 

In addition to Mark, I’m very much appreciative of a gentleman named Feng Zhe. He happens to be a businessman in Beijing, who founded the Beijing Sihai Academy, which is a group that preserves the teaching of Confucius.

They’re kind of under the, shall we say, radar when it comes to the Chinese government. And he happens to publish materials and put them into the hands of millions of Chinese young people, trying to teach them the foundations of their philosophical beliefs. They’re not the current beliefs of people in China today, but they’re beliefs that once were very dominant in what we call China.

I’ve written several articles with colleagues in Beijing. And I need to tell you that while they keep their head low, there are a good number of up-and-coming scholars in Beijing who are studying Confucius. And their passion to study Confucius, to teach Confucius and to disseminate his teachings has to do with freedom. I won’t say a lot about that, but they’re very passionate about this, and they’re walking a very careful line to do that. But they’re producing solid academic material.

One of the ways in which I got around in China was I did ethics teaching. Now, you might say, “Why would Chinese want ethical teaching?” For a very pragmatic reason. At the time I was there, businesses found that if they didn’t understand Western ethics, they couldn’t do business with Westerners in a way that kept those companies coming back. And there were all kinds of issues such as United States laws, European laws that they would run afoul of. And so they invited me to talk about ethics at the Sino-Australian Trust Corp. in Shanghai.

I show you this picture because it was very interesting to do this. On the surface, there was the pragmatic purpose. The company wanted me to help keep their executives from going to jail if they operated in the West, or from having their organization shut down. But during the luncheon, I met with the founders who had been with the company from the earliest days. And they had a different motive altogether. They wanted to introduce the new generation of business leaders in China to the ancient teachings of Confucius.

And the reason for that is they felt the ethical moorings of business people in China were not very deep at all. To them, ethics meant not getting arrested, and that didn’t necessarily mean being ethical. Does that make sense? So They were very interested in that. 

I found welcome friends in Hong Kong. And I do want to point out a friend in Hong Kong, Simon Li. Thank you for being here today. Maybe you don’t want to be pointed out in public. [laughs] But he’s here at FreedomFest, fighting a battle in Hong Kong, in which the very nature of what to be Chinese philosophically or ethically is in question today.

Well, I told you that I’m with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. I really want to tell you that the reason I’m here at FreedomFest is because of the gentleman at the bottom corner of your screen. Do you see Dick Rowland over there? Those of you who know him, give a cheer for him. [applause] 

He went to more FreedomFests than anyone I know other than Mark Skousen. And before he passed away, he just loved this event, and he helped Hawaii become a place where we can actually talk about freedom. 

I think at some point or another, even though we’re a state-based think tank at the Grassroot Institute, we’re going to need to be immersed in a dialogue that all of us here in this room today are part of, and that is what’s the relationship between China and the West. Whether you like it or not, that’s becoming one of the most dominant subjects of politics in the 21st century, and will dominate the second half of it.

In China, there are many groups that no longer operate. One of them is the Cathay Public Policy Institute in Beijing. Another one is the Unirule Institute of Economics, known as Tianzi

I had the opportunity of getting to know the people in these groups and speaking to them and having good fellowship time in restaurants and elsewhere, as well as classrooms in the university. They represent kindred-spirit people. If there was a FreedomFest in China, they would attend it — if they could.

They believe that deeply rooted in Chinese thought are the principles that actually form the basis of a free society. Now, what was interesting at the Unirule Institute of Economics is, as I walked around their office space, there were portraits of people like Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. They have an annual Friedrich Hayek dinner — Friedrich Hayek, who wrote “The Road to Serfdom.” 

I was puzzled because this is so Western. And as I shared a little bit about what I’d learned about this dinner and so forth with Chinese scholars, many of the scholars in the university were kind of puzzled as well. What do these Western things have to do with being Chinese? 

So I jokingly proposed to them that they replace their Friedrich Hayek dinner with a Confucian libertarian dinner. And that opened a conversation. They asked me to share what my thoughts were on this to a group of them gathered by the Unirule Institute of Economics.

Was Confucius a libertarian? Right off the bat, as you walked in the room here, how many of you think that that’s a possibility, that Confucius was a libertarian? How many of you think that that’s just something that couldn’t be the case? 

There’s a lot of heated debate about this, and I’d like to suggest it happens to be because we don’t understand two words. 

Confucianism and libertarianism

One word we don’t understand fully is “Confucianism.”It needs to be clarified because throughout the centuries, it’s become known by things that are not from Confucius.

The other word that we don’t always understand is “libertarian.” I heard a nice joke last night at the comedy club. I can’t say it publicly, but that guy, Kevin, over here at the Grassroot Institute here, will be glad to tell you the joke if you ask him as to what the true definition of a libertarian is. 

Let’s go to Shakespeare. A libertarian by any other name would smell as sweet, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Confucius had a similar idea called the zhengming, when names are not used properly, language will not be used effectively. So It’s important to get precise. 

What do we mean by libertarian? What do we mean by Confucian? 

The meaning of libertarian is not easy to come up with all the time. There’s no single theory that can be safely identified as the libertarian theory, according to Matt Zwolinski, and probably no single principle or set of principles on which all libertarians can agree.

And that’s true. Because if you have a conference of libertarians, you have a group of people who are free to disagree with being called a libertarian, or your definition of libertarian. 

But I’d like to suggest to you that we’re on fairly safe ground with three common themes that we find amongst most libertarians. 

First, individual liberty. We are radically committed to the idea of the individual, the freedom of the individual, and believe that the purpose of government is to uphold the freedom of that individual and not to oppose it.

Secondly, limited, accountable government. While some of us would say we don’t need government at all, to the extent that we would allow for government, we believe it must be very limited. It must be held accountable. It must not be growing. It must not be the all-in-all of what a nation is about. 

And of course, we believe in free markets, that individuals should be free to exchange their labor, their lives, their products with each other as they see fit, without the government interfering with it.

So these are generally commonly held libertarian themes. And when I do talk about libertarianism in China, I begin with that, because it’s easy for people to understand. 

So what does it matter to Chinese people whether Confucius was a libertarian or not? It really boils down to whether you have a foundation for your philosophy of freedom. There are many foundations for that for us in the West, but most commonly here in the United States, we go to the Declaration of Independence.

You know these words so well: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

We hold that, objectively, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are values that pre-exist, continue to exist and will always exist, which are the foundation of whatever brand of libertarianism we have. We can call back to this philosophical set of principles.

The problem with those who have been raised in China since the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong and their children and their grandchildren is that even if they believe in liberty, they don’t have readily available to them within their own culture a set of principles grounded like the Declaration of Independence, which ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But if they get to know what Confucius wrote, what he stood for, I propose to you that that serves as a basis from which Chinese people can construct the principles for liberty. And we’ll take a look at that.

China’s ethical crisis

Let’s look a little bit first at China’s ethical crisis. It has a sustained loss of liberty that has come about in the last century through many factors. One is the impact of the Cultural Revolution on China’s long-standing ethical tradition. 

China has a deeply rooted ethical tradition in philosophers, in religious leaders and in what they’ve also incorporated from the West. Unfortunately, under the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, this literature was wiped out, and so Chinese were raised without access to the cultural heritage of ethics.

The impact of the communist doctrine, which says that the state is supreme, this is the antithesis of “the individual is supreme.” This is the antithesis of individual freedom. This removes the entire notion that I am a free person, entitled to do what I choose, because the official doctrine is that the state is supreme. 

The impact of the one-child policy, which is changing a bit — it hasn’t really had the impact that it should have. But one of the things that happened in ancient China is that people learned their ethical values from the family. 

At Beijing University, there is a museum which shows professors that go back to the 19th century and their families. Back in the 19th century, they had huge families, and as you walked that forward through World War II, they still have large families. But then the professors have smaller and smaller families, and then frequently no children at all in the pictures of the museum.

This is the impact of the one-child policy. If any of you has taken martial arts, you know that the day you join a dojo, a martial arts community, you become a teacher, because you have to get ready to teach the kid who comes in after you. Whoever is younger gets taught by the one who is older. That’s how ethical values were passed on in Chinese families.

With the one-child principle, you eliminated the basic methodology by which Chinese ethical values were passed on. 

And then there’s the impact of socially detrimental policies on personal relationships. I remember when I taught at the University of Hawaii, there were students who would come over from Communist China to the East-West Center. They had a little twitch. They would always be doing this — looking over their shoulder. We’d be sitting in the cafeteria. Then all of a sudden the subject of China would come up, and before they would say anything — or if they would say anything at all — they would look over their shoulders.

They had been trained to watch out for people spying on them. Gladly, by the end of a semester, they became very Westernized and kept their heads down and just kept eating, rather than turning around like that. 

Now, all of these factors have led to a loss of individual liberty in China. And so, today, there’s an opportunity and a caveat.

The opportunity is this, according to Stephan Rothlin of the CIBE [Center for International Business Ethics]: The Chinese are very open to considering ethical issues. They want to be global players, and they realize that in order to become a real global power, they have to eliminate corrupt practices. 

This is a very pragmatic approach to ethics, but it’s an open door for us to bring ethics in from the West. 

But here’s a caveat: Coming from the West may be the problem, but the Chinese do not want paternalism from the West. Instead, they want acknowledgement that they can offer something, that they can actually become a driver in the field of ethics.

So you’ve got this twofold dynamic. You have this openness and this vacuum in China for ethical teaching. And even if you don’t value ethics in and of themselves, in China, at some point or another, if you are in the government or in the corporate world, you realize, pragmatically, there has to be some system that governs people’s behavior, other than just law. There has to be a value structure.

So pragmatically, you want ethics. But on the other hand, you don’t want the United Nations or the United States to come in with their Western concepts of ethics. And the fundamental reason for that is because it’s Western, because it’s from outside of China, and because it says China lacks something. And China cannot put itself into that posture. So this is an interesting dynamic going on. 

Three criteria for acceptable Chinese ethics

There are three criteria that have to be established for an acceptable Chinese ethics. This was the basis of my Ph.D. dissertation. 

The first is: The ethics has to be ancient. The Chinese have a reverence for the ancient that rivals our reverence for the modern. For us, in our culture, something is good if it’s modern and future-oriented. In Chinese thought, the older it is, the better it is, the deeper, the more profound.

Secondly, it has to be authentically Chinese. The very term China is from the character zhong, which is a box or a circle with a line through it. The idea of China represents the center — the central place of the universe — where the rest of the world must come, in order to be important. 

And third, it has to be authoritative. Let me explain that word a little bit. Any ethics that China accepts has to be something that says the Chinese are the most ethical people in the world, and the Chinese have the source of ethics traditions. We are not being shamed by the West.

The Chinese will not come to the table if the foundation for ethics is what the United Nation says in terms of its ethical code or what the United States says, or what a quote-unquote “Western” religion says. If they have something to do with ethics, they want to be the ones to bring that to the table, and want to say, “This is truly three things: ancient, authentically Chinese and authoritative.” 

Is there any system that fits these three criteria? And I propose that there is. It’s the actual teaching of Confucius.

The philosophy of Confucius is ancient — 500 to 600 BC — the oldest and most profound political philosopher of the Eastern world. 

It’s authentically Chinese. You can’t get more Chinese than a fortune cookie, and that’s where most of us learn our Confucianism from. 

And authoritative. It’s so Chinese that it’s the basis of all major law and thought in China up until the 21st century. It’s also the foundation for the language and philosophical systems of Asia.

So who was this Confucius, who lived between 551 to 479 BC? The greatest thinker in the Eastern world, especially in terms of politics. He wasn’t a religious figure, although most people may have been introduced to the name Confucianism or Confucius through religion. He was a political philosopher, and he was a public official for a certain point in his life. 

Confucius left an objective record of his ideas. He edited and added to the classics of Chinese thought. And the main topics that Confucius wrote about were ethics, leadership and political governance. 

What Confucianism is not

It’s important to explain what Confucius is not, and what Confucianism is not. And this is something I have to take care to do whenever I start talking about Confucianism to university students in China. They have been trained to see Confucianism as something that is not good for the people, something that is outdated, something that won’t help the future of China. and they’ve been taught different views of Confucianism that have evolved over hundreds of years in China, and many of these have come to the West.

First, this is what Confucianism is not. It’s not imperial Confucianism, and that’s the Confucianism of the emperors, which overstated the role of authority of the ruler and male patriarchy. In fact, what is called upon in Eastern societies to justify male dominance over females, that actually was not a teaching of Confucius. He taught the opposite, and was very much a promoter of values that we would consider very modern in terms of equality.

>> Religious Confucianism of the commoners, which worships ancestors and Confucius, although this is alien to the philosophy of Confucius. He was asked about this frequently during his lifetime, why he didn’t talk about or teach about religion. And he pointed out that he had very little to do with that — that there was enough religion in the world already — and he was more interested in the principles by which we live together.

>> Cultural Confucianism, which resulted in abuses such as foot binding, the subjugation of women, nepotism, bribery and hiding the crimes of a relative. 

>> And finally, communist Confucianism, which invokes the historical authority of Confucius as a national branding. 

How many of you are familiar with the phenomenon called Confucius Institutes? That has been one of the biggest public relations efforts of the Communist Party in the last 10 to 15 years.

They’re pretty much becoming dismantled as, across the world, people are realizing that they actually are instruments of the state and pretty unsafe places if you want to preserve our national security. 

What is Confucianism?

Well, what is Confucianism, then, and where do we find its actual sources? It’s a source of ethical values for self-cultivation, leadership and public service. That’s what it’s about. It’s based [on] an objective resource found in classical texts, the four books and the five classics. And it’s a standard from which you can critique government and society. 

So let’s go to the libertarian themes and see if we can find them in the teachings of Confucius, whether we can find individual liberty; limited, accountable government; free entrepreneurial markets. 

Let me say at the outset, you’re going to find a lot of stuff in the writings of Confucius that just reproduced the way things were done in his day.

For example, he’ll use the pronoun “he” rather than it, she, him and so forth. Today, university critics will look at that and say he was prejudiced against women. No, it’s just that when you wrote in the sixth century B.C., you used the male pronoun — period — to mean person, just as we do in the majority of the tradition of the English language. 

So I’m not saying that everything that is done there will line up with our modern notions of libertarianism, but what you will find at the heart of the teachings of Confucius are these three values. And let’s take a look at individual liberty. 

The individual is autonomous

A core principle for Confucianism was that the individual is autonomous. That your life is not determined by your family, your upbringing, your social status. Your life is not determined by luck or some force in the universe. In fact, most people at the time of Confucius believed in this concept called dao, d-a-o, or tao, t-a-o. And that your life, in some way or another, was predetermined and destined and controlled by this universal force of the dao.

It was easy to think that. That way you don’t have to take responsibility for your personal condition. It explained everything. Why was I born poor? Why was I born in this condition and so forth? It was the dao. 

Confucius challenged this idea. He said it is not the dao which makes the person, but the person who makes the dao. Isn’t that something? 

That’s a very profound statement. It is not the dao that makes the person, but the person that makes the dao. That’s like saying, “I don’t have luck, I make my luck,” Because it’s the individual.

He also said that empowerment, which is the Chinese term, ren, proceeds from oneself. How could it come from others? In other words, it’s not government welfare. It’s not the Social Security system. It’s not belonging to some group. It’s not any privilege or advantage I have simply by the stature of my birth. But it’s the individual that is the source of empowerment in life. And Confucius sought to teach people that they had personal autonomy.

Now, the individual, therefore, is the driving force in society and the marketplace. The most famous book that Confucius didn’t write, but he preserved it and he edited it, is called “Dai Hæwk.” The British translated it as “The Great Learning.” This book was filled with passages that talked about the empowerment of the individual and the ability of the individual to change the world.

And so Confucius raised this question, and this is what the “Dai Hæwk” said is the answer: “To transform the world, transform your country. To transform your country, transform your village. To transform your village, transform your family. To transform your family, transform yourself.” 

Not vote Democrat, vote Republican, vote Libertarian. Transform yourself. 

Confucius liked this so much than in the version he edited, he also wrote going the other direction, he wrote, “If you transform yourself, you will then transform your family, then your village, then your country and then the world.” 

For Confucius, the most powerful agent in the universe is the autonomous individual. Now, doesn’t that sound like a good reason to be a libertarian? Individual liberty. 

Limited, accountable government

Secondly: limited, accountable government. The No. 1 topic Confucius wrote about was government. It wasn’t about relationships. It wasn’t about religion. It wasn’t about metaphysics or the cosmos.

If you read his works from cover to cover, you will find that most of what he writes, especially in a collection called “Lun Yu,” which is “The Analects,” is addresses he gave to government leaders. He was like Machiavelli in “The Prince.” His work was used for many, many millennia as a standard for governance. Eventually, during the Empires, government officials were elected or selected on the basis of how well they could perform on Confucian examinations.

And then when the entire character set of China was brought over to Japan, along with the laws and the literature, the Confucian examinations were brought over as well. So Japanese officials, up through the 20th century, were promoted on the basis of their mastering Confucian ethical principles. And this was important because these ethical principles translated into good governance. 

The first principle is non-coercive governance based on character and principle. In other words, the ideal government does not force people to do anything. The ideal government does not bribe. The ideal government does not punish. Instead, the ideal government models character and principle through its leaders, so that that becomes the foundation for governance. 

Confucius was asked about governing properly and he replied, “Governing properly is doing what is proper.” That’s right, based upon principle, zhong. He said, “There is nothing the ruler insists on, nothing he refuses. He simply aligns himself beside what is right.”

This is a call for leadership that is not based upon agenda, but is based upon timeless principles. Non-coercive governance based on personal autonomy also reduces the need for government. It is the quickest way to bring down the size of government. 

He said, “If you lead the people with administrative injunctions” — we have a lot of those in Hawaii and everywhere else, I think —  “and keep them orderly with penal law” — that’s easy to do if they break the law, just put them in jail — “they will avoid punishments, but will be without a sense of personal ethics.”

Think about that. I think all of us who are parents can value that. We can get our children to obey us and do the right thing and not do the wrong thing as long as we have a stick and a carrot. That doesn’t mean they’re good. It’s when they behave that way internally, from their heart. 

So to do that, Confucius said, “But if you lead them with excellence — de, which means virtue — if you lead them with ethical excellence, “and keep them orderly through what is respectful and proper — li — they will develop a sense of personal ethics and will order themselves.” That’s the ideal society.

And I’m not saying that this is a perfect model for the construct of a government, but it’s a principle toward which one can strive. It’s aspirational. It’s saying it’s a better society where people act on the basis of principle and character, rather than fear or artificial reward, and that it’s internal, driven by the individual. 

So we see two factors that exist in the Confucian understanding of good governance. One is the freedom of individuals to act, and two is an ethical basis, principle, by which they should act.

Government depends upon the consent of the people. This remarkable passage from Mencius (Mengzi) — he was a follower and interpreter of Confucius — told the process by which major decisions were to be made. 

Mencius said, “If you want to elect people to office or appoint high officials, you need to go into the city and get the consent of the city dwellers before you do it. And then once you have that, go out to the furthest reaches of the rural regions in the villages and get their consent. And if you can get the consent of the people in the cities and in the rural regions, then you can appoint a high official.”

He also said if you want to take a high official out of his position, go to the city and get the consent of the people, then go to the village and get the consent of the people there. and if you get that consent, you can take them out of their position. 

And fnally, if you want to put someone to death, you have to go through the same process of getting the consent of the people in the villages and cities before you do that.

So high officials may not be promoted without the consent of the people. High officials are not to be dismissed without the consent of the people. And persons are not to be put to death without the consent of the people. 

At the very least: election integrity. 

If I put all together the major principles of Confucian political philosophy, you’ll see why he could never keep a job.

One of the stories about Confucius says that he pronounced: “If the emperor has sons that are worthless and no good, we should go out into the streets and find poor and uneducated individuals, train them, educate them, teach them virtue and put them into the leadership role above the emperor’s sons.”

Well, as it turned out, that emperor had two sons [who] were worthless and no good, so he fired Confucius. So in Confucius’ lifetime, he worked for 13 different emperors, because he would open his mouth a little bit too often.

The principles of Confucious

Here are his principles. I wonder if he could announce his principles in Tiananmen Square today.

No. 1: The state and its rulers are to govern by principle and character. They are to be run authoritative, not authoritarian. …

Two: All government is limited and accountable to a higher law— tianming. We could do an entire session on this. This notion — that is embedded in the Declaration of Independence, that rights are given by God, objectively fixed before governments exist, and governments are accountable to them — is a deeply held value in Confucian thought. He considered that government regimes were to be judged by this principle.

Individual autonomy is the foundation of the family, the city and nation. It is the primary value that government is to protect. The people should order and govern themselves, reducing the role of the state.

We have debates as to whether we should have more guns or butter; Confucius would argue that we should have more character in government.

So we see in the themes of Confucius individual liberty, limited accountable government, [and] finally, free entrepreneurial markets. And for this, Confucius goes back to documents that came into existence shortly before his writings that he edited and brought into his own thinking — many of them from what we call Daoism.

His thought on commerce: 

>> The greater the number of laws and restrictions, the poorer the people who inhabit the land. I love that. I want to take that to every Land Use Commission or City Council meeting that we have. 

>> The harder the rules and regulations, the greater the number of those who will steal. Now, think about that. You make more rules and more laws, you set up more goals for people to achieve as criminals. 

From the “Dao De Jing”: Confucius was an interpreter of the “De Jing” and integrated these earlier Chinese classics, as I mentioned.

From the Sima Qian, Confucius upheld the value that wealth and currency should be allowed to flow as freely as water. I think Milton Friedman got that from him. 

And I could go on with more, but in the interest of time, I’ll leave it at there. 

So what we see, in conclusion, is that the themes of individual liberty, limited accountable government and free entrepreneurial markets are alive and well in the original teachings of Confucius. And that if those in China who want to promote freedom, democracy and liberty — or at the very least personal autonomy — they have a source that is ancient, that is Chinese, and that is authoritative.

The good news is that there are scholars throughout China today working on these principles in universities. They’re not as outspoken as they might like to be. They’re organizations that have to lay low because of the current political climate. But we have something here that can lay the foundation for an intellectual reformation in China. 

Now, was Confucius a libertarian? I’ll leave that as an open question. It’d be like asking, “Was Jesus a libertarian?”

But are the libertarian themes present and alive in the classical teaching of Confucius? 

The answer is yes. 

And that’s important, because just as we call back to the Declaration of Independence as the principle of the foundation for our freedom today, the Chinese will need to have documents of their own, in order to call upon their government and their people to hold up the principles of freedom and liberty. 

Thank you for your attention. I appreciate it.


We have about 11 minutes and I’d love to give you the microphone to ask any questions you’d like. Right up in the middle. Appreciate it. Just give me your name and go ahead and ask your question.

Thomas Walker Worth: My name is Thomas Walker Worth. You said earlier — fantastic presentation, by the way — you said earlier that China needs a set of principles that are Chinese in origin. A lot of people say that there’s something in Chinese culture, or Asian culture more generally, that’s somehow antithetical to Western liberty. Taiwan seems to disprove that to some extent. You have a civilization there that seems to have embraced Western liberty, as well as places like Korea and Japan. I’m wondering if you could comment on why that is, and if you think China ever will embrace Western liberty.

Akina: That’s a great question. Your observation about Taiwan is very poignant. But I would point out that Taiwan is able to embrace principles of Western liberty, not because it eschews or gives low value to Chinese principles, but because Taiwan knows these Chinese principles. Taiwan is a place where the teaching of Confucius has been kept alive. In fact, it’s also a place where the older classical character set of a Mandarin is kept alive.

It’s ironic that that’s there in Taiwan as opposed to in Communist China, where they have modified the character set. In so doing — modifying the character set — they have removed elements of Confucian philosophy to some extent. 

So I would say Taiwan is an example of how you can fuse together both modern Western thought and the ancient classical values of Confucius. 

Yes, next question. That was a good question.

Participant 1: One thing that I’m a little bit surprised by is, as someone who studied ancient history and even not even ancient, like classical and even medieval history, a lot of it gets destroyed or lost. In fact, I think most historical documents are lost. Could the documents of Confucius have been altered in any way, or could there be many of his writings that are missing?

Akina: That’s a great question. And the answer is absolutely yes. Confucius doctrines went through the whole evolution of transmission from generation to generation. And they were tweaked. They were used for political purposes. They were modified, and so forth. Amd that’s why it’s so important for scholars to be able to go back to original sources.

Some of the oldest Confucian doctrine was inscribed upon bamboo sticks, and there are great projects that have discovered original bamboo sticks and translate directly out of documents from the fourth, fifth century B.C. rather than those that have been transmitted through time. It’s similar to the Bible. So that’s a good question. 

To answer your question succinctly, Confucian scholars today feel that we have valid documents from which to be able to tell what he wrote. And the key thing is that it was a written culture in which preserving the actual documents was a high cultural value.

Hector: Hi, my name’s Hector. So as an expert, as it says here, on comparative philosophy, I just wanted to get your quick opinion on how the ancient philosophy of Mohism, from Mozi, compares maybe as a basis for liberty-oriented thinking in Chinese culture.

Akina: Well, that’s a rather technical question. Mohism can be the basis for finding a great number of parallels to modern ethical and economic and political teaching that is found in the West, and I’d be glad to chat with you afterward a bit more.

Participant 2: Based on your understanding of Confucius and his adherents, did they have to make any compromises with these virtues that you’ve talked about today as they got closer and closer to the halls of power? Because you sort of see that happen with the stoic tradition from Zeno to Chrysippus down to, I don’t know, Seneca. He ends up advising Nero. Do you see that Confucian or Confucianism? How do you say that? Confucius? Is there an ism for that? Confucianism.

Akina: Confucianism, we can say that.

Participant 2: … how it changes as it gets to be more mainstream and close to people’s powerful and …

Akina: Well, I showed you a chart here that described four different trends in Confucianism: imperial Confucianism, religious Confucianism, cultural and communist. Confucius has been reinterpreted, misinterpreted, used for political purposes. The Communist Party chose to use Confucianism recently with the Confucius institutes because its name, Confucius, had greater cachet across the world than communism. And they interpreted Confucius to be their Confucius.

So this is a dynamic we’re dealing with all the time, and individuals who wanted to practice authentic Confucianism were either co-opted or pressured to live by the norms of the society around them. 

So what we’re not saying here, it’s important to point out, is that there is a pure Confucian culture. All I am pointing out is that we have a source in the source documents of Confucius into which we can look and find principles that align with libertarian principles today. Thank you. 

Simon, very glad to have you here. Very honored, Simon.

Simon Li: Thank you very much for the presentation and the passion in, I will say it is, the renaissance for the Chinese classics, the idea. 

Actually, what I realized was during the darkest period in contemporary Chinese history, from the ’50s to ’70s, there were a whole bunch of scholars actually left China, and they stayed in Hong Kong and they started a new movement called New Confucianism. New Confucianism is something quite new.

They tried to have this renaissance. … but It failed very miserably because the issue with modern China is people do not really identify themself as Confucius. I would better describe the contemporary China as a moral nihilist. Absolutely. They do not believe in anything. They’ve authored something that comes in to fill in the vacuum.

So my question being, how well Confucianism still resonates with people of China today?

Akina: You’ve got great observations, Simon, and I appreciate them very much. I would not disagree with you. If we were to go to China today, we would find people who have a vacuum when it comes to their ethical heritage, and who have been informed by the Communist Party, and who either accept wholeheartedly what the Communist Party teaches or have an inner cynicism.

It’s similar to Israel, where I’ve been told frequently — by residents of Israel, by scholars and others — that the true state religion is atheism. Which is ironic because here we have this most religious of places and so forth. 

So in answer to your question, there is no ideal Confucian society out there, and it is a far cry to creating one. And we also have a need to educate the Chinese themselves about Confucianism.

What I’m pointing out, however, is that this treasure exists for those who want to do the work of building the intellectual foundations. 

Thank you. That’s all that I can take for now. And I just really appreciate you being here.


In closing, let me say you are all guests of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii when you come [to Hawaii]. Look us up. You’re people fighting for freedom in Hawaii, and we would love to have a cup of coffee with you, or, if we’re doing an event, invite you out when you come. Take care


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