15. “Two Views of Liberty, Occidental and Oriental (?)”


Abstract: This paper, by the late Bruno Leoni, was originally presented at a special meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society (Tokyo, Sept. 5–10, 1966), and was originally published in the Italian journal Il Politico in 1966. The paper displays Leoni’s fondness for Chinese culture, and is essentially a defense of the unity of mankind. Westerners are often of the belief that the Occidental, or Western, individual freedom-based view of liberty is distinct from the Oriental (Eastern) view of liberty. Leoni challenges this perspective. Mill believed that disregard for custom was what made the West both free and different from the rest of the world, while the Oriental approach is more backward and based on blind respect for customs. However, custom has often been invoked both in the East and in the West to oppose and limit the power of tyrants, and to defend or to secure civil or political liberty. Mill argued that disregard of custom accounts for novelty, novelty for diversity of character and culture, and the latter for freedom and progress, but there was an unsurpassed diversity of character and culture when Oriental and Occidental people were put together under the rule of the Roman emperors. Furthermore, the “Orient” was not  monotonous, dull, and homogeneous, as Mill presumed; to the contrary, Europe cannot show in any period of its history a variety of races, languages, cultures, philosophies and religions even slightly comparable to those of India or China. In fact, Buddha and Confucius were both concerned mainly with individual freedom. Confucius’s theory of society, in particular, was very individualistic; he clearly formulated for the first time in recorded history that principle of “reciprocity,” the “golden rule” for any liberal society. He maintained that the very fundamental principle for a happy society is “Not doing to others what one does not wish them do to one’s self.”  Confucius shared, along with the greatest masters of liberal thought in the West, an almost unlimited confidence in education. He believed that everybody could be educated in principle, regardless of his condition, and that coercion is a very limited means of establishing a good society. Though the social and political theories of Confucius in sixth century B.C. China were not the same as those of modern Western liberals, Confucius had a clear and liberal idea of the unsurpassable limits of government in any desirable society. He made quite clear that the government existed for the people and not the people for the government, that no hereditary power whatsoever, but the happiness of the people provided a justification for the rulers. Like Western liberal democracy, Confucianism values freedom and the individual, and denies unlimited authority to the State. In fact, the entire humanistic and liberal background out of which Western democracy grew has much in common with the best traditions of Chinese thought. Ultimately, what is really relevant is neither East nor West, or any other geographical or historical limitation. It is human nature itself.

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