I am certainly not alone in pointing out that the Asian economic resurgence is owed in no small part to a rediscovery of Confucian thought.
Robert Kaplan makes the case in the Wall Street Journal this morning:
One of the striking elements of “The Governance of China,” a book published this past fall in several languages (including English) by Chinese President Xi Jinping , was his reliance on the “brilliant insights” of Confucius to explain his own political and social philosophy. Mr. Xi quotes, for example, this pithy saying from the ancient master: “When we see men of virtue, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should examine ourselves.” And Mr. Xi is clearly channeling Confucius when he writes that the Chinese have always “developed their country through studying the nature of things, correcting thoughts with sincerity, cultivating the moral self, managing the family…and safeguarding peace under Heaven.”
… there can be no doubt that the Confucian values he invokes have been the foundation of one of the great social, cultural and economic success stories of the last few decades. Despite Asia’s difficulties and imperfections (and the impressive achievements over the same period of such disparate places as Canada, Scandinavia and Israel), we have been living, since the closing years of the Cold War, in a Confucian moment. The rise of the Pacific “tigers” in the 1970s began a process that has made Asia the geographic organizing principle of the world economy. Countries like China and Vietnam couldn’t have discarded communism in all but name, switched to a riotous form of capitalism and remained as stable as they have been without the essential tolerance and respect for authority, hierarchy and social order embodied in Confucianism.
Kaplan correctly notes that Confucianism has many affinities with Burkean conservatism. The two shared a distrust for radical change, a respect for tradition and an emphasis on civic virtues.
In Kaplan’s words:
Everyone else must be held to an equally high standard, all of it based on respect for the experience of previous generations. As the Master Kong [Confucius] says, “Being fond of the truth, I am an admirer of antiquity.”
In Confucianism, the past isn’t something to disparage as primitive or retrograde; it constitutes the very record of human experience, and the present depends on it. Particularly in times of profound technological and social change, Confucians find the best insurance against chaos in tradition, especially in the virtues of loyalty and filial piety.
Evidently, a culture based on filial piety can serve as an anecdote to a culture that worships youth. This does not, Kaplan adds, merely apply to our own “decadent” culture. It also applies to the China that President Xi is trying to reform:
Postmodern Western life, by contrast, is sometimes described as decadent because of its worship of youth. For someone like me, who has observed both cultures, it is hard to resist the thought that the West might benefit just now from a dose of Confucianism, as might China itself, whose one-child policy—only recently relaxed—has resulted in a generation of spoiled children.
Since Confucianism values social order and social harmony above all else, it strongly discourages insubordination and disrespect of authority.
Kaplan wants to say that we do better to pay some heed to the Confucian respect for tradition than to imagine that we can remake human nature and force it to conform to our ideals:
The world as a whole is in tumultuous transition, as traditional family structures and ways of life come undone on every continent. In this crucible, social and political survival will come most easily to cultures that can preserve a time-tested ethical foundation as a defense against destructive change. East Asia has been the undeniable success story of the last four decades, even as its dramatic growth phase now seems over. I would bet that the Confucian moment will live on for a while longer yet.
In our nation narcissism and arrogance have caused people to believe that they can achieve a moral transcendence by breaking with traditional family structures and ways of life.
More and more Westerners believe that human history is a vast conspiracy against—fill in the blank with your favorite oppressed group. They insist that only the most radical reform can cleanse the civilization of its ills. In the process they are tearing up the fabric of society and promoting social disorder. Kaplan is right to say that we are making a mistake by rejecting tradition and the civic virtues that produce social harmony.
Clearly, the Confucian antidote is perfectly consonant with free market capitalism. It does not, however, make the free market a free-for-all.