A question never really asked ...

... in force in American politics, but is the heart of Confucian thinking about leadership - how will this policy help the people?  The Confucian leader is judged according to that standard - and don't give me the innovation and tax-cuts-create-jobs crap.

Secular humanists and some evangelical Trumpians might agree with this characterization of the relation of heaven to the people –

Heaven gave birth to the people and set up rulers to superintend and shepherd them and see to it that they do not lose their true nature as human beings...   (Spring and Autumn Annals, one of the five Confucian classics, purportedly edited by Confucius himself.)

The passage goes on to assert – Heaven’s love for the people is very great.  Would it then allow one man to preside over them in an arrogant and willful manner, indulging his excesses and casting aside the nature Heaven and Earth allotted them?  Surely it would not.” 

God’s people in the Old Testament is comparable to Heaven’s people in the Confucian texts.  So noted Wm. T. de Bary in his Tanner lecture The Trouble with Confucianism.  (Tanner Lectures on Human Values, University of California at Berkeley, May 4 and 5, 1988).

… there is much evidence of a prime concern for the people and every reason to believe that both the people’s welfare and the people’s sufferings weigh heavily on the Confucian conscience. (p18 of the book by the same name, available here.)

Confucius’ attitude is sympathetic to the common people. The ruler bears supreme responsibility for their welfare.  Leaders should be junzi, men of scholarly mien and education and wisdom.  De Bary lists seven qualities of leaders, as described in the Analects –

  1. He manifests virtues in forms that benefit the people.  (Analects 15:34 and 20:2)
  2. He commands respect because of his own respectful or reverential manner (Analects 6:30)
  3. He cultivates the social norms through rites – a disciplined observance of the social and religious forms that should govern the common life.  (Analects 1:9, 12:2, 13:4, 14:44)
  4. He has a kindly, generous, and forbearing manner in dealing with the people. (Analects 18:2, 11:24)
  5. He demonstrates a sense of confidence and trust in his relations with the people.  (Analects 12:7, 13:4, 15:25)
  6. He is reasonable in his demands on the people (Analects 19:10)
  7. He demonstrates zeal for learning and readiness to take responsibility for the education of the people. (Analects 6:20, 13:4, 13:29)

Through the Analects and other Confucian texts, the leader’s responsibility is abundantly clear - to care for the people.  Long before Confucius there was the notion of the ruler as the Son of Heaven, and the corresponding mandate of Heaven as long as the ruler demonstrates care for the people.

John Kasich demonstrated this concern in 2013 when asked about his support for medicare expansion in Ohio - "When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he's probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer."

As we claw our way through the virus and the next five weeks of election chaos and the economic, political, and social miasma that is baked into our future, it might serve us well to ask a fundamental question of any government policy or proposal.  Ask it in congress, in state legislatures, in city council meetings, in press conferences – how will this help the people?  And ask it over and over again.