Mencius: The Ancient Chinese Philosopher Who Made a Powerful Case for Limited Government

by EditorT

Mencius, from “Half Portraits of the Great Sage and Virtuous Men of Old,” Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), by an anonymous artist. (Public domain)

There’s a reason Mao Zedong tried to flush his teachings down the memory hole after coming to power in 1949


A very long time ago, a Chinese scholar wrote, “The people are the most important element in a nation; the land and grain come next; the sovereign counts for the least.”

That sovereign, moreover, should rule by the consent of those he governs, and if he’s a tyrant, the governed have every right to get rid of him, one way or another.

These are the sentiments of a wise man named Mencius (372 to 289 B.C.), arguably the first or second most influential philosopher in all Chinese history. Most sinologists rank Confucius (551 to 479 B.C.) at the top, but since most of what we know about his teachings we know through the interpretations of Mencius, who was his follower, a case can be made that the latter was ultimately more consequential. These two men, incidentally, are the only ancient Chinese philosophers so well known that their names have been Latinized for use in the West.

Consider this essay a follow-on to my earlier one, “China’s Great Philosophers Would Be Horrified by What Mao and the CCP Created.” Therein, I wrote that “Mencius interpreted Confucius and took the elder’s teachings to their logical conclusions—to what lovers of liberty today identify as an ancient version of 19th Century classical liberalism.”

Michael Hart, in “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History,” notes that among the principles advanced by this ancient scholar were free trade, light taxes, and the right of the people to revolution:

“Mencius believed that a king’s authority derives from Heaven; but a king who ignores the welfare of the people will, rightly, be overthrown. Since the last part of that sentence effectively overrules the first part, Mencius was in fact asserting (long before John Locke) that the people have a right to revolt against unjust rulers. It was an idea that became generally accepted in China. … For roughly twenty-two centuries, his ideas were studied throughout a region that included over 20 percent of the world’s population. Only a few philosophers anywhere have had so great an influence.”

James Legge, the 19th-century Scottish linguist and authority on early Chinese texts, noted that Mencius wasn’t “a favorite with the rulers of China” because, like any good Confucian, he didn’t believe in the “divine right” of any politician. Hundreds of years after Mencius, Europeans would finally come to the same conclusion.

Mencius held that leaders must be of the highest ethical character and treat their “subjects” accordingly. Their rule should be a “gentle touch” that spurs people to live lives of honest enterprise. For obvious reasons, this ancient Chinese thinker was always far more popular with the ruled than he was with the rulers.

Mencius, wrote Paul Meany at, “did not agree with heavy-handed, top-down approaches.” He made that point clear in a story about a farmer:

“One day a farmer was inspecting his crops. Seeing that his crops were not ready for harvesting, the nervous farmer begins to pull on the sprouts to help them grow faster. When he returned home and told his family what he had done, his son checked on the rice plants and saw that they had all shriveled up. The moral of the story is that you cannot force something to grow. Instead, you must provide the correct environment. Likewise, people flourish morally not due to commands or threats of punishment.”

Some people seek to rule others, and almost by definition, such people are the least qualified to do so. Indeed, government may be the only occupation for which the best hires are those who don’t want the job.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that he had never “been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others.” British author J. R. R. Tolkien said that “the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

Centuries earlier, Mencius wrote:

“The superior man has three things in which he delights, and to be ruler over the kingdom is not one of them. That his father and mother are both alive, and that the condition of his brothers affords no cause for anxiety;—this is one delight. That, when looking up, he has no occasion for shame before Heaven, and, below, he has no occasion to blush before men;—this is a second delight. That he can get from the whole kingdom the most talented individuals, and teach and nourish them;—this is the third delight.”

When Mao Zedong foisted communism on China in 1949, he attempted to flush Mencius down the Orwellian memory hole for being a relic of the country’s “decadent” and “feudal” past. Of course, the real reason for Mao’s hostility should be more obvious: He couldn’t tolerate a teacher who questioned authority, defended free trade and private property, ranked the individual and his family ahead of the State, or challenged the State in any meaningful way.

To Mencius, the purpose of the State wasn’t to serve itself or treat people as serfs or puppets, but to create an environment in which individuals could flourish. The State should practice virtue so as to be a good example. Its taxation shouldn’t exceed one-ninth of what the people produced. And it shouldn’t fix prices in the marketplace.

“If a fine shoe and a shoddy shoe are the same price, will anyone make the former?” he asked with a flair for rhetorical skepticism.

Paul Meany noted that Mencius condemned rulers who heavily taxed their people and then flaunted their rich lifestyles:

“In one of his [Mencius’s] dialogues, a king asks if it is acceptable to reduce the heavy tax burden he has slowly raised over time. Mencius replies, ‘Suppose there is a person who every day appropriates one of his neighbor’s chickens. Someone tells him, ‘This is not the Way of a gentleman.’ He then asks ‘May I reduce it to appropriating one chicken every month and wait until next year to stop?’ Mencius concludes with a striking maxim: ‘If one knows that it is not righteous, then one should quickly stop.’”

Confucians such as Mencius recognized that the state wasn’t all-powerful. And even if somehow the government were competent to micromanage every aspect of life, it would be immoral to do so. Confucians valued freedom and lived by the maxim, ‘Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire.’”

In the West, we often assume that freedom and limited government are ideals exclusive to the West. But Eastern scholars such as Confucius and Mencius are examples that show us this isn’t the case. More than two millennia ago, they identified freedom and limited government as elements of virtue. They knew that huge, overbearing government was an enemy of virtue itself.

Wisdom has been around for a very long time.

“Mencius: The Predecessor to Classical Liberalism” by Paul Meany

“Mencius, Translated and with an Introduction and Notes” by D. C. Lau

“The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School” by Chen Huan-Chang

This article was originally published on


Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence Reed writes a weekly op-ed for El American. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Atlanta, Georgia; and is the author of “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction“ and the best-seller “Was Jesus a Socialist?”


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