“They’re Expecting Us to Show Up in a Bat-Spaceship”
Here’s where we get to political philosophy. In the case of the LEGO brick, the less it’s like a toy, the better you can play with it. According to the Daoists, government is no different: the less it does, the better it works. That doesn’t entail abdicating responsibility altogether. Rather, the goal is to be as effective as possible with as little intervention as possible. There’s a Daoist term for this: wei wu wei, literally “doing without doing.” Water is especially good at this. It’s gentle, not coercive. It flows, it doesn’t hammer. It always follows the path of least resistance, and because it’s like this, it’s one of the strongest forces on the planet.
As such, water itself is not just an inspiration for the Daoists; it’s actually a role model. Effortless power is just one of its many virtues.
Water is beneficial to everyone, seeking nothing in return. It’s noncompetitive, always happy to sink to the lowest places. It doesn’t play favorites. And it expresses all of these virtues through wei wu wei.
Emmet Brickowski is by turns a total doofus and a master of wei wu wei. (This is perfectly in keeping with Daoism. One of the themes of the early texts is that it’s often hard to tell the difference between a fool and a sage.) Everyone wants him to devise some ingenious plan to break into Lord Business’s tower, but instead of designing a Bat-spaceship, a pirate spaceship, or a rainbow-sparkle spaceship, he designs ... well, nothing. Better to build what’s already there: a plain old Octan delivery spaceship, so ordinary that it might as well be invisible. No inspiration, no ingenuity, no cleverness at all—and that’s exactly why his plan works. Keep It Simple, Stupid.
This is the point of that cryptic line we considered earlier: “Governing a large state is like cooking a small fish.”10 The trick to cooking a small fish is to handle it as little as possible. Fuss with it too much and it falls apart in the pan. The best spatula in the world can’t help you; what you really need is highly skilled attentiveness to very subtle changes. After that, it’s all wei wu wei: minimal intervention for maximal effect. One flip and you’re done.
For the sage, statecraft is no different: legislate well and you won’t have to legislate often. This approach is anything but standoffish; a ruler needs to be every bit as attentive and skillful as a master chef. The ideal result is that “with the most excellent rulers, their subjects only know that they are there.”11
The objection, of course, is that this is still too imprecise. Yes, we ought to try less and do more, but to what end? After all, this wei wu wei stuff can be used for evil just as easily as for good, can’t it? Lord Business had several options when it came to beheading poor Vitruvius. He could have built an elaborate decapitating device, maybe something like a Micromanager. Instead he just threw a penny at him. Does this make Lord Business an evil sage?
No. It’s true that he stepped outside of the conceptual confines within which everyone else operates. That much looks like sagacity. And it’s true that he found the path of least resistance, and in doing so accomplished exactly what he sought to accomplish. But he’s missed the most important part of wei wu wei: the whole point is to be noncoercive, to benefit everyone, to be fair-minded—in short, to flow like water. Instead, Lord Business’s every effort is to coerce the world into the shape he wants it. Thus while he may be a genius, he’s not a sage.
That said, the initial worry still remains: the problem of imprecision. If the Daoist says the ruler should take a minimalist approach, we must still ask how. Which laws do we keep and which do we repeal? Which areas should this unassuming government watch closely, and which should it leave entirely to the people? And if we can’t find an answer to any of those questions, is this minimalist approach so minimal that it says nothing at all?