Do not single out individuals for praise,
So that the people won’t contend;
Do not prize rare goods,
So that the people won’t steal;
Do not display objects of desire,
So that the people’s hearts will not be restless.
That’s why the sage rules his people by:
Emptying their minds;
But filling their stomachs;
Weakening their ambitions;
But strengthening their sinews.
Always keeping the people free from knowledge and desires;
So that the ones with knowledge will never dare act.
By acting with effortless action,
There is nothing he cannot govern.
How does a wise person govern a state so that “order prevails”? This is the question that Chapter 3 of the Daodejing tackles.
On the surface, it’s almost as if the text is recommending that the wise person should adopt a utilitarian “ignorance-is-bliss” approach to governing in which he keeps the masses happy by “filling their stomachs” and “emptying their hearts and minds of temptations” such as “ostentatious luxuries that spark unrealistic desires”.
But if you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the text is saying that the main responsibility of the wise person is much more sophisticated than that. It is to build a healthy political culture in which members of the governing class put aside their personal vanity and power struggles and work together to build a stable and prosperous society that meets the needs of its people.
If the wise person selects the right candidates for official positions and makes sure that they behave properly when in power, the people will be much less likely to rebel against favoritism and corruption. And if the people’s material and social needs are being met, they will be much less prone to petty temptations and having their emotions stirred up by opportunists looking for a fast track to power.
When it comes to statecraft, therefore, the role of the wise person can be likened to that of a conductor of an orchestra. “By acting with no action” he makes sure that all the disparate elements of society come together to work in perfect harmony for the good of everyone.