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History’s First Libertarian?

The Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou was articulating Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ two thousand years before 'The Wealth of Nations.'

By guest author Jon Miltimore
October 25, 2022

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us “there is nothing new under the sun.” The quote reminds us that few things we think of as new are actually new, and economic philosophy is no exception.

While Karl Marx is considered the Father of Communism, his ideas were not as original as many think. His intellectual precursor was Francois-Noel Babeuf (1760-1797), a proto-socialist of the French Revolution who was executed for participating in a failed coup designed to overthrow the Directory. Decades before Marx was born, Babeuf was calling for absolute equity and the prohibition of private property.

Marx’s classical liberal counterpart Adam Smith has his own intellectual doppelganger. Anders Chydenius was born only a few years after Smith it is believed (Smith’s precise date of birth is unknown). Like the more famous Scotsman, Chydenius was a champion of free trade, a free press, and equal rights before the law, and a decade before Smith published The Wealth of Nations, Chydenius was describing an economic process similar to Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”

“Every individual spontaneously tries to find the place and the trade in which he can best increase National gain, if laws do not prevent him from doing so,” Chydenius wrote in The National Gain (1765). “The wealth of a Nation consists in the multitude of products or, rather, in their value; but the multitude of products depends on two chief causes, namely, the number of workmen and their diligence. Nature will produce both, when she is left untrammeled …”

Though neither Smith or Chydenius used the term “spontaneous order”—it didn’t appear until the 20th century—the phenomenon is clearly what both philosophers describe. It’s the idea that social order and harmony emerge from the voluntary actions of individuals, not central planning.

Yet neither of these great philosophers were the first to articulate this idea. That distinction belongs to Zhuang Zhou (aka Zhuangzi), a Chinese philosopher and poet who lived during the 4th century B.C.

Zhuang Zhou rejected the Confucianism of the time, which emphasized obedience to national authority in addition to its broader ethical teachings, and embraced (and expanded upon) the teachings of Lao-Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius who opposed state rule and emphasized laissez faire economics.

“Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone,” wrote Zhuang Zhou, who could be considered history’s first libertarian.

It’s hard to find a more distilled definition of spontaneous order than this, and economist Murray Rothbard credits Zhuang Zhou (whom Rothbard refers to as Chuang-tzu) as the first thinker to chronicle the idea. And though the concept is simple enough, Zhuang Zhou makes it clear that practicing spontaneous order is hardly simple and exceedingly rare.

“There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone,” Zhuang Zhou wrote, “there has never been such a thing as governing mankind [with success].”

The reason spontaneous order is so difficult to practice was the same in Ancient China as it is today: the presence of force.

Force is a constant in the pages of history. Whether the text is Plutarch, the Bible, or Zhuang Zhou, history is in many ways a chronicle of humans aggressing against one another. This is likely why Zhuang Zhou suggests humans will never leave each other alone, and the best we can do is to create a social order that limits aggression.

As any Philosophy 101 student can tell you, this is why humans enter into a “social contract.” The presence of force prompts the creation of an authority to keep aggressors in check. The problem, as nineteenth century economist Frédéric Bastiat noted, is that the state soon deviates from its mission and becomes an agent of aggression itself, often under the guise of doing good.

“The mission of law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property, even though the law may be acting in a philanthropic spirit,” Bastiat wrote in The Law. “Its mission is to protect property.”

Much of the disharmony we see in the world today stems from different views on the purpose of the law. Does government exist to protect private property or to redistribute it or even abolish it?

People have different views on the matter, just like Adam Smith and Karl Marx did. But it’s clear the discussion is nothing new.

It’s also clear that Zhuang Zhou would tell you Adam’s Smith’s vision is the path to a peaceful, prosperous, and harmonious society—not that of Karl Marx. Because good things tend to follow all on their own “when things are let alone.”

This version of this piece first appeared on, you can find it here.