Xunzi on Poverty

Book 9 of the Xunzi includes a passage that seems to argue that in order to prevent desperate poverty (qiong 窮) it is necessary that some people be poor (pin 貧) while others are rich. Sorting out the view Xunzi takes of poverty in this argument is harder than you might expect.

The argument’s central claim is that if people are equal in their power and position and the same in their desires and aversions, this will inevitably lead to conflict, disorder, and poverty. The sages are supposed to have solved this problem by establishing the rituals and the duties, a hierarchical system that ensures that some can lead while others follow.

Why, though, must there be inequality of wealth as well as of power? Xunzi may simply be assuming that the wealthy tend to acquire power, or that those with power tend also to accumulate wealth, so that the two sorts of privilege tend to correlate. But I think that something else is probably going on as well. Elsewhere Xunzi argues that wealth is a necessary condition for effective rule, and he may well be taking that view for granted here too.

This other argument, which appears in Book 10, targets Mohist moderation. Xunzi claims that the Mohists wrongly tookq scarcity to be the world’s greates problem. He then argues that Mohist moderation would deprive people to such an extent that they could not be motivated by the promise of rewards, and that the people will obey their rulers only if (contrary to Mohist moderation) rulers make grand displays of their wealth.

In the second part of this argument, Xunzi is referring especially to the royal musical events that the Mohists had condemned. According to the Mohists, these spectacles wasted labour and wealth that could be put to much more productive uses. Xunzi argues to the contrary that by making an ostentatious display of the ruler’s power, these events left the people in awe, and only by putting their people in awe can rulers make their people fear their punishments. Public displays of wealth are thus necessary for effective rule because they ensure that the people will obey the ruler.

The arguments of both Book 9 and Book 10 require that the people not be too poor. Book 10 requires that they have enough that they will not be thoroughly demotivated. Book 9 objects to the sort of poverty it calls qiong, a state in which the people would be truly destitute (“qiong” could also mean to exhaust, use up or limit). Nonetheless, both passages call for a fundamental distinction between the poor and the wealthy: most people must be sufficiently poor that they will be in awe of their rulers’ wealth.

It is essential for the argument against the Mohists that the poverty Xunzi advocates not be as extreme as Mohist moderation. Xunzi objects in particular to the demand that people wear coarse clothing, eat bad food, and do without music. Presumably Xunzi’s poor would eat and dress better than this, and presumably it is also supposed to enrich them somehow to be cowed into obedience by their rulers’ music.

Nowhere, however, does Xunzi mention an issue that was of central importance to the Mohists, the labour and wealth that rulers appropriated from their people in order to pay for their own extravagances. Implicitly, of course, he is endorsing these depredations, without which rulers would not have the wealth that Xunzi considered necessary for effective government. The Xunzian ruler gains the obedience of his people by impoverishing them to just the right extent.

Presumably the idea is that an obedient populace makes it possible for the ruler to secure order and prosperity to the benefit of all. But who is really benefiting?

Recall that the aim for Book 9 is to establish inequalities that will prevent people from contending over the things that they all desire. Inequality prevents contention by ensuring that some (in fact most people) obey. The implication is that they obey by giving up any hope of getting all the things they desire. That is, inequalities of wealth and power promote social order by ensuring that most people will content themselves with relatively little.

Xunzi’s view of poverty in these arguments thus turns out to be quite convoluted. In order to prevent an unacceptable degree of poverty, he argues, the people must be made poor so that their rulers can use their relative wealth to put the people in awe and thus gain their obedience—all so that the people will not object to being poor. Yikes!

3 thoughts on “Xunzi on Poverty

  1. From your reports of Books 9 and 10 it sounds as though Xunzi’s argument is that “social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that … that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged persons” (I’m stealing Rawls’ words). For Xunzi thinks that without the inequality he recommends, there would be such disorder that everyone would be worse-off. Even Rawls thinks the political stability of principles of justice has to be figured into the calculation of their consequences, and people’s likelihood of complaining has to be figured into calculations of stability: http://www.iep.utm.edu/rawls/#SH2h

    The difference of course is that Rawls subordinates that “difference principle” wholly to principles requiring equal basic liberties and requiring that positions of power and wealth be open to all under conditions of equal competitive opportunity (at least, he does so for modern societies that have some degree of liberal or democratic tradition). From what you say, Xunzi’s view of the background truths of social psychology etc. seems to be that Rawls’ highest-priority principles are inherently unstable; the point of Xunzi’s economic arrangements is to stop people from aspiring to higher position …

    … and to stop them by generating a sort of numinous awe and dread of the immanent absolute. I wonder whether that device could work if publicly known.

    You’ve made me very curious to know Xunzi’s view of those background truths.

    • Actually, Xunzi takes on board the Mohist doctrine of promoting the worthy (even using their slogan)—so accepting your station didn’t mean giving up any hope of advancement, at least officially. It meant doing your best to serve, perhaps in the hopes of advancing, though in the meantime accepting that you can’t enjoy the luxuries of those higher up than you.

      Xunzi doesn’t say anything as precise as Rawls’s difference principle. The distinction that most seems to drive these arguments is order/disorder, and though he’d certainly argue that everyone is better off with order than with disorder, he doesn’t try to argue that the worst off would be best off with precisely the sort of order, and precisely the distribution of goods, that he advocates.

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