Chapter 3 of the Daodejing features the first mention of the character 民/mín, which means common people, folk, or masses.
The Min were illiterate peasants and workers eking out a precarious existence in the fields and towns, who could at any moment be called upon to perform corvee labour on the roads and irrigation systems or be conscripted for military service. When driven to the edge by natural disasters, tyrannical oppression, or extreme poverty, they could explode into rioting mobs that would in the most extreme cases rebel against the state ruler.
Laozi regularly urges the sage ruler to improve the lives of the common people in the Daodejing but does not even conceive of them having the ability to help or think for themselves. To him, they were what Mao Zedong later described as a blank sheet of paper that only the enlightened ruler could write the freshest and most beautiful characters and paint the freshest and most beautiful pictures on.
There are some excellent examples of Laozi’s elitist attitude in Chapter 3, starting with the first three stanzas. To prevent the common people from having any ideas above their station, Laozi cautions the sage ruler to avoid rewarding deserving officials and displaying valuable objects because this will only inspire envy, ambition, and other negative emotions among them.
Expanding on the same theme, Laozi goes on to advise the sage ruler to adopt a dualistic approach to governance that combines filling the common people’s stomachs and emptying their hearts-and-minds of unnecessary desires. By meeting the people’s basic physical needs and removing potential sources of envy and aggravation, Laozi argues, the ruler will create a sustainable and harmonious society in which order prevails.
Laozi’s emphasis on the responsibility of the ruler to meet the basic needs of the common people while keeping their aspirations and desires in check was a sensible approach to preventing social unrest and maintaining harmony in a time of great turmoil and hardship. However, his failure to acknowledge the potential of the common people to contribute to society beyond their labour reflects a significant limitation in his understanding of human motivations.
No matter how wise and selfless a ruler is, ignoring the voices of 99% of the population is a recipe for failure.