XII.11 Let the prince be a prince 

Duke Ching of Ch’i asked Confucius about government. Confucius answered, ‘Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, the father a father, the son a son.’ The Duke said, ‘Splendid! Truly, if the ruler be not a ruler, the subject not a subject, the father not a father, the son not a son, then even if there be grain, would I get to eat it?’ — Analects XII.11 (Lau)

齐景公问政于孔子。孔子对日,君,君,臣,臣,父,父,孑,子。公日,善哉,信如君不君,臣不臣,父不父,子不子,虽有粟,吾得而食诸。- 论语,十二:十一

This is one of The Analects clearest statements of the feudal and patriarchal social order that would later get the name Confucianism. Detach it, for a moment, from that overwhelming cultural context, and it’s also an expression on separating design concerns. The two can be contrasted. Every political pundit is a social engineer. They either advocate improvement to the design of the state, or argue a change will break the existing system.

Mencius (孟子) expanded on this sentiment for one of the earliest recorded defenses of the division of labour (Book 3 part 1 chapter 4, 3-4). Labour specialization works because humans have limits on the complexity of a task they can undertake, and are not cloneable or particularly fungible. 

Software, by contrast, is highly specialized, but also cloneable at near zero cost. Software complexity has different boundaries. There are physical limits inherent to what Harrison Ainsworth calls engineering in a computational material. These are physical characteristics of algorithmic complexity or computability – limits on how fast a particular problem can be solved, if it can be solved at all. 

There are, by contrast, few physical limits to the conceptual complexity of a software component. Those measures like cyclomatic complexity – number of subtasks, variables and choices in a method – have high values, orders of magnitude short of the physical limits imposed by compilers and interpreters. (I once worked on a system where other team members had, in their wisdom, exceeded the limit for the size of a single Java method in a long list of simple business transformation rules. Pushed by the very essence of the language to refactor, they proceeded to – what else? – push the remaining rules into longMethod2().)

The limits which measures like cyclomatic complexity indicate are human limits. They mark the soft edges of a space where humans can effectively create, manage, or even understand software. There are different ways of describing coding conventions, but they all seek to indicate a limit beyond which code becomes illegible.

Legibility is the term James C. Scott uses to describe the social engineering needs of a nascent or established state (Seeing Like A State). The mechanics of a working state require internal legibility. Those working for it must be able to measure and understand their environment in mutually compatible terms which also promote the success of the government. This is why feudal states have such a profusion of titles which become the name of the person (not Bob – The Duke of Marlborough). It is also why courtly dress has such systematic rules. This is seen particularly in bureaucratic feudal states as seen historically in East Asia, eg in feudal Korea, but also in the Vatican, or the badges at the postmodern World Economic Forum. These codes serve the dual purpose of defining the interfaces of the state and of making the role of the person instantly legible to one familiar with the system, all while tempting people with the markings of social status.

Marking lexemes by colour and shape according to their role is exactly what IDE pretty printing achieves. This is also the intent behind decoupling, encapsulation, and well-named entities (name oriented software). It makes the role of a component, from lexical to method, class and class pattern levels, readily legible to humans who much maintain and extend the system. 

This strictness of role works well for machines made of non-sentient digital components. For systems where components are sentient meat, there are inevitable side effects. This is, perhaps, the core ethical dilemma Confucius concerns himself with: the demands of The State and The Way (道).

FUNCTIONS SHOULD DO ONE THING. THEY SHOULD DO IT WELL. THEY SHOULD DO IT ONLY. — Robert Martin, Clean Code

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Confucius Gordon In The Twenty First Century!

Jiang Qing (蒋庆) is a mainland Chinese scholar who proposes reviving Confucius as part of the Chinese political settlement. There is a good overview of his work from Daniel Bell in NPQ. He notes the revival of Confucius’s fortunes amongst Communist Party cadres, as well as critiques Jiang Qing makes of the current Chinese and Western systems.

Rather than subordinating Confucian values and institutions to democracy as an a priori dictum, they contain a division of labor, with democracy having priority in some areas and meritocracy in others. If it’s about land disputes in rural China, farmers should have a greater say. If it’s about pay and safety disputes, workers should have a greater say. In practice, it means more freedom of speech and association and more representation for workers and farmers in some sort of democratic house.

Jiang, who incidentally shares an English transliteration with Mao’s notorious wife 江青, and is therefore hard to Google for without using Chinese characters, has certainly been on a remarkable intellectual and biographical journey. Xujun Eberlein has provided a good biographical sketch, including his search through intellectual and spiritual traditions from Marxism, Christianity and Buddhism, and detail on his magnum opus, Political Confucianism (《政治儒学》). She also has also posted some a more detailed overview by Wang Rui-Chang and notes on philosophical attitudes to women. Bell also has a good interview with Jiang in Dissent.

I haven’t read Political Confucianism, not just out of native laziness and because I only heard about it last week, but also because it’s patchily available even in Chinese: no English language translation exists. You could call Jiang and his followers Neo-Confucians, except that term is already in use for a group of Song and Ming dynasty thinkers. It was the Neo-Confucians that laid out the obedience-centric doctrine – to government, to parents, to husband – that defined Confucianism until today. This also goes for the New Confucians, the term applied to Neo-Confucian twentieth century thinkers outside the mainland in places like Korea and Taiwan. (Such are the pitfalls of prefixed nomenclature. It has a touch of irony given Confucius declared in Analects XIII, 3 his first priority would be the rectification of names. I have visions of the great teacher giving Modernism, Post-modernism, Neo-classical economics, retro-futurism and Neo-Confucianism several weeks of detention.)

As the Wang Rui-Chang paper points out, Jiang attempts to revive an older, humanistic and individually moral strand of Confucian thought alongside the rather more pessimistic tradition of the Neo-Confucians. Arguably the realpolitik school goes back to the arch-pessimist Xun Zi 荀子, who believed people were inherently evil and needed it taught out of them.

to be fully legitimate, a political power or regime must simultaneously meet three conditions: 1), it must be at one with, or sanctioned by, the holy, transcendental Tao as expressed or implied in the Confucian Scriptures, and as interpreted by the prestigious Confucian Scholars; 2), it must not deviate from the mainstream of the national cultural heritage and break the historical continuity of the nationality; 3), it must comply with the will or endorsement of the common people.

He goes on to quote Edmund Burke; a conservative, moralist figure with a lot in common with Confucius considering they lived 1900 years apart and on opposite sides of the globe.

Skimming over Jiang’s proposal to re-establish Confucianism as a state religion, the key constitutional proposal is of a tricameral legislature, only one of which is directly elected:

The House of Profound Confucians (Tong Ru Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the sacred Way, the House of National Continuity (Guo Ti Yuan) represents the legitimacy of cultural heritage and tradition, and the House of Plebeians (Shu Min Yuan) represents the legitimacy of the common people’s will and desire.

Combining an elected house with two Houses of Lords is obviously not going to light a flame in any democrat’s heart. The obvious parallel here is with the American Tripartite Commission. The existing examples of this sort of thing – in Hong Kong and Iran – are not really encouraging. The emphasis on ethnic or cultural representation rather than geographic and democratic representation also seems both very imperial Chinese and inviting the nastiness of partisan splits on ethnic and cultural lines. Absent having seen the specific arguments Jiang has, and as fun as kicking an absent strawman while he’s down is, let’s just note my general support for the miracle of democracy for now.

What is more striking is the parallel to the golden age of the Westminster system. In 1855 the Northcote-Trevelyan report recommended adoption of a civil service entrance examination as one means of professionalising an inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. This was inspired in turn by the long history of Chinese imperial examinations for the civil service. Combined with the great Reform bills, by the end of the 19th century the United Kingdom had a democratically elected House of Commons (庶民院) and an aristocratic House of Lords including a number of bishops (国体院). And they relied on a career civil service to advise on, draft and execute policy, which exerted its own conservative cultural influence on the government (统儒院). This constitutional settlement started to change at the end of the 1990s with changes to the Lords and the relationship between the cabinet and civil service, (and in Australia due to the breakdown of ministerial responsibility) but it had a good hundred year run and is by no means finished with. Given it has both historical precedent and cultural suitability, I can’t help but wonder why Jiang didn’t think of it. Perhaps with all that visiting of monasteries, studying of Marxist texts and surviving the Cultural Revolution, he didn’t get much time for repeats of Yes, Minister. If someone has his postal address, I’m happy to send him a copy.