The bicycle theory of the Tao

On the ninth day of the ninth month, a little ancient philosophy for trade liberalization negotiators to ponder

Published September 9, 2008 7:02PM (EDT)

In the course of telling us everything we need to know about the significance of the chrysanthemum in Japanese culture, the amazing, poetic, tour-de-force blog Tang Dynasty Times also informs us that, in the ancient Chinese lunar calendar, the ninth day of the ninth month "was considered to be the seasonal marker of the 'first chill of Autumn.'"

It was thought to be particularly potent because of the belief that the number nine, being the highest odd number (yang) from one to ten was especially lucky, and therefore this day with its "two nines" ... was considered to be the ultimate in propitiousness.

Like the phases of the moon, the ancient Taoist philosophers taught that everything in the universe was in a constant state of vacillation. Everything therefore was either in a stage of waxing or waning so that at that very moment when something appeared to reach perfect fullness, its waning had in reality already begun. In this way, things which appear to our human eyes to be perfectly complete or full are in fact already in decline. Due to this belief, the number nine was preferred to the number ten (since 10 was already -- according to this way of looking at things-- already in a state of decline).

Devotees of the ins-and-outs of world trade negotiations may recognize elements of a familiar concept: the so-called "bicycle theory" of trade liberalization.

As I wrote, a year and a half ago:

[The theory is] very simple: It argues that the world must aggressively keep removing barriers to trade, because, in the absence of progress, there will be backsliding. If you stop pedaling your bicycle, you'll fall over. If you stop concluding new trade agreements, protectionism will bloom.

Empirical evidence supporting the bicycle theory of trade liberalization remains slim, despite the support offered by ancient Taoist philosophers. It's not at all clear that, for example, a time-out on concluding new free trade agreements, as proposed by Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, would imply imminent backsliding in any quantifiably measurable way. But maybe there's a deeper truth for trade negotiators to consider -- that there is no perfect fullness, and if we think we've made it to the finish line, we are probably already in retreat.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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