The Mandate of Heaven

The Mandate of Heaven is a theory of legitimacy. It tells us when the regime is legitimate, and not legitimate, and what kinds of things can affect that. It has a wonderfully simplistic energy that reinforces order, but never gets in the way of righteousness.

The basic claim, in supernatural language, is like this:

On the surface, this is just a neat idea with some funky eastern metaphysics. It is not immediately compelling to the modern mind except as a curiosity. But let’s examine more closely, and see if there is yet some powerful machinery here.

The Natural Consequences of Incompetence

The second claim, that Heaven will send disasters to punish bad regimes, seems like the most irrational sort of superstition. But if we modify it slightly, it starts to make more sense:

Heaven sends potential disasters to punish bad regimes, and prove good ones. The competent regimes spring into action and have the situation in hand before it even gets started. The potential natural disaster rolls off their back like mere bad weather. The incompetent regimes get totally blindsided and devastated. Slightly abnormal variations become devastating punishment from the gods. There are many unobservable subtleties in whether a regime actually has the goods, or doesn’t. They are unobservable until such an event, where by the obvious failure, the lack of the goods is revealed for all to see. Either way, the divine favor, or lack thereof, is clear.

That is, Heaven as such doesn’t have to do much of anything, except passively send interesting challenges for us to grapple with, and take credit for the results. Regimes will trip over, or take advantage of, those challanges according to the natural consequences of their own natures. Heaven’s preferred style of rule is wu wei; rule by inaction and natural consequence.

Often, we consider these things to be “acts of God”, which we don’t hold anyone responsible for. We just try to clean up the mess. But the Mandate of Heavan as a principle directly asserts that the regime is in fact responsible for these so-called acts of God themselves, not just the visible response to them. The wisdom in this is first of all that a good response, and good preparation and prevention, is largely invisible, so that what you actually see in the competent case is a lack of disasters, not necessarily even a visibly competent response. As such, you might as well consider the events to have been sent by God as punishment for bad rule, which is to say caused by the illegitimacy of the regime; the concrete implications are the same. Second, holding the regime responsible not just for visible response, but for the presence of disasters at all, has interesting incentives. We’ll get to that.

So that’s the first bit of wisdom contained in the traditional formula: Incompetent regimes will be punished, and revealed as lacking in divine favor, by the natural consequences of their own vices, and competent regimes will be fine. Clearly Heaven favors competent regimes.

The Natural Legitimacy of Powerful Competence

If we accept this identification, of Heaven sending disasters to punish bad regimes with bad regimes naturally being punished by their own incompetence, then what remains of the Mandate of Heaven is the claim that competent and secure regimes are legitimate. What are we to make of that?

In the west, the legitimacy of competence is traditionally not assured. You might have the wrong birth, or be of the wrong religion, or not be representative of the people. These days, competence itself produces reflexive hand wringing about the dangers of strong government. We retreat into a reactive and comforting incompetence, where are least the government can’t do anything scary or challenging, like mount an effective response to a pandemic. How’s that working out for us?

Examined together, the compellingness of the individual arguments melt away, and it becomes clear that these are all just ways of justifying rebellion and abdication of responsibility. The Mandate of Heaven principle says no, rebellion is unequivocally not cool. Rebellion is a bloody and destructive affair, that rarely does any good at all, and usually just sets things back. It must not be considered legitimate.

On the contrary, in this view, the most important thing in government, at least for the purposes of public legitimacy, is not the bikeshed discussions about forms of government, legitimate birth, ideology, or representation, but whether it does the basic stuff well. The basic stuff is maintaining political order, handling disasters, repelling rebels and invaders, preventing or mitigating disasters, keeping people fed, and generally keeping the lights on. This stuff by itself is quite hard, and to ignore it in your theories of legitimacy is to really miss the point.

In the most general terms, you will consider your government legitimate if you think supporting it helps create the good, and you can find a comfortable place in its order. The principle of the Mandate of Heaven gives tighter guidance on how the good is created through government: from the basics of running a tight ship and preventing disaster. Everything else is luxury, to be secured only after those basics. Let’s hope some day the basics fade into the background and those higher questions become the focus of our debates, but when you live in interesting times, legitimacy comes from securing the order of society.

The Moral Authority of Nature

If we accept these claims, that legitimacy comes from securing the social order against disaster and disorder, and is lost by failing to secure it, even against so-called “acts of God”, then the principle of the Mandate of Heaven still has more to say: it says that there is an authoritative moral order to the universe that favors and legitimates certain kinds of excellence. This is a theological and ethical claim.

It is obvious that Nature “considers” certain things to be more legitimate than others. Organisms that secure their internal order against predation, parasitism, and cancers, and successfully pursue control of space and resources, are “rewarded”. Those that do not are punished, again by natural consequence. Virtue, as far as nature is concerned, is the technology of flourishing life. Vice is the disorder that has death as its wages.

To develop this idea a bit further, social and civilized humanity is no longer competing as individual animals in the wilderness. We are organized into superorganisms which themselves have needs for internal order, and needs to follow Nature’s law. A rich and familiar system of individual social morality, things like loving each other and living in certain ways, can be largely derived from the application of Nature’s law to our superorganism societies, and backpropagating to requirements for individual behavior.

Such is Nature’s rule, in terms of her raw power and its implications, but why should we regard this not just as instrumentally prudent, but as normative and good? In short, why should we regard God or Nature as a legitimate moral ruler, and not a tyrant? The principle of the Mandate of Heaven implies we should.

There is a certain provocative consistency in applying the logic of the Mandate of Heaven to Heaven itself. We are ruled inexorably by an invincible regime that demands certain things of us, but also provides a solid order in which there is much opportunity. When faced with such in human affairs, the answer is to enthusiastically proclaim the legitimacy of that regime, and internalize its intentions, unifying them with our own. Perhaps this applies both to human and divine. The theological implication is to submit to God, and seek to unify your will with His. This is fairly standard across cultures and philosophical systems as an account of man’s spiritual imperative.

To treat the philosophical issues here in proper depth, and persuasively argue the view, rather than merely articulate it, would be out of scope of this discussion. But the articulation is useful in case we find it naturally compelling, or even just to complete the discussion of the content of the Mandate of Heaven principle.

The Implications of Belief in the Mandate

Returning to human affairs, we should examine the effect that a belief in the principle of the Mandate of Heaven has on incentives and behavior. If its behavioral implications are no good, we’ve missed something.

For the common man, the major implication of the Mandate of Heaven is to stop worrying and learn to love the regime. You have a ruling class. They rule over you. If you’re not getting wrecked by civil war, political disorder, and “acts of God”, they’re probably doing a pretty good job, and are favored by Heaven. Stop being a rebel.

The flipside is important too: if your favorite regime falls, or there was a successful rebellion or coup, don’t mourn too much for past regimes. They fell by their own vices. They lost the Mandate of Heaven for good reason, though you may not know what it was. Try to understand what it was punished for; there was usually something. The new regime succeeded because it was the most virtuous, and has the Mandate. It has a legitimate license to operate.

Salvage the virtues of the old regime, but work with the new one and come to appreciate its virtues as well. Help it fill in where it is lacking, rather than trying to fight against it. This is not a bad philosophy.

For the rulers, an obvious implication of everyone believing your legitimacy comes from stable rule and no natural disasters is that you need to try real hard not just to mount a convincing response to disasters, but to proactively prevent them and make such preparations that they won’t even register as disasters. This is a good incentive. You need to be proactive about systemic risk anyways. Tying legitimacy to systemic risk prevention is a good corrective to the usual complacency. But of course, incompetent regimes will still worry about the wrong risks.

Another implication is that when there is a change in the elite, and you replace a regime, there is no need to engage in collective blaming of the people. They supported a regime that had the Mandate; what more can you ask of them? They will support you in turn.

There are many other implications, and other aspects to be explored, but this covers the important basics and subtleties to start with.