The young man trembles as he faces the firing squad. His only crime: remarking about the way his government is run. The shot is fired, one bullet takes his young life. This is Legalism in action.
Legalism differs from other philosophies in many ways. The main ideas inherent in Legalism are: people are generally bad and need to be controlled by their government or they do not deserve to live, and the best way to control people are harsh laws and severe punishment for disobeying the laws. Both ideas differ drastically from Confucian and Taoist beliefs.
Confucians and Taoists believed that people were generally good and every person was born with morals. Legalists believed that people are born evil, with a selfish, ruthless, and vial, instinct. Legalists believed that people needed an empire with strict laws to control them and make them behave properly.
The Ch’in dynasty was the first to try Legalism in action, ruled by Emperor Shih Huang ti. First, the Emperor divided the land; it was no longer inherited. Land use to be inherited so that when a family member died, the next one in line gained control. The Emperor divided land into 36 sections and called them provinces; he divided each province into districts and put two rulers in charge of each province. The rulers answered to the Emperor, who was in power over all provinces. This made the leaders more loyal to the Emperor than inheritors because they could lose their jobs. Emperor Shih Huang did not trust the rulers he appointed, so he made them reside in the Capital City so that he could control them. Next the people were appointed jobs by the Emperor and trained to do them as he wanted them done. Two of the jobs were farmers, and soldiers. The farmers create riches for the government, while the soldiers went to war for the government. Thus making the government and the leaders, especially the emperor, very strong and powerful. However, since all individuals are born ruthless and selfish even the emperor can be evil. Harsh laws were created and enforced aggressively enough that even the leaders were not above the law. The laws alone controlled the states.
Legalists believed that people could not behave on their own, so they had to be forced to behave, by strict laws and severe punishment for breaking the laws. The Ch’in emperor wanted all of his people to agree that the harsh laws and ideas he implemented were correct. He had all books burned except the ones that he approved of, making it impossible for the people to look to the past to find out how things use to be. He also appointed spies to make sure everyone did their jobs. People had to spy on each other and turn in those who broke the law. Punishment in Legalistic empires was harsh; people were not allowed to express their opinions about their government. Disagreeing with their government was punishable by death.
When the Ch’in empire gained power there had been so many wars that something needed to be done to gain control. Legalism was a barbaric and cruel government that did not succeed. Legalists believed that people were bad and needed to be controlled by strict laws and severe punishment. One good thing did come from the legalistic empire, a highly disciplined and powerful military was developed so that the Ch’in state could become strong.