Push hands practice in Taijiquan can teach us a lot about basic human behavior. Much of what we learn is obvious in a push hands or martial art context, but not so clear in everyday life. For example, in push hands we’re trying to sense our partner’s movements to a very subtle degree, but we must also be aware that they are trying to do the same to us. Thus, if we think we have the advantage and begin to move against our partner, they may sense this change and will act differently in response. Because we want to make the most of an advantageous position when it arises, we remind ourselves: do not use force, especially when advancing on an opponent so as not to reveal one’s position. All the time we must think of following the opponent, even if we are on the offensive.
Taijiquan’s push hands method is very similar to free-market economic theory. In an ideal free-market, individuals have an incentive to cooperate by maximizing their comparative advantage in labor. Individuals “follow” and adapt to the labor production of others and then trade on that which they produce in a comparatively better way. The difficulty lies in figuring out what exactly one should produce in a given society. This entails knowing oneself (what one is good at producing) as well as knowing others (what could be offered to society). Finding that out requires a push hands-like attunement to ourselves and the environment, yet the better we are at this task the more successful we can be as individuals and the more we can benefit our community.
At least two mistakes can be made in this economic paradigm. First: trying to do something for which one clearly does not have a comparative advantage. This could be likened to having too much force or tension within ones own body, so that the movements are unnatural. In Tai Chi push hands, we act in ways which are forceful we reveal our intentions to the opponent and are also doing so in an inefficient way. Using inefficient force in this way backfires and leads to failure just as it does in the free market. Second: trying to manipulate market incentives where they are felt to be lacking, such as subsidizing a specific industry. This is essentially trying to create an economic incentive where one does not exist and increase production or consumption of a particular good. Creating incentives artificially like that is similar to using obviously forceful techniques against an opponent, trying to get them to move in a way that is more favorable to your victory. Normally, the opponent will sense what you are trying to do and react. Of course, they may not be able to react in time and the technique may actually work, but it can’t work forever because after being attacked once, the opponent will be more cautious and make adjustments. Similarly, a subsidy may actually work, and help an industry to be more profitable. Yet, the act of subsidizing sends a signal to the market as to what the economic planner intends to do, so that in the future the industry may take greater and great risks, believing they can always count on continued assistance no matter their actions.
Economics is merely a hobby of mine, but many of the theories confirm what we Tai Chi practitioners observe every time we do the form or interact with others. The simple idea of ‘not using force’ has unlimited applications and can help us all to better interact with our environment and ourselves.