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Democracy According to Karl Popper

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 4856 words Published: 7th Sep 2021

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Karl Popper (1902-1994) was one of the most provocative philosophers and thinkers of the twentieth century. Born in Vienna, he grew up in a city witnessing great intellectual ferment and cultural excitement. One of his most celebrated and well-known books, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, appeared in Germany in 1934; it marked Popper’s decisive break with the philosophers who formed the prestigious “Vienna Circle” and exposed many of his most influential arguments and ideas, above all we should remember his theory on the growth of scientific knowledge. On the eve of World War Two, Popper’s life took a dramatic turn: because of the threat of German invasion, in 1937 he was urged to leave his own country and he emigrated to New Zealand where, reflecting on the tyranny that was sweeping around Europe, he wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945. This work is undeniably a classic, Karl Popper decided to write it in March 1938, when the Nazis invaded Austria. This personal background says a lot about Popper’s motivation for writing The Open Society, and about its main theme as well. In this book as well as in The Poverty of Historicism, he attacks totalitarianism and its intellectual supports: the attempt to impose a large-scale planning on the lives of human beings in the light of holistic and historicist considerations.

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In order to analyze Popper’s idea of democracy we shall sets out key tenets of his’ social and political thought, as well as a few of problems with them. The paper will try to underline Popper’s conception of human nature and show how this provides a framework for his theory of history, his critique of historicism and his conception of the “open society” and democracy. After considering Popper’s central political values of freedom and reason, we’ll go through the political programmes of democracy and piecemeal social engineering; after these considerations it will be possible to conclude that Popper can not sustain an exhaustive anti-dogmatism and, contrary to the philospher’s own declaration, his political ideas can not be classified as liberal in any honest way.

Historical and Intellectual Background

Even if Popper rejected Marxism in 1919, he claimed to be a socialist till 1932; it was the socialistic ethic and its idea of justice to which he retained adherence, not its political strategies. Awareness of the growth of authoritarianism in the Soviet Union and what he saw as deficiencies in the Marxist theory and practice of Austrian social democracy pressed him to revise further his political views. Both the idea and the experience of violence were catalytic. Social democracy, by holding to their threat of achieving their objectives by violent means, were implicitly provoking state authorities to a ruthless response, Popper then adopted a more traditional, liberal political stance: deciding that freedom was more important than equality he reaffirmed his rejection of violence.

The central core of Popper’s social and political theory resides in The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies, regarded by the author as his “war effort”: they were intended as a defense of freedom against the obvious impulse towards totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

Popper’s further espousal of the values of reason, toleration, peaceful discussion and respect for the individual all find their predecessors in Kant’s moral and political philosophy. The Austrian thinker extends Kant’s ethical precept of criticism and self-criticism providing a foundation for his philosophy of critical rationalism and joins Kant’s optimistic idea and hope in the possibility of obtaining social reform and peaceful relations within and between nations.

Human Nature

To explain human behaviour and history Popper refuses the utility of a general theory of human nature; his conception of human nature may be found in his knowledge of biology and psychology since he considers human beings similar to any organism, in that they have inborn needs or expectations. According to the author, people tend to hold on to the uniformities they discover, become afraid of change and even wish to dominate others; so if this occurs, the failure of a regularity provokes social disorder and also encourages people to create traditions and taboos. Even though the attachment to regularities is a source of dogmatism and intolerance (attitudes which are anathema to him), Popper advocates social regularities, like social traditions, more favourably than would many other liberals. He suggests that the maintenance of traditions (by which he seems to mean culture or settled ways of thinking and acting) brings order and predictability into our lives and even provides the foundation of social structures: the important political task is to discriminate between valuable and harmful traditions.

This conception of human nature has direct implications for the sort of society he wants to promote and the principles by which it is to be guided. He suggests a slow, gradual reform because this kind of change will not suddenly remove the traditions to which people have become accustomed and thereby create anxiety, terror and violence. There are many contradictions between Popper’s advocacy of boldness, novelty and revolution in intellectual but not in social life: I think they might be explained more with reference to his theory of human nature than to his epistemology, even if he justifies the distinction in epistemological terms, it becomes clear that objective knowledge is preferable because of the constraints it exercises over subjective fears and impulses. This account of Popper’s conception of human nature demonstrates his concern for the practical impact of ideas upon the social life of human beings, here we may notice a conservative tone in his political thought.

Epistemology and History

Popper’s social and political thought includes a more general, speculative philosophy of history which indicates the character of historical progress. For the author, ideas are the main influences upon whether or not human progress is maintained: all social changes and conflicts, wars and revolutions can be seen as the result of conflict between opposing ideas and ideologies. Even with these conclusions, he shares with the historicists, whom he so vehemently attacks, a belief that there exists a direction to human history given by the growth of knowledge. He claims that “the growth of knowledge, and thus the history of science, is the heart of all history”. The social dilemmas produced by the most crucial episodes in the evolutionary history still remain; for the author these are best exemplified in the evolution of the different social arrangements that have arisen from the exercise of different human facilities. So the “open” and the “close” societies represent “ideal types” of two different stages of social and cultural evolution. According to the author where the lower biological needs are dominant, the social structure has the character of a closed society in which all social life is guided by myths and rigid taboos.

A kind of “magical attitude” prevails, in the closed society there is no scope for self doubt and personal moral responsibility; changes in these kind of societies come about more by the introduction of new magical taboos than by ration attempts to improve social conditions. Popper affirms that the breakdown of the closed society began in Greece around 600 B.C., when new intellectual values, methods and ideas of acquiring knowledge arose together with an original style of politics. The Ionian School inaugurated a new tradition of critical thought: its innovation was to question and discuss dogmas and traditions instead of merely accepting them. Within this historical and philosophical transition, according to Popper, we can trace the emergence of a scientific method. The ideas of criticism and democratic practice allowed human beings to commence their entrance into the “open society” where they could become aware of the importance of personal decisions and individual moral responsibility. Where biological and physical bonds became weaker more abstract relations, like exchange and cooperation, linked together people and groups.

Democracy and the Open Society

One of Popper’s most striking contributions to contemporary political thought maybe found in his conception of democracy and of what he defines as “open society”. The idea of the open society operates both as a minimalist ideal to be sought after and as a celebration of the achievement of modern rationality and liberal democracy. Much of its appeals lies in its apparent capacity to limit the impact of our inevitable errors and to contain potentially harmful social tendencies.

The open society, which is basically identified by the author as his idea of democracy, aims to promote criticism and diversity without succumbing either to violence or irreconcilable social division. This “adventure” in a creative and critical thougth produces conflict, but such problems are resolved by peaceful means; the values of freedom of thought and speech, toleration and individualism operate as both a motivation for, and a constraint upon, individual behavior. Those more substantial differences are to be channelled into the democratic process whereby governments can be replaced by free and regular elections.

Popper recognizes the presence of certain dangers in the historical evolution of the open society: he suggests that it could become an “abstract society” in which social relations might become too rational but, although Popper acknowledges that modern industrial societies exhibit many such features, he denies that the process of abstraction or rationalization will actually complete itself. According to the philosopher there will always be emotional needs which human beings can not satisfy in an abstract society; in this view we see the distinction made between the private and the public sphere. The familiar function of the private sphere provides emotional and biological regeneration for authentic life in the public sphere; though Popper’s neglect of the problems of unequal power and authority within family and personal life places him clearly in the mainstream of patriarchal political thought.

Even though he knows, and admits, that such democracies fall short of his ideal, he is quite optimistic about their potential. Anyway we must recognize that the transition to the open society remains incomplete and its achievements are always and constantly under threat. On the one hand, biological needs, old traditions but especially the difficulties of living with rationality and personal responsibility all combine to challenge the new society; the passions of our lower nature are always liable to rise up and overthrow the controls instituted by self critical scientific rationality. On the other hand the open society may be inherently self-destructive because critical thought continually erodes those older “closed” traditions that sustain social institutions.

Democracy performs a vital function for both politics and epistemology. I tprovides a peaceful means for reform and change pf government, while ensuring the freedom of thought and speech necessary for intellectual progress. This process encourages a pluralism of ideas and groups, it is the necessary precondition for the “working out of political meaningn and aims”, and is vital for the processes of critical through and the goal of emancipation through knowledge.

Popper’s theory of democracy typically grows out of his criticism of other approaches to government, initially Plato’s than Marx’s. Our philosopher denies that the guiding principles of politics should be determined by answers given to the question “Who should rule?”, instead we should ask “How can we so organize political institutions that bad and incompetent rulers can be prevents from doing too much damage?” which is followed by an other essential question “How can we get rid of those rulers without bloodshed and violence?”.

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In responses, Popper argues that democracy should be founded upon a “theory of check and balances”: basically we are assuming that even the best rulers might fail, so this theory relies on institutional means for curbing their power. The major check is provided by periodic elections that enable people to “oust their government without using violent means”: this shows the difference between democracy and its opposite, tyranny which “consists if governments which the ruled can not get rid of except by way of a successful revolution”. He denies any true meaning or essence of democracy, but he asserts it doesn’t mean “the rule of people” or even that the majority should rule, if only because this is impossible in any practical way. Democracy relies upon the political methods of general elections and representative government and Popper considers that these are always open to improvement; so in such a system individuals are allowed both to criticize the majority’s decisions and, within the law, to revise them. Actually Popper provides little details on the practical aspects, like the methods of representation, size and nature of electorates, and length of terms of office. He does reject proportional representation because of its origins in dubious theories of sovereignty and also because of its propensity to produce unstable coalition governments; in Popper’s view, two party government is preferable if only because it allows for more serious internal self-criticism after elections defeats: his view of democracy is, in this sense, a relatively conventional elaboration of liberal pluralist principles.

But on their own these principles may not guarantee the survival of liberal democracy: issues of representation, size, nature of electorates and so on all have a bearing upon weather citizens would consider themselves to be member of a legitimate democracy. A pluralist system of checks and balances may be so restrictive as to prevent a duly elected government and business to manipulate “public opinion” there may be little pressure at all upon those in office in order to change their policies. Assuming that the mass of people can not govern,Popper’s theory of democracy may be reduced to a theory of competing elites; for this reason his’ procedural arguments lie within the tradition of realist and revisionist democratic theory that gives priority to competitive elites and argues for democracy as a method for choosing governments.

But Popper departs from realist democratic theory because he recognizes that control over government is not all there is to creating a democratic state and society; his solution, however, is not to encourage widespread political participation but to require that the state protect democracy in two ways.

First, since democracies must always be open to new ideas, protection must be given and assured to minorities, except to those who “violate law and especially those who incite others to the violent overthrow of the democracy”, so we must exclude just those violent changes that could put the democracy in dangerous.

Second, because Popper is concerned to avoid the misuse of political power and economic power, he exhortes democratic states to engage in social and economic reforms; he strongly affirms the need of institutions to be constructed in order to protect the economically weak against the economically strong. So he sees the necessity of some sort of economic interventionism as well as some social reforms, the necessity of reforms are essential ingredients for a democratic order: the democratic system should work step by step in order to safeguard freedom form exploitation. Although such strategies create greater possibilities for increased state power and bureaucracy, these may be diminished by strengthening democratic institutions and by following the principles of piecemeal social engineering. This kind of policy is not as restrictive as it is commonly thought, but it odes rule out the nationalization and socialization of the entire private industry of a country. A separate point in favor of piecemeal social engineering is thought to be its scientific character. Popper considers it methodologically superior to holisitc and revolutionary programmes, in part because social engineers accept the limitations of their knowledge. By reformulating key questions about democracy, Popper sidesteps some of the more usual difficulties of universalist democratic theory. By requiring state action to remedy certain kinds of social and economic problems, he offers more of a policy substance that the usual realist and proceduralist forms of democratic theory. His goal is to avoid or at least minimize the violent conflict that he sees inevitably arising from arguments over “the good society”. Whereas we may not be able to agree on abstract universal values, the shape of an ideal society or the ultimate good of people, we can generally reach agreement on concrete social and economic evils such as poverty and disease; Popper doesn’t develop any universal values but he doesn’t abandoned them.

I think a major advantage of Popper commitment to non-violence, public-criticism and freedom of speech is that allows us to retain a critical perspective upon all kinds of governments. His idea of minimal proceduralism and gradualism, for example, may accommodate democratic aspirations less developed or developing countries without subscribing to wholesale westernization and modernization. Popper’s substantive policy proposals reject the radicalism of laissez-faire economics and offer the social benefits of gradualism, stability and security. Their negative utilitarianism encourages governments to ameliorate the worst aspects of individualism and capitalism, and allows a legitimate role for state intervention in society and economy. Popper combines ethical proceduralism with a requirement for state-initiated reform, his theory advances somewhat beyond the usual forms of democratic elitism and revisionism.

Popper’s social and political thought comprises elements which may be designed as liberal, social democratic and conservative. He deeply respects individual freedom and emphasizes the power of ideas in promoting progress while critical rationalism lies primarily within the mainstream of the liberal tradition. Nevertheless his conception of human nature is a combination of liberal and conservative assumptions, which sets out both an optimistic view of human potential and a largely pessimistic account of human needs. Popper’s social vision, however, is a liberal rationalist one: an open society in which the values of freedom, reason, toleration and non-violence prevail; he suggests institutional guidelines for building and maintaining democracy, advocating policies such as piecemeal social engineering, oriented towards protecting individuals form the ravages of the market. But for a liberal philosopher, however, the guiding values of liberty, rationality, toleration and non-violence of the open society are relatively undeveloped.

Popper’s conservativism is most evident in his political realism and his uncritical attitude towards contemporary liberal democracies. Underlying his stress upon the need for creative and revolutionary thought there is the fear that this will bring social disorder. Hence, such intellectual processes need to be contained within firm traditions whose overthrow cannot be countenanced except to establish a democracy. I believe we might see his political project as an attempt to provide more suitable tradtions or controls upon human thought and action; but I still find an unavoidable conflict between his liberal rationalist values and his perception of the perverse and intractable nature of individuals even if his ethical individualism and cosmopolitism differentiate him form most conservatives.

Popper sees totalitarianism of all stripes as essentially tribal, as a “closed society”, a rebellion against the “strain of civilization”. He assaults it by using his philosophy of science (which greatly emphasizes “falsification”, i.e. the refutation of statements and theories) to criticize the doctrines of those whom Popper takes to be behind modern totalitarianism, namely Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and Marx. Brian Magee ably summarizes Popper’s reasons for defending the “Open Society”: “Because he regards living as first and foremost a process of problem-solving he wants societies which are conducive to problem-solving. And because problem-solving calls for the bold propounding of trial solutions which are then subjected to criticism and error elimination, he wants forms of society which permit of the untramelled assertion of different proposals, followed by criticism, followed by the genuine possibility of change in the light of criticism. Regardless of any moral considerations … he believes that a society organized on such lines will be more effective at solving its problems, and therefore more successful in achieving the aims of its members, than if it were organized on other lines.”

Such a society is what Popper takes to be social democracy, entailing the “problem-solving” of piecemeal social engineering. This social democracy may indeed have once inspired the intellectual elite of the West, seeking (as many were) alternatives to fascism and communism, but today it inspires hardly anyone. And for good reason, for what else is democratic social reconstruction but that postwar system of fine-tuning the economy, the reign of countless redistributive social programs designed by politicians and social scientists to meet those alleged “social needs” that a host of interest groups are pressing upon the political systems of the West as “non-negotiable demands”? Since the Second World War, most of the Western democracies have followed Popper’s advice about piecemeal social engineering and democratic social reform, and it has gotten them into a grand mess. Intervention has been piled upon intervention; regulations have been continually modified in unpredictable ways (Popper advocates such “revisions” in the light of experience); taxation has increased drastically to finance social welfare programs (as has inflation, with its resulting economic fluctuations); and the unhampered market economy, so forcefully defended by Popper’s close friend F. A. Hayek, has been “reformed” out of existence.

Interventionism, piecemeal or not, has worked its inevitable way, and has led to precisely those consequences that Mises, Hayek, Rothbard and others had predicted: economic stagnation and political conflict. Democratic institutions themselves are threatened by those whose vested interests are entwined with the State apparatus. Dime store tinkering, even with freedom of criticism and revision, is leading to the closed society that Popper so fears. There is indeed nothing new in this warning; it is the theme of both Ludwig von Mises’ Socialism and F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

In short, the Open Society is not enough. If the Open Society is equivalent to a society in which everything and anything is open to democratic revision – except the basic institutions that make democratic revision possible – then Popper is only focusing on one need of human beings (that a dubious collective need), not the broader need for liberty that is implied in the outline of his argument as stated by Magee. Popper makes a great deal of noise about “individualism”, but nevertheless only applies the structure of that argument to collective processes of hypothesis, testing (action) and revision in the light of experience; the argument would apply to individuals as well, since they are the sole constituents of “society”. By focusing on this collective democratic character of the Open Society, Popper ignores the more basic need for individual liberty in art, business, science, and all other areas as well.The arguments for democracy that Popper presents, then, are in principle identical to arguments for individual liberty. It is the principle of non-aggression, the first principle of liberty, that properly limits the domain of democracy. If Popper’s arguments for democracy (as opposed to his advocacy of democracy itself) are valid, then it is not the rigidity of a technology of social engineering that we should seek, but an unhampered market economy, where people can constantly act on their own judgment and can continually revise their plans in accordance with the new information brought by change. This brings us not to social democracy, but to the doctrine of libertarianism.

Far more important than the principle of democracy, then, even by Popper’s own arguments, is the principle of individual liberty. Liberty is paramount, democracy at best secondary: democracy is important only insofar as it is the servant of and means to the end of liberty. Thus, in following the logical implications of Popper’s views (which are not, after all, that original), we move from the open society to the “Free Society”, and find ourselves agreeing with Michael Polanyi’s claim, contra Popper, that the Free Society is not an Open Society, but a society committed to a very definite set of rules. In Popper’s Open Society, the principle of democracy is regarded as fixed, as not being open to revision. In the Free Society, it is the far more fundamental principle of individual liberty and non-aggression that is not open to revision (though its implications may be refined with growing knowledge). Popper’s reasoning is, by and large, correct, but it is individuals who must solve problems to survive, not “societies”, and therefore individuals who must be free to think and act to achieve values and to revise mistaken plans and impressions in the light of experience or more critical thought.

Why is it important to consider The Open Society and Its Enemies after all these years? Very simply, because these are the times when totalitarianism is on the rise, and Western democracies are in the midst of crises that are threatening the stability of their basic institutions, and perhaps even their very survival. In this battle against totalitarianism today’s right-wing social democrats – the neo-conservatives such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell – are once again raising the banner of social democracy against tyranny. But this is pointless, for such democracy combined with social engineering and statist “reforms” is inherently unstable and is unjust as well. No mere democratic machinery, no mere procedure, is enough to oppose fascism or communism, not in a world of those real social dynamics that are set in motion by interventionism. Only liberty can fully oppose closed societies, and only if liberty is seen as something that is not to be bargained away or abandoned through as series of insignificant piecemeal reforms. Liberty must be regarded as the ultimate political end, foremost among those political values held dear by reasonable men and women, the highest and most noble political form possible to human beings. I do not wish to leave the impression that The Open Society is worthless. It is indeed a heuristic work, tossing off suggestive arguments and insights on nearly every page, and the criticisms of Plato, Hegel and Marx are always pregnant ones.

Popper is a great and forceful advocate of reason, science and progess, and his passionate idealism shines forth continually from the pages of this work. But so too does nearly every moth-eaten philosophical cliche around, e.g., the attack on “certainty”, the fact/value dichotomy, and the Humean assault on induction. Moreover, Popper is unnerving in his treatment of capitalism. Opponents of the Open Society who see it as being too coercive are slighted by Popper’s astonishing smears of laissez faire, his continual granting of Marxist historical points against capitalism, and his cheerful parading before us of those “democratic reforms” that have all but obliterated the unhampered free market economy. Social democracy, the Open Society, has been tried and found wanting. The question that faces us now is simply whether those lovers of “experiment” and “flexibility” are experimental and flexible enough to advocate that liberty be given a chance. If it is not given that chance, there may be no turning back, and we may yet arrive in an era when we shall look back at the totalitarianism of the 1930s as a veritable golden age.

But in one sense, at least, Popper is right: the future is ours to shape. Liberty has never been fully tried. It is the task of readers of this journal to remedy that unfortunate situation; if we do not, no one else will.


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