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The royal road to tyranny and revolution

Ideas have consequences, and the ‘who should rule?’ approach to political philosophy is not just a mistake of aca­demic analysis: it has been part of practically every bad political doctrine in history. If the political process is seen as an engine for putting the right rulers in power, then it justifies violence, for until that right system is in place, no ruler is legitimate; and once it is in place, and its designated rulers are ruling, opposition to them is opposition to rightness. The problem then becomes how to thwart anyone who is working against the rulers or their policies. By the same logic, everyone who thinks that existing rulers or policies are bad must infer that the ‘who should rule?’ question has been answered wrongly, and therefore that the power of the rulers is not legitimate, and that opposing it is legitimate, by force if necessary. Thus the very question ‘Who should rule?’ begs for violent, authoritarian answers, and has often received them. It leads those in power into tyranny, and to the entrenchment of bad rulers and bad policies; it leads their opponents to violent destructiveness and revolution.

Advocates of violence usually have in mind that none of those things need happen if only everyone agreed on who should rule. But that means agreeing about what is right, and, given agreement on that, rulers would then have nothing to do. And, in any case, such agreement is neither possible nor desirable: people are different, and have unique ideas; problems are inevitable, and progress consists of solving them.

Popper therefore applies his basic ‘how can we detect and eliminate errors?’ to political philosophy in the form how can we rid ourselves of bad governments without violence? Just as science seeks explanations that are experimentally testable, so a rational political system makes it as easy as possible to detect, and persuade others, that a leader or policy is bad, and to remove them without violence if they are. [210-11]

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