Category Archive: .Magee, Bryan

Every policy is a solution to a problem

Every reputable political or social policy is a proposed solution to a problem; and we always need to be clear about the problem before we can propose the solution. We must always be able to ask of a policy: “To what problem is this the solution?” If there is no problem to which a given policy is a solution then the policy is superfluous, and therefore harm­ful, if only because it consumes resources to no purpose. … The whole notion that you can start with policies is deeply erroneous, and very damaging in practice. [151]

The utmost importance of characterising problems

First of all, we are required to formulate our problems with care. That means, among other things, not taking for granted what they are. We have to ask ourselves what precisely are, say, the main problems that face us in the field of primary education? What, precisely, are the main problems that face us with the treatment of teenage offenders against the law? What, precisely, are the main problems that face us in our relations with the United States? And so on and so forth.

There will, legitimately, be differences of opinion about what the problems are, before one has even begun to think in terms of solutions, and these differences should be thoroughly debated. It is of the utmost importance to get diagnosis right before one proceeds to cure, otherwise the proposed cure will be the wrong one, not effective, quite possibly harmful. So a lot of time and trouble and thought and work needs to go into the identification and formulation of prob­lems before one attempts to move forward from that position. …

[P]roposed solutions need to be critically examined and debated, with the explicit object of bringing their faults to light before they are turned into reality. [149]

The Open Society’s radical consequences

I am a democratic socialist and I believe that the young Popper worked out, as no one else has ever done, what the philosophical foundations of democratic socialism should be. And like him I would like to see these ideas replace the garbled mixture of Marxism and liberal-minded opportunism which passes for politcal theory on the demoracric left: in 1962 I published a book advocating this in the context of British Labour Party politics called The New Radicalism. In short, while making it clear that Popper is no longer a socialist, I want to claim his ideas for the democratic socialism in which he was so deeply enmeshed when he began to produce them, and in response to whose needs they were produced. This is where I believe their real significance is, and where their future lies. My longest-running argument with the older Popper is about what in my contention is his failure to accept, in matters of practical politics, the radical consequences of his own ideas.

The guiding principle for public policy put forward in The Open Society is: ‘Minimize avoidable suffering’. Character­istically, this has the immediate effect of drawing attention to problems. [84]

The only genuinely scientific political philosophy

If Popper is right about science then his is also the only genuinely scientific political philosophy; and also, most im­portantly, the hostility to science and the revolt against reason, both of which are so prominently expressed in today’s world, are directed at false conceptions of science and reason. [101]

Strengthening your opponent’s case

Throughout the history of advocacy and controversy the approach even of polemicists of genius, like Voltaire, has been to seek out and attack the weak points in an opponent’s case. This has a severe disadvantage. Every case has weaker as well as stronger parts, and its appeal lies, obviously, in the latter; so to attack the former may embarrass its adherents but not undermine the considerations on which their adherence largely rests. This is one of the reasons why people so rarely change their views after losing an argument. More often such a reverse leads eventually to a strengthening of their position, in that it leads them to abandon or improve the weakest parts of their case. It often happens that the lon­ger two intelligent people go on arguing the better each side’s case becomes, for each is being all the time improved as a result of criticism. The Popperian analysis of this is self-evident. What Popper aims to do, and at his best does do, is to seek out and attack an opponent’s case at its strongest. Indeed, before attacking it he tries to strengthen it still further. He sees if any of its weaknesses can be removed and any of its formulations improved on, gives it the benefit of every doubt, passes over any obvious loopholes; and then, having got it into the best-argued form he can, attacks it at its most powerful and appealing. This method, the most intellectually serious possible, is thrilling; and its results, when success­ful, are devastating. For no perceptible version of the defeated case is reconstructable in the light of the criticism, every known resource and reserve of substance being already present in the demolished version. [91-2]