Category Archive: .Popper, Karl

Bold piecemeal engineering

I do not suggest that piecemeal engineering cannot be bold, or that it must be confined to ‘smallish’ problems. But I think that the degree of complication which we can tackle is governed by the degree of our experience gained in con­scious and systematic piecemeal engineering. [ch. 9, n3]

The scope of piecemeal engineering

The difference between Utopian and piecemeal engineering turns out, in practice, to be a difference not so much in scale and scope as in caution and in preparedness for unavoidable surprises. … [W]hile the piecemeal engineer can attack his problem with an open mind as to the scope of the reform, the holist cannot do this; for he has decided before­hand that a complete reconstruction is possible and necessary. [63]

Scientific politics

According to this piecemeal view, there is no clearly marked division between the pre-scientific and the scientific experimental approaches, even though the more and more conscious application of scientific, that is to say, of critical methods, is of great importance. Both approaches may be described, fundamentally, as utilizing the method of trial and error. We try; that is, we do not merely register an observation, but make active attempts to solve some more or less practical and definite problems. And we make progress if, and only if, we are prepared to learn from our mistakes: to recognize our errors and to utilize them critically instead of persevering in them dogmatically. Though this analysis may sound trivial, it describes, I believe, the method of all empirical sciences. This method assumes a more and more scien­tific character the more freely and consciously we are prepared to risk a trial, and the more critically we watch for the mistakes we always make. …

For the piecemeal technologist or engineer these views mean that, if he wishes to introduce scientific methods into the study of society and into politics, what is needed most is the adoption of a critical attitude, and the realization that not only trial but also error is necessary. And he must learn not only to expect mistakes, but consciously to search for them. We all have an unscientific weakness for being always in the right, and this weakness seems to be particularly common among professional and amateur politicians. But the only way to apply something like scientific method in politics is to proceed on the assumption that there can be no political move which has no drawbacks, no undesirable consequen­ces. To look out for these mistakes, to find them, to bring them into the open, to analyse them, and to learn from them, this is what a scientific politician as well as a political scientist must do. Scientific method in politics means that the great art of convincing ourselves that we have not made any mistakes, of ignoring them, of hiding them, and of blaming others for them, is replaced by the greater art of accepting the responsibility for them, of trying to learn from them, and of applying this knowledge so that we may avoid them in future. [80-1]

The idealism of piecemeal engineering

Utopian rationalism is a self-defeating rationalism. However benevolent its ends, it does not bring happiness, but only the familiar misery of being condemned to live under a tyrannical government.

It is important to understand this criticism fully. I do not criticize political ideals as such, nor do I assert that a political ideal can never be realized. This would not be a valid criticism. Many ideals have been realized which were once dogmatically declared to be unrealizable, for example, the establishment of workable and untyrannical institutions for securing civil peace, that is, for the suppression of crime within the state. Again, I see no reason why an international judicature and an international police force should be less successful in suppressing international crime, that is, na­tional aggression and the ill-treatment of minorities or perhaps majorities. I do not object to the attempt to realize such ideals.

Wherein, then, lies the difference between those benevolent Utopian plans to which I object because they lead to vio­lence, and those other important and far-reaching political reforms which I am inclined to recommend?

If I were to give a simple formula or recipe for distinguishing between what I consider to be admissible plans for social reform and inadmissible Utopian blueprints, I might say:

Work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realization of abstract goods. Do not aim at establishing happiness by political means. Rather aim at the elimination of concrete miseries. Or, in more practical terms: fight for the elimination of poverty by direct means—for example, by making sure that everybody has a minimum income. Or fight against epidemics and disease by erecting hospitals and schools of medicine. Fight illiteracy as you fight criminality. But do all this by direct means. Choose what you consider the most urgent evil of the society in which you live, and try patiently to convince people that we can get rid of it.

But do not try to realize these aims indirectly by designing and working for a distant ideal of a society which is wholly good. However deeply you may feel indebted to its inspiring vision, do not think that you are obliged to work for its reali­zation, or that it is your mission to open the eyes of others to its beauty. Do not allow your dreams of a beautiful world to lure you away from the claims of men who suffer here and now. Our fellow men have a claim to our help; no generation must be sacrificed for the sake of future generations, for the sake of an ideal of happiness that may never be realized. In brief, it is my thesis that human misery is the most urgent problem of a rational public policy and that happiness is not such a problem. The attainment of happiness should be left to our private endeavours.[484-5]

The invention of enemies

…modern totalitarianism appears to have imperialist tendencies. But this imperialism has no element of a tolerant uni­versalism, and the world-wide ambitions of the modern totalitarians are imposed upon them, as it were, against their will. Two factors are responsible for this. The first is the general tendency of all tyrannies to justify their existence by saving the state (or the people) from its enemies—a tendency which must lead, whenever the old enemies have been successfully subdued, to the creation or invention of new ones. [ch. 10, 199]

On piecemeal reform vs revolution

And it is a fact that my social theory (which favours gradual and piecemeal reform, reform controlled by a critical com­parison between expected and achieved results) contrasts with my theory of method, which happens to be a theory of scientific and intellectual revolutions. [68]

What democratic institutions may be expected to do

Seen in this light, the theory of democracy is not based upon the principle that the majority should rule; rather, the various equalitarian methods of democratic control, such as general elections and representative government, are to be considered as no more than well-tried and, in the presence of a widespread traditional distrust of tyranny, reason­ably effective institutional safeguards against tyranny, always open to improvement, and even providing methods for their own improvement.

He who accepts the principle of democracy in this sense is therefore not bound to look upon the result of a democratic vote as an authoritative expression of what is right. Although he will accept a decision of the majority, for the sake of making the democratic institutions work, he will feel free to combat it by democratic means, and to work for its revision. …

Institutions are like fortresses. They must we well designed and manned.

This distinction between the personal and the institutional element in a social situation is a point which is often missed by the critics of democracy. Most of them are dissatisfied with democratic institutions because they find that these do not necessarily prevent a state or a policy from falling short of some moral standards or of some political demands which may be urgent as well as admirable. But these critics misdirect their attacks; they do not understand what democratic institutions may be expected to do, and what the alternative to democratic institutions would be. Democracy (using this label in the sense suggested above) provides the institutional framework for the reform of polit­ical institutions. It makes possible the reform of institutions without using violence, and thereby the use of reason in the designing of new insti­tutions and the adjusting of old ones. It cannot provide reason. The question of the intellectual and moral standard of its citizens is to a large degree a personal problem. (The idea that this problem can be tackled, in turn, by an institutional eugenic and educational control is, I believe, mistaken; some reasons for my belief will be given below.) It is quite wrong to blame democracy for the political shortcomings of a democratic state. We should rather blame ourselves, that is to say, the citizens of the democratic state. In a non-democratic state, the only way to achieve reasonable reforms is by the violent overthrow of the government, and the introduction of a democratic framework. Those who criticize demo­cracy on any ‘moral’ grounds fail to distinguish between personal and institutional problems. It rests with us to improve matters. The democratic institutions cannot improve themselves. The problem of improving them is always a problem for persons rather than for institutions. But if we want improvements, we must make clear which institutions we want to improve. [ch. 7, 137-9]

The duties of a free press in an open society

Laws to safeguard democracy are still in a rather rudimentary state of development. Very much could and should be done. The freedom of the press, for instance, is demanded because of the aim that the public should be given correct information; but viewed from this standpoint, it is a very insufficient institutional guarantee that this aim will be achieved. What good newspapers usually do at present on their own initiative, namely, giving the public all important information available, might be established as their duty, either by carefully framed laws, or by the establishment of a moral code sanctioned by public opinion. Matters such as, for instance, the Zinovief letter, could be perhaps controlled by a law which makes it possible to nullify elections won by improper means, and which makes a publisher who neglects his duty to ascertain as well as possible the truth of published information liable for the damage done; in this case, for the expenses of a fresh election. I cannot go into details here, but it is my firm conviction that we could easily overcome the technological difficulties which may stand in the way of achieving such ends as the conduct of election campaigns largely by appeal to reason instead of passion. I do not see why we should not, for instance, standardize the size, type, etc., of the electioneering pamphlets, and eliminate placards. (This need not endanger freedom, just as reasonable limitations imposed upon those who plead before a court of justice protect freedom rather than endanger it.) The present methods of propaganda are an insult to the public as well as to the candidate. Propaganda of the kind which may be good enough for selling soap should not be used in matters of such consequence. [ch. 17, n27]

The only legitimate aim of violent revolution

I am not in all cases and under all circumstances against a violent revolution. I believe with some medieval and Renais­sance Christian thinkers who taught the admissibility of tyrannicide that there may indeed, under a tyranny, be no other possibility, and that a violent revolution may be justified. But I also believe that any such revolution should have as its only aim the establishment of a democracy; and by a democracy I do not mean something as vague as ‘the rule of the people’ or ‘the rule of the majority’, but a set of institutions (among them especially general elections, i.e. the right of the people to dismiss their government) which permit public control of the rulers and their dismissal by the ruled, and which make it possible for the ruled to obtain reforms without using violence, even against the will of the rulers. In other words, the use of violence is justified only under a tyranny which makes reforms without violence impossible, and it should have only one aim, that is, to bring about a state of affairs which makes reforms without violence possible.

I do not believe that we should ever attempt to achieve more than that by violent means. For I believe that such an attempt would involve the risk of destroying all prospects of reasonable reform. The prolonged use of violence may lead in the end to the loss of freedom, since it is liable to bring about not a dispassionate rule of reason, but the rule of the strong man. A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny as it is likely to achieve its real aims.

There is only one further use of violence in political quarrels which I should consider justified. I mean the resistance, once democracy has been attained, to any attack (whether from within or without the state) against the democratic con­stitution and the use of democratic methods. Any such attack, especially if it comes from the government in power, or if it is tolerated by it, should be resisted by all loyal citizens, even to the use of violence. In fact, the working of democracy rests largely upon the understanding that a government which attempts to misuse its powers and to establish itself as a tyranny (or which tolerates the establishment of a tyranny by anybody else) outlaws itself, and that the citizens have not only a right but also a duty to consider the action of such a government as a crime, and its members as a dangerous gang of criminals. But I hold that such violent resistance to attempts to overthrow democracy should be unambiguously defensive. No shadow of doubt must be left that the only aim of the resistance is to save democracy. [ch. 19, 414-5]

The theory of unchecked sovereignty

It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy. It is indeed analogous to the confusion he created in the field of moral philosophy by his identification, discussed in the last chapter, of collectivism and altruism. It is clear that once the question ‘Who should rule?’ is asked, it is hard to avoid some such reply as ‘the best’ or ‘the wisest’ or ‘the born ruler’ or ‘he who masters the art of ruling’ (or, perhaps, ‘The General Will’ or ‘The Master Race’ or ‘The Industrial Workers’ or ‘The People’). But such a reply, convincing as it may sound—for who would advocate the rule of ‘the worst’ or ‘the greatest fool’ or ‘the born slave’?—is, as I shall try to show, quite useless.

First of all, such a reply is liable to persuade us that some fundamental problem of political theory has been solved. But if we approach political theory from a different angle, then we find that far from solving any fundamental problems, we have merely skipped over them, by assuming that the question ‘Who should rule?’ is fundamental. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’ (we need not worry about the precise meaning of these terms), and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be pre­vented from doing too much damage?

Those who believe that the older question is fundamental, tacitly assume that political power is ‘essentially’ unchecked. They assume that someone has the power—either an individual or a collective body, such as a class. And they assume that he who has the power can, very nearly, do what he wills, and especially that he can strengthen his power, and thereby approximate it further to an unlimited or unchecked power. They assume that political power is, essentially, sovereign. If this assumption is made, then, indeed, the question ‘Who is to be the sovereign?’ is the only important question left. [ch. 7, 132-3]

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