Category Archive: .Popper, Karl

A whiff of Pangloss

Democracies have serious drawbacks. They certainly are not better than they ought to be. But corruption can occur under any kind of government. And I think that every serious student of history will agree, upon consideration, that our Western democracies are not only the most prosperous societies in history – that is important, but not so very important – but the freest, the most tolerant, and the least repressive large societies of which we have historical knowledge.

I have said this before, of course. It would be almost criminal not to say it if one believes it. One must fight those who make so many young people unhappy by telling them that we live in a terrible world, in a kind of capitalist hell. The truth is that we live in a wonderful world, in a beautiful world, and in an astonishingly free and open society. Of course it is fashionable, it is expected, and it is almost demanded from a Western intellectual to say the opposite, to lament loudly about the world we live in, about our social ills, about the inherent injustice of our society, and especially about the alleged terrible inequalities, and the impending day of reckoning.

I do not think that any of this is true. It is true that there are a people who are very rich. But what does it matter to me or to you? It is most certainly not true that anybody suffers because a few are very rich, not to mention that quite a few of the few who are rich spend much of their money on such things as founding universities and lectureships and on scholarships and cancer research.

The truth is that Western democracies are the only societies in which there is much freedom, much welfare, and much equality before the law. Of course, our society is very far from perfect. There is much misuse of drugs, of tobacco, and of alcohol. [335]

A party in the interest of all

And so it becomes clear that the political aims of us all must be the containment of power rather than its attainment; the control of and resistance to power rather its use for some ideological purpose. My very simple and hopeful proposal is this: At least one of the major politcal parties in a state should declare its interest in trying to surmount the dominance of ideologies, and its readiness to try to replace them by a straightforward programme of serving the most urgent needs of all. [390]

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]

Older posts «