Category Archive: The Open Society and Its Enemies

Routledge: 2002.

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 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]

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]

Against libertarianism

I believe that the injustice and inhumanity of the unrestrained ‘capitalist system’ described by Marx cannot be ques­tioned; but it can be interpreted in terms of what we called, in a previous chapter, the paradox of freedom. Freedom, we have seen, defeats itself, if it is unlimited. Unlimited freedom means that a strong man is free to bully one who is weak and to rob him of his freedom. This is why we demand that the state should limit freedom to a certain extent, so that everyone’s freedom is protected by law. Nobody should be at the mercy of others, but all should have a right to be protected by the state.

Now I believe that these considerations, originally meant to apply to the realm of brute-force, of physical intimidation, must be applied to the economic realm also. Even if the state protects its citizens from being bullied by physical violence (as it does, in principle, under the system of unrestrained capitalism), it may defeat our ends by its failure to protect them from the misuse of economic power. In such a state, the economically strong is still free to bully one who is economically weak, and to rob him of his freedom. Under these circumstances, unlimited economic freedom can be just as self-defeating as unlimited physical freedom, and economic power may be nearly as dangerous as physical violence; for those who possess a surplus of food can force those who are starving into a ‘freely’ accepted servitude without using violence. And assuming that the state limits its activities to the suppression of violence (and to the protection of property), a minority which is economically strong may in this way exploit the majority of those who are economically weak.

If this analysis is correct, then the nature of the remedy is clear. It must be a political remedy—a remedy similar to the one which we use against physical violence. We must construct social institutions, enforced by the power of the state, for the protection of the economically weak from the economically strong. The state must see to it that nobody need enter into an inequitable arrangement out of fear of starvation, or economic ruin.

This, of course, means that the principle of non-intervention, of an unrestrained economic system, has to be given up; if we wish freedom to be safeguarded, then we must demand that the policy of unlimited economic freedom be replaced by the planned economic intervention of the state. We must demand that unrestrained capitalism give way to an economic interventionism. And this is precisely what has happened. The economic system described and criticized by Marx has everywhere ceased to exist. It has been replaced, not by a system in which the state begins to lose its functions and consequently ‘shows signs of withering away’, but by various interventionist systems, in which the functions of the state in the economic realm are extended far beyond the protection of property and of free contracts’. [ch. 17, 383-4]

Democracy vs the rule of the majority

[T]here is also a kind of logical argument which can be used to show the inconsistency of any of the particular forms of the theory of sovereignty; more precisely, the logical argument can be given different but analogous forms to combat the theory that the wisest should rule, or else the theories that the best, or the law, or the majority, etc., should rule. One particular form of this logical argument is directed against a too naive version of liberalism, of democracy, and of the principle that the majority should rule; and it is somewhat similar to the well-known ‘paradox of freedom’ which has been used first, and with success, by Plato. In his criticism of democracy, and in his story of the rise of the tyrant, Plato raises implicitly the following question: What if it is the will of the people that they should not rule, but a tyrant instead? The free man, Plato suggests, may exercise his absolute freedom, first by defying the laws and ultimately by defying freedom itself and by clamouring for a tyrant. This is not just a far-fetched possibility; it has happened a number of times; and every time it has happened, it has put in a hopeless intellectual position all those democrats who adopt, as the ultimate basis of their political creed, the principle of the majority rule or a similar form of the principle of sovereignty. On the one hand, the principle they have adopted demands from them that they should oppose any but the majority rule, and therefore the new tyranny; on the other hand, the same principle demands from them that they should accept any decision reached by the majority, and thus the rule of the new tyrant. The inconsistency of their theory must, of course, paralyse their actions. Those of us democrats who demand the institutional control of the rulers by the ruled, and especially the right of dismissing the government by a majority vote, must therefore base these demands upon better grounds than a self-contradictory theory of sovereignty. [ch. 7, 134-5]

The right way is always determined

When I speak of the rigidity of tribalism I do not mean that no changes can occur in the tribal ways of life. I mean rather that the comparatively infrequent changes have the character of religious conversions or revulsions, or of the intro­duction of new magical taboos. They are not based upon a rational attempt to improve social conditions. Apart from such changes—which are rare—taboos rigidly regulate and dominate all aspects of life. They do not leave many loop-holes. There are few problems in this form of life, and nothing really equivalent to moral problems. I do not mean to say that a member of a tribe does not sometimes need much heroism and endurance in order to act in accordance with the taboos. What I mean is that he will rarely find himself in the position of doubting how he ought to act. The right way is always determined, though difficulties must be overcome in following it. It is determined by taboos, by magical tribal institutions which can never become objects of critical consideration. [ch. 10, 188-9]

Freedom: making decisions for which we are responsible

Nature consists of facts and of regularities, and is in itself neither moral nor immoral. It is we who impose our standards upon nature, and who in this way introduce morals into the natural world, in spite of the fact that we are part of this world. We are products of nature, but nature has made us together with our power of altering the world, of foreseeing and of planning for the future, and of making far-reaching decisions for which we are morally responsible. Yet respon­sibility, decisions, enter the world of nature only with us. [ch. 5, 67]

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