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]

What democracies?

Unter welche Kategorien der Vernunft, möchte ich fragen, fallen der Irakkrieg, die Börsenspekulationen in den USA und Europa oder Große Koalitionen in Deutschland und Österreich, die dem Wähler von demokratischen Parteien unter­geschoben werden, die sich vor der Wahl bis aufs Messer bekämpften? Ich möchte hier gar nicht behaupten, dass es einfache Lösungen für diese politischen Probleme gebe, sondern nur daran erinnern, dass Popper „die Anwendung der Vernunft auf die Fragen der Politik“ eingefordert hat. [251]

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]

The freedom to come up with different answers

Poppers Botschaft ist klar. „Wir können nicht wissen“, sagt er, „wir können nur mutmaßen.“ Da keine wissenschaftliche Theorie endgültig beweibar ist, kommt es darauf an, immer erneut und mit ganzer Kraft zu prüfen, ob akzeptierte Theo­rien falsch sind, irrig oder widerlegt. Um dies zu tun, müssen wir die Bedingungen rationaler, kritischer Auseinander­setzung aufrechterhalten, unter denen es möglich bleibt, verschiedener Auffassung zu sein. Was für unser Wissen gilt, gilt auch für unser Verhalten und unsere Politik. Da niemand alle Antworten kennt, müssen wir vor allem sicherstellen, daß es möglich bleibt, unterschiedliche Antworten zu geben. [13]

Scientifically planned politics

Das Wichtige am Entwurf einer mittelfristigen Perspektive innerhalb politischer Strukturen ist, daß er formell auf den legitimen Entscheidungsprozeß bezogen sein und zugleich von den Anliegen entfernt sein muß, die den Horizont der Entscheidungsträger begrenzen. Sie muß, mit anderen Worten, eine gesetzliche Grundlage haben, aber unabhängig sein in dem Sinn, daß die Amtszeit der Beteiligten länger ist als die von den Regierungen und Parlamenten. Um das zu erreichen, lassen sich verschiedene Wege denken. Einer ist ein Amt für technologische Bewertung, um einen irre­führenden, aber anerkannten Begriff zu verwenden: eine Behörde, in der Sozial- und Naturwissenschaftler regelmäßig die Politik der Regierung angesichts erklärter Ziele und bekannter Entwicklungen überprüfen. „Technologie“ bedeutet in diesem Zusammenhang die Übersetzung von Theorien in Praxis und die Bewertung der Praxis im Licht der Theorie. Möglicherweise könnte eine solche Einrichtung von der Erfahrung des deutschen Sachverständigenrates für die gesamtwirtschaftliche Entwicklung profitieren, dessen Jahresberichte einen erheblichen Einfluß auf die Wirtschafts­entwicklung des Landes haben. Ein gesetzlich verankerter Rat für mittelfristige Planung, der der Regierung jährlich Bericht erstattet, wäre eine Methode, um eine Mehrzahl von Erfahrungen zu verbinden. Auch auf andere Weise ließe sich wohl mit dem gleichen Problem fertigwerden: daß diejenigen, die sich vor der Öffentlichkeit für das verantworten müssen, was sie gestern getan haben und heute tun, nicht vergessen, daß es auch ein Morgen und Übermorgen geben wird. [110-11]

Pragmatisch zusammengekuschelt

Der neue Pragmatismus, der gegenwärtig so populär ist, das Bestehen auf dem Unmittelbaren, als sei dies ein Wert an sich, ist so blind, wie der Utopismus blendet. Ohne ein Bild der Zukunft läuft der Pragmatiker Gefahr, uns im Kreise herumzuführen – um am Ende noch zu behaupten, daß es nicht sein Fehler war, wenn wir nichts erreicht haben. Es ist sein Fehler. Eines der dringenden Erfordernisse der gegenwärtigen Politik ist die Ergänzung und Korrektur des Prag­matismus der Macher durch das Bewußtsein mittelfristiger Perspektiven. Jemand muß über den Rand der Untertasse hinausblicken, in der sich die meisten Politiker zusammengekuschelt haben, und ihnen sagen, was jenseits ihrer lokalen oder nationalen Wahlkreise, ihrer Wahlperiode, ihres notwendigerweise und zuweilen weniger notwendiger­weise begrenzten Horizonts geschieht. [108]

Die neue Freiheit

Die neue Freiheit läßt sich nur erringen, wenn jeder Bürger Zugang hat zu dem vielfältigen Universum der Lebens­chancen in einer komplexen Gesellschaft. Die neue Freiheit wird aber sogleich wieder preisgegeben, wenn solcher Zugang begrenzt bleibt auf belangloses Auswählen zwischen gleichartigen Dingen, zwischen Handball und Fußball oder Philologie und Mathematik. Es ist, mit anderen Worten, an sich nichts falsch an Ungleichheiten des Einkommens, des erworbenen Status in jedem Sinne. Gewiß verlangen wirksame Bürgerrechte die Schaffung eines Sicherheits­netzes, durch das niemand fallen kann, also eines gemeinsamen Grundstatus. Ebenso gewiß verlangen wirksame Bürgerrechte die Beschränkung des Status jener wenigen, deren oft ererbte Vermögen sie befähigen, die Bürgerrechte anderer zu schmälern. Aber zwischen dem gemeinsamen Fußboden garantierter Rechte und der gemeinsamen Decke erlaubter Privatmacht bleibt ein breiter Raum. [59]

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]