Tag Archive: democracy

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]

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]

Falsifying bundles of political goods

[Democracy] has the role of enabling us to change our political regime by means of elections, rather than by violence. Tis seems to me of the greatest importance; but it is also miportant that we see how limited it is in its consequences. Some control will be exercised over politicians by such means, assuming that the wish to continue in office. But it is a very blunt weapon, considering the way in which we can exercise preferences only for bundles of political goods. Fur­ther, it is also ripe for manipulation – by politicians who find ways to bribe us with money taken from our own pockets, and by their advertising agents, who, as in the United States, have found was to present political issues on television through the use of images in ways which make rational discussion almost impossible. [121]

Churchill on Brexit

Democracy…does not mean, “We have got our majority, never mind how, and we have our lease of office for five years, so what are you going to do about it?” That is not democracy, that is only small party patter …

The object of the Parliament Act, and the spirit of that Act, were to give effect, not to spasmodic emotions of the electorate, but to the settled, persistent will of the people. What they wanted to do they could do, and what they did not want to do they could stop. All this idea of a handful of men getting hold of the State machine, having the right to make the people do what suits their party and personal interests or doctrines, is completely contrary to every conception of surviving Western democracy. “Some reverence for the laws ourselves have made,” “Some patient force to change them when we will.” We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of super men and super-planners, such as we see before us, “playing the angel,” as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.

The continuing relevance of the Open Society

Vielleicht ist an diesen wenigen und sehr verkürzten wie pointierten Beispielen etwas deutlich geworden, dass Karl Popper in seiner Offenen Gesellschaft zeitlose Vorschläge für politische Reformen in Demokratien gemacht hat, die weiterhin große Aktualität haben. Die endgültige Zähmung der dunklen ökonomischen Dämonen, die Marx durch eine „soziale Revolution“ erreichen zu können glaubte, ist nach Popper nur in einer Demokratie möglich. Doch zur Erlan­gung dieser Erkenntnis müssen wir nach seiner Meinung einsehen, „dass die Kontrolle der physischen Macht und der physischen Ausbeutung das zentrale politische Problem ist und bleibt“. [258-9]

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]

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]

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