Tag Archive: politics

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]

Being confronted with personal decisions

In what follows, the magical or tribal or collectivist society will also be called the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society. [ch. 10, 190]

Freedom: Liberalism vs Libertarianism

Although the political theory which I call protectionism is not connected with any of these tendencies, and although it is fundamentally a liberal theory, I think that the name may be used to indicate that, though liberal, it has nothing to do with the policy of strict non-intervention (often, but not quite correctly, called ‘laissez faire’). Liberalism and state-interference are not opposed to each other. On the contrary, any kind of freedom is clearly impossible unless it is guaranteed by the state. [ch. 6, 121]

Decisions cannot be derived from facts

It is important for the understanding of this attitude to realize that these decisions can never be derived from facts (or from statements of facts), although they pertain to facts. The decision, for instance, to oppose slavery does not depend upon the fact that all men are born free and equal, and that no man is born in chains. For even if all were born free, some men might perhaps try to put others in chains, and they may even believe that they ought to put them in chains. And conversely, even if men were born in chains, many of us might demand the removal of these chains. Or to put this matter more precisely, if we consider a fact as alterable—such as the fact that many people are suffering from dis­eases—then we can always adopt a number of different attitudes towards this fact: more especially, we can decide to make an attempt to alter it; or we can decide to resist any such attempt; or we can decide not to take action at all.

All moral decisions pertain in this way to some fact or other, especially to some fact of social life, and all (alterable) facts of social life can give rise to many different decisions. Which shows that the decisions can never be derivable from these facts, or from a description of these facts. [ch. 5, 67]

To remain human

Once we begin to rely upon our reason, and to use our powers of criticism, once we feel the call of personal responsi­bilities, and with it, the responsibility of helping to advance knowledge, we cannot return to a state of implicit submission to tribal magic. For those who have eaten of the tree of knowledge, paradise is lost. The more we try to return to the heroic age of tribalism, the more surely do we arrive at the Inquisition, at the Secret Police, and at a romanticized gangsterism. Beginning with the suppression of reason and truth, we must end with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human. There is no return to a harmonious state of nature. If we turn back, then we must go the whole way—we must return to the beasts.

It is an issue which we must face squarely, hard though it may be for us to do so. If we dream of a return to our child­hood, if we are tempted to rely on others and so be happy, if we shrink from the task of carrying our cross, the cross of humaneness, of reason, of responsibility, if we lose courage and flinch from the strain, then we must try to fortify our­selves with a clear understanding of the simple decision before us. We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom. [ch. 10, 218]

Piecemeal social experiments

Such arguments in favour of Utopian engineering exhibit a prejudice which is as widely held as it is untenable, namely, the prejudice that social experiments must be on a ‘large scale’, that they must involve the whole of society if they are to be carried out under realistic conditions. But piecemeal social experiments can be carried out under realistic con­ditions, in the midst of society, in spite of being on a ‘small scale’, that is to say, without revolutionizing the whole of society. In fact, we are making such experiments all the time. The introduction of a new kind of life-insurance, of a new kind of taxation, of a new penal reform, are all social experiments which have their repercussions through the whole of society without remodelling society as a whole. Even a man who opens a new shop, or who reserves a ticket for the theatre, is carrying out a kind of social experiment on a small scale; and all our knowledge of social conditions is based on experience gained by making experiments of this kind. … But the kind of experiment from which we can learn most is the alteration of one social institution at a time. For only in this way can we learn how to fit institutions into the framework of other institutions, and how to adjust them so that they work according to our intentions. And only in this way can we make mistakes, and learn from our mistakes, without risking repercussions of a gravity that must endanger the will to future reforms. … But the piecemeal method permits repeated experiments and continuous readjustments. In fact, it might lead to the happy situation where politicians begin to look out for their own mistakes instead of trying to explain them away and to prove that they have always been right. This—and not Utopian planning or historical prophecy—would mean the introduction of scientific method into politics, since the whole secret of scientific method is a readiness to learn from mistakes. [ch. 9, 176-7]

The ethics of solving society’s problems

I wish to outline another approach to social engineering, namely, that of piecemeal engineering. It is an approach which I think to be methodologically sound. The politician who adopts this method may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. They have a claim to be given all possible help, if they suffer. The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of search­ing for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good. …

In favour of his method, the piecemeal engineer can claim that a systematic fight against suffering and injustice and war is more likely to be supported by the approval and agreement of a great number of people than the fight for the establishment of some ideal. The existence of social evils, that is to say, of social conditions under which many men are suffering, can be comparatively well established. Those who suffer can judge for themselves, and the others can hardly deny that they would not like to change places. It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it be practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance, or arbitration courts, or anti-depression budgeting, or educational reform. If they go wrong, the damage isnot very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial. But if it is easier to reach a reasonable agreement about existing evils and the means of combating them than it is about an ideal good and the means of its realization, then there is also more hope that by using the piecemeal method we may get over the very greatest prac­tical difficulty of all reasonable political reform, namely, the use of reason, instead of passion and violence, in executing the programme. There will be a possibility of reaching a reasonable compromise and therefore of achieving the im­provement by democratic methods. [ch. 9, 171-3]

A state’s liberal responsibilities

I certainly believe that it is the responsibility of the state to see that its citizens are given an education enabling them to participate in the life of the community, and to make use of any opportunity to develop their special interests and gifts; and the state should certainly also see (as Grossman rightly stresses) that the lack of ‘the individual’s capacity to pay’ should not debar him from higher studies. This, I believe, belongs to the state’s protective functions. To say, however, that ‘the future of the state depends on the younger generation, and that it is therefore madness to allow the minds of children to be moulded by individual taste’, appears to me to open wide the door to totalitarianism. State interest must not be lightly invoked to defend measures which may endanger the most precious of all forms of freedom, namely, intellectual freedom. And although I do not advocate ‘laissez faire with regard to teachers and schoolmasters’, I believe that this policy is infinitely superior to an authoritative policy that gives officers of the state full powers to mould minds, and to control the teaching of science, thereby backing the dubious authority of the expert by that of the state, ruining science by the customary practice of teaching it as an authoritative doctrine, and destroying the scientific spirit of inquiry—the spirit of the search for truth, as opposed to the belief in its possession. [ch. 7, 143]

The aim of society

[W]e should not try to answer the essentialist question: What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning? Nor should we try to answer the historicist question: How did the state originate, and what is the origin of political ob­ligation? We should rather put our question in this way: What do we demand from a state? What do we propose to consider as the legitimate aim of state activity? And in order to find out what our fundamental political demands are, we may ask: Why do we prefer living in a well-ordered state to living without a state, i.e. in anarchy? This way of asking our question is a rational one. It is a question which a technologist must try to answer before he can proceed to the construction or reconstruction of any political institution. For only if he knows what he wants can he decide whether a certain institution is or is not well adapted to its function. [ch. 6, 119-20]

The subversiveness of freedom

The enemies of freedom have always charged its defenders with subversion. And nearly always they have succeeded in persuading the guileless and well-meaning. [ch. 6, 97-8]

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