Tag Archive: society

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]

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]

Every policy is a solution to a problem

Every reputable political or social policy is a proposed solution to a problem; and we always need to be clear about the problem before we can propose the solution. We must always be able to ask of a policy: “To what problem is this the solution?” If there is no problem to which a given policy is a solution then the policy is superfluous, and therefore harm­ful, if only because it consumes resources to no purpose. … The whole notion that you can start with policies is deeply erroneous, and very damaging in practice. [151]

The utmost importance of characterising problems

First of all, we are required to formulate our problems with care. That means, among other things, not taking for granted what they are. We have to ask ourselves what precisely are, say, the main problems that face us in the field of primary education? What, precisely, are the main problems that face us with the treatment of teenage offenders against the law? What, precisely, are the main problems that face us in our relations with the United States? And so on and so forth.

There will, legitimately, be differences of opinion about what the problems are, before one has even begun to think in terms of solutions, and these differences should be thoroughly debated. It is of the utmost importance to get diagnosis right before one proceeds to cure, otherwise the proposed cure will be the wrong one, not effective, quite possibly harmful. So a lot of time and trouble and thought and work needs to go into the identification and formulation of prob­lems before one attempts to move forward from that position. …

[P]roposed solutions need to be critically examined and debated, with the explicit object of bringing their faults to light before they are turned into reality. [149]

Criticism as respect

The Open Society – and by this I mean both the society and the book – is opposed not just to this or that authority, and not just to Plato, Hegel, and Marx. It is opposed to the very idea that there can be anything like cognitive authorities whom we can rely upon or the truth.

So if we are going to understand open society as scientific or rational society, then we must also understand science and rationality in Popper’s terms. We must think of science not as an institutionalized hierarchy of experts, but as a never-ending process of problem-solving in which we propose tentative solutions to our problems and then try to elim­inate the errors in our proposals. We must think of rationality not in terms of justification, but in terms of criticism. And we must think of criticism not as an offense, or as a show of contempt or disdain, but as one of the greatest signs of respetct that one mind can show to another. [47]

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]

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]

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]

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