Philosophy, Politics

Karl Popper’s authoritarian social technologies

Karl Popper is known for his influential contributions to the philosophy of science and critical rationalism.  Unfortunately, his attempt to apply critical rationalism to political philosophy produced writings of a more impatient and dubious nature. For example, in 1960 Popper wrote:

..the empiricist’s questions ‘How do you know? What is the source of your assertion?’ are wrongly put. They are not formulated in an inexact or slovenly manner, but they are entirely misconceived; they are questions that beg for an authoritarian answer…They can be compared with that traditional question of political authority, ‘Who should rule’, which begs for an authoritarian answer such as ‘the best’, ‘or ‘the wisest’, or ‘the people’, or ‘the majority’…This political question is wrongly put and the answers which it elicits are paradoxical. It should be replaced by a completely different question such as ‘How can we organize our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers…cannot do too much damage?’ I believe that only by changing our question in this way can we hope to proceed towards a reasonable theory of political institutions.

Popper’s reformulated question simply takes for granted that we need a mechanism of collective choice  to revolve conflicts between people and produce public goods.  Not only that, as a social democrat he did not just restrict government to such a role but expected it to fight “evil” and “suffering:”

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… (in: The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1962)

As a political consequentialist, Popper proposed his idea of  “piecemeal social engineering”  to generate a “social technology” to improve the world we live in. As such, he places himself in a long tradition of activist philosophers who take a look at society, conclude that it can be “improved”, and advocate collective choice mechanisms to discover and implement such changes. Fortunately, Popper’s political views have been subjected to a rigorous critical dissection by the social philosopher Anthony de Jasay in his article The Twistable is not Testable: Reflections on the Political Thought of Karl Popper (reprinted in Against Politics).

Popper’s question about “organizing our political institutions” should be replaced with questions that do not assume that the issue of government has been settled. Such questions  may include ‘Can conflicts about scarce resources be resolved without resorting to non-unanimous decision making’ or ‘Can public goods be provided without coercion?’ One attempt to reconcile Popper’s anti-justificatory critical rationalism and anarchism is Jan Lester’s book Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Reconciled.