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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1965227
POPPER AND DEMOCRATIC THEORY
Popper's Ardent Advocacy of Democracy
There is no question that Karl Popper is an ardent advocate of democracy, not only on ethical grounds, but also on grounds of effectiveness.
Democracy as the only ethically-defensible regime
Democracy is, for Popper, the only ethically defensible kind of regime. In his view, the state exists for its individual citizens. Moreover, according to the "humanitarian theory of justice," which he endorses, its principal purpose should be to protect their freedom. 1 The humanitarian theory recognizes no 'natural' privileges. "[B]irth, family connection, or wealth must not influence those who administer the law." 2 It also affirms that the laws must guarantee equal justice to all alike in their private disputes. This means that justice pertains to individual persons. 3 If justice is understood in this way, it is free and equal individuals who must bear the costs and benefits of citizenship and of any state action or policy. By "freedom," Popper does not mean a policy of strict non-interventionism, or "laissez-faire," on the part of the state, since he recognizes that individuals may not be able to defend their freedom if, for example, they have not had the necessary education, or do not possess the economic means. The Open Society and Its Enemies I: The Spell of Plato (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 94, 111-113.
2 3 1
Ibid., pp. 94-95. Ibid., pp. 94, 101-102. 1
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1965227
For Popper, democracy is, by definition, that type of government by which the rulers can be dismissed by the ruled. Tyranny is the type of government in which the ruled cannot get rid of their rulers without bloodshed. 4 Popper's main political proposal is to avoid and resist tyranny. Tyranny is evil since it violates the humanitarian theory of justice. Democracy is good since it allows those affected by injustice the opportunity to remove the rulers who perpetrate it. Popper's view of democracy is radical and uncompromising. It leaves the decision when to dismiss the rulers absolutely and categorically in the hands of the ruled. "A consistent democratic constitution," Popper writes, "should exclude only one type of change in the legal system, namely a change which would endanger its democratic character." 5 He stresses the importance of building institutions to protect against bad rulers. Unlike many who have reflected on problems of democracy, the Framers of the American Constitution, for example, Popper does not show much concern about the possibility that the people might make bad decisions. He does not even shy away from the possibility that the people may democratically choose tyranny. Such a choice would not, in his view, discredit democracy. It would only show that there are no foolproof human institutions. 6 Since Popper understands freedom individualistically, 7 it
Ibid., p. 124.
The Open Society and Its Enemies II: The High Tide of Prophesy: Hegel and Marx (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966), p.161.
Popper, Open Society: I, p.125. Ibid., pp.111-112. 2
" These minimal restrictions are the only ones he stipulates. 9 This is not true of Popper. His arguments for this point of view are similar to his explanation of the efficacy of scientific method. John Dunn.. for example. 8 Those troubled by the standard arguments against democracy will find Popper uncompromising. Nor. Open Society II. but also as the most efficacious kind of regime. esp. in Popper's view. is there anything in Popper's political writings that would justify denying any citizen. Growth of knowledge in science. from infringing upon the rights of minorities). I believe. Scientific knowledge grows through a He does state that majorities should be prevented from ruling tyrannically (i. view Socrates's execution by a democratic polis or Hitler's coming to power in a democracy as arguments against democracy.e. for example. 1979). moreover.is hard to see how he could place restraints on the freedom of individual citizens to decide when and for what reasons it is time to dismiss the rulers. They are. consistent with his individualistic premises. no matter how lowly and ignorant. not only as a means to justice. pp. only to qualify their commitment on practical grounds. an equal voice in determining whether the rulers should stay in power or go. He does not. they only show that there are no foolproof institutions. and does insist that the men in power "safeguard those institutions which secure to the minority the possibility of working for peaceful change. however. See. Again. is not due to obedience to authorities or adherence to established routines. Democracy as the most efficacious regime Some people defend democracy on ethical grounds. pp. 3 9 8 . 3-10. who defends democracy. Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.160-161.
rather. In science. there is nothing wrong with being wrong. which trickle together inductively into theories. Conversely. All human knowledge is fallible. Without errors. This. However. The scientist with a distinguished reputation may one day find his pet theory overturned by the experimental results of a novice. criticisms. there can be neither learning. No harm is done by entertaining an hypothesis that later turn out to be false. the novice may make a discovery that revolutionizes his entire discipline.process in which every scientist's hypotheses. Yet. Both individual learning and growth of knowledge in science take place through trial and error. of course. regardless of source. Progress in science does not occur through patient gathering of facts. It takes place. no progress. nor growth of knowledge. provided that the discovery stands up to the tests and critical scrutiny of the scientific community. no learning can take place when hypotheses are suppressed. Severe tests and criticisms control the freedom to guess boldly. these very experts may also be dogmatically defending seriously erroneous assumptions that are blocking growth of knowledge. stifling guessing and criticism hinders the growth and improvement of knowledge." 4 . and experimental results stand on an equal par with those of all other scientists. To be sure. Even experts are fallible and even the most ignorant are potential sources of truth. Thus. by a process of bold guessing at the truth and elimination of errors. possibly mistaken. Their very professional "expertise" thus contains an element of "professional ignorance. the experts in any give field are likely to have better track records than novices in producing successful guesses. the only truly rational attitude is to treat all knowledge claims as possibly true. Hence.
coming even from the simplest. Thus.The novice. may be just the right solution to some long intractable political dilemma. regardless of who made it. Since any policy may be mistaken. In politics as in science. and reliability. no matter what his-her-its reputation for insight. but also the most successful. Conversely. in addition to his arguments that regimes should be democratic to be just. Popper argues that they should also be democratic to be successful. any proposal. democracy is one of the keys to the success of the advanced sciences. 5 . unencumbered by this professional ignorance may sometimes be even better poised than the experts to discover the truth. any person may lead into error. any theory. Just as there can be no privileged sources of knowledge in science. far from being a hindrance. Since good ideas can come even from simple and ignorant people. Democracy is likely to be successful for reasons similar to those accounting for the growth and improvement of knowledge in science. there can be no privileged sources of knowledge about politics. Thus. So may the proposal or criticism of the simplest or most ignorant of citizens show previously unrecognized flaws in a respected leader or widely-accepted policy. What is the implication of Popper's theory of knowledge for politics? It is that democracy is not only the most just form of government. the most ignorant of citizens. It may be the experiment or criticism of a novice that overturns the theory of the most prestigious scientist in the field. it is important to see even simple and ignorant citizens as potential sources of valuable criticism of policy. it is important to listen to them. truthfulness.
Readers will search Popper's main political writings. They are. Popper does not.20. Lund. if not most. that the people do not really rule themselves. Popper is simply indifferent to most of the problems usually discussed by those interested in democratic theory. what they do. The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism10 in vain for discussion of many. he shows little interest in the concrete practical and theoretical problems of how to get these "uncivil masters" under democratic control.Some Incongruities in Popper's Democratic Theory Despite Popper's ardent advocacy of democracy. May 21 1988. of the standard problems usually discussed by specialists in democratic theory."12 However. if not impossible. first-past-the-post electoral systems. even insists. he writes. To put it bluntly.11 He concedes. the low level of knowledge voters have about their elected representatives. and the United States. Canada. for example. to make accountable for their actions. 1964).. several aspects of his views set them apart from the mainstream of democratic theory. He shows no concern for such standard problems as Gerrymandering. p. "our civil servants or uncivil masters . seem concerned about such problems as low voter turnout. 10 11 12 (New York and Evanston: The Academy Library. Jacob. "wasted votes" and underrepresentation of minorities in two-party. and what positions they hold on current issues facing government.. single-member district. 6 . whom it is difficult. ruled by governments and bureaucrats. such as England. "Popper on Democracy: the open society and its enemies revisited." The Economist. Letter in The Economist.
in his Elemente der Demokratie (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun. These include. Unended Quest (La Salle.14 Popper's main scholarly interests have centred on problems in the theory of knowledge. See also William Berkson and John Wettersten. how to conceptualize and implement the notion of democratic consensus.13 How to conceptualize public opinion. Popper would probably not have turned his attention professionally to political philosophy. At least since completion of his doctoral dissertation in 1928. leaving his work in there unfinished (Popper. 60-73. he reports having turned away from psychology. Werner Becker. Moreover. read it and bring it to bear upon public policy? What to do when elections result in conflicting mandates from the same electorates. he did not set to work out a theory of politics that would address the standard range of questions political philosophers usually feel obliged to address. such as a President elected to cut the budget and a Congress elected to vote more money for federal programs? Part of the explanation of these striking gaps in the democratic theory of such an ardent democrat has to do with why Popper came to write about politics and democracy in the first place. for example. 7 14 13 .More generally. Lernen aus dem Irrtum: Die Bedutung von Karl Popper's Lerntheorie für die Psychologie und die Philosophie der Wissenschaft (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe. p. However. 1982). Up to that time. His main scholarly interests have never been in the domain of political philosophy. Popper has not addressed the various conceptual and practical problems of determining what "the people" want and how to bring their wishes to bear upon government. 1985). he had been working in the on the psychology of thought and discovery. Popper was long As.. 78. after completing his Ph. Had Western liberal democracy not been subjected to mortal threat from fascist and communist totalitarianisms. unlike most who have written about political philosophy..D. pp. especially in the philosophy of physics. among others. IL: 1976).
vii. himself. refers to The Open Society and The Poverty as his "war effort.17 Popper's aim in writing these books was to combat certain influential ideas about politics and society in the Western political tradition which he. 113). p. p. pp. 115."16 and considers them as a digression transcending his professional interests. Open Society I. IL: Open Court. Popper. and the Aftermath (Princeton. IL: Open Court. did he come to the conclusion that he could "no longer hold back whatever knowledge of political problems [he] had acquired since 1919. Popper. not until Hitler's occupation of Austria in March 1938.395-396. Popper thus believed it to be his obligation to use what he had learned about the status of knowledge claims in the advanced sciences to expose Marxism as pseudo-science. Unended Quest (La Salle. 1966).18 He believed that. p. 17 18 19 Popper. IL: 1976). and a warning against the dangers of historicist superstitions."19 The Marxists claimed that scientific authority backed the theory guiding their political action.interested and involved in politics. Unended Quest (La Salle. "freedom might become a central problem again. p. 393. N. Popper.J. Unended Quest (La Salle. and in the methods of the social sciences. 1976). p. as a theorist of knowledge considered to be mistaken and pernicious. 1976). Open Society." These books are therefore intended as "a defence of freedom against totalitarian and authoritarian ideas. Marx. 8 . 115. especially under the renewed influence of Marxism. Both the tone and substance of his writings on politics suggest that Popper is by 15 16 Popper. However. after the war. The Open Society and Its Enemies II: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel.: Princeton University Press."15 He. Idem.
His principal aim is to combat the anti-democratic propaganda of these regimes and their sympathizers by criticizing various philosophical doctrines from which they derive intellectual support. He seems rather disinterested in those theoretical and practical difficulties that preoccupy scholars in democratic theory and occasionally 20 This is most obvious in his interview with the French magazine. He also regards it as the kind of system most likely to improve itself." 19-25 février 1982. he considers it the best and most just form of government that has ever existed in a world which will always remain imperfect.no means unaware of serious flaws in Western liberal democratic regimes. Popper did not approach political theory troubled by either the theory or practice of democracy. He has made no attempt to address anything like the full range of problems that have preoccupied political thinkers. pp. he takes for granted its basic soundness.20 So. and says that "not to admit it is a crime. On the contrary. he praises our liberal-democratic society as being the best that every existed. Nor does he consider democracy to be especially problematic. It was the dangers to democratic regimes posed by totalitarian theories that moved him to write about politics. He also thinks such regimes are fully capable of correcting themselves without any particular assistance from philosophers. To sum up. Popper's aims in writing about politics in general and democracy in particular. Here. While not idealizing Western liberal democracy. like Winston Churchill. he does not think it should be necessary to defend democracy." 9 . Although his writings are full of keen insights into various weaknesses of democracy. L'Express ("Les chemins de la vérité: L'Express va plus loin avec Karl Popper. Nevertheless. he believes the virtues of existing liberal democratic regimes to be self-evident. 152. were narrower than those of most philosophers of politics.
What Sets Popper's Views on Democratic Theory Apart from the Mainstream? There has been much praise for The Open Society as a powerful defence of liberal democracy. The principal difference between Popper's theory of democracy and the theory everybody takes for granted is the same feature that distinguishes Popper's theory of politics more generally from other theories of politics. I will argue that they represent an interesting and potentially valuable contribution to democratic theory. or grasped. in an article published in The Economist. The difference has indeed not been noticed. Popper's views on democracy thus lie. There he contends that. but not just because of its simplicity. Nevertheless." He suggests that it is just because of the simplicity of the theory that it has not been grasped. My suspicion was confirmed by Popper. himself. to some extent outside the main traditions of reflection on democratic theory. They are incomplete and contain serious gaps and flaws." its "fundamental problem is so different from the age-old theory of democracy which everybody takes for granted that it seems that this difference has not been grasped. I long suspected that the radical difference between Popper's views on democracy and those of the mainstream of democratic theory had not been much noticed or appreciated.become objects of debate in the political arena. but not on the second." 10 . This is his outright rejection of 21 "Popper on Democracy.21 I believe he is right on the first count. although his theory of democracy is "very simple and easy to understand. Nevertheless.
22 This aim is. it is an important part of the fight against tyranny to build institutions that prevent these people from doing too much damage when they succeed in coming to power. that since we cannot be sure of getting good rulers. It is widely known that Popper advocates negative aims like fighting tyranny and eliminating avoidable human suffering rather than positive aims like trying to do good (however this may be understood). In The Open Society. One might criticize this aspect of his political theory for its refusal even to look at the positive uses of state power. It is impossible to prevent people with tyrannical aspirations from becoming rulers from time to time. of course the practical corollary of Popper's recommendation that tyranny should be avoided and resisted. the negativism it shares with his theory of knowledge. we should plan for the worst rulers.120-121. Writing against the background of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism. he proposes. has not gone unnoticed. Therefore. We should do this by creating institutions that minimize the damage they can do. 22 Open Society.the question 'Who should rule' as the fundamental problem of politics. and the problems of improving the recruitment and training of good rulers and public administrators. pp. 11 . This aspect of Popper's democratic theory. Popper holds Plato responsible for creating a lasting confusion in political philosophy by expressing the problem of politics in the form 'Who should rule?' or 'Whose will should be supreme?' etc. first of all. we should replace the question "Who should rule" with the entirely different question: "How can we minimize the damage bad rulers can do?" Instead of dwelling on the question of who the best rulers might be. One might also criticize it for ignoring the positive contributions good rulers can make.
was to establish institutions insuring that power would check power and ambition would check ambition. and that whoever has the power can do nearly what he wills. Popper's concerns and proposals here are closely related to those of the Framers of the American Constitution. no class ought to be recognized as sovereign. including popular sovereignty.. pp. For the question "Who rules?" to be fundamental.23 He is strikingly disinterested in such issues as whether "the people" actually rule themselves. and not only because any sovereign will be fallible. since there are always enormous constraints on the exercise of political power..124-125. In fact. Popper argues. we would have to assume that political power is essentially unchecked. Ibid. Where Popper radically parts company with the mainstream is in his refusal recognize the problem of getting power in the right hands as fundamental.Nevertheless.121-122. No person. it is not here that Popper departs radically from mainstream democratic theory. No one should be given the right to exercise power as he wills. like his. pp.24 There is also a moral dimension to Popper's objection. Popper criticizes all interpretations of politics that place emphasis on the locus of sovereignty. Popper explicitly rejects any view of democracy that imputes any particular wisdom or infallibility 23 24 Ibid. nobody really rules in the sense of the theory of unchecked sovereignty. whose central aim. In fact. We would further have to assume that someone has the power. It is also because no such sovereign should have the right to do anything he/she/it wants to do. it is not sufficient to get the "right people" into power. no group. 12 . not only because all theories of sovereignty are paradoxical.. Since those who hold power cannot do whatever they want. This is so.
not actually participating in government. to put the matter this way is to trivialize the concerns of many 25 Ibid. for example. His theory of democracy is therefore flawed and incomplete. As long as the people can get rid of their rulers. 13 . he would agree with the empirical observations of many students of democracy suggesting. Does Popper really mean to abandon the ideal of government by the people? Popper is of course right to point out that it is governments. the fact that the people are not actually ruling simply does not trouble him. government can be said to be of the people. We will see that Popper ignores or misconstrues several very important problems of democratic theory. that "the people" are not actually determining public policy. Problems with Popper's Views on Democracy We have already noted several gaps in Popper's views on democracy.125. This power should be sufficient to ensure that government will act for the people. In this section we will assess some of the consequences of these lacunae. However.to the "voice of the people. not the people which actually rule. However."25 Popper's disinterest in so many of the standard problems of democratic theory can be partly explained by the fact that many of these problems in some way assume the theory of unchecked sovereignty. So.. p.
for example.26 Few if any who believe in the importance of "the people" ruling themselves would argue that all citizens should be involved in making all decisions. 14 p. [Even] [t]he demand for populistic democracy does not entail a demand for the elimination of these alternative control processes. should regard themselves as servants of the people and behave accordingly. It also means that laws and government policies should reflect the values.. even if it is empirically ascertained that the people are not. be possible to interpret Popper's vague definition of democracy as identical to what is usually meant by the terms democracy and popular Fred Eidlin. it would not mean they should not be ruling. of course. It would.. Moreover. ruling. ." Social Science Quarterly 64(1). [W]ithin government the processes that allow a more or less final or decisive voice on policy are crucial.2 7 The ideal of rule by the people usually assumes that citizens should be able to influence public policy if and when they wish. pp. As Robert Dahl. "Popper's Fact-Standard Dualism Contra the Fact-Value Distinction. . "Government" includes many types of social process. 27 26 A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. and bargaining among hierarchical leaders is common.1-18.49. in fact.political thinkers and activists who take seriously the ideal that the people actually should rule. bureaucrats and elected officials alike. 1956). wishes and preferences of the majority and respect the rights of minorities. the bureaus are hierarchical. points out. some of them operate within a price system. It means that the makers of public policy.
then they really are sovereign."28 Again.161." 28 Open Society I. He defines tyranny as a system in which the rulers cannot be changed without bloodshed. "In a non-democratic state. 15 . Yet Popper's definition turns out to be far less satisfying when applied to most regimes existing in the world today.127. Open Society II. the matter may have appeared to be so clear and simple. he is either wrong. There have been non-democratic (by Popper's definition) regimes in which considerable reforms have been made without "violent overthrow of the government. They can dismiss their rulers for whatever reason they choose.sovereignty. However. p." he writes. They can make us of this right to dismiss their rulers and replace them with rulers who allow greater participation in the processes of government. Problems with Popper's democracy-tyranny dichotomy As we have seen. Popper may protest that he never meant anything different from this. one might then wonder about the significance of his sweeping dismissals of all concern with the people actually exercising control over their governments. "the only way to achieve reasonable reforms is by violent overthrow of the government. and introduction of a democratic framework. or has expressed himself so vaguely that it is impossible to take issue with him. If no one can tell citizens how to vote. Popper defines democracy as a system in which the rulers can be changed without bloodshed. p. With Hitler and Stalin in view.
in which the rulers have been changed without bloodshed." One might argue that peaceful removals from power under "tyrannies" are affairs of the ruling elites of those countries. changes in the Polish regime after the imposition of martial law in 1981. despite their having some choice of their leaders. Gomulka. Moreover. The "Prague Spring" of 1968. and Perestroika" in the USSR are additional examples of significant reform programs which came about without violent overthrow of the regimes in question. are ruled also ruled largely by bureaucrats who are not removed by democratic elections.. Kania and Jaruzelski in Poland.g. One might object that the reforms carried out under "tyrannies" are not "reasonable reforms. there are many examples of countries without free elections. Ochab.De-stalinization was carried out in the USSR. On the other hand. Hungary developed its goulash (reform) communism. For example. Moreover. Moreover. Novotny in Czechoslovakia. several leaders of communist regimes were replaced without bloodshed--e. citizens only get to choose among candidates selected by powerful elites who control the nomination processes. one can also argue that. in East Germany. like people living under tyrannies. it isn't clear that violent overthrow would even have been the best way to bring about "reasonable reforms" of the Communist regime in the USSR or in the countries of Eastern Europe. Also like the people living 16 . even in democracies. Since they do not involve the broad masses of the people. citizens of democracies. the people never get to choose the kind of regime they want. Gierek. Ulbricht. Malenkov and Khrushchev in the USSR.
17 .. It is to show that. democracy does not necessarily produce an institutional framework that is conducive to reform. the literature on tyranny and on democracy suggests that neither of these phenomena are as simple as Popper's definition would lead us to believe. vetoes by powerful minorities and private organizations. in a democracy. What does it mean to "build institutions"? Popper often refers to the need for "building and defending institutions. themselves. Furthermore. Popper has proposed a bold.. paralysis inherent in the structure of democratic institutions. "reasonable reforms" are often impossible under "democratic" regimes. we can change our rulers. once again. they rarely get an opportunity to make choices about the kind of regime under which they will live." he writes.126. It makes possible the reform of institutions without using violence. It is not clear what he means in saying that. p. it is easy to find examples of democracies being incapable of carrying out needed reforms. On the contrary. My point is not to trivialize the differences between democracy and tyranny. etc." Moreover. . 29 Open Society I.under tyrannies." "Democracy. "provides the institutional framework for the reform of political institutions.29 As already noted. and thereby the use of reason in the designing of new institutions and the adjusting of old ones. This may be due to such factors as bureaucratic sabotage and inertia. simple definition which turns out to be vague and difficult to apply.
Even a hard-headed realist like Machiavelli believed that the basic check on tyranny was networks of habits and attitudes inculcated throughout society.Nor does democracy necessarily make possible the reform of institutions without using violence. These and other 30 Open Society II. legitimate types of behaviour in primary groups. Most of them just grow. Also. Contemporary social scientists too have stressed the importance of such factors as family structure.30 Second. As Popper. Nor is it clear that democracy particularly favours the use of reason in the designing of new institutions and the adjusting of old ones better than. prevailing or modal personality types. They were sometimes achieved only after resort to violence. himself argues. heroes. many political theorists have strongly emphasized the role of social indoctrination and habituation in creating attitudes and personality types that favour the survival and success of democracy. Popper isn't clear about what he means by "building" or "defending" democratic institutions. belief systems. Ch. very few institutions are consciously-designed.14. say an enlightened dictatorship like Napoleon's or Gorbachev's. myths. rather than legal formulas or institutions providing for checks on the exercise of power. or about the role democratic institutions might play in preventing tyranny. 18 . Some examples would be various extensions of the suffrage and abolition of legislation prohibiting labour unions. the call to defend democratic institutions easily lends itself to becoming mere rationalization of an institutional status quo that shores up some particular distribution of power and privilege. Many important reforms were achieved under democratic regimes only by those who favoured them going outside established democratic institutions.
of course. imprisonment.31 On the one hand. execution. his categorical rejection of what he calls the "vicious" principle of legitimacy. Taxation. 19 .3 2 The problem of legitimacy is. I believe.17-18. and thus in determining the likelihood of emergence of tyranny or survival of democracy. and expropriation. despite conflicting 31 32 Dahl. pp. Governments routinely make decisions that are binding on all. there have been many dictatorial regimes with democratic constitutions and institutions faithfully emulating the American or British model. accept its authority and the explanation of why they do in fact accept it are crucial. The Problem of Legitimacy Another problem in Popper's views on democracy is. Governments routinely take actions that would be considered criminal if performed by other institutions or individuals. If the state is to command voluntary obedience. On the other hand.20." p. "Popper on Democracy. widely recognized as a central problem in political theory. there have been many examples of where democratic attitudes and practices have pre-existed and perhaps been prerequisite to the adoption of democratic constitutions and institutions. are considered rightful due to the legitimacy of the existing regime. for example.similar factors are crucial in determining the probable responses of leaders and non-leaders. Preface to Democratic Theory. both the normative question of why people should.
attack various historicist. Since the "Glorious Revolution. however. Sometimes. They may do so to protect the interests of future generation..aims. Moreover. He sees the fundamental theological and ideological struggles throughout European history about who should rule as leading only to catastrophe. that is."33 Popper may be right in arguing that Western political thought has been too much 33 Ibid. article he mounts a frontal attack on the very concern with legitimation. he seems to confuse legitimacy with holding dogmatically to some abstract moral principle justifying an exercise unchecked sovereignty. it is the legitimacy of the regime that justifies such actions. he contends that the British "became dubious about abstract principles. Since. In his principal political writings. racialist. pp. every regime needs reservoirs of support and good feeling order effectively to pursue even the limited aims Popper ascribes to the state. according to Popper. or the foundations of the state as an institution. Popper does not directly address the problem of legitimacy. Why is Popper so troubled by the very concern with the problem of legitimation of the authority of the state? It appears that he uses the term "legitimacy" not as it is usually understood in political theory. everyone makes mistakes. no one should have a right to unchecked sovereignty. governments have to take actions that a majority of citizens intensely dislike. More recently.19-20. Again. 20 . He does. the rights of minorities. however. in his Economist." however. and holistic doctrines which various regimes have used to legitimate their rule. Rather. and the Platonic problem "Who should rule?" was no longer seriously raised in Britain until our own days. values and interests among the citizenry. in the sense suggested above.
36. Moreover. whose image appears on British coins. groups and principles which together could produce the authority necessary to govern effectively. no one has ever advocated. 21 . and no one except its enemies has ever defined democracy to mean. they can and do comfortably coexist and mutually reinforce each other in actual political life." contributes to the legitimacy of the regime along with the seemingly contradictory doctrine of popular sovereignty. however. 34 Preface to Democratic Theory. Somehow. It means only that legitimacy is not a current political problem in England. "So far as I am aware. The search for legitimacy in several Communist regimes after the death of Stalin illustrate this very nicely. Lack of authority due to lack of legitimacy prevented the power holders from taking many difficult decisions necessary to address many of the urgent problems facing the countries they governed. Regina."34 Certainly. the English may have stopped quarrelling about exclusive principles of legitimacy. p. he is surely mistaken to contend that a concern with legitimacy necessarily assumes the search for an abstract principle justifying an unchecked sovereignty.preoccupied the question "Who should rule?" However. that a majority would or should do anything it felt an impulse to do. As in most regimes. a concern for democratic legitimacy does not imply this. surrounded by the inscription "D. there is a wide variety of sources of legitimacy underlying the regime. The search for legitimation was a process of seeking out those individuals. Sometimes they logically contradict one another. This does not. mean that legitimacy is of no importance in England. the Queen. their regime enjoys considerable stability. To be sure. Nevertheless.G. As Robert Dahl puts it.
he writes. pp. not only of politics. the irrational. For example. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring. anti-emotionalism Popper's insensitivity to the problem of political legitimation in general and of democratic legitimacy in particular has deeper roots.217." He follows with a perceptive analysis of this "strain of civilization. It reflects his deep distaste for the emotional. Open Society I. but even of science. even the belief in 35 36 Popper. Popper. It would not be entirely correct to say that he fails to grasp their importance. He often shows penetrating insight into them. p.171-189. 22 ."35 Popper credits Plato with deep sociological insight into the "severe strain under which his contemporaries were suffering due to the social revolution which had begun with the rise of democracy and individualism. he explicitly recognizes such emotional aspects. "Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences" "is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. In many places.Popper's anti-irrationalism. Open Society II. aspects of politics more generally."36 He also characterizes the social situation of our time as a situation "influenced to a large extent by the decline of authoritarian religion [which] has led to a widespread relativism and nihilism: to the decline of all beliefs.
"39 Once we begin to rely upon our reason.381. the responsibility of helping to advance knowledge. p. we cannot return to a 37 38 39 Popper. for him. He does not ask if they can be benign if tempered by other ideas in a balanced political culture. Ibid. or that such factors frequently triumph over reason. tribalism. Nor. of carrying the cross of being human. and too sophisticated to replace the loss of authoritarian religion. The Open Society is an plea for to readers to bear "the strain of personal responsibility. He does not even raise the empirical question of whether such "irrationalist" doctrines can or have ever existed in benign forms. does he argue with such ideas at the level where they have their greatest influence. He draws no distinctions between mild and pernicious strains of these various aspects of irrationalism. one cannot fault Popper for not recognizing the important influence of irrational factors in social life. holism. Open Society II p. They represent. once we feel the call of personal responsibilities."38 As these characteristic examples show.200. and thus in ourselves."37 He even admits that the "new way of knowing" which he is advocating may be "too abstract. collectivism. romanticism. historicism are all dangers to the open society in Popper's view. enemies of freedom and reason and the main aim of his political writings is to defend rationalism against their influence.human reason. at the level of ideology. and with it. Ibid. Nationalism.. racialism. 23 . He sees ideology as opposed to reason and opposes reason to ideology. and to use our powers of criticism. most importantly. namely. he writes.
in tamed form play an important part in the political life of the liberal-democratic regimes which Popper admires. If we turn back. paradise is lost. Protectionism: Popper's theory of democratic legitimation 40 Popper. at the Secret Police.200-201. these regimes all make use of ideology.". There is no return to a harmonious state of nature.state of implicit submission to tribal magic. He does not inquire into possibilities for taming them and putting them at the service of liberal-democracy. and at a romanticized gangsterism. Popper scorns the emotional aspects of political life and rejects the doctrines he characterizes as irrationalist doctrines rather than exploring the conditions under which they become dangerous. 24 . we must end with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human." he writes. propaganda (or information policy). Open Society I. Moreover. rhetoric.40 In other words. indoctrination (education for citizenship) etc. the more surely do we arrive at the Inquisition. for whom Popper has frequently expressed the greatest respect and admiration. The more we try to return to the heroic age of tribalism."" "For those who have eaten of the tree of knowledge. Many of these doctrines. Winston Churchill. pp. myth. beginning with the suppression of reason and truth. then we must go the whole way--we must return to the beasts. was a master in the use of many of the political instruments for which Popper expresses contempt.
"The best reason why monarchy is a strong government is. have an equal voice in determining when the rulers should stay or go. This view of the social contract offers an answer to the question of why citizens should accept the authority of the state. why they should accept the burdens of citizenship.Popper does address in fact address the problem of democratic legitimacy in The Open Society. All the merits of his arguments for protectionism notwithstanding. As Walter Bagehot puts it in his defence of monarchy." (1872). In order for protectionism is to work as a legitimating principle."41 In other 41 The English Constitution "The Monarchy. if they are not understood and accepted they not be worth much. Protectionism is Popper's proposed solution to the problem of legitimacy. In elaborating his theory of political protectionism he defends a non-historicist variant of social contract theory. that it is an intelligible government: the mass of mankind understand it. in Bartlett's Familiar 25 . It is his answer to the question why citizens should obey the law. Although protectionism is a good argument. regardless of how lowly and ignorant. His position is thus not as vulnerable as those of some advocates of equality before the law who do not recognize that social and economic inequality can result in real inequalities before the law. and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other. it has to be understood and accepted. Popper wants to insure that all the people. The authority of the state should derive from the principle that the state provides equal protection to all its citizens. Popper's understanding of "equal protection" recognizes that not all citizens are equally equipped to defend their freedom. it does not go nearly far enough in addressing the problem of legitimacy.
it is hard to see what right he would have to compel them to do so? What is to be done about democratically ruled publics who do not exhibit sufficient moral will? What is to be done about states full of individuals unprepared for democratic citizenship. Fourteenth Edition (Boston: Little. one may wonder what he would propose Quotations. enough to give the law sufficient strength? What if a significant number of citizens do not have sufficient moral will and fear of sanctions to make them to obey the law? What if they manage to rally a majority of citizens to the view that protecting the weak from being bullied by the strong is bad for the country. is the "moral will" of citizens. i." he notes. 42 Popper. but the people do not like it (whether or not they have taken the trouble to understand it) they would have the right to dismiss their rulers for pursuing it. points out. inculcation of myths. Brown. in the protective power of the state which enforces them. etc. as many have assumed. following his own principles. himself. if a government adheres rigorously to a protectionist policy. Since Popper refuses to look at anything that smacks of citizenship education. ideologies and doctrines. However. The demand to "protect the weak from being bullied by the strong. has been raised not only by the weak.words. even combined with sanctions. However. 726.115. Open Society I p. p. but in the individual's readiness to obey them."42 He is certainly right to deny that this moral will need be selfish. 1968). "the strength of the laws does not lie in the sanctions.e. 26 . and bring about dismissal of the rulers who have promoted this policy? Is this not democracy? Popper certainly would have the right try to persuade them to show more moral will. but often by the strong. in the individual's moral will. As Popper.
Popper's views are well worth thinking about. have nationalist movements viewed national 27 ." How many times. is a mistaken ideal anyway. for example. Ample experience suggests that Popper is right in arguing that it is mistaken to see the solution to political problems in putting power in "the right hands. as usually understood. and represent an important contribution to democratic theory. flawed though they may be. words and concepts actually have considerable influence on thinking. Popper's Contribution to Democratic Theory Popper has often argued that "words do not matter. Since the word "democracy" is usually taken to mean rule by the people.to do about such problems." Yet it is probably in part because he defines regimes in which the people can get rid of their rulers without bloodshed "democracy. but that democracy. Popper uses the word "democracy" and represents himself as its ardent advocate. This tends to obscure the fact that he does not consider democracy. as the word is usually used. it might have been better if Popper had chosen some other word to label his views. to be either possible or desirable." that many readers have failed to see how radical is his departure from what is usually called democracy. His arguments for democracy and about democracy represent an attempt to show. not only that what is usually thought of as democracy is utopian. Nevertheless. Although Popper may be right that words shouldn't matter. whether called democracy or not.
It does. This is by no means to denigrate the demand for representation of student and worker interests in decision making bodies that affect their lives. however. "The people" in power have often been incompetent. in the governing councils of the state. Moreover. they quickly adopted the mentality of apparatchiks once placed in positions of power. Proletarian rulers in Soviet-type regimes may have continued to list their profession as "worker.liberation in terms of replacing foreign rulers by their own nationals. even dominant. Ample experience also suggests that Popper is right about attempts to put "the people" (however this may be understood) in control." However. Student representation in the governing councils of universities often results in the students learning to think like university bureaucrats or becoming manipulable tools of experienced university politicians. lend support Popper's argument that such problems are not necessarily solved merely by 28 . only to end up under a far more oppressive regime of their own nationals? The same can be said about those Marxist "successes" which have replaced oppression by the bourgeoisie with oppression by the proletariat. Something like this also often happens to workers' representatives in the governing councils of industrial enterprises. justice and sound policy can prevail without particular kinds of person or points of view being actually present in the governing councils of the state. Whatever can be said about the desirability of having a particular kind of person or point of view present. "The people" in power have often turned out to be tyrannical rulers. this is not enough to insure either justice or sound policy.
Clear recognition of this important point. frees the mind to think about more adequate solutions to these problems. 29 .putting these people or their representatives in the decision making councils. that is. themselves. elimination of the prejudice that giving power to the people is the solution to all kinds of problems.