Thoughts on economics and liberty

Popper on the biggest enemies of liberty: Plato and Hegel

Continuing my series of extracts from book reviews published in 100 Great Books of Liberty (2010), here are extracts from Michael Brennan’s review of Karl Popper’s (1902-1994) 1945 book, The Open Society and its Enemies. Popper was formerly professor of philosophy in the London School of Economics.

Micheal currently  works as Chief of Staff of Victoria’s Treasurer – his political role illustrating the point I make in BFN regarding the high quality of talent that enters politics in Australia (in contrast to the rubbish that enters Indian politics). Below is a video link to Michaels’ talk on this book. His closing comments in the talk are nothing but brilliant. [Sanjeev: looks like the talk is no longer available on the internet]

Liberty Sessions | The Open Society and its Enemies from Institute of Public Affairs

The Open Society and its Enemies Karl Popper, 1945

Published in 1945, Karl Popper’s two-volume work, The Open Society and its Enemies is an account of the philosophical roots of twentieth century fascism and Marxism. It also provides a powerful defence of liberal democracy, and a reminder of the impor­tance of ideas—including methodological and metaphysical ideas—on political movements and historical events.

At the heart of Popper’s narrative is the distinction between the `open society’ and its closed, or tribal, counterpart. The closed society is governed by rigid social custom and a single collective purpose. There is no scope for individuality or rational assessment of societal rules, which are based on mysticism and magical taboo. The open so­ciety is characterised by personal freedom, rationality and the peace­ful co-existence of individuals despite differing interests. Importantly, it also provides the ability to question the rules governing society through rational argument and modify them through the ballot box.

Popper targets three main ‘enemies’ of the open society—Plato, Hegel, and Marx. Although these thinkers differed in important respects, all in their own way were opponents of liberalism and de­mocracy. Plato sought the preservation of an ideal state, governed by philosopher kings and perpetuated by social rigidity, collectivism, and eugenics. Hegel defended the autocratic Prussian state of the early nineteenth century. Marx dismissed democracy as a tool of bourgeois oppression, cited capitalism’s ‘contradictions’ and forecast proletarian revolution.
More importantly, all three philosophers shared a methodology which Popper labels ‘historicism’, which is the tendency to see hu­man history as governed by immutable laws of motion (or `rhythms’), which philosophy and social science should make it their business to unveil. Historicism’s tendency to indulge in large scale historical prophecy gives it a superficial resemblance to experimental sciences like physics, which also generate predictions based on universal laws. However, Popper’s central thesis is that historicism’s divergence from proper scientific method renders it untenable as a basis for a real-world political program.
Progress in the natural sciences comes about by putting forward hypotheses about general laws, which are then submitted to rigor­ous empirical testing. Some theories turn out to be consistent with empirical observation and others do not. The latter are ‘falsified’ and discarded. Popper essentially accepted David Hume’s view on induc­tion: empirical observation cannot secure the objective truth of laws about the natural world. But by boldly putting forward new theo­ries and eliminating those shown to be false, the natural sciences can nonetheless build up an increasingly robust body of useful scientific knowledge. Thus, disciplines like physics can genuinely be said to progress over time.
By contrast, historicist theories generally do not yield hypoth­eses or predictions capable of empirical refutation, sometimes because they relate to unique historical events which do not allow repeated testing. This is true even of theories (including biological or social evolution or psychoanalysis) which might nonetheless give a plausible statement about an observed trend or tendency. This lack of account­ability through refutable hypotheses means that dogmatic assertion often takes the place of reasoned argument. Popper characterised this as ‘oracular philosophy’—a term which neatly draws the link between historicism and the mystical tendencies of the closed society.
Hence Plato felt that only his aristocratic philosopher kings could divine life’s underlying reality (the supersensible ‘forms’, or ‘ideas’) and that they alone could arrest the natural trend to social and politi­cal decline. Hegel ‘revealed’ the modern Prussian state as the embodi­ment of the spirit of the nation and will of the time. When knowledge of veiled truths is held by a privileged few, it is natural to suppose that those few are the ‘best’ rulers. Plato agreed, and in so doing, entrenched a view that answering the question ‘who should rule? was the main job of political science. For Hegel it was Frederick William III; for Marx it was the proletariat. By contrast, liberals tend to ask not who should rule, but rather what institutional arrangements best limit the abuse of power and get the best out of imperfect rulers. The case for democracy rests on these institutional constraints (including scope for rational argument) rather than any suggestion that elections necessarily produce rulers of wisdom and virtue.
For Popper, reasoned argument over policies in a liberal democracy is analogous to the refinement of scientific theories through repeated testing. Both are characterised by accountability through an agreed, transparent process. Thus he advocates an experimental method in public policy, which he even describes as piecemeal social engineer­ing. [NOTE: I DISAGREE WITH THIS APPROACH! No social engineering is permitted in the classical liberal model. Sanjeev] This would alarm many libertarians, and certainly Popper is no devotee of laissez-faire—he advocates an activist role for government including for the prevention of economic exploitation.
[I think we can end this review here, for Popper turns out to be almost a confused social liberal in the end. His great value-add is his point about Plato, Hegel and Marx. Sanjeev]
In passing, it struck me that Schumpeter’s work could be thought of as an attempt to reconcile Hegel and Adam Smith – a reconciliation that is, in my view, simply not feasible. Therefore, despite my admiration for much of Schumpeter’s dynamic thought, I’m reluctant to strongly advocate his ideas. I’d rather have India stick to John Locke, Adam Smith, and F.A.Hayek. People like Popper and Schumpeter, among others, do add useful insights, however, and we are well advised to read as extensively as possible.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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One thought on “Popper on the biggest enemies of liberty: Plato and Hegel
  1. Prakash

    Hi Sanjeev,
    Have you heard about the idea of seasteading? Patri Freidman, Milton's grandson, has created this organization for the promotion of the idea of seasteading. His idea is to homestead the sea by creating small communities of boats, ships and platforms away from the economic zones of present nations and experiment with new governance systems in these communities.
    He believes  that attempting to change the minds and courses of today's governments is an inefficient use of the energy of activism.
    Present policies are decided by the intricacies of political systems, which in turn are decided by the competitive market of governments across the world, which in turn is affected by the barrier to entry of new governments. If it was easier to create a new country, more people would have more choices and the overall governance would improve with time. This is an example of  popperian experimentation, but without a captive audience. People decide which communities to live with and if they don't like it, they move their boat/structure away. It would be real freedom, but without a constitutional body.
    Link is