Karl Popper – the philosopher of social democracy

[This is a tidied up version of two comments left yesterday over at the Drink-Soaked Trots]

Anthony Cox wrote yesterday about the philosopher Karl Popper, highlighting a recent conference in Prague – Rethinking Popper – and in particular a paper by Dirk Verhofstadt titled The Liberal Testament of Karl Popper.

Verhofstadt’s essay is concerned with Popper’s views on individualism, and how this fits into the liberal tradition. It is an interesting if slightly odd discussion, but my attention was drawn to it as a result of this quote:

“In the book The Lesson of This Century Popper claims: “A free market without intervention does not and cannot exist”. Unconditional belief in freedom and a free market often lead to indifference towards people who can’t perform in society due to sickness or old age. It even leads to corrosion of the free market due to monopolies. A strong government is required to guard the free market from monopolies and price agreements. A strong government is required to defend the constitutional state and to guarantee the safety and freedom of its civilians. A strong government is required to help the sick, seniors and disabled, and to give children the educational opportunities to develop their own talents.”

Cox then goes on to comment on blogging libertarians’ appropriation of Popper for their own ends:

“I have never understood why the UK’s libertarian Samizdata site includes Popper’s text underneath a gun, when he would have found a large proportion of their politics an anathema.”

Samizdata is a right-libertarian group blog known for its trenchancy and macho stance on a number of issues. The mast head of the Samizdata website features a copy of Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies and a pistol. Very butch. I have no intention of defending Samizdata against political attacks from the left. My interest here is in Karl Popper as a political thinker.

The Open Society is a classic text, and for very good reason. Anyone with an interest in freedom and democracy, and the poverty of historicism and holism, should read it. I cannot help thinking, however, that Popper the epistemologist is very different from Popper the political thinker, and one should be wary of giving credence to Popper’s political views based on his perceived renown as a philosopher of science.

The argument about strong government, for example, comes across to me a a bold assertion not backed up by rational argument. Popper may or may not be right, but it does not necessarily follow from his philosophical expertise that he is right in this case.

I could counter by saying that strong communities and civil society are required to guarantee the safety and freedom of citizens, and ensure the freedom of the market against systemic failings and/or human tendencies that lead to the emergence of monopolies and widespread fraud. I see strong government as filling in a void left by weak civil society.

My fear is that civil society in Britain is weakening now. Part of this may be due to government actively increasing its remit, but at the same time individuals and communities have a responsibility to organise for themselves, and I think we are getting lazy. No amount of bloggertarian railing against the state is going to change that.

Looking at them in a modern context, Popper’s quoted words come across to me as almost Thatcherite. During the Thatcher years, with all the privatisation, market deregulation, etc., we saw a massive increase in the power of public and private corporations, and a centralising of political power. There was nothing “libertarian” or even “liberal” about the development. It was more the emergence of a highly sophisticated kleptocracy that took advantage of the economic mess and spiritual malaise (for want of a better term) left behind by a post-war social democracy that soon ran out of creative steam. One of the results of this is the hydra-like managerialism that none of the major political parties now have the nerve to challenge.

This is a point made eloquently by Peter Ryley:

“Managerialism combines the worst of the social democratic tradition with Thatcherite centralism. However, bloggertarians get it slightly wrong. It is not the statism that is at fault but that managerialism is an instrument of domination by a political/administrative class to control workers, even including those who had formerly had the privilege of some independence, particularly public sector workers and professionals.”

Like me, Ryley regards Karl Popper as a philosopher of social democracy, and I find myself slightly puzzled by Verhofstadt’s spin on Popper’s political writings, and his attempt to claim Popper for the classical liberal tradition.

I shall conclude with a brief comment that is only partially relevant to the above discussion. But it is, I think, important given that Popper’s authority rests on his work in the philosophy of science.

Scientists today tend to regard the philosopher’s work as a hugely important contribution to a debate that has since moved on (for example, by Popper’s protégé Paul Feyerabend). The problem with Popper is that the epistemological framework he developed fails to take into account that science is done by real people, and that real people very often act in irrational ways, even if the end result is planned. Scientific inspiration is often little different from artistic inspiration. There are methods used to ensure the reliability of data and analyses, but the rules are flexible.