Thursday 20 February 2014

Why Popper is the key to modern Liberalism

Imagine yourself in the coffee houses of eighteenth century Edinburgh, in the elegance of the New Town.  It was there that the philosopher David Hume first cast doubt on scientific method, peering at ideas about what causes what and finding there was nothing there.

All you can do, he said, is say that events tend to happen together. Yet, if we can see nothing causing things under the philosophical microscope, it means a big logical problem for the scientists. 

It doesn’t matter how many times they do an experiment, or watch the sun rising bang on time, it doesn’t mean these events are any more likely to happen tomorrow.

Two centuries after Hume was writing in Edinburgh, the Viennese philosopher Karl Popper, a refugee from the Nazis, came up with an interim answer. But, more importantly, he also applied it to politics and organisations. 

You may not be able to prove what you believe about the world, no matter how often an observation or experiment takes place, but you can disprove it. 

Popper used the example of swans. It doesn’t matter how many white swans you see, it still doesn’t prove that all swans are white. But if you see a black swan, then you know they are not.

Popper was writing during the Second World War, his home city was in the hands of totalitarians, and he quickly found himself applying this insight to politics too. In doing so, he produced one of the classic twentieth century statements of philosophical liberalism, The Open Society and its Enemies

He said societies, governments, bureaucracies and companies work best when the beliefs and maxims of those at the top can be challenged and disproved by those below. This has huge implications, not just for effective societies, but for effective organisations too.

Popper was flying at the time in the face of the accepted opinions of the chattering classes. They may not have liked the totalitarian regimes of Hitler or Stalin, but people widely believed the rhetoric that they were somehow more efficient than the corrupt and timid democracies. 

Popper explained why they were not, and why Hitler would lose. Anybody who has read Antony Beevor’s classic account of the Battle of Stalingrad, and the hideous slaughter and inefficiencies brought about by two centralised dictators who had to take every decision personally, can see immediately that Popper was right. 

Real progress required “setting free the critical powers of man”, he said.  More about this in my book The Human Element.

I believe Popper was the key Liberal philosopher of the past century or so.  I said so many times ten years ago, during the Lib Dem's commission on philosophy, but his name was still omitted - such is life on policy committees, I can tell you.

But he is even more important now.  The possibility of Popper's challenge from below – in what he called ‘open societies’ – is the one guarantee of good and effective government or management. Those human beings at the front line, those most affected by policy, will always know better about their own lives or their own work than those at the top. 

Open societies can change and develop; closed societies can’t. Hierarchical, centralised systems, by their very nature, prevent that critical challenge from below.

So if want to sum up why the Blair-Brown years devastated our public services, you need look no further than Popper.

So I was pleased that Jonathan Calder included a fascinating interview with Popper before his death.  These days, when authoritarian government is creeping back, it is worth remembering why it is less effective - and less efficient - than the kind of structures which are open to challenge from below.

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Left Lib said...

I would be interested to know what he thinks about the Chinese government. Not that I would wish that we emulate them, but I would like to know how his views fit in with their style of government.

David Boyle said...

I feel sure that Popper's attitude to the Chinese government would be the same as his to highly authoritarian corporate governments everywhere, that they are inefficient because they suppress the opportunity of challenge from below.