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Chapter 17: Public Opinion and Liberal Principles

The paper was first prepared to provide a starting point for debate at an international conference, the sixth meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, held in Venice in 1954. It was published in Italian in 1955 and in German in 1956. It first appeared in English in the 1963 in this collection of papers.

As usual when Popper addressed a meeting, his aim was to challenge and provoke thought, rather than simply endorsing the assumptions that he shared with his audience.

The paper has seven sections:

The myth of public opinion.
The dangers of public opinion.
Liberal principles: group of theses.
The liberal principle of free discussion.
The forms of public opinion.
Some practical problems: censorship and monopolies of publicity.
A short list of political illustrations.

It may help to start with a summary of the liberal principles that Popper spelled out in section 3. This will be helpful for a general readership (unlike the Mont Pelerin meeting) where there are likely to be many people who do not hold non-socialist liberal principles and some who are not be clear about what these principles are.

(1) The state is a necessary evil and its powers should be kept to the minimum that is necessary.

(2) A democracy is a state where the government can be changed without bloodshed.

(3) Democracy cannot confer benefits on people. "Democracy provides no more than a framework within which the citizens may act in a more or less organised and coherent way".

(4) Democracy does not mean that the majority is right.

(5) Institutions need to be tempered and supported by traditions.

(6) There is no Liberal Utopia. There are always problems, conflicts of interests, choices to be made between the lesser of evils.

(7) Liberalism is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It is about modifying or changing institutions and traditions rather than wholesale replacement of the existing order. The exception to this is when a tyranny is in place, that is a government that can only be changed by violence and bloodshed.

8) The importance of the moral framework.

"Among the traditions that we must count as the most important is what we may call the 'moral framework' (corresponding to the institutional 'legal framework') of a society. This incorporates the society's traditional sense of justice or fairness, or the degree of moral sensitivity that it has reached... Nothing is more dangerous than the destruction of this traditional framework. (Its destruction was consciously aimed at by Nazism)."

Returning to the beginning of the paper, on the myth of public opinion, Popper noted that we need to be wary of a number of ideas about public opinion which many people accept without thinking critically about them. He noted the following:

("a) The idea that the voice of the people is a kind of authority, based on the essential wisdom and "rightness" of the mythical "man in the street". Apart from his objections to any kind of authority, he noted that the people usually differ considerably on most issues. He also accepted a fragment of truth in the myth, because simple people can wiser than their governments, and also motivated by more honourable intentions.

(b) The "manifest truth" theory, which makes people impatient of differences of opinion.

(c) A dangerously irrational and romantic form of the "voice of the people" myth - that the popular will can represent the genius and Spirit of the People."

Moving on to the dangers of public opinion, he noted that it can be very powerful and hence liberals (wary of concentrations of power and their danger) should treat it with a degree of suspicion: "Owing to its anonymity, public opinion is an irresponsible form of power, and therefore particularly dangerous from the liberal point of view."

On the liberal theory of free discussion, he suggested that freedom of thought and discussion are ultimate liberal values that are not in need of further defence or justification. However he noted that they can be given additional support on account of the way they contribute to the search for truth and the elimination of error by critical public discussion.

In connection with some practical problems such as censorship and monopolies of publicity he had no theses to offer, just questions, for example what should be done about the influence and responsibility of the intelligentsia in connection with spreading ideas such as socialism, and their role in the acceptance of tyrannical fashions such as abstract art (and political correctness)?

He ended with some random thoughts on the use and abuse of public opinion.

"It may sometimes assume the role of an enlightened arbiter of justice. Unfortunately it can be managed. These dangers can be counteracted only by strengthening the liberal tradition. Public opinion should be distinguished from the publicity of free and critical discussion which is (or should be) the rule in science, and which includes the discussion of moral and other issues. Public opinion is influenced by, but is not the result of, nor under the control of, discussions of this kind. Their beneficial influence will be the greater the more honestly, simply, and clearly, these discussions are conducted."

A note on the Mont Pelerin Society.

The Mont Pelerin Society formed in 1947 when Hayek invited a number of academics, writers and assorted others to consider that should be done to sustain the ideas of freedom at a time when socialist central planning in more or less coercive forms was under way in most countries. Popper was among the founding members, along with Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman and Frank Knight.

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Conjectures and Refutations
Karl Popper