the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 7: Leadership

The question "who shall rule the state?" has generally been accepted as a fundamental, if not the fundamental, question in the philosophy and practice of politics. Popper dissented from that tradition and suggested that it is unhelpful and misleading to start with that question, and it has resulted in permanent confusion about the realistic and rational objectives of democratic political reform.  

The chapter has five sections. In the first Popper advanced two lines of argument against the idea that posing the question "who shall rule?" is a useful starting point for political philosophy.

In section II he briefly outlined his alternative approach to the theory of democracy.

In section III he presented additional arguments for an institutional approach to democracy, in preference to theories that place too much emphasis on the short-term problem of the immediate leadership.

In section IV he examined Plato’s theory of the leadership of the wise and in section V he launched an attack on the system of education that Plato proposed to prepare the philosopher kings for their role.

"Plato’s theory of justice indicates very clearly that Plato saw the fundamental problem of politics in the question: Who shall rule the state? It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy. It is indeed analogous to the confusion he created in the field of moral philosophy by his identification, discussed in the last chapter, of collectivism and altruism."

"First of all, such a reply is liable to persuade us that some fundamental problem of political theory has been solved. But if we approach political theory from a different angle, then we find that far from solving any fundamental problems, we have merely skipped over them, by assuming that the question ‘Who should rule?’ is fundamental. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’, and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?"

He suggested that the notion that the basic question concerns "who shall rule" is based on the assumption that political power is essentially unchecked, so that the rulers or the ruling party can do as they like. If it is assumed that political power is essentially sovereign, the only important question left is indeed "who is to be the sovereign?".An alternative to this approach, which Popper did not mention at that point, is the Rule of Law, so that everyone, including the leaders for the time being, are subjected to a set of rules that apply to everyone, rulers and ruled alike.

Instead of pursuing that path, Popper spent some paragraphs criticising the theory of unchecked sovereignty, pointing out that even the most powerful dictators depended on their secret police, their henchmen and their hangmen.

"My claim is that every theory of sovereignty omits to face a more fundamental question - the question, namely, whether we should not strive towards institutional control of the rulers by balancing their powers against other powers. This theory of checks and balances can at least claim careful consideration. The only objections to this claim, as far as I can see, are (a) that such a control is practically impossible, or (b) that it is essentially inconceivable since political power is essentially sovereign. Both of these dogmatic objections are, I believe, refuted by the facts; and with them fall a number of other influential views (for instance, the theory that the only alternative to the dictatorship of one class is that of another class). In order to raise the question of institutional control of the rulers, we need not assume more than that governments are not always good or wise."

He demonstrated that all theories of sovereignty are logically paradoxical, in that they do not handle the situation where, for argument sake, if we have a theory that the state should be ruled by The Good, what if The Good decide that the state should be ruled by The Wise. Or if a democratic state votes into power an anti-democrat (Hitler or Allende).

In section II he then proceeded to sketch a non-paradoxical theory  which is not based on any suggestion of the intrinsic goodness or righteousness of a majority rule, but rather from the decesion to avoid and resist tyranny. He drew a distinction between two types of government. The first type consists of governments that can be dismissed or replaced without bloodshed , that is by peaceful constitutinal means such as general elections. The second type consists of governments which cannot be changed by any means short of a successful revolution. Ludwig Mises used a similar definition of democracy in his great book on the principles of Liberalism.

Using those two labels, the leading principle of democratic policy (nothing like "majority rule") is to invent, develop and protect political institutions (and, equally important, traditions) to control the abuse of power of all kinds. That is, to avoid tyranny. We do not assume that we can ever have institutions and traditions that are foolproof, and we certainly do not assume that the policies adopted by a democratic government will be good or wise, or even better or wiser than the policies adopted by a benevolent dictator. That avoids the paradox of democracy.

This democratic principle assumes that accepting a bad policy in a democracy (as long as it does not eliminate the possibility of working for a peaceful change) is better than yielding to the rule of a tyrant, even one who appears to be wise or benevolent. There is the problem of the dictator's successor and the problem of remaining wise and benevolent while holding too much power and influence.

"Seen in this light, the theory of democracy is not based upon the principle that the majority should rule; rather, the various equalitarian methods of democratic control, such as general elections and representative government, are to be considered as no more than well-tried and, in the presence of a widespread traditional distrust of tyranny, reasonably effective institutional safeguards against tyranny, always open to improvement, and even providing methods for their own improvement."

The person who favours that kind of democracy is not committed to the idea that the result of a democratic vote is the right decision or even a good one but he will accept the view of the majority to make the democratic institutions work. He will most likely work by democratic means to combat the decision and later to change it.

"And should he live to see the day when the majority vote destroys the democratic institutions, then this sad experience will tell him only that there does not exist a foolproof method of avoiding tyranny. But it need not weaken his decision to fight tyranny, nor will it expose his theory as inconsistent."

In section III Popper returned to his analysis of Plato to examine the way that he distracted attention from the institutional issues of keeping the leaders under control. In Popper’s view, Plato focused too much on the short-term question of the personnel who should be in charge, so the most urgent problem For Plato would be the selection of the natural leaders and training them for leadership. In contrast Popper insisted on the primacy of institutional matters.

"All long-term politics are institutional. There is no escape from that, not even for Plato. The principle of leadership does not replace institutional problems by problems of personnel, it only creates new institutional problems. .. But it must be said that a pure institutionalism is impossible also. Not only does the construction of institutions involve important personal decisions, but the functioning of even the best institutions (such as democratic checks and balances) will always depend, to a considerable degree, on the persons involved."

"Institutions are like fortresses. They must be well designed and manned. This distinction between the personal and the institutional element in a social situation is a point which is often missed by the critics of democracy. Most of them are dissatisfied with democratic institutions because they find that these do not necessarily prevent a state or a policy from falling short of some moral standards or of some political demands which may be urgent as well as admirable."

He went on to say that those critics have failed to  understand what democratic institutions may be expected to do. The institutions cannot improve themselves, that is the task of the citizens and those who criticize democracy on ‘moral’ grounds fail to distinguish between personal and institutional problems. In the short term we may wish for better leaders, in the long term we need better institutions.

This raises a fairly substantial budget of issues for the improvement of democracy, especially as too much is expected of the voting process itself, without regard to the way that the function of elections, as a control of the rulers, has been corrupted by a number of false ideas and corrosive practices which will be addressed in due course.

Obsession with voting rights precipitated many disasters in the Third World when the decolonisation process, driven by well-meaning Fabian socialists, resulted in widespread collapse of economies (under socialist principles) and reversion to tribal warfare due to lack of most of the institutional requirements for successful democracy. A rather large issue at present is how to make the process work better in Iraq. The remainder of chapter 7 is mostly devoted to a number of harsh comments on various approaches to education that Popper finds unhelpful. These include Plato’s idea of using the education system to prepare future leaders, progressive and romantic notions about educating for self development rather than learning, and the risk that a State monopoly on education will result in brainwashing and loss of diversity. This is taking us some way from sovereignty and political science and a compilation of Popper’s views on education can be found here.

Further thoughts on the limitation of State power

Hayek noted in section 3 of his essay ‘Why I am not a conservative’ that it was only when power came into the hands of the majority that further limitations of the power of government were thought to be unnecessary. “In this sense democracy and unlimited government are connected”. However he went on to say that it is not democracy but unlimited government that is objectionable, and he did not see why the people should not learn to limit the scope of majority rule as well as that of any other form of government. “It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.” This is very much the line taken independently by Popper in his critique of theories of sovereignty. Of course there are other precedents for this view in the classical liberal tradition, including John Stuart Mill on his good days, and before him the German von Humboldt to whom one of Mill’s major books was dedicated.

It is implicit in Popper’s critique of sovereignty that majority rule is no better than any other tyranny unless it is limited. A dangerous extension of the theory of majority rule is the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty. This is the idea that any law that a majority of bodies in the House at the time happens to pass by a simple majority is OK, regardless of the written or unwritten rules or conventions in place before the vote and regardless of the previous system of rights and conventions that are violated in the process. The process may be complicated if there is an upper house where a majority is required as well, but the point is that the capacity for revolutionary and destructive legislation is always on the cards as long as the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty is widely accepted. For activist and interventionist politicians of course it is an huge temptation to abuse their power.

Popper on the danger of economic and other forms of state intervention.

Popper was a social democrat when he wrote the OSE and he considered that the government was obliged to intervene to control monopolies and unemployment. Unfortunately he didn’t have a clue about the causes of unemployment and he had nothing useful to say on the topic. He was a fast learner, however, and he picked up a lot from his correspondence with Hayek, which commenced in 1943 while The Open Society was still in manuscript form.

Hayek’s reaction was gratifying but he took fright at Popper’s language of social technology and social engineering because he (Hayek) had identified the enemy - even more than the historicist - as the constructivist rationalist (the coercive utopian) who thought he could impose a pattern upon the organisation of a whole economy, like an engineer working from a blueprint. Popper was concerned with freedom and he was equally concerned with human suffering and deprivation, after his formative years surrounded by the abject poverty in Austria after the Great War.

Like the Prince of Wales visiting the out of work Welsh miners during the Great Depression, he knew “Something has to be done!” For this reason he reserved the right of the state to intervene so that the economically powerless could not be exploited by the economically powerful. He was a free trader in goods because he recognised that under monopoly, the consumers may have to pay to cart away the rubbish produced by the monopolist. He was not a redistributionist and he was not unduly concerned about disparities of income, although he acknowledged that it was disturbing to see extremes of wealth. As a result of Hayek’s influence Popper emphasised that state intervention should take the form of laying down clearly formulated rules, and state officials should not be empowered to issue discretionary orders to achieve particular short-term aims. As he became more alert to the dangers of increasing state power, he insisted that social democratic policies should never be envisaged as a “cure-all” and he warned that socialists of good will should be alert to abuses of power that could result from increased state activity, however well meaning the original intention might be.

The following material may not have been in the first edition of the OSE but it turned up in a later edition.

Popper warned that economic intervention, even the piecemeal methods that he advocated, will tend to increase the power of the state.

"Interventionism is therefore extremely dangerous. This is not a decisive argument against it; state power must always remain a dangerous though necessary evil. But it should be a warning that if we relax our watchfulness, and if we do not strengthen our democratic institutions while giving more power to the state by interventionist ‘planning’, then we may lose our freedom."

He went on to say that 'it is not enough to insist that our solution should be a minimum solution; that we should be watchful; and that we should not give more power to the state than is necessary for the protection of freedom'. His remarks raise problems, but they do not show a way to a solution.

"Under these circumstances it may be useful to remember our considerations of chapter 7 concerning the question of the control of political power and the paradox of freedom. The important distinction which we made there was that between persons and institutions. We pointed out that, while the political question of the day may demand a personal solution, all long-term policy-and especially all democratic long-term policy-must be conceived in terms of impersonal institutions."

Similar considerations apply to the control of the economic power of the state where there is a need to guard against an increase in the power of the rulers, and against the arbitrariness of politicians, bureaucrats and petty officials.

"We thus arrive at a distinction between two entirely different methods by which the economic intervention of the state may proceed. The first is that of designing a ‘legal framework’ of protective institutions (laws restricting the powers of the owner of an animal, or of a landowner, are an example). The second is that of empowering organs of the state to act-within certain limits-as they consider necessary for achieving the ends laid down by the rulers for the time being. We may describe the first procedure as ‘institutional’ or ‘indirect’ intervention, and the second as ‘personal’ or ‘direct’ intervention."

"From the point of view of democratic control, the first method is preferable and from the point of view of piecemeal social engineering (that is the method of trial and error, learning from our mistakes) the difference between the two methods is highly important.Only the first, the institutional method, makes it possible to make adjustments in the light of discussion and experience. It alone makes it possible to apply the method of trial and error to our political actions. It is long-term; yet the permanent legal framework can be slowly changed, in order to make allowances for unforeseen and undesired consequences, for changes in other parts of the framework, etc. It alone allows us to find out, by experience and analysis, what we actually were doing when we intervened with a certain aim in mind."

"Discretionary decisions of the rulers or civil servants are outside these rational methods, being short-term decisions, transitory, changing from day to day. Generally they are not open to public inspection of discussion both because necessary information is lacking, and because the principles on which the decision is taken are often obscure.“But it is not only in this sense that the first method can be described as rational and the second as irrational. It is also in an entirely different and highly important sense. The legal framework can be known and understood by the individual citizen; and it should be designed to be so understandable. Its functioning is predictable. It introduces a factor of certainty and security into social life. When it is altered, allowances can be made, during a transitional period, for those individuals who have laid their plans in the expectation of its constancy."

"As opposed to this, the method of personal intervention must introduce an ever-growing element of unpredictability into social life, and with it will develop the feeling that social life is irrational and insecure. The use of discretionary powers is liable to grow quickly, once it has become an accepted method, since adjustments will be necessary, and adjustments to discretionary short-term decisions can hardly be carried out by institutional means. This tendency must greatly increase the irrationality of the system, creating in many the impression that there are hidden powers behind the scenes, and making them susceptible to the conspiracy theory of society with all its consequences - heresy hunts, national, social, and class hostility. In spite of all this, the obvious policy of preferring where possible the institutional method is far from being generally accepted. The failure to accept it is, I suppose, due to different reasons. One is that it needs a certain detachment to embark on the long-term task of re-designing the ‘legal framework’. But governments live from hand to mouth, and discretionary powers belong to this style of living-quite apart from the fact that rulers are inclined to love those powers for their own sake."

Prescient words, written before the efflorescence of activism and engineering after WW2.

Chapter 8 The Philosopher King

Chapter 8 does not need to be treated in detail, it is a pendant to the chapter on leadership with more details on the breeding, training and modus operandi of the philosopher kings. The example of the physician is used to reinforce the imperative to maintain the organic unity of the state and the subordination of the individual to the collective. The concept of the ‘noble’ or ‘lordly’ lie is introduced as an important propaganda device to mislead the people or to impress them with useful fabrications such as the Myth of the Blood and Soil. According to this story the warriors who founded the city were suppose to be born of the earth instead of human mothers so they were completely dedicated to the defence of the city.

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Karl Popper