Pacific Regional Meeting
Christchurch, New Zealand/November 27-30, 1989

Commentary on the papers by Dr William W. Bartley, Professor Peter Munz, Professor Colin Simkin and Dr Naomi Moldofsky

I hope that this session will result in a significant lift in Popper’s stocks among people who have only heard rumours about his odd philosophy of science and others who are wary of his endorsement of social engineering and state intervention in the marketplace.

Turning first to the papers by Bartley and Munz. Bartley has provided a fascinating and welcome fragment of his forthcoming biography of Popper. Bartley’s inability to be with us this week has cost us many insights that would be gained from talking with him. However it has provided us with the unexpected bonus of the paper by Peter Munz on the gap between Popper’s achievements in the world of ideas and his standing in the community of philosophers. He suggests that Popper is the one philosopher who will make a difference in the 20th century, mainly through his influence on leading scientists such as Peter Medawar and John Eccles.

The Methods of the Social Sciences

Colin Simkin, like Munz, is a friend of Popper from his New Zealand days. His paper ‘Piecemeal Social Engineering and the Extended Order of Cooperation’ provides a bridge from Popper’s early leftwing enthusiasms to his reflections on the methods of the social sciences and democratic social reform. People who find this account enlightening will be pleased to know that Simkin has a book in press which explains Popper’s relevance to social scientists in general and economists in particular. This includes a treatment of Popper’s writing on models and situational analysis, two matters that have been almost total ignored in the literature to date.

A number of topics arise in this paper which deserve further exploration. Simkin reminds us of Popper’s unease at Hayek’s stress on free markets, which Popper considered to be too close to laissez faire.

“In particular Popper did not think that mass unemployment was simply due to clumsy interventionism by governments in economic affairs, and warned that failure to deal with it could be dangerous to both democratic institutions and economic rationality. Hayek reassured him that there was no disagreement between them on theoretical issues”.

But there could have been some differences of opinion on the causes of unemployment. Bill Hutt pointed the finger at the effects of collective bargaining and, in the twentieth century, at the additional impact of the dole. Popper himself considered that the miserable condition of the workers under industrialization was something of a mystery.

“It appears that the phenomena of ‘exploitation’ which Marx observed were due, not, as he believed, to the mechanism of a perfectly competitive market, but to other factors - especially to a mixture of low productivity and imperfectly competitive markets. But a detailed and satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon appears still to be missing” (The Open Society and its Enemies, vol 2, page 176).

Market liberals would say that Popper hit the nail on the head with his comment on productivity and competition. However they would complain that this insight was not developed far enough to correct his belief that state intervention was required to protect the workers from the excessive economic power of the employers. It seems that an exchange between Popper and Hutt on this matter could have been illuminating. Perhaps we still need a better understanding of the processes that brought about the conquest of mass poverty. How much of this can be attributed to Factory Acts and the labour unions, how much to large scale public welfare (pioneered in the Prussian state under Bismark) and how much to the increased application of science and technology, driven by entrepreneurs and market forces?

Taking up some later points in the paper, we might examine how much Keynesian-type fiscal policies contributed to the high levels of post-war employment, compared with improved technology and a workforce highly motivated to rebuild from the ashes of war.

On Democracy and the Open Society

Naomi Moldofsky’s paper contains a passage in section VII which I especially enjoyed. This states that democracy and freedom can form a kind of symbiosis - a mutually beneficial partnership, in contrast to predation, parasitism and competition. She suggests that the role of the democratic process in this partnership is to serve the open society by enabling the citizens to curb the power of the rulers. On the other side the regulating principles of the open society, especially just rules of conduct and traditions of tolerance and civility, enable the rulers and the ruled to coexist in harmony.

This concept of symbiosis comes from biology and it is capable of wide application in social and economic systems. The point is to promote awareness of the scope for mutually beneficial partnerships in place of the zero-sum thinking that pervades the rhetoric of socialists and other ‘conflict theorists’. One might look for symbiotic partnerships between Popper and market liberalism; between statute law and common law; between morals and markets. One of the most exciting insights of recent liberal scholarship concerns the mutual dependence of morals and markets. This was the main theme of The Fatal Conceit and it is emphasised by Jan Winiecki in his paper on the prospects for the market order in the Soviet block where the traditional moral framework has been practically destroyed.

Moldofsky addresses the possibility of a ‘troublesome, if not quite fatal, tension between democracy and freedom’. She begins with Popper’s theory of democracy which offers ‘a simple, practical and fruitful theory’ of democracy. The idea is to replace the question ‘Who shall rule?’ with the aim of setting up institutions and traditions which will keep our rulers under control and permit the peaceful transition from one government to another. We hope for the best while we plan for the worst. Popper, like Schumpeter (and Mises), does not regard parliamentary democracy as a deep philosophical solution to the problem of sovereignty but rather as a sensible and pragmatic way to run the political affairs of the nation. The simplicity and utility of this approach have been largely overlooked, as have the simplicity and utility of Popper’s theory of knowledge.

The reason is very much the same in each case and it concerns the way that questions are formulated. Too often the basic question in politics arises from the assumption of sovereignty, that there is some deep, meaningful and true answers to the question “Why shall rule?” In the theory of knowledge the basic question is usually posed in a similarly authoritarian form – “What is the source of justified beliefs?” As Munz explained, the problem of knowledge needs to be recast to dispense with the quest for justified beliefs and firm foundations of knowledge. Instead we should settle for critical preferences, which can be revised in the light of new information or new arguments.

On formulating questions in a helpful manner, Popper and Hayek have shown the way to a much-improved approach to the philosophy of politics, morals and the social sciences. Our task is to discover, formulate, criticise and test those principles, which function as ‘rules of the game’ in social life. These range from the possibly innate rules of grammar (Chomsky) through the tacit knowledge of local traditions and folkways to the rules of games and other codified forms of procedure. These include the laws of the law embodied in the common law, statutes and constitutions. At another level they include the imperfectly formalized rules of the extended moral order, an area where Durkheim did some valuable work after he moved on from his early constructivist rationalism.

The study of these rules would need to probe the way that different sets of principles support or undermine each other (recall the symbiosis of markets and morals), and the effect of changing from one set to another. This enterprise would be essentially an ecological study with the emphasis on unintended “downstream” effects of fiddling with the system. This approach would supplement and focus the traditional methods of conceptual analysis and simpleminded empirical description. Investigations along these lines the theoretical merit of linking disciplines and they would be constantly in touch with practical problems and their possible solutions.

Returning to Moldofsky’s main concern with majority rule. As Popper demonstrated, majority rule is no better at the logical level than any other attempted solution to the problem of sovereignty. All are logically paradoxical, for example if the majority wants a dictator, or if the wise want rule by the good. However at the practical level the problem of tyranny by the majority is not quite as acute as it might appear to be in principle, as Moldofsky suggests when she writes

“Majoritarian decisions replace personal choice with collective choice and are coercive, final and binding, with few exceptions on every one in society”.

The same point is repeatedly driven home, that the majority has the ‘final say’, the ‘ultimate decision-making power’. But this account falls short in the area of concrete analysis because things do not normally happen like that. Apart from direct action by mobs which may well be part of a nationwide minority, the will of the majority is usually only imposed, if at all, in a Parliamentary system, through a long process of public debate, policy formation by the political parties, elections, Parliamentary debate, drafting of laws and regulations, creation of administrative machinery and consequent court cases to determine the application of the law if it is challenged.

There are plenty of cases where minority choices persist in the face of legal sanctions and widespread public disapproval. Male homosexuality and use of illicit drugs are prime examples, and of course the more open and liberal the community becomes the harder it is to obtain legislation to disadvantage minorities (apart from the rich). Generally the reverse would appear to be the case in view of the vogue for affirmative action to support disadvantaged groups.

The towering achievement of public choice theory has been to show how minorities can have their way with the majority. In Popper’s 1988 paper in The Economist he favoured a two party system over proportional representation to avoid the situation where irresponsible minority parties might obtain a balance of power. However the same effect can be achieved in a two party system as soon as the parties begin to bid for the votes of minority groups. The Australian historian Sir Keith Hancock described in 1930 how both the Labor and non-Labor parties are forced to:

“go scouting from their class interest and instinct and theory, far out into the electoral no-man’s-land, where free companies and guerrilla mercenaries wander irresolutely between the two armies which chaffer for their support. The free companies are sometimes ridiculously small but their adherence to one side or the other is decisive of electoral battles. Their numbers may be contemptible but their price is high” (Australia page 190).

Returning to the doctrine of majority rule, this finds its most damaging application when it is linked to the principle of self-determination which in turn is associated with the notions of nationalism and liberation. This set of ideas was exported from Europe to the rest of the world with explosive effects. Taken together, the insistence on self determination and majority rule spells disaster because minority groups will demand the right to break away to avoid real or imagined suppression by the majority. The partition of India to create Pakistan (with appalling carnage in the process) was an early example of this. More recent examples include the Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Basques in Spain, Sikhs in the Punjab, Moslems in the Philippines, Tamils in Sri Lanka, and many other cases.

The answer is to throw out the ‘majority rule’ theory of democracy, and with it the obsession with self-determinism for minorities. Instead we should aim for a combination of traditions and institutions, which protect the rights of everyone. This calls for a mixed strategy of constitutional reform; deregulation; retreat of government from functions that it does not need to perform; the people’s power of veto and recall; promotion of traditions and moral codes which support rationality, tolerance and fair play. This program offers objectives for reforms, which will clearly benefit everyone while in contrast; demands for self-determination (or majority rule in South Africa) are usually just slogans put about by minorities or indeed members of any group who simply want to get power into their own hands.

As Chandran Kukathas has reminded us, Western minorities do not attempt to find self-realisation in secession, instead they form a part of the multicultural lobby to obtain public funds.

Moving on from Moldofsky’s concern with majority rule, another section of her paper calls for further investigation. This is her account of two co-existing but separate types of orders. These are spontaneous orders (language, law, society, market) and organizations (family, firm, and various public institutions such as government).

“The two types of orders are altogether different. Organizations are concrete orders made deliberately by outside forces, orders that rest on hierarchal structures of commands and obedience, and, to an extent, on rules applicable to certain designated tasks...In contrast, spontaneous orders, including the open society (and the open market system as one of its chief presuppositions) are abstract orders, governed by rules that are purposeless”.

It is suggested that the principles of the two types of orders cannot be mixed. This needs to be investigated in concrete situations and my suspicion is that the two orders are inextricably interwoven. This is an area where further research and development could be important to improve the symbiosis between democracy and freedom, Moldofsky so felicitously put it.

The Wider Significance of Popper

Finally, some hints on the wider cultural significance of Popper’s ideas. This matter has some bearing on the question ‘Are we winning?’. Whatever the state of play may be in our intellectual strongholds, the left has taken almost total control of the humanities, the soft social sciences and the domain of literature, poetry, drama and culture at large. This conquest has been partly a matter of fads, fashions and public funding but it has been helped by confused ideas.

Popper has corrected many false views about science that promote mutual incomprehension between people in science and the humanities. For example, Sir Peter Medawar in Pluto’s Republic described the tension between the romantic and the rational views of science and the growth of knowledge. The romantic points to the poetic inspiration involved in creating new theories. The rationalist places emphasis on data collection, experimentation and logical analysis. This conflict has broad cultural implications because the triumph of Newtonian mechanics was widely perceived as the full flowering of the mechanical method of scientific discovery and the mechanical worldview as well. This struck a blow at reason in two ways, one through the Romantic reaction led by William Blake in defence of the imagination, the other by providing impetus for a particular conception of scientific explanation which found its way into economics where it helped to marginalize the work of the Austrian school.

Returning to the romantic reaction to Newton, the result of this reaction has been a kind of cultural schizophrenia, with imagination set against reason, the organic against the mechanical, the inspiration of the poet against the empiricism of the scientist. Popper’s theory cures this cultural schizophrenia. It harmonises the relationship between the various elements of the situation where the artist and the scientist are at work. These elements include traditional beliefs, criticism, logic, imagination and evidence. These elements play complementary roles so there is no need for the tensions and antagonisms that flow from partial and narrow views of problem-solving and creativity, whether in the arts or the sciences, or technology, or daily life.

Another significant contribution occurred in the 1960s when Popper turned from probability theory and the philosophy of science to renew his interest in a set of problems concerning evolution, human consciousness, language and the nature of abstract ideas. The result was a set of essays collected as Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Point of View (1972). He proposed that the distinctive features of human society and culture exist because we can use language for description and argument. These functions cannot be reduced to the expressive and signalling functions of language that are achieved by animals and machinery. Further, there is a kind of objective content to descriptions and arguments that cannot be reduced to materialist or subjective terms. These ideas mount a serious challenge to the obscurantist fashions that currently dominate the theory of literature and cultural studies. In view of the damage that defective theories have inflicted on the arts as vehicles of cultural and moral values, Popper’s contribution in this area may ultimately be as valuable for the cause of freedom and humanity as his unification of the ‘two cultures’ and his defence of democratic principles in The Open Society and its Enemies.

Popper’s work on quantum physics may appear to be far removed from social and political concerns until one becomes aware of the leakage of quasi-mystical ideas from physics into the general culture. For example the ancient doctrine of idealism (the world is my dream) is seriously presented as a corollary of progressive thinking in particle physics. Rational debate on social issues can hardly survive if such a view becomes the norm and Popper has shown that the subjectivist and irrational conclusions that are frequently drawn from physics are imported into the subject from elsewhere and emerge with their reputations spuriously enhanced.

Much more can be said on Popper’s theory of metaphysical research programmes, and Bartley’s exciting innovations in the theory of rationality and ‘metacontexts’. Exegesis of these theories has scarcely begun and as their logical consequences are unpacked the results are likely to provide massive support to the liberal cause.

Rafe Champion

Mont Pelerin, Christchurch, 1989
Rafe Champion