The Politics of Karl Popper - Part 1: Asking the Wrong Question


Modern democracy remains frozen in a moment – broken from its centre out. It feels like a new problem, but it’s not. It goes back to Plato and to the first questions of how societies should be ruled, to our first attempts as a species to theorize about alternative political systems and weigh the benefits of monarchy, aristocracy or a government of the people. Concerned that it would always deteriorate into a rabble – that the poorly informed masses would simply vote for other poorly informed people, or for demagogues able to manipulate them – Plato never warmed to the democratic option. And for many this still seems like the problem of our day… it’s not!

From those origins the question has always been ‘how do we ensure that the best people get into power?’ Plato was anti-democratic but the philosophers that came after him were increasingly the opposite, all the way up to Karl Marx who believed so strongly that people should have the right to govern themselves that he tried to supplant voting altogether. They were both wrong, in exactly the same way… and in the same way as most modern proponents of democracy are wrong too. It is an understandable mistake, but not so understandable that we keep making it.

Though Plato didn’t see it this way, Athens was ahead of its time. They were a direct democracy, with all important decisions of state handed back to the citizens for their vote. The term ‘citizenship’ was limited in such a way that it only applied to a minority of the population, but it was in principle a society where the people ruled themselves. The reason for this was fear – fear of tyranny, fear of domination, and fear of capricious governance. And so if they could ensure that they ruled themselves, then they would never have to suffer in this way. But democracies don’t guarantee good policies, or even good leaders – caught in this problem, Plato tried to abolish the institution altogether.

Once he had answered the question of ‘who should rule?’, there was really no other option – just as there was also only one answer: “The Best”. The brightest, the most knowledgeable, the most courageous, the most morally upstanding, and so on. If you are going to have a government, and if someone (or a collective) needs to be in charge, then it stands to logic that they need to come from this group of people. And democracy dilutes this possibility, because voters always make mistakes, and rarely know what is in their best interest.

And yet built into this – the hope to appoint someone, or a specific party, that are The Best – is a formula for tyranny. Once in power, The Best are beyond regulation, and beyond criticism, because no one else is, by definition, qualified to hold them to account. And this is exactly what happened for most of human history. Roman military might supplied all the legitimacy that the Caesars needed. They were unquestionable, their edicts absolute, and it was only in the decline of the empire that the errors of their rule were ever called into light… too late to be fixed.

The lesson here for our forebears was understood not in terms of needing to error-correct our political institutions more quickly and more effectively, but once again in terms of needing to find a better leader; someone with more authority, more legitimacy; someone infallible. Enter monotheism and the Catholic/Christian Church. Constantine latched onto this, and so he ruled not through any demonstration of ability, strength or earthly opinion, but by the grace of God. Anyone challenging this was also challenging the faith of society as a whole, so wisely only foreign armies ever did.

The question of who should rule, now had a very neat and uncomplicated answer: God and his human representatives. Our ancestors trudged through the Middle Ages in pain and suffering, and without a doubt in their minds that society was how it should be, because those people with the most right to rule were doing so. Of course the hiccup here was the Reformation followed by the English Revolution, where the monarchy was overthrown by people wanting self-rule… but only because they saw it as their divine right. The question of legitimacy was still echoing down from Plato.

The people’s divine right to choose became the foundation for Oliver Cromwell to establish a dictatorship under different colours, and so things continued largely unchanged. The tide was shifting though, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 became the wellspring of parliamentary democracy, the limitation of powers, and the slow end to authoritarianism. However, this change in direction occurred around the same flawed question – the debate was still around deciphering theological intentions and after which finding the right balance between the monarchy and the people. ‘Who should rule’ was being asked again, just in different, more appealing, ways.

The problem that kept Plato awake was being answered more-and-more definitively in just the way that he hoped it wouldn’t. Plato was wrong, but so were those early movers of democracy… just as we are today. When Karl Marx entered the scene, and sought to tear the whole political and economic order down, he was still doing so with Plato’s question in mind – ‘how do we get the best people into power?’ Targeting the capitalists and the landowners, Marx thought the workers should rule; and because these people are always in a majority, then there was also no need for elections anymore.

Millennia-upon-millennia of humanity’s finest political thought, poisoned by a single bad question. All of which was cured, and should have remained so, by Karl Popper. He did so in the same way that he had previously for the problem of how knowledge accumulates – how it is that we can know anything at all. For too long people believed that knowledge came to them through their senses, through empiricism or induction. And this seemed to make sense – unseen explanations resembling the seen world around us. And just as the growth of our political institutions were being held back by Plato, this also held back the growth of science.

Again, the problem was buried inside of the question, and not the answer. Until Popper, people had understood the term knowledge to mean ‘that which you can know for certain’ or ‘how it is that we can be sure about something’. It wasn’t just the wrong emphasis, but it was also claiming access to something that was never available to us. The idea of proving something to be true is a mistake in itself, all we can ever do is prove something to be wrong through a process of conjecture and refutation – guesswork (ideally educated), and then the testing of those guesses through criticism. The ideas that survive this ordeal are never accepted as true, but simply not discarded as false. No truth is ever so undeniable that it cannot be questioned. And so instead of certainty, all we can ever hope for is improvement – the replacement of bad ideas, with less bad ideas, and so on.

Moments like these are not as rare as they might seem. The barrier holding back our understanding of evolutionary biology wasn’t the idea of intelligent design, but rather a bad question that made it appear that intelligent design was the only answer. The question of ‘why do birds have wings?’ for example would never get anyone beyond the logical response, ‘so that they can fly’; design is inferred at every stage in this mode of thinking. What Charles Darwin did, even though he didn’t recognise it at the time, was change the question from ‘why do birds have wings?’ to ‘what type of process would lead to a bird having wings?’ The old explanations fell away under this new scrutiny, and Darwin had solved the problem by simply asking a different question.

What Popper exposed was more fundamental. It comes down to fallibilism, the recognition not only that we can be wrong about absolutely everything we currently hold as true, but also that the natural state of things is error. We are wrong all the time, because no one has access to future knowledge. What seems certain today, will be laughed at as ignorant tomorrow – just as we tend to do when looking back on the values of previous generations. So any theory of political order needs to hug close to the idea that those people in government, regardless of how they came to be there, or their apparent qualifications, are going to invariably make mistakes and expose themselves as horribly flawed; as we all are.

So how do you build a political system out of this unavoidable mess? By simplifying things. Dump the abstract language of ‘reason’, ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ – not because they aren’t desirable, but because they aren’t helpful. Words like these have simply become too malleable, too loosely understood, and too tainted to do the work that is required of them. Instead leave Plato’s flawed question behind, and the answer falls naturally into place, just as it did for Charles Darwin.

People should have the right to choose their leaders, yes! But it is not because people have a ‘right’ to choose their government, or even that this is a good mechanism to get The Best people into power, but rather by an inversion of that question. Instead of asking ‘who should rule?’, we should only be asking ‘how do we best remove bad leaders without violence?’ It is a political theory built on the understanding of how knowledge develops through constant flaws, missteps and error; and that there is no such thing as an obvious truth. Just as it is wrong to pursue certainty in knowledge, it is also wrong to pursue utopia in politics – or utopian leaders. As Popper quickly recognised, the source of all tyranny comes from the idea that the truth is manifest. What we want is error-correction!

Once here, the theory follows fairly intuitively. Any viable political system needs two simple qualities: 1. The ability to highlight errors as quickly as possible, and 2. The most efficient mechanism for removing bad leaders and changing bad policies once they have been recognised as such. More than anything, the goal here is the minimisation of harm. Democracy matters, and is a superior political system to theocracy, aristocracy, communism or anarchy (which Popper had a slight sympathy for in its attempts to escape the control of the state), only because it matches most neatly with these criteria.

Voting is an imperfect means to change imperfect politicians, but it does allow for – when done well – every member of society to voice criticisms of current leaders or specific policies, to weigh those criticisms against the publically voiced criticisms of alternatives, and then exercise the removal of bad leaders effectively and peacefully. This mess of constant criticism, change, and control by the rabble-forming masses is what Popper famously called the ‘Open Society’. A place where the emphasis should be on removing leaders, not on electing them – a place where utopia is never promised, only the opportunity for progress… and only then if we play our cards right.

Democracy as it has come to be known today, is mischaracterised and misunderstood. It is not that ‘the rule of the people’ has any intrinsic value – it is just a functional solution to a technical problem. Any government can be removed by a majority vote, and no majority consensus is ever enough to justify the rejection of future elections or the rule of law. Democracy is the best mode of government only because it is the best mode of error-correction (that we currently know of). Yet tragically, the democracies that we have today are still those designed with Plato’s question in mind, and not Popper’s. We have stumbled onto truth, and not discovered it through explanation – and so based on this old misconception, our political systems tend to be hopelessly flawed, despite being democracies.

With most people arriving at democracy from a completely different direction, Karl Popper still had all his work before him with the follow-up problem of ‘how should we best structure a democracy?’… Continued in part 2.