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Karl Popper on democracy via institutions...

by proximity1 Wed May 31st, 2006 at 02:35:26 PM EST

  As Gary J pointed out in the thread of a discussion about the Euro Constitution treaty referendum, it is only via institutions which democratic principles can be preserved and practiced.

 This insight is one that is badly needed today in many quarters of the political arena.  

 To promote some more thought and discussion of it, I'm putting into the debate an extended quote from Popper's The Open Society and It's Enemies as a diary entry.  It seems to me that, as a group which seeks to make and have a place for itself in the opening and promotion of debate in furtherance of a free, fair and united Europe, the membership of Eurotribune could surely do worse than making itself vigorous advocates of an understanding of democratic practice and of the institutional foundations that these require--as so ably explained in the following quotes of Popper's text.


    Ch. 17,  Marx's method, The Social System : Section VII

    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.  And, we pointed out that, more especially,  the problem of controlling the rulers, and of checking their powers, was in the main, an institutional problem--the problem, in short, of designing institutions for preventing even bad rulers from doing too much damage. ...

 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 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.  (Of course, intermediate cases exist.)

    There can be no doubt, from the point of view of democratic control, which of these methods is preferable.  The obvious policy for all democratic intervention is to make use of the method whenever this is possible, and to restrict the use of the second method to cases for which the first method is inadequate. (Such cases exist.  The classical example is the Budget--this expression of the Chancellor's discretion and sense of what is equitable and just.  And it's conceivable though highly undesirable that a counter-cycle measure may have to be of a similar character.)

    From the point of view of piecemeal social engineering, 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 the changes in other parts of the framework, etc.  It allows us to find out, by experience and analysis, what we are actually doing when we intervened with a certain aim in mind.

*

    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.  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 consistency.

    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 of its consequences--heresy hunts, national, social and class hostility.

*

Ch. 19, Marx's Prophecy;  The Revolution, Section V

    ... I base this criticism on the contention that democracy can work only if the main parties adhere to a view of its functions which may be summarized in some rules such as these (see also section II of Ch. 7):

 1)  Democracy cannot be fully characterized as the rule of the majority, although the institution of general elections is most important.  For a majority might rule in a tyrannical way. ... In a democracy, the powers of the rulers must be limited; and the criterion of a democracy is this: In a democracy, the rulers--that is to say, the government--can be dismissed by the ruled without bloodshed.  Thus if the men in power do not safeguard those institutions which secure to the minority the possibility of working for a peaceful change, then their rule is a tyranny.  

  1. We need only distinguish between two forms of government, viz. such as possess institutions of this kind, and all others; i.e. democracies and tyrannies.

  2. A consistent democratic constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system, namely a change which would endanger its democratic character.

  3. In a democracy, the full protection of  minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to violent overthrow of the democracy.
[ Here, I disagree with Popper for reasons which are either obvious or which I'll have to explain at another time.  My view is that the full basic rights and protections of the law must extend to all and at all times.]

  1. A policy of framing institutions to safeguard democracy must always proceed on the assumption that there may be anti-democratic tendencies latent among the ruled as well as among the rulers [ hence my objection to withholding legal protections from those who may violate or be accused of violating the law, above].

  2. If democracy is destroyed, all rights are destroyed.  Even if certain economic advantages enjoyed by the ruled should persist, they would persist only on sufferance.

  3. Democracy provides an invaluable battle-ground for any reasonable reform, since it permits reform without violence.  But if the preservation of democracy is not made the first consideration in any particular battle fought out on this battle-ground, then the latent anti-democratic tendencies which are always present (and which appeal to those who suffer from the strain of civilization, as we called it in Ch. 10) may bring about a breakdown of democracy.  If an understanding of these principles is not yet developed, its development must be fought for.  The opposite may policy may prove fatal; it may bring about the loss of the most important battle, the battle for democracy itself.

"As opposed to such a policy, that of Marxist parties can be characterized as one of making the wokers suspicious of democracy .  `In reality, the state is nothing more,' says Engels, `than a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and this holds for a democratic republic no less than for a monarchy.'"

    But such views must produce :

(a)    "A policy of blaming democracy for all the evils which it does not prevent, instead of recognizing that the democrats are to be blamed, and the opposition usually no less than the majority.  (Every opposition has the majority it deserves.)"

      *  *  *

  "It is high time for us to learn that the question `who is to wield the power in the state?' matters only little as compared with the question ` how is the power wielded?' and ` how much power is wielded?'  We must learn that in the long run, all political problems are institutional problems, problems of the legal framework rather than of persons, and that the progress towards more equality can only be  safeguarded by the institutional control of power."

Display:
...God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. ... And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

                                   Thomas Jefferson

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Thu Jun 1st, 2006 at 01:23:20 AM EST
  4. In a democracy, the full protection of  minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to violent overthrow of the democracy.

[ Here, I disagree with Popper for reasons which are either obvious or which I'll have to explain at another time.  My view is that the full basic rights and protections of the law must extend to all and at all times.]

Regarding how Popper should be read here, I am confident that he endorses the universality of the rule of law, and hence would agree with you that "the full basic rights and protections of the law must extend to all and at all times."

In interpreting his statement that "the full protection of minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to violent overthrow of the democracy", I can only assume that he means that protection of minorities need not include excusing them from the duty to obey the law, and that protection of political expression need not include protection of incitement to violence.

It might be illuminating to see what he says elsewhere about the protection of minorities. In the above excerpt, he does state that democratic institutions must "secure to the minority the possibility of working for a peaceful change".

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Thu Jun 1st, 2006 at 04:14:23 AM EST

 thanks, please see my reply below.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge
by proximity1 on Fri Jun 2nd, 2006 at 12:32:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for posting this. Some critical comments (I don't comment on what I found good):

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 ends laid down by the rulers for the time being...

...  "It is high time for us to learn that the question `who is to wield the power in the state?' matters only little as compared with the question ` how is the power wielded?'

While distinguishing these two makes sense, I don't think they separate as nicely as Popper put it. It is primarily the rulers for the time being who can shape institutions both for the better if elected to do so, and for the worse when damaging institutions or erecting the wrong ones. I come back to the converse below.

restrict the use of the second method to cases for which the first method is inadequate. (Such cases exist.  The classical example is the Budget

This post grew out of the EU discussion. In that relation, on principle, I have two considerations: (1) it may be that among policies relevant at EU level, the "first method" dominates (for example because states or EP constantly renegotiate everything); (2) the main gripe with the Constitution was NOT the institutional framework but elevating neoliberalism into core philosopy.

[ Here, I disagree with Popper for reasons which are either obvious or which I'll have to explain at another time.  My view is that the full basic rights and protections of the law must extend to all and at all times.]

I don't think so :-) Or, do you oppose prison sentences? Prison sentences are rather serious limitations on personal freedoms, I think that includes what Popper meant with violators of law. As for incitement to overthrow democracy, we disagree here, but lt me ask the practical question: how can the rights of would-be-overthrowers and those hit during and after the violent overthrow o democracy be protected at the same time?

A policy of framing institutions to safeguard democracy must always proceed on the assumption that there may be anti-democratic tendencies latent among the ruled as well as among the rulers [ hence my objection to withholding legal protections from those who may violate or be accused of violating the law, above].

I don't understand your above quibble at all. It's just the presence of those anti-democratic tendencies that calls for countermeasures as per point 4, it's that you can1t assume that all calls for violent overthrow of democracy will just fizzle out.

"As opposed to such a policy, that of Marxist parties can be characterized as one of making the wokers suspicious of democracy .

A rather strane argument from Popper. The Marxist gripe with bourgeois parliamentary democracy fits nicely with just what Popper writes: it is an institutional gripe, a belief that the system always end up wsupporting the interests of capitalists. (Council democracy, e.g. soviets was an envisioned alternative.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jun 1st, 2006 at 04:34:18 PM EST

 More on your other points when I have more time.

 Thanks for your comments and the appreciation of the citation.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Fri Jun 2nd, 2006 at 12:33:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
 Note: These responses vary from the order above

 From Popper [and my addition in brackets] "A policy of framing institutions to safeguard democracy must always proceed on the assumption that there may be anti-democratic tendencies latent among the ruled as well as among the rulers [ hence my objection to withholding legal protections from those who may violate or be accused of violating the law, above].

DoDo: "I don't understand your above quibble at all. It's just the presence of those anti-democratic tendencies that calls for countermeasures as per point 4, it's that you can't assume that all calls for violent overthrow of democracy will just fizzle out."

AND your comment:

DoDo : " As for incitement to overthrow democracy, we disagree here, but let me ask the practical question: how can the rights of would-be-overthrowers and those hit during and after the violent overthrow o democracy be protected at the same time?"

 True.  There's a real practical problem here and perhaps there is no ready solution for it: whether the system of government is faithfull to democratic principles or has departed from the so that it is no longer susceptible to being removed by peaceful means is a matter on which factions of the public can --and probably always shall, in any real instance--disagree.
 So, how is such a disagreement over what is, in essence, the question of when it is time to take other less-than-entirely-peaceful measures to "restore" democracy?  And, also, how is it to be unfailingly determined that those opposed to the existing order--and claiming it is undemocratic and beyond the reach of peaceful reforms--are in fact "anti-democratic", as their opponents shall charge, or, the "real defenders of true democracy", as they'll assert they are?

 I see no easy answer to this problem--and I don't think Popper had one either.  At least, I'm not aware of it.  I think that there must be institutional requirements which prohibit the invocation of martial law, on one hand; and, on the other, provide for a "safety valve" of prompt elections when civil society's consensus degenerates to the point where the government's hold on legitimate power is in immediate and direct question.  The military should be trained from the first to understand that the government may not resort to other than civil police authorities to keep order, and that, if civil insurrection develops beyond the point which the police can contain, it means by definition that the government has lost its authority in the eyes of the public and is not to follow orders to use violent force against, for example, public rallies and protest gatherings.  That's as a minimum.  But surely finer-detailed rules should be necessary.

 Popper: "As opposed to such a policy, that of Marxist parties can be characterized as one of making the wokers suspicious of democracy ."

DoDo: " A rather strange argument from Popper. The Marxist gripe with bourgeois parliamentary democracy fits nicely with just what Popper writes: it is an institutional gripe, a belief that the system always end up supporting the interests of capitalists. (Council democracy, e.g. soviets was an envisioned alternative.)"

 The Marxist view is that it cannot ever be otherwise, no matter how genuinely democratic are the institutions; Popper, in contrast, insists that it is the public's and their representatives' duties to ensure that the institutions, once created or once they "develop" via the process of gradual growth, are and remain, faithfull to democratic principles and that, when they do not, the proper responsibility for the failing is on the public and their representatives rather than on some notion that "democracy" is inherently a conspiracy of one class against another.  Though, true, I didn't cite that portion, I can't, after all, cite the entire book here.

[I can encourage others to read it, though. And I do.]

 DoDo: "While distinguishing these two makes sense, I don't think they separate as nicely as Popper put it. It is primarily the rulers for the time being who can shape institutions both for the better if elected to do so, and for the worse when damaging institutions or erecting the wrong ones. I come back to the converse below."

Popper: "...restrict the use of the second method to cases for which the first method is inadequate. (Such cases exist.  The classical example is the Budget. ..."

DoDo : "This post grew out of the EU discussion. In that relation, on principle, I have two considerations: (1) it may be that among policies relevant at EU level, the "first method" dominates (for example because states or EP constantly renegotiate everything); (2) the main gripe with the Constitution was NOT the institutional framework but elevating neoliberalism into core philosophy."

 I don't think I understand what you're trying to tell me here in the two citations just above.  That means I don't know how to answer these points of yours.

 I'll hazard this much, however, with regard to the "(2)the main gripe with the Constitution was NOT the institutional framework but elevating neoliberalism into core philosophy."---

  My view--and that of others, too, as is amply demonstrated by the critiques and the commentary at the site  

  http://etienne.chouard.free.fr/Europe/index.htm

 is that, if it is true that "the main gripe with the Constitution was NOT the institutional framework but elevating neoliberalism into core philosophy," then this is greatly to be regretted and a great effort is needed to show people that, in fact, "the main gripe" ought to be about "the institutional framework" and, in particular, how well or poorly it corresponds to democratic principles; as Popper argues, it is that and not the question of who the momentary personalities are who occupy the positions of power, which ultimately determines whether or not a system can be made and kept in a democratic state of operation.  In the absence of those institutions, all resemblances to democracy are coincidental and subject to the whims of those in power.  The institutions are to be designed to thwart as much as possible their scope to exercise their whims.

As for your other objections, I'll need some clarification from you to reply to them since I don't think I've understood you on those points.

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Sat Jun 3rd, 2006 at 12:05:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
 "fours" to all of your responses above.

  There is not time right now for me to reply point by point to DoDo's comments, but I thank you for them, DoDo, all the same.

 I ought to try and reply though to both Technopolitical's and DoDo's comments on Popper's point # 4.  

  First, it's my view that Popper always deserves the benefit of the doubt in any interpretation of his meaning.  Thus, between any two reasonable interpretations, the one which places him in a better, fairer, more humane and tolerant light, rather than the one which is less so of all of that, I believe should be adopted.

  Thus, I am happy to accept Technopolitical's remark,


  "In interpreting his statement that "the full protection of minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to violent overthrow of the democracy", I can only assume that he means that protection of minorities need not include excusing them from the duty to obey the law, and that protection of political expression need not include protection of incitement to violence."

 as better and more valid than the doubts which underlay my stated reservations or disagreement with Popper on this point.  I can completely subscribe to the view as explained by Technopolitical, then, and have no further reservations with point # 4 if viewed in that way.

  The foregoing means, then, that of course I agree completely, as Technopol. understands me  to do, with the view that, "protection of minorities need not include excusing them from the duty to obey the law," and,  "that protection of political expression need not include protection of incitement to violence,"
provided that we bear in mind that in this, Popper assumes as a given that it is a genuine "democracy" of which one may not be allowed to advocate the violent overthrow.  That implies that there are still fully operable peaceful means to turn the existing government out of power.  Where that is not the case, I believe Popper is prepared to--and even did -- argue that, in the absence of all other less extreme measures, an oppressed public has the right to resort to force to defend itself and to defeat an oppressive and undemocratic regime.

  That leaves me, then, with no remaining reservations about point # 4.
 

"In such an environment it is not surprising that the ills of technology should seem curable only through the application of more technology..." John W Aldridge

by proximity1 on Fri Jun 2nd, 2006 at 12:31:45 PM EST


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