Tocqueville anticipated me

Katrina Forrester

In October 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that George Soros had violated insider trading laws more than two decades ago in dealings with the French bank Société Générale. Soros has given billions of his personal wealth to fund liberal political organisations, notably his own Open Society Foundations, which operate on a global scale and have supported anti-totalitarian movements from Poland’s Solidarity to Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, as well as countless other organisations that promote human rights. He has promised to give $100 million to Human Rights Watch over the next ten years. The decision of the European Court, however, brings Soros to book for the nastier things he does when he’s not being a philanthropist. His teacher and mentor, Karl Popper, might have seen this as an example of the paradox of unintended consequences. Soros’s actions also illustrate one of the central puzzles of Popper’s liberalism. Like Soros, Popper wanted to have it both ways: he wanted to unify the humanitarian left while celebrating the openness of the free market, with all its imbalances. Did he succeed?

Popper began his academic career as a philosopher of science in Vienna, where he mixed with the Logical Positivists. Being, as he put it, ‘of Jewish descent’, he fled Vienna for New Zealand in 1937. The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945, made him famous. He took a job at the LSE, where he remained for the rest of his life – Soros was one of his students there. Before this, his reputation had rested mainly on his Logik der Forschung (1934), in which he gave an account of explanation and claimed to have found a way round the problem of induction – the question of how empirical observations about the world lead to general laws of explanation. Popper argued that the laws of science are not based on the principle of verification, but on the principle of ‘falsifiability’. The claim that ‘all swans are white’ cannot be verified by any number of observations of white swans; however, the claim can be falsified by the existence of only one black swan. Popper regarded the attempt to translate experience into verifiable knowledge as misguided. Instead of searching for illusory certainty and trying to confirm hypotheses about the world, we should aim at bold but robust hypotheses that are less false. Popper thought his ‘fallibilism’ applied to both natural and social sciences. But while many believers in the unity of the natural and social sciences were interested in applying scientific laws to society in order to predict social change, Popper argued that in natural science unconditional predictions, in any case very rare, are peculiar to some natural systems and not others: they should never serve as a model for predictions about human society. There was little room for certainty in science, and in politics there was even less.

The Open Society was one of a number of contemporary works of political theory (others included Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom) that saw both fascism and communism as forms of totalitarianism. Popper attacked what he saw as the logic underpinning totalitarianism: the collectivist, anti-rationalist and historicist ideas of Plato, Hegel and Marx. He claimed that they put tradition before reason and the collective before the individual, and that they believed in laws of history which could explain the past and predict the future. Popper saw this as dangerous nonsense. Grand theories of history allowed political actors to get away with murder. Worse still, they could deny the realities of unintended consequences and justify wicked actions as necessary steps on the path to utopia.

Popper sought a theory of politics that took ‘fallibilism’ seriously, and it was clear to him that any politics that rested on historicism wouldn’t do. What was needed was a political system that allowed for trial and error, for mistakes to be made and acknowledged. Popper claimed that The Open Society was part of his ‘war effort’, an attempt to discredit totalitarianism, but he also intended it to be useful to political actors in building the peace to come.

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