de Jasay vs Popper on social engineering

Anthony de Jasay is one of my favorite commentators, he is a libertarian or very strong liberal and a regular columnist even in his old age.  A search reveals that he is Hungarian born and spent time in both Austria and Australia!

After two years in Austria, he emigrated to Australia in 1950 and took a part-time course in Economics at the University of Western Australia. Winning a Hackett Studentship, he went to Oxford in 1955 and was elected a research fellow of Nuffield College where he stayed till 1962, publishing papers in the Economic Journal, the Journal of Political Economy and other learned journals.

In 1991 he published a scathing critique of  Popper and piecemeal social engineering, this turned  up by accident when I was browsing in Questia, the on-line library.

I am prepared to concede that Popper in the Open Society allowed more credit to Marx than necessary (especially regarding his account of  the conditions brought about by the industrial revolution) and that his take on the causes of unemployment (for example) took him in the direction of  interventionist and social democratic policies that I now find unsatisfactory. His major advisor on economics as he wrote the OSE was the young Colin Simkin who was a Keynesian and an enthusiastic advocate of the Scandanavian road. [An example of  piecemeal engineering that Popper instanced was Scandanavian budgeting for something or other]. I have inserted critical commentary in the gloss that accompanies the condensed OSE (vol 2) though I appreciate that it is not fair to re-write the OSE to libertarian specifications. [I am very keen to rewrite the first part of Human Action along the lines of fallible apriorism but I am afraid the the good old boys at Auburn would probably put out a contract.]

One rejoinder to de Jasay is to ask if  he has any problem with the role that von Mises played as an advisor to the Austrian government during the 1920s when he was  pushing reforms to trade policy, spending, and regulation of  all kinds. That was  piecemeal social engineering. It is most unfortunate that von Mises himelf launched venomous attacks on social engineering without bothering to mention that the piecemeal form of the process was the very thing that he (von Mises) pursued for a decade or more in his day job while he did his scholarly  work in the evening. [Recall the time etc and Popper etc ].

De Jasay starts with an account of the way that political programs may be subjected to criticism, especially by locating internal inconsistencies (the von Mises critique of undesirable forms of interevention took the form of showing contradiction between the stated objectives and the observed results). He pointed out that it is difficult to take issue with more or less one-off or freestanding proposals that are not embedded in a program because “they escape the requirements of coherence, of mutual consistency”.

“The upshot of this for political philosophy is that we should treat protestations of pragmatism, disavowals of doctrine, negations of ideological bias as the shrillest of alarm signals. They should warn us that we are being stalked by the unfalsifiable. They foreshadow the stealthy creep of a programme of piecemeal action radiating irrefutable good sense and good will; a programme that is easy to accept and churlish to disparage; a set of least-cost, least-pain solutions to our ills that risks to be debilitating in its cumulative effects. I am, of course, referring to social democracy.”

De Jasay notes that Popper would place democracy (and, one might add, freedom) a long way above socialism on his scale of values, however he went on to write that “His commitment to democracy, however, takes a form that almost obliterates the question of what comes first. It helps him bypass the problem of conflicting priorities. Unlike many other social democrats, he does not seem to be worried by the dilemma: “where do I stand if the democratic process generates reactionary, anti-social outcomes?” The reason why the question does not seem to arise for him lies in what seems to be the “twistability” of his image of democracy…Nor does he find it necessary to define what he means by democracy”.

De Jasay identifies two meanings of democracy, one is procedural and deontic (which means pertaining to duties and obligations). The other is substantive and concerned with consequences.

Democracy has become such a general purpose “feel good” concept that it is helpful to unpack the different meanings to explore just why democracy is generally and uncritically regarded as a Good Thing. Among a very small minority the “feel good” vibe has been replaced by a negative or “feel bad” vibe that we find in the likes of Hans-Hermann Hoppe who blames many if not all of our ills on democracy

The first concept refers to a set of rules for reaching collective decisions that (if followed) permits a regime to be called democratic. Hence the term applies to African states and Iraq as long as we think that the level of fraud and ballot-stuffing in the latest round of elections did  not exceed some acceptable level. The other refers to the decisions that, if reached by due process, represent a democratic regime.

“The deontological meaning would oblige us to accept the “verdict of the urns” no matter how idiotic or vicious we judge it to be; it is the democratic decision and we are deemed to have the duty to respect it. American liberals are perhaps the most typical adherents to this interpretation, while classical liberals would be provoked, by deplorable “verdicts of the urns,” to question the rules, the electoral laws, unqualified franchise, campaign financing, or other parts of the collective choice process.”

The second version gives rise, on de Jasay’s account, to a very disturbing conclusion.

“The consequentialist meaning, on the contrary, leads us to identify a decision procedure as democratic if it produced the right result, undemocratic if it did not. Thus for Rousseau, and for his heirs Robespierre and Lenin, there is a “general will” (or its equivalent under other names) which society either recognizes or not, and must be enlightened or forced to recognize if it does not do so spontaneously. For socialists, a decision giving effect to the “real” interests of the working class is democratic, one that does not is manipulated, misled, extorted by media pressure, beset by false consciousness.”

This could be called the “trojan horse” theory of democracy, recruiting the resonance of the concept to dignify very nasty policies, in the way that Plato recruited the resonance of “justice” to sell his collectivist state (see chapter six of TOSE).

“Popper’s own use of the term falls between the deontological and the consequentialist in a way that can cause unease. “By democracy I do not mean something as vague as ‘the rule of the people’ or ‘the rule of the majority,’ but a set of institutions (among them especially general elections, i.e., the right of the people to dismiss their government) which permit public control of the rulers and their dismissal by the ruled, and which make it possible for the ruled to obtain reforms…” (p. 151); “democracy…is the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power; it is the control of the rulers by the ruled. And…political democracy is also the only means for the control of economic power by the ruled” (p. 127).”

“Democracy, then, is “a set of institutions” that produce various desirable results and conditions. They are stressed in contradistinction to persons who may be arbitrary and abusive (ch. 7). But the institutions remain unspecified and play no visible role. How do they “control” power?—and do they really succeed in doing so? Confident in the power of reason, Popper is not troubled by the question: institutions are “designed” to achieve what we expect of them (p. 131). Democracy is not rule-obedience in general or majority rule in particular. It is the getting of the right results, and if our institutions do get them, they have proved themselves to be democratic. If they fail to get them, we can always adjust their design. For democracy is not a predetermined institutional design; it is a set of consequences that are independently specified (e.g. control of the rulers, control of economic power, reform) and can then be used to determine the dependent variable, the institutions that must somehow or other yield the required consequences.”

Perhaps Popper should have been more specific about the institutions and traditions that he wanted to produce the kind of results that he wanted, however de Jasay’s critique goes far beyond the identification of topics where Popper was misguided (like the causes of unemployment and the need to control “economic power”). His attack demonstrates that it is not possible to write clearly enough to prevent misrepresentation by people who are sufficiently determined to do so.

It is helpful to refer to Popper’s address to the Mont Pelerin Society to find a more positive statement on the principles of desirable reform.

(1) The state is a necessary evil and its powers should be kept to the minimum that is necessary.

(2) A democracy is a state where the government can be changed without bloodshed.

(3) Democracy cannot confer benefits on people. “Democracy provides no more than a framework within which the citizens may act in a more or less organised and coherent way”.

(4) Democracy does not mean that the majority is right.

(5) Institutions need to be tempered and supported by traditions.

(6) There is no Liberal Utopia. There are always problems, conflicts of interests, choices to be made between the lesser of evils.

(7) Liberalism is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It is about modifying or changing institutions and traditions rather than wholesale replacement of the existing order. The exception to this is when a tyranny is in place, that is a government that can only be changed by violence and bloodshed.

8) The importance of the moral framework.

Turning to de Jasay’s critical comments in the last para quoted above.

“Democracy, then, is “a set of institutions” that produce various desirable results and conditions. They are stressed in contradistinction to persons who may be arbitrary and abusive (ch. 7). But the institutions remain unspecified and play no visible role. How do they “control” power?—and do they really succeed in doing so?”

The institutions are a mixture of traditions, mores, moral intuitions, plus the written laws, rules and regulations that relate to the election of politicians and the administration of the state. Popper’s central concern in TOSE was to identify and subject to criticism a number of theories that inhibit and undermine our pursuit of peace, freedom and prosperity.

The completion of TOSE would have been delayed for a very long time if Popper had tried to write the textbook on democratic governance that de Jasay would like to see.

“Confident in the power of reason, Popper is not troubled by the question [of control]: institutions are “designed” to achieve what we expect of them (p. 131).”

Popper followed the Scottish and Austrian dictum that institutions are seldom planned, they evolve without plan or design until we become aware of them. When we do become aware of them (and their diversity) and the way that different results flow from different institutional arrangements, then  we can make more or less deliberate attempts to improve them (at our risk, given the unintended consequences that  will occur). The risk factor is the reason for taking a careful, piecemeal approach and monitoring the results as best we can to correct mistakes. Popper had very limited confidence in the power of reason although he regarded the increased use of reason as a very important moral objective. I don’t know where de Jasay picked up the idea that Popper was not concerned about the question of control (one of the minor evils he identified was the tyranny of the petty official. That was long before the recent developments in airport security). If you accept that there is any role at all for improving institutions then it is not a large step to “designing” the changes to achieve what we want or expect from the system.

“Democracy is not rule-obedience in general or majority rule in particular. It is the getting of the right results, and if our institutions do get them, they have proved themselves to be democratic.”

Popper defined democracy as a situation where the rulers can be replaced without resort to violence. That is a desirable result but it is necessary, not sufficient. Of course it is not the end of the story but Popper wrote the OSE during a conflict that was caused as much as anything else (in his view) by romantic and revolutionary ideas which captivated large numbers of intellectuals and replaced the aims of limited government, the rule of law, freedom, equalitarian justice, respect for the individual etc with very different objectives that destroy peace, freedom and human dignity. It seems that de Jasay has not engaged with the main thrust of Popper’s arguments and has focused on a narrow section of them (specifically his thoughts of piecemeal social engineering), taken out of context and distorted in a mean-spirited, ironic and almost derisive manner.

“If they fail to get them, we can always adjust their design. For democracy is not a predetermined institutional design; it is a set of consequences that are independently specified (e.g. control of the rulers, control of economic power, reform) and can then be used to determine the dependent variable, the institutions that must somehow or other yield the required consequences.”

The question arises again, is de Jasay interested in improving the design of instiutions or not? It is one thing to challenge Popper’s views on specific elements of policy, such as the alleged need to control economic power and to intervene to reduce unemployment, but that is a very different thing from challenging the concept of gradual improvement, guided by the principles of the liberal order that Popper spelled out (above).

It seems that de Jasay’s rhetorical device to press his argument with Popperian piecemeal reform is to place Popper’s ideas in “the setting of the social democratic consensus”. It is clear from the beginning that the real target in this piece is social democracy and it is  a worthy target as well, but I want to challenge the wisdom and the validity of throwing Popper’s ideas “under the bus” to give the wheels of classical liberalism or libertarianism better traction in the contest with social democracy.

“There is a setting, though, where describing democracy by the results we should like it to produce does not lead to the clash of one irrefutable rhetoric with another. This is the setting of the social democratic consensus. One is tempted to find that Popper’s notion of democracy is relative to this consensus, and is hardly comprehensible outside it. Within it, all are broadly agreed about what it means that the ruled control the rulers (it means that the government is unseated when it does “too little” or “too much”); that the economic power of the state protects freedom rather than menacing it (it means that power is exercised in an “institutional framework,” not according to the “arbitrary will” of bureaucrats); and that no citizen is reduced to “practical slavery” (it means that the “economically weak” are never “forced to sell themselves” on the labor market). Anyone who is not already a social democrat at heart will not be persuaded that these terms really describe a recognizable world. They are twistable and not testable; they evaluate rather than specify; only for the like-minded do they mean one and the same thing.”

Given that I have sympathy both with de Jasay and Popper, the burden of my argument is to explain that Popper’s views on democracy and reform are compatible with the de Jasay’s libertarian stance, at least in the long term (or in terms of philosophical first principles).

The background to that statement is my reading of Jan Lester’s book Escape from Leviathan. That book drew upon Popper and Bartley’s statement of non-justificationism. That is the non-authoritarian theory of knowledge spelled out in the Introduction to Conjectures and Refutations, which I recognised on first reading circa 1970 as the ideal epistemology for a liberating political economy. I liked to refer to Popper’s epistemology as “non-authoritarian” to make the political connection but that was lost in the great battle over the perceived defects of “falsification” and the obsession of the philosophers with justified beliefs.

Anyway, Lester drew on Popper and Bartley in the appropriate and revolutionary manner. Equally importantly, he identified the social democrat errors in Popper’s political philosophy. With the errors identified we can make full use of the valuable insights that he provided in his critique of Plato and Aristotle etc.  

The next step in de Jasay’s argument is to challenge Popper’s claims against historicism and to attempt to demonstrate that Popper himself cannot avoid falling into the error of historicism. To anticipate my major criticism of de Jasay on this point, he has not taken on board the distinction that Popper (and von Mises) drew between scientific prediction and prophecy (or even the more modest kind of prophecy that consists of projecting trends).

“If there is a link between Popper’s philosophy of knowledge and his view of society and its politics, it is his rejection of historicism. Were it not for this link, his scattered remarks on good and bad government, rational politics, equality, social justice, freedom and its protection could easily be taken for the ad hoc opinions of almost any well-meaning, progressive lay citizen…His emphatic anti-historicist stand, however, appears to provide a unifying principle, helping to organize disparate pieces of social diagnosis and therapy into something like a political theory.”

“Historicism at bottom treats “history” as a series of events (“social developments”) displaying certain regularities that are more predictable than most…Consequently, history or social development has laws that can be discovered and exploited.”

“Popper will have none of this. For him, history has no “meaning,” no “tide” and no “wave.” When pushed, he does not hesitate to say that there is no such thing as “history,” only histories of particular classes of events. Above all, there are no historical laws. Historical determinism is naive or wicked superstition, and so are theories of “social development.” Not only are they morally defective and defeatist, they also lack any basis in the theory of knowledge.”

“Yet, if historicism has no rational foundation, how is social engineering nonetheless possible?”

The answer is that social institutions can be purposefully improved by the same methods that the design of bridges, cars, computers and mousetraps can be improved. By learning more about the way they work, then making adjustments and testing, all the time bearing in mind the limitations of our knowledge and the likelihood of unintended consequences.

“For the consequent anti-historicist, social engineering ought to be impossible for the fundamental reason that we cannot knowingly engineer society without relying on a falsifiable hypothesis of its “physics”; but any such hypothesis would be a historicist one”.

Run that past me again. Predictions about the performance of social institutions are historicist?

The whole point of the criticisms that von Mises and Popper launched against the historicists was to defend the quest for universal laws of economics and the social sciences against the historicists who believed that there can be no such things – who claimed either that investigation had to stop with the description of unique entities or that the laws (if any) are laws of historical development that defy attempts at description or explanation in terms of the universal laws of science (a la Popper and von Mises).

It seems that de Jasay should have read the appropriate sections of The Poverty of Historicism where Popper drew the distinction between scientific “if…then…” prediction on the one hand and on the other hand prophecies and trend extrapolations.

For the purpose of explaining scientific prediction von Mises, as an artilleryman, used the example of the penetrating capacity of a projectile, and Popper used the example of designing a wall to withstand a wind of specified velocity. 

Not having grasped that distinction, de Jasay proceeds…

“What, then, is the difference between the “laws of social development” which Popper despises, and the body of hypotheses about how society works, which he believes possible and useful? Is he, or is he not, a historicist?”

Given the difference between scientific prediction and the prophecies of historicism, von Mises and Popper were not historicists.

Given that de Jasay did not take the crucial point, his argument at this stage is hopelessly confused. He asks as a rhetorical question:

“Yet, in postulating a “social technology,” Popper seems to be asserting that the “logic of scientific discovery” is perfectly applicable to social development which we can understand, predict, and mold.”

The weasel words in that statement are “social development” and “predict”. Popper was not prepared to predict social developments any more than he was prepared to predict scientific developments. He has an intricate formal argument to that effect appended to the book version of The Poverty of Historicism.  De Jasay or some of his associates should have read that argument (along with the other arguments in The Poverty of Historicism that would clarify de Jasay’s confusion) and saved him from publishing such an unhelpful misrepresentation of Popper’s ideas.

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