Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who Should Rule?

Karl R. Popper
"It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy. It is indeed analogous to the confusion he created in the field of moral philosophy by his identification, discussed in the last chapter, of collectivism and altruism. It is clear that once the question ‘Who should rule?’ is asked, it is hard to avoid some such reply as ‘the best’ or ‘the wisest’ or ‘the born ruler’ or ‘he who masters the art of ruling’ (or, perhaps, ‘The General Will’ or ‘The Master Race’ or ‘The Industrial Workers’ or ‘The People’). But such a reply, convincing as it may sound—for who would advocate the rule of ‘the worst’ or ‘the greatest fool’ or ‘the born slave’?—is, as I shall try to show, quite useless. First of all, such a reply is liable to persuade us that some fundamental problem of political theory has been solved. But if we approach political theory from a different angle, then we find that far from solving any fundamental problems, we have merely skipped over them, by assuming that the question ‘Who should rule?’ is fundamental. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’ (we need not worry about the precise meaning of these terms), and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?"

Karl Raimund Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies,
  [1945], Vol.1, Chapter 7: The Principle Of Leadership

One might not get Popper's idea at first reading. A democrat might easily object that there is no problem with this question „who should rule?“, because the answer is straight forward: „the one, who gets the majority of votes“. But with this naive answer the democrat just does not get out of the trouble. The whole point in Popper's arguments against the question „Who should rule?“ is that it does not even mention control of the souvereign. That the souvereign is not controlled or even should not be controlled – this is what Popper calls the theory of (unchecked) sovereign. According to Popper, each instance of this principle leads to an inconsistency. E.g. if the answer is „the wisest man“, then it might happen that this wisest man wisely decides the majority should rule, thereby giving up his own sovereign. The same holds for the naive democrat.

"[…] there is also a kind of logical argument which can be used to show the inconsistency of any of the particular forms of the theory of sovereignty; more precisely, the logical argument can be given different but analogous forms to combat the theory that the wisest should rule, or else the theories that the best, or the law, majority, etc., should rule. One particular form of this logical argument is directed against a too naive version of liberalism, of democracy, and of the principle that the majority should rule; and it is somewhat similar to the well-known ‘paradox of freedom’ which has been used first, and with success, by Plato. In his criticism of democracy, and in his story of the rise of the tyrant, Plato raises implicitly the following question: What if it is the will of the people that they should not rule, but a tyrant instead? The free man, Plato suggests, may exercise his absolute freedom, first by defying the laws and ultimately by defying freedom itself and by clamouring for a tyrant. This is not just a far-fetched possibility; it has happened a number of times; and every time it has happened, it has put in a hopeless intellectual position all those democrats who adopt, as the ultimate basis of their political creed, the principle of the majority rule or a similar form of the principle of sovereignty. On the one hand, the principle they have adopted demands from them that they should oppose any but the majority rule, and therefore the new tyranny; on the other hand, the same principle demands from them that they should accept any decision reached by the majority, and thus the rule of the new tyrant. The inconsistency of their theory must, of course, paralyse their actions. Those of us democrats who demand the institutional control of the rulers by the ruled, and especially the right of dismissing the government by a majority vote, must therefore base these demands upon better grounds than a self-contradictory theory of sovereignty."

Note that the theories of sovereignity only destroy themselves under certain conditions. It does not follow with necessity that the majority will finally vote for a tyrant. But uncontrolled sovereign might always end up this way (as we know).

Just for the record, what if the answer is that the capitalists should rule? Under which conditions would the capitalists decide to abolish the sovereign of capitalism?  


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