09 April 2012

Popper's Criterion and negative politics

From Freeman Dyson's review of a book by David Deutsch I found my way to a sort of philosophical justification for negative campaigning. Deutsch's book is The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. According to Dyson, Deutsch depends on two core propositions: "problems are inevitable" and "problems are soluble." For Deutsch, these propositions have political implications. In Dyson's words, "In recent debates over the choice of rulers, people have usually asked the wrong question. They asked, who are the best rulers? They assumed that if this question were answered, then we should allow the best rulers to rule and the problem of good government would be solved." This is a fallacy as far as Deutsch is concerned, because (in Dyson's paraphrase) "There are no best rulers, because power corrupts and circumstances change." For that reason, the object of democratic elections should not be to choose the best rulers, but "to get rid of the worst without bloodshed." Referring to Deutsch's own website, this principle is identified as "Popper's Criterion," invoking Sir Karl Popper, the philosopher best known for The Open Society and Its Enemies, an attack on Plato's malign influence over intellectual history. Popper wrote that "a state is politically free if its political institutions enable its citizens in practice to change a government without bloodshed when a majority wishes such a change." In Deutsch's paraphrase, " Good political institutions make it as easy as possible to discover whether a ruler or policy is a mistake, and to remove mistaken rulers or policies without violence."

Whether "politically free" institutions are synonymous with "good" ones shouldn't be taken for granted,  -- majorities are no more infallible than rulers -- but let's do so for now. Granting that premise still begs a question. While Popper and Deutsch entitle citizens to vote based on a negative appraisal of the incumbent, they propose no criteria, at least in this sound-bite format, for replacing the failed ruler. Do you replace the ruler with just anybody? Bipolarchy takes the proposition to an undesirable extreme by effectively requiring voters to choose one specific candidate, regardless of qualifications, in order to get rid of an unsatisfactory incumbent. But what if there are several alternatives? Would Popper or Deutsch give us a better standard for determining their comparative viability than the current system? Or does their ideal oblige everyone to "go negative," emphasizing the flaws in each candidate so that voters, in the best-case scenario, can reasonably choose a least-worst candidate? If politics as well as science is founded on a proposition that "problems are soluble," shouldn't we want our candidates to identify the problems most in need of solutions and propose solutions from which voters choose the best? If we grant the point that no politician is or can remain qualified to solve all possible problems, term limits might insure fresh perspectives based on new circumstances without the sort of negativity widely thought to demoralize people about politics in general, and without leaving voters a worst-case either-or choice between the incumbent and a sole viable opponent. I should not be thought unreasonably idealistic or ideological for not wanting elections to be conducted on a purely reactionary basis. If Popper's Criterion comes with safeguards against that possibility, there isn't really much wrong with it on paper. Accountability is exactly what we want in politics, after all, and we certainly don't want rulers to be immune from it. But if Popper's Criterion, as applied by Deutsch or others, proves no more than an excuse for not thinking progressively as citizens, it may be that certain open societies are their own worst enemies.

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