There’s been a good deal of talk recently about our failures as a democracy — our politicians can’t make hard decisions any more, or Australian governments are weak in comparison to entities like the UN, the World Bank, transnational corporations and even NGOs like Greenpeace and the WWF, or we the citizens are lazy, self-satisfied and uninterested. I’m not of that camp, though there is something in the criticisms. Over the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading classics from my youth, one of them Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, written during the Second World War. Despite its formidable title, it is an easy book to read, almost conversational in its style.
Popper sees a real democracy as an ‘open society’, and he says at one point that democracies only work if the main parties adhere to rules about the functions of such a society. I thought it a good passage, and summarise it here. In sum, the job of a democracy is not to do good so much as to prevent evil.
(1) It’s not just the rule of the majority, because majorities can be tyrannical. What is crucial is that the powers of the rulers must be limited. That is why we must have real, free and honest elections. It is imperative that all parties work to keep those elections honest.
(2) Societies that don’t have the removal of elected governments as both possible and achievable without violence are tyrannies, whatever else they call themselves.
(3) A consistently democratic Constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system: one which would endanger its democratic character.
(4) This one I present as he wrote it: 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 the violent overthrow of the democracy.
(5) If you are framing institutions to safeguard democracy, never forget that there may be anti-democractic tendencies among the ruled, as well as among the rulers.
(6) If democracy is destroyed, all rights are destroyed. Even if the rulers retain certain economic advantages, they would persist only on sufferance.
(7) Democracies work well because they provide an arena for reasonable reforms, which can take place without violence. But those who want to undertake reforms need to remember to maintain the democratic context in which they want to bring about their reforms (whatever they are). If they don’t, the latent anti-democratic tendencies that are always there in societies may bring about a breakdown of the democracy itself, to everyone’s cost.
Popper goes on to admonish us that we must not blame ‘democracy’ for all the evils that it does not prevent. You can hear a lot of that kind of blame today. Some climate botherers urge us to abandon democracy, because the things that must be done to save the planet require firm, tough leaders, and democracy cannot provide them. Popper says that we the citizens have to be alert all the time. What he calls ‘the strain of civilisation’ applies: you are free in an open society, a democracy, but it comes with costs. You have to put up with people who disagree with you, who have ideas that you think are silly, or even dangerous, and your only weapon is thought, argument, discussion. You need to approach them as rational people, listen to them, and then respond. We can find that tiresome. But banning the others, banning their thoughts and ideas is not the way to go. It was all so much simpler when we lived in tribes.
We in Australia think that the question at election time is ‘Who will rule us for the next three years?’ Popper says that there are more serious underlying questions: ‘How are they to rule us?’ and ‘How much power is to be wielded?’ These, too, are issues that we rarely talk about.
Popper wrote his book when he was in New Zealand, an émigré from Austria who had the good fortune to be able to teach at the university in Christchurch, as well as the early foresight to see that emigration might be necessary (though he was baptised as a Lutheran his grandparents were all Jewish). His focus was not on the democracy he was living in, though there are occasional references to Australia, Sweden and other living democracies, but to his own native country and others like it in Europe where democracy had had not survived.
Why did democracy not survive there? His answer was that philosophers and politicians had been caught up in the view that powerful historical forces ordained outcomes for humanity over which humans themselves were almost powerless. His principal targets were Plato, whom he saw as providing a foundation for the view that a small natural elite of rulers was the right basis for government, and Hegel, who taught that society was everything, the individual nothing. On top of all that Marx (and Spengler and Toynbee) saw historical laws as omnipotent. Societies rose and fell, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Marx had a more sophisticated version, in which feudalism led to capitalism, which would destroy itself and be replaced by socialism. Again, these things would just happen; they were inevitable.
Amid the horror of war, and the memory of the depression and the tensions that had characterised at least the second half of the interwar period, such a pessimistic outlook had many adherents. Popper saw these ‘historicist’ accounts of humanity’s joinery as not just wrongheaded but pernicious as well. Good societies, ‘open’ societies’, were achievable, but achieving that state was hard work. Hence his rules that I have set out above.
How does Australia stack up in this context? Pretty well, I think. As I said in the Australia Day essay, our politicians have not tried to subvert the Constitution, either from the left or the right. There may have been a moment during 1931, when a right-wing group seriously considered overthrowing the Lang Labor Government in New South Wales. It came to nothing, and perhaps it would not have succeeded had it tried. Intolerance and xenophobia can be found in our society, but I’m not sure that it is any worse than it was fifty years ago.
On the whole, Australian governments go for what Popper calls ‘piecemeal social engineering’, or what I call ‘incrementalism’ — tweaking at the edges rather than trying to make some large universal change. There are exceptions, and the old-age pension was one. I didn’t see a real need for the National Broadband Network, and it is struggling, far behind the confident projections for its success made by Kevin Rudd all those years ago. The NDIS, another ‘universalist’ project, is also discovering that tweaking at the edges might have been more effective and efficient, if slower.
The trouble is that we are used to instant gratification. If we can have instant food, why not an instant change in the body politic or in social welfare? And there will always be the chanting groups to voice that possibility. Democracies are not perfect. They are just much better than the alternatives, as Churchill pointed out. We have to live with their noise and their imperfections, and protect them against the attractive but deluded notion that a wise, beneficent ruler would be so much better.
Popper spoke of a twentieth-century intellectualism which expresses its disillusionment, or even despair, of reason and of a rational solution of our social problems, by an escape into a religious mysticism. He knew nothing of ‘climate change’, but in fact there is quite a lot in the book which translates easily into that contemporary issue, and I’ll write about it in another essay.