The Political Views of Martin Gardner

If you are like me, you have collected many books which you intend to read, but don’t get to them for years, and then there are those “archaic” books which take up your attention instead. The result is missing out on what is currently published or in fashion.

Well, I finally read some of Martin Gardner’s “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivner” (1983); “Postscript” (1999). He tells us that he believes in a God, in soul, in immortality, and in the efficacy of prayers. And he has no justification for any of these beliefs except for the fact that he believes them. Period. So much for the Enlightenment project!

Well, I am not interested in his personal faith, and so, most of his book is of little interest to me, except for the three chapters in which he expounds his political views. These are chapter 7: The State: Why I am not an Anarchist; chapter 8: The State: Why I am not a Smithian; chapter 9: Liberty: Why I am not a Marxist.

These three chapters could have been combined with the title: Why I am a Social Democrat.

He correctly points out that political labels are ambiguous and vague; so we must understand them as used by Gardner. Extreme socialism (which he identifies with Marxism), for him, is a position in which the State owns and operated the means of production; every industry in nationalized, as it was in the Soviet Union. By “Smithian” he mean laissez faire capitalism with a minimal State, as expounded, for example, by Robert Nozick in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” and by Milton Friedman in “Freedom and Capitalism.” By “anarchism” he means a Stateless society (which he extends to mean “governmentless”).

He thinks a Stateless society is now unfeasible in view of industrialization. But he does not want industry to be totally in private hands. He wants some industries to be nationalized, private industries to be regulated by government, and he wants a welfare State. And he wants a constitutional democracy. This conglomerate of ideas he calls “social democracy.”

He points out that most States are a mixture of free enterprise and government control. The problem is to find the right balance between the two.

In response. From my perspective the problem is “constitutional democracy” — which Gardner talks about only in a peripheral manner. He writes: “Democracy clearly functions best to the degree that voters are intelligent and well informed, which means, of course, that the efficiency of democracy is strongly tied to education.” … “education may not keep pace with extensions of the franchise, that ignorant voting will substitute a rule by boobs for a rule by the wise.” p. 120.

And we do have rule by boobs.

But the problem is not simply that we have an uneducated electorate. The problem is many-fold. Given mass democracy (as contrasted with micro democracy), a candidate for office must rely on advertisement (which takes money), and, as Gardner pointed out, in 1967, in Picoaza, Ecuador, a foot powder, called Polvapies, was elected mayor. Gardner confesses to not knowing how to solve this problem except through better education.

Also given mass democracy and the need for candidates to advertise, the probability is that only the rich and the friends of the rich will be elected. And once elected, they will work for the rich — as is definitely the case in the United States.

We also have right now in the U.S. a President, who happens to be a boob. In Switzerland they don’t have this problem. They have a Federal Council of seven individuals. So, even if one of them is a boob, there are six others to keep him in his place.

Gardner, I fear, never understood what was capitalism. It is a free-enterprise system which is aided by a government which forbids people from free access to subsistence land. And given the nature of mass democracy in which the rich rule, there never will be passed a law which gives people a free access to subsistence land.

This can only occur with anarchism, which is based on micro democracy in which the unit of government is a small community of some 100 families federated with other such communities into a confederation. Gardner was unaware of this form of anarchism in Ukraine under Nestor Makhno during the Russian Civil War 1918-1921; nor of the anarchism which flourished in Spain during their Civil War and Revolution 1936-1939, with worker-controlled enterprises both in industry and agriculture.

Gardner rejected anarchism because he did not know what it was.

Timothy Snyder and Gore Vidal on the American Imperial (“Tyrannical”) Presidency

Timothy Snyder, in the following video, notes that the Presidency of Trump has the earmarks of tyranny.

I agree with what he says, except for his praise of the Constitution. He thinks that the Constitution was designed to prevent tyranny through a division of powers. That may well have been the intention. But the Constitution is flawed in many respects.

Among these flaws, the most egregious one is in having created the office of a President, elected by an electoral college and mass democracy. A better system would have been to have a prime minister nominated and elected by Congress, and even better one would have been a system with two co-equal prime-ministers, nominated by two parties with each minister having veto power over the other, as was the case in ancient Roman Republic with their two consuls. But a still better system would have been to imitate Switzerland and have four political parties nominate a seven-member executive council and cabinet, which would then be confirmed by Congress.

The present system allows persons of low caliber to be elected as Presidents. Worse, once elected Presidents have enormous powers in nominating cabinet posts and federal judges, and they also have great discretionary powers as military commanders-in-chief to declare martial law, and send troops to quell uprisings. For example, the so-called American Civil War, was not a war against a foreign aggressor, but was taken to be a domestic rebellion, which did not require a Congressional declaration of war, but was entirely within the powers of the President. And President Lincoln decided to send troops to the south to squash this “rebellious secession” of the South — a mopping up operation, as it may be called, which cost over 600,000 lives.

Timothy Snyder does not seem to appreciate the fact that the exercise of power which Trump is exhibiting is granted to him by the Constitution, and the mechanism of impeachment is too weak to curtail his abuse of these powers.

The Constitution, as it exists, is geared to making sure that the rich are in control. How so? Well, given mass democracy it will be the rich who will predominate in Congress because of election expenditures. And, let’s not forget, the Senate, as originally established, was to be selected by State legislatures, which themselves would be controlled by the rich, and would elect Senators who were friends of the rich. Furthermore, the Senators were to serve six years which would outlast any temporary political upheavals.

Anyway, several years ago, Gore Vidal gave a very insightful analysis of the existing Imperial Presidency:


I know that it is very difficult to predict with any accuracy about what will happen to humans — there are too many factors to consider. Nonetheless, there are some generalizations which can be made. One is that the sun will burn out is some 4 to 5 billion years. Another is that given finite resources, infinite growth is impossible. It is this last generalization which has been at the horizon of my thinking — made explicit by Thomas Malthus, who in 1789 published an essay noting that resources (specifically food) grow arithmetically, while populations grow exponentially. The conclusion seemed obvious to me: there is a limit to growth. And a report by that name, “The Limits to Growth” was published in 1973, using a computer to take into account various factors. [Here is a documentary about this project:

The criticism was that the predictions failed. This is true. But the claim that there is a limit to growth with finite resources seems to me to be a truism, as does Paul Ehrich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968). Again, the criticism of these books was not that there is a population problem, but a disagreement about the severity of it, and what will take care of this problem.

We are now living in the midst of an ecological crisis, as well as with other possible global collapses. This impending sense of collapse has been analyzed and proclaimed by a host of people. One of them is Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse” (2005). Below is his 2003 TED talk on this subject:

Recently, I came across the compelling documentary film “Prophets of Doom” (2011):

It includes the following six “prophets”:

  • Michael Ruppert (1951-2014): “Confronting Collapse,” “Crossing the Rubicon”
  • Nathan Hagens
  • John Cronin: “The Riverkeepers”
  • James Howard Kunstler: “The Long Emergency,” “Home From Nowhere”
  • Hugo De Garis
  • Robert Gleason: “End of Days”

    Chris Hedges, The Myth of Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies

    Kirkpatrick Sale, The Collapse of 2020, 2020.

  • Critique of Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies”

    I keep reading Karl Popper’s book “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945), and trying to understand his stand on various issues.

    There is much in the views of Karl Popper with which I agree, but there are some fundamental things with which I disagree.

    Let me start with the things I agree with. I agree with his views on Plato and Marx. He thinks of Plato as a totalitarian, and of Marx as admirable in his descriptions and analyses of capitalism of his day, but as totally wrong in his prophesies. I also agree with him on the need of governments to take a “negative utilitarian” stance — meaning that governments should strive to minimize harm, rather than to try to promote a nebulous good or happiness. I also agree with him on the need to be rational, and the need for an open society which allows for free speech (including the right of assembly and protest). I was also impressed by his description of an “abstract” society — very insightful and prophetic.

    After these agreements, you may wonder what possibly would I disagree with. There are several things: his stance on definitions and “essences,” and, what appears to me to be a disparaging view of nationalism. But here I will not discuss these. The fundamental disagreement which I have with Popper is over his non-critical view of liberal democracy. In other words he approves of mass democracy, with a parliament and a president or a prime minister. And he seems to be nonchalant about the fact that dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler gained power in liberal democracies. Well, it is understandable when some dictator grabs power through a revolution or a military coup. But for liberal democracies to sprout dictators — to use Popper’s favorite method of modus tollens — constitutes a refutation of liberal democracy. But he does not see this. And he does not seem to have the imagination to envision other hypotheses about an acceptable form of democracy. The most glaring omission is that Popper never mentions Switzerland, which is, in my opinion, the best form of liberal mass democracy. The difference between Switzerland and all other forms of liberal democracy is that Switzerland does not place executive power into the hands of one individual, but disperses it among seven co-equal individuals. Furthermore, Popper seems to have no conception of anarchism. He could have cited the anarchism of Nestor Makhno in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War (1918-21), or the anarchism during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution (1936-9). But, he does not.

    Another point. He tries to distinguish “utopian engineering” from “piecemeal engineering.” Put otherwise, he is expressing a faith in social democracy as contrasted with revolution. I find that this distinction is not clear, for the simple reason, that a single piece of legislation could constitute a revolution. For example, according to Crane Brinton, the French Revolution occurred when Louis XVI agreed to the demands of the Third Estate that all three Estates meet together as the National Assembly. Another piece of social engineering — the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which freed the slaves, was a revolution. And I can envision that the following other amendments to the U.S. Constitution which would also constitute revolutions. Introducing a Swiss style Federal Council, or an agrarian amendment giving each citizen the right to a chunk of free subsistence land — would both be revolutions.

    The problem with this approach to “piecemeal engineering” revolutions is that it will not work, because of the structure of liberal democracies. They are structurally controlled by the rich, and the rich will never legislate such revolutionary amendments.