Criticism of Karl Popper in Broad Strokes

I have unsucessfully tried to understand Karl Popper’s political thinking, so I will try to tell you why I keep failing. Basically, it is because Popper does not seem to realize that analyzing meanings is important because of ambiguity, vagueness, and conflation. So, instead of trying to distill from his writings some distinct position, I will simply juxtapose my position to his murky one.

He is against nationalism. But the word “nationalism” is itself not clear, and he does not clarify it, and uses it as synonymous with an anthropological description of primitive (indigenous) tribes. And he is correct to think of primitive tribes as closed societies, meaning that there is total conformity as to mores and beliefs. And this is well illustrated by the example of Socrates who was killed both for corrupting the youth and for impiety. But he is wrong about modern nation-states. Many tolerated both religious and political criticism.

My understanding of “nationalism” (and this may very well be idiosyncratic to me), is that people speaking a common language want to be autonomous. As far as I am concerned this does not require having an independent State — an anarchistic federation of communities will do; though historically people with a common language have formed States. And it is totally puzzling to me why Popper failed to acknowledge this.

His general objections to social and territorial groupings of people is that these matters are vague with borderline cases. This is true, and there is nothing “natural” about this (as he points out); it is conventional. His objection to a demarcation of people by language is that there are dialects. But with the writing of dictionaries there is a sort of crystallization of languages.

I think that Popper, despite acknowledging that States were formed through conquest, thought that they were necessary, and would have arisen nonetheless for other reasons. And I do not see any criticism in Popper of imperial States, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire into which he was born. He would, I think, accept a constitutional monarchy, as long as there existed a mechanism for removing a tyrant from office.

He believed that the function of a State and even of some international institution, like a League of Nations, was to protect individuals — even within States. His view of the role of government in States is made abundantly clear in his discussion and defense of the position of the ancient Sophist, Lycophron (Open Society 1: pp. 114-17).

I think he lamented the disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He simply thought that Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, did not do a good enough job of protecting minorities in his empire.

Political Realism of John Mearsheimer

I have followed the activities of John Measheimer for several years. And although I criticized his views on liberal education, I think his views on international politics are on the mark. [But see my caveats: My criticism of John Mearsheimer and Timothy Snyder for focusing on ideologies rather than the interests of individual leaders]

He is the author of the following six books:

  • Conventional Deterrence, 1983
  • Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, 1988
  • The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 2001
  • The Israel Lobby, 2007
  • Why Leaders Lie, 2011
  • The Great Delusion, 2018

    Because I am interested in escaping from bullshit, I found his discussion with Vishnu Som on why leaders lie enlightening:

    Also, the following discussion of his book, The Great Delusion, pretty much summarizes Mearsheimer’s views on international affairs:

  • The Odd Conservativism of Karl Popper

    Although Karl Popper was very critical of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, he was also a very strong defender of the imperialistic liberal democracies. Sometimes one’s views are revealed by one’s silence; rather than by one’s explicit statements. In Popper’s case, there are a few pointers as to where he stood.

    Although Popper is in agreement with Marx over the 19th century conditions suffered by workers under capitalism. But he is totally silent on the conditions suffered by people by the European colonization of the world. And he expressed the belief that it was British humanitarian attitudes that led to Britain granting independence to India. To show that I am not exaggerating, here is a quote from his article “The History of Our Time: An Optimist’s View” (1956) [reprinted in his Conjectures and Refutations (1963)]:

    “When Mr Krushchev on his Indian tour indicated British colonialism, he was no doubt convinced of the truth of all he said. I do not know whether he was aware that his accusation were derived, via Lenin, largely from British sources. Had he known it, he would probably have taken it as an additional reason for believing in what he was saying . But he would have been mistaken; for this kind of self-accusation is a peculiarly British virtue as well as a peculiarly British vice. The truth is that the idea of India’s freedom was born in great Britain; as was the general idea of political freedom in modern times. And those Britishers who provided Lenin and Mr Krushchev with their moral ammunition were closely connected, or even identical, with those Britishers who gave India the idea of freedom.”

    Since Popper wrote this in 1956, surely he must have known of the Jallianwals Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India in 1919. It was this and not abstract defense of freedom which caused Indians to rebel and Britain to concede.

    Popper was against nationalism and the Wilsonian declaration for the right of self-determination.

    “But the nationalist faith is equally absurd. I am not alluding here to Hitler’s racial myth. What I have in mind is, rather, an alleged natural right of man — the alleged right of a nation to self-determination. That even a great humanitarian and liberal like Masaryk could uphold this absurdity as one of the natural rights is a sobering thought. It suffices to shake one’s faith in the wisdom of philosopher kings, and it should be contemplated by all who think that we are clever but wicked rather than good but stupid. For the utter absurdity of the principle of national self-determination must be plain to anybody who devotes a moment’s effort to criticizing it. The principle amount to the demand that each state should be a nation-state: that it should be confined within a natural border, and that this border should coincide with the location of an ethnic group; so that it should be the ethnic group, the ‘nations’, which should determine and protect the natural limits of the state.” [same source]

    When someone resorts to calling something “absurd” without an argument, critical rationalism has gone by the wayside.


    See also: Centralization of power is not beneficial to ordinary people; it is bullshit.

    Recently I came across a Ph.D. dissertation which squarely faces this issue: Craig Willkie, Open Nationalism: Reconciling Popper’s Open Society and the Nation State, University of Edinburgh, 2009.

    See also: Andrew Vincent, “Popper and Nationalism,” in Karl Popper —A Centenary Assessment, Jarvie, Milford & Miller (eds), Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

    The Paradox of Choice

    A paradox is a seeming contradiction. But a contradiction is necessarily false. So, the task is to explain the appearance of a contradiction. In a previous blog, I made references to an article by Quine which dealt with paradoxes: “Paradox” — a type of bullshit

    While glancing at the index of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol.2, under the heading “paradoxes,” there are a few that have become famous. There are the paradox of freedom, the paradox of tolerance, the paradox of democracy, and others.

    In this blog, I want to alert you to a paradox which I previously have not heard of. When listening to its description, it resonated with me as absolutely true. This is the paradox of choice, presented by Barry Schwartz. Here is the video which enlightened me.

    Dangers of Human Overpopulation

    Ever since Thomas Malthus, we know that population growth is exponential, while the source of food from using the land is arithmetic. At the site worldmeter, it is reported that the world population in 1800 was 1 billion, in 1930 it became 2 billion, in 1974 it became 4 billion. Currently in 2021, it is nearly 7.9 billion.

    The main and imminent danger from overpopulation and its effects is the destruction of the ecosystem. This means a disruption of climate, sea rises, pollution, species extinction.

    Another effect is a depletion of resources — primarily food and water. And, as Jared Diamond noticed, the killings in Rwanda were not just due to ethnic hatred, but also due to a scarcity of subsistence land. [See, Jared Diamond, “Malthus in Africa: Rwanda’s Genocide,” Collapse, 2005]

    Adding overpopulation and scarcity of resources to war and violence, the result is massive migrations of people into Europe and into the United States.

    Today, on facebook, I was reminded of experiments done with mice and rats in overpopulated conditions (with adequate food and water) on behavior patterns which lead to extinction. I remember reading in the Scientific American in 1962, John Calhoun’s article “Population Density and Social Pathology.”

    The one that today caught my attention is the experiment of John B. Calhoun; variously called “mouse utopia,” “behavioral sink,” and “universe 25.” Here is the account of the experiment:

    See also: What Humans Can Learn from Calhoun’s Rodent Utopia

    Too much amnesia in the Original Position of John Rawls

    John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice (1971) posits a group of rational people who are told to deliberate on rules of justice for a life they will have after being transported into some unpredictable human condition in some unpredictable institutional situations.

    He concludes that the only rational choice is to agree on two principles. The following formulation here will suffice:

    The two principles of justice are the liberty principle and the difference principle. The two principles are intended to apply to the basic structure of society–the fundamental political and economic arrangements–as opposed to particular actions by governmental officials or individual statutes. The liberty principle requires that the basic structure provide each citizen with a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties — such as freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and due process of law. The difference principle requires that inequalities in wealth and social position be arranged so as to the benefit the worst off group in the world. Rawls states that the two principles are lexically ordered, with the liberty principle taking precedence over the difference principle in the case of conflict.

    As it turns out, although the altered condition of the people in the Original Position is unpredictable, their transported institutional situation seems to be a liberal democratic society with a capitalist economy. So, in effect they are asked to write a meta-law for, let’s say, the Constitution of the United States. In effect, the second principle would require the introduction of either a right to a job for all or a basic income for all, and perhaps a free universal health care.

    What these people in the Original Position seem to have forgotten is that they are animals on earth who need access to subsistence, and that they can get this subsistence if they have a free access to land. Before the contents of some agreed to rule is adopted, it is first necessary to make agreements in the first place. So, it seems that the first order of business is to come up with two meta-rules: Meta-Rule 1: Make Agreement (on Rules) rather than resort to coercion (War); Meta-Rule 2: Abide by the agreements (Rules).

    Really, instead of the contrived Original Position, a more historically realistic situation is envisioned by John Stuart Mill. He imagines a group of colonists arriving at some uninhabited land.

    Book II, Chapter 1. Principles of Political Economy:

    In considering the institution of property as a question in social philosophy, we must leave out of consideration its actual origin in any of the existing nations of Europe. We may suppose a community unhampered by any previous possession; a body of colonists, occupying for the first time an uninhabited country; bringing nothing with them but what belonged to them in common, and having a clear field for the adoption of the institutions and polity which they judged most expedient; required, therefore, to choose whether they would conduct the work of production on the principle of individual property, or on some system of common ownership and collective agency.

    If private property were adopted, we must presume that it would be accompanied by none of the initial inequalities and injustices which obstruct the beneficial operation of the principle in old societies. Every full grown man or woman, we must suppose, would be secured in the unfettered use and disposal of his or her bodily and mental faculties; and the instruments of production, the land and tools, would be divided fairly among them, so that all might start, in respect to outward appliances, on equal terms. It is possible also to conceive that in this original apportionment, compensation might be made for the injuries of nature, and the balance redressed by assigning to the less robust members of the community advantages in the distribution, sufficient to put them on a par with the rest. But the division, once made, would not again be interfered with; individuals would be left to their own exertions and to the ordinary chances, for making an advantageous use of what was assigned to them. If individual property, on the contrary, were excluded, the plan which must be adopted would be to hold the land and all instruments of production as the joint property of the community, and to carry on the operations of industry on the common account. The direction of the labour of the community would devolve upon a magistrate or magistrates, whom we may suppose elected by the suffrages of the community, and whom we must assume to be voluntarily obeyed by them. The division of the produce would in like manner be a public act. The principle might either be that of complete equality, or of apportionment to the necessities or deserts of individuals, in whatever manner might be conformable to the ideas of justice or policy prevailing in the community.

    Examples of such associations, on a small scale, are the monastic orders, the Moravians, the followers of Rapp, and others: and from the hopes, which they hold out of relief from the miseries and iniquities of a state of much inequality of wealth, schemes for a larger application of the same idea have reappeared and become popular at all periods of active speculation on the first principles of society. In an age like the present [1848], when a general reconsideration of all first principles is felt to be inevitable, and when more than at any former period of history the suffering portions of the community have a voice in the discussion, it was impossible but that ideas of this nature should spread far and wide. The late revolutions in Europe have thrown up a great amount of speculation of this character, and an unusual share of attention has consequently been drawn to the various forms which these ideas have assumed: nor is this attention likely to diminish, but on the contrary, to increase more and more.

    Rawls’ problem is caused by starting off with a bad idea of justice. Justice, in short, is simply the virtue of keeping to your agreements.


    Anyway, here is Noam Chomsky’s view of Rawls:

    Extinction Rebellion

    Today is the second day of the demonstration of the Extinction Rebellion in London. I am fully in sympathy with this movement to force governments to stop carbon dioxide emissions. But I am skeptical that this movement will succeed. And, after all, they are not addressing the underlying cause of our situation — overpopulation.

    See also the interview with the co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam.

    Let’s take a look at Distributism

    Let me start with a confession. I have been prone to commit a genetic fallacy — namely, not to bother reading some writings simply because they were by self-proclaimed Catholic authors. One could also call this a prejudice. Well, I am going to correct this mistake.

    Generally, it is a fallacy to dismiss a conclusion of an argument because the argument is fallacious. In other words, a person may be defending something which is true or sensible, but for bad reasons. Also, it would be some kind of fallacy of bad association to think that because a person is wrong about some subject X, that this person is also wrong about subject Y.

    Specifically, I reject superstitions, including religions. So for me to ignore writers who proclaim an adherence to a religious faith, is narrow minded.

    For a bird’s eye view of Distributism, let’s start with the Wikipedia entry: Distributism. [It is generally wise to start an investigation by looking at a Wikipedia entry. But it is foolish to stop there.]

    I found the following video on G. K. Chesterton by Laurie M. Johnson helpful — though I would like to add some commentary later on. She is talking about the following book: G. K. Chesterton, THE OUTLINE OF SANITY, 1927.

    Introduction to G.K. Chesterton and Distributism

    This video introduces you briefly to GK Chesterton and then discusses his definitions of Capitalism, Socialism and Distributism. I point out that Aristotle’s views on property in The Politics may be the origin of distributist thought, and give some background information that may help understand why Chesterton defines Capitalism and Communism as he does. Chesterton criticizes Capitalism for really being “Proletarianism” or a system of wage dependency. He criticizes Socialism for being dangerous because it places all resources and decisions into the hands of the state. Both of them concentrate property into a few hands, whereas Distributism calls for spreading property ownership more evenly. Spain’s Mondragon corporation is used as an example of contemporary distributism at work.

    More of her videos on Distributism can be found here: Laurie M. Johnson

    Commentary:

    In the above video, Laurie Johnson claims that Chesterton did not really mean that everyone should have 3 acres and a cow. Well, what he probably meant is that people should have a private plot sufficiently large for self-sufficient subsistence. But Laurie thinks that this today is unrealistic, and offers a worker-owned enterprise such as the Mondragon Corporation as an example of Distributionism. Well, this may be Laurie’s proposal, but it was not what Chesterton had in mind.

    However, in the following video with her participants she is more reflective of what is involved in sustaining subsistence farming (as in India), and the problems involved in switching to a more agrarian form of life.

    What happens when people in slums revolt?

    The straightforward answer is: South Africa, from July 9 to July 18, 2021. As a background to what occurred, see: 2021 South African unrest.

    Here is a video of the recent events in South Africa:

    where do such rebellious people come from? Slums. And it only takes some event such as the killing of George Floyd in the United States for the alienated poor to go on a rampage. Below are videos describing some slums around the world.

    Here is a video of the Kibera Slums in Kenya:

    Here is a video of a slum in Mumbai:

    Here is a slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:

    Lunik 9, the biggest Roma slum in Kosice, Slovakia, Europe: