Part of Every Bad Political Doctrine in History
I’m enjoying The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. He’s a physicist who works on quantum computing at Oxford, but the book is a broad and yet brilliant discussion of the philosophy of science, the nature of knowledge, the origins of the universe, the meaning of computation, and much else besides. He works without the main concepts, but it’s remarkable that in his chapter on optimism (chapter 9), Deutsch comes close to identifying the key virtues of competitive governance without knowing what to call it:
Political philosophy traditionally centered on a collection of issues that [Karl] Popper called the ‘who should rule?’ question. Who should wield power? Should it be a monarch or aristocrats, or priests, or a dictator, or a small group, or ‘the people’, or their delegates? And that leads to derivative questions such as ‘How should a king be educated?’ ‘Who should be enfranchised in a democracy?’ ‘How does one ensure an informed and responsible electorate?’…
Ideas have consequences, and the ‘who should rule?’ approach to political philosophy is not just to make a mistake of academic analysis: it has been part of practically every bad political doctrine in history. If the political process is seen as an engine for putting the right rulers in power, then it justifies violence, for until that right system is in place, no ruler is legitimate; and once it is in place, and its designated rulers are ruling, opposition to them is opposition to rightness. The problem then becomes how to thwart anyone who is working against the rulers or their policies. By the same logic, everyone who thinks that existing rules or policies are bad must infer that the ‘who should rule?’ question has been answered wrongly, and therefore that the power of the rulers are not legitimate, and that opposing it is legitimate, by force if necessary. Thus the very question ‘who should rule?’ begs for violent, authoritarian answers, and has often received them. It leads those in power into tyranny, and to the entrenchment of bad rulers and bad policies; it leads their opponents to violent destructiveness and revolution.
Advocates of violence usually have in mind that none of those things need happen if only everyone agreed on who should rule. But that means agreeing about what is right, and, given agreement on that, rulers would have nothing to do. And in any case, such agreement is neither possible nor desirable: people are different, and have unique ideas; problems are inevitable, and progress consists in solving them.
Popper therefore applies his basic ‘how can we detect and eliminate errors?’ to political philosophy in the form of how can we rid ourselves of bad governments without violence? Just as science seeks explanations that are experimentally testable, so a rational political system makes it as easy as possible to detect, and persuade others, that a leader or policy is bad, and to remove them without violence if they are. Just as institutions of science are structured so as to avoid entrenching theories, but instead to expose them to criticism and testing, so political institutions should not make it hard to oppose rulers and policies, non-violently, and should embody traditions of peaceful, critical discussion of them and of the institutions themselves and everything else. Thus, systems of government are to be judged not for their prophetic ability to choose and install good leaders and policies, but for their ability to remove bad ones that are already there.
Democracy is very good at removing bad leaders. But it is terrible at pruning the Amazonian overgrowth of bad policies. That is why the power to leave combined with the power of free discussion and open criticism is more effective than closed doors democracy alone. (You can see the filmmaker Jason Silva’s short film inspired by the book here.)