Monday, April 30, 2012

In Defense of Karl Popper and Piecemeal Social Engineering

Karl Popper in 1990.Karl Popper in 1990. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Karl R. Popper was one of the most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century.  His ideas on inductivism and falsifiability transformed the philosophy of science, creating credibility when he turned his mind to the social sciences.  Over the course of his lifetime he moved from a strong commitment to social democracy to support for liberal democracy, possibly due to the influence of his longtime friend, Friedrich Hayek.

In The Open Society and Its Enemies Popper proposed something he called “piecemeal social engineering.”[1]  In this regime he suggested that governments implement small societal changes and then critically evaluate the results.  He also mentioned that private individuals and businesses were participants in this process saying:
Even a man who opens a new shop, or who reserves a ticket for the theatre, is carrying out a kind of social experiment on a small scale ;  and all our knowledge of social conditions is based on experience gained by making experiments of this kind.[2]
In the context that Popper suggested it most free market advocates would find his view of social engineering to be anathema; but if we view it critically and in the context of Popper’s more abstract ideas, specifically “evolutionary epistemology,” we can come to a different and positive conclusion.

Consider Bryan Magee’s representation of Popper’s view of problem solving in society when he says, “Because he regards living as first and foremost a process of problem-solving he wants societies which are conducive to problem-solving.”[3]  When Popper suggested that liberal democracies could legislate small changes in the societal structure, evaluate the results and either repeal or retain the changes he was arguing against utopian views and for such a society.  As such it was a significant advancement in thinking about societal changes and a sensible argument against all utopian schemes.  Unfortunately, Popper was na├»ve about the ability of governments, even those of liberal democracies, to evaluate the results of their actions and to learn from them.
Governments are unable to learn from their mistakes for a number of reasons:
  1. The individuals supporting a specific experiment risk citizens’ resources, not their own.
  2. In a mixed economy, government does pay market prices for the resources it consumes, but as a monopoly it forces the populace to pay arbitrary prices for the goods and services it provides.
  3. There is no signal such as profit or loss that can inform the experimenters of their success or failure.  In fact, it is widely suggested that government should undertake projects that are “desired” but that generate losses.
In addition to the inability of governments to learn, they impose their experiments on the entire populace, eliminating the possibility of parallel, competitive experiments through which more progress could be made.
As mentioned earlier, Popper did suggest that businesses could, in effect, also participate in piecemeal social engineering by implementing different business plans and offering revised or different products.  He failed to realize that what seemed to him to be a minor component was in fact the most significant and could accomplish his goal of societal evolution more effectively.
The fact is that businesses in the free market have built-in mechanisms that signal difficulties and facilitate learning:
  1. The individuals involved are risking their own or investors’ resources – resources that are freely given and are at risk in the project.  This risk factor dampens the enthusiasm for projects that appear fantastic or utopian as opposed to realistic.
  2. Businesses charge prices that must reflect customers’ values.
  3. If income minus expenses is negative that signals that the business’s inputs are not creating a value for consumers that justifies the consumption of resources.  The individuals involved must make the decision whether to continue to consume capital or abandon the project.
Businesses are naturally competitive and are generally unable to impose their plans on the population, making it possible for multiple plans to be executed simultaneously across various industries.

Thus, we can say that Popper’s idea – piecemeal experimentation with the expectation of finding problem solutions – was sensible, but his means – governments of liberal democracies – could not accomplish that end.  On the other hand, a society free of government intervention and based on profit and loss has the tools required to accomplish it.

[1] Popper, Karl R., The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume I: The Spell of Plato, (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 158.
[2] Ibid, 162.
[3] Magee, Bryan, Philosophy and the Real World: An Introduction to Karl Popper, (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1985), 75.
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Dave Scotese said...

As I've aged, I've become more and more aware of the vastness of possible human knowledge. I like to look for blind spots, and I guess I always have. Your defense of Popper seems to come from a fondness for his approach, one which I share. I am not familiar enough with him though.

My initial reaction, before I read the post, was confirmed - that he's a bit of a "social engineer" with the ugliness of trying to control people. You've identified his main blind spot - the three reasons you give that "Governments are unable to learn...". You've also framed your whole article as a defense, which is kind of cool - it's the kind of co-opting the enemy that really aids in progress. Identify and call out the great aspects of the enemy's position, and then point out the blind spots that make the overall position untenable, providing a path for that enemy to come to agreement, rather than just a contention that he ought to look more carefully (at that blind spot).

I like that you found value in his ideas. I think most of the people who have done great damage to human progress did it because they were naive and wielded power that should never be in one person's hands. Teasing apart the good from the bad is a great approach.

Lee Kelly said...

I basically agree. Despite his relationship with Hayek, Popper didn't know enough economics.

Popper misjudged the prevailing institutions of democracy--he thought them more capable of error-correction than they really are. And he underestimated the power of free market to achieve comparable goals.

That said, what Popper gets us seriously thinking about is the matter of how well our institutions correct error, and how they might be reformed to function better in that regard.

Thomas McQuade said...

Your defense of Popper on “piecemeal social engineering” is well done. He certainly deserves acknowledgement for seeking to the best of his ability to promote a society in which problem-solving behavior could better flourish – a recognition, as you note, that grand utopian schemes for societal betterment are the enemy of problem-solving behavior at the individual level.

But I think that, both in your defense and in the comments about it, an important point is being missed. Talking about government “error” and “the inability of governments to learn” leaves unclear who or what is failing – individual participants in government or the system of government itself or both. And the assumption is being made that the criterion for success is (vaguely) the betterment of society in general, complementary to what free markets would do. But not only are governments not market-like in their operation (as you quite properly point out), their operational criteria for individual and systemic success are different.

Doubtless, many participants in government genuinely desire the betterment of society, but the system in which they participate tends not to discourage them from continuing their efforts if the direct results don’t match expectations. What happens is that they learn other things – how to get a bigger budget, how to get reelected, how to get promoted to a more powerful position – so that they can (if this is still their goal) redouble their efforts. In other words, they learn perfectly well; it’s just not the things you think they should be learning.

That’s from an individual perspective. Considering the system of government as a whole, the efforts if individuals, well-meaning or not, get channeled in such a way as to create concentrated winners and more diffuse losers and this, from the system’s perspective, works rather well to perpetuate and grow the system. It is inherent in the structure of the system (in its permitted forms of interaction and its feedback to the behavior of its participants) that it cannot work to the betterment of society in general in the way you might think it ought to, whether the mode is “piecemeal” or “whole hog”.

So, what we have is not well characterized as “error” or “failure to learn”. What we have is a particular societal arrangement that needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history because of its success and propensity for parasitic growth, not its failure. But such consignment is far from easy: highly centralized structures of power such as typical governmental arrangements will have to be slowly and gradually bypassed, ignored, and abandoned for alternative, and much more distributed, arrangements with transactional and feedback properties more conducive to the betterment of society in general. Free markets are such arrangements, but not the only ones. There’s a long process of building ahead, but the first step is to realize that government as we know it is unsalvageable and that efforts to “improve” it may mitigate damage in the short run but are futile in the long run.

Brian J. Gladish said...

Given the approach of methodological individualism, it is clear that only individuals act. However, the incentive structure that is inherent in what we call “government” is such that success for the individual bureaucrat does not necessarily produce positive values for consumers of government services. In fact, the very idea that such a person can impose what he thinks is “betterment” can produce the resistance to learning that we observe. Certainly, I do not argue, as fascists and communists do, for a “new man” who will execute his duties without regard to self-interest. One should note, however, that there are organizations, such as private universities, that employ bureaucratic management but are limited in their ability to ignore wishes of students and alumni by their requirements for revenue – if they do not learn from mistakes they will shrink in size and importance.

When I say that “[Business] was in fact the most significant [component] and could accomplish his goal of societal evolution more effectively,” there was no intention of implying anything other than the possibility of business accomplishing this task alone. Lee Kelly is the only commenter (although, possibly not the only reader) who could have been unclear on this point as Dave Scotese is one of a long line of officemates that have been subjected to the zero-state line of thinking.

I used the word “evolution” rather than “betterment,” as the latter implies some specific value judgment. I would expect a problem-solving society to evolve toward a situation in which the values of people in that society were more clearly represented in the institutions that serve them. Hayek made the mistake of preferring certain outcomes and supporting intervention to provide that “betterment.”

Our statist, and even minarchist, opponents have not been affected by the “success and propensity for parasitic growth” characterization of government. Even, in my experience, the argument that without profit and loss it cannot know what to do seems ineffective. Perhaps the idea that government cannot even determine when it is destroying the values of its citizens will shake them up a little. What I propose is a value-free argument that attempts to find a scientific foundation. Interestingly, Peter Winch in his essay “Popper and the Scientific Method in Social Sciences” published in The Philosopy of Karl Popper, Part II, mentions the difficulty of determining governmental success. He states “people will tend to disagree on what constitutes a success” (emphasis in the original), bringing to mind President Obama’s recent proclamation that “We tried our plan, and it worked.”

There is no thought of efforts to improve government as we know it, unless it would be to incorporate all of the features that would give it a guide to action, and then it would not be a government!

Brian J. Gladish said...

Here is an example of market-based piecemeal social engineering:

Carlos Slim thinks he has a better idea and uses his own money and money of willing investors (some may sell after hearing about his plan) to try a new approach. If the plan fails, we will not have to vote him out of office or mount a campaign to repeal the relevant law(s)--it will just disappear.