As we enter the year 2012, it is clear to many observers that Western civilization has reached a turning point. Most Western societies have gone down the road towards feudalistic societies, where the powerful have divided themselves from the middle and lower classes. While central banks support the well-being of a financial sector whose contribution to public welfare is very much in doubt, those falling into unemployment have been shouldering most of the burden. Countries that run into fiscal problems that are connected to the creation of the euro find themselves in trouble. The sovereignty over the government budgets in Ireland, Greece and Portugal has been lost to the so-called troika of European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission. In other words, democracy has been abandoned as a method of ruling the people. At the same time, in Hungary – formerly: Republic of Hungary – the ruling party has transformed the nation through a new constitution that has torn down democratic institutions and placed responsibility in the hands of those loyal to the current government.
The shift in economic and political power has been based on ideas, which themselves allowed the rich and the powerful to remodel Western societies. While scientists and others are searching for the causes of the crisis, one promising set of ideas has been largely ignored. It was paved long ago by Karl Popper in his two-volume edition of “The Open Society and Its Enemies”. Popper starts out from the idea that there is something called an open society in contrast to a closed society. Popper defines these on p. 186 (Routledge Classics, Vol. I):
“In what follows, the magical or tribal or collectivist society will also be called the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society.”
Defined like this, the Western civilization as it stands has been built on institutions that enable and enhance the open society. That does not mean that markets, where individuals decide on what to spend, rule supreme. Personal decisions might as well lead to a (democratic) consensus to build institutions that replace, complement or enable market solutions. These public institutions can often be run more efficiently than private institutions, and also can address questions of social justice.
In the following series of articles, the focus will not be on the provision of private or public institutions, but rather on the question who gets to decide these questions and what the consequences are for society. Thus I will follow Karl Popper’s book and highlight some text passages which I find relevant for today. In his book, Popper examines Plato’s thought and juxtaposes it with the ideas of his day (the book was published in 1945). I will take this one step further and against this background discuss recent developments in the Western world.
When quoting I will use the first of the two-volume Routledge edition (vol. 1: The Spell of Plato). The text is also available online free of charge at http://www.archive.org/details/opensocietyandit033120mbp.
Table of Contents (updated as I publish):