Karl Popper on Obama "Remaking" America
Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 8:55PM
John Prothro

“So today, on my 100th day in office, I’ve come to report to you, the American people, that we have begun to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and we’ve begun the work of remaking America. (Applause.) We’re working to remake America.”
-Barack Obama, 29 April 2009

The above excerpt was pulled from a speech Obama gave to a town hall meeting in St. Louis. This was not the first time Obama promoted his ambition to “remake” America.  This theme, constant in his campaign, has remained throughout his short tenure.

When we consider Obama’s ambitious agenda, we can’t help but remember the writings of Karl Popper.  Popper (1902-1994) was a professor at the University of London who wrote widely on science and political philosophy. His passion for politics was shaped at a young age.  After World War I, he briefly joined the Communists in Austria.  But after witnessing a group of young socialists shot dead by Communist police, he began to rethink the belief that the “inevitable” worker’s revolution justified violence.  Over time Popper became a vehement opponent of Marxism.  He is even credited with helping to shape the governing philosophy of the Thatcher Administration in Britain.

In Popper’s two best-known political philosophy works, The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism, Popper argued against the idea that man can discover “laws of history which will enable them to prophesy the course of historical events.”[i]  This idea, in Popper’s view, was the philosophical basis of the closed society.  Instead of drastic change, spurned by a belief in historical rightness, Popper advocated piecemeal engineering—that is, small and deliberate experiments with change that would not disrupt the social fabric of the open and free society.

In looking back at Popper’s writing, we consider what he might say about Obama’s idea to “remake” America.  An excerpt from The Open Society follows:

“Such arguments in favor of utopian engineering exhibit a prejudice which is as widely held as it is untenable, namely, that social experiments must be on a ‘large scale’…The Utopian engineer we are opposing is right when he stresses that an experiment in socialism would be of little value if carried out under laboratory conditions, for instance, in an isolated village…But this very example shows where the prejudice of the Utopian engineer lies.  He is convinced that we must recast the whole structure of society, when we experiment with it…But the kind of experiment from which we can learn most is the alteration of one social institution at a time.  For only in this way can we learn how to fit institutions into the framework of other institutions, and how to adjust them so that they work according to our intentions.  And only in this way can we make mistakes, and learn from our mistakes, without risking repercussions of the gravity that must endanger the will of future reforms.  Furthermore, the Utopian method must lead to a dangerous dogmatic attachment to a blue print for which countless sacrifices have been made.  Powerful interests must become linked up with the success of the experiment.  All this does not contribute to the rationality, or to the scientific value, of the experiment…(Piecemeal engineering)—and not Utopian planning or historical prophecy—would mean the introduction of scientific method into politics, since the whole secret of scientific method is a readiness to learn from mistakes.”[ii]


[i] Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies Part I, (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1962), 3.

[ii] Popper, 162-163.


Article originally appeared on LastingLiberty.com (http://lastingliberty.com/).
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