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Karl Popper on Obama "Remaking" America

“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.



Hayek: When Planning Undercuts Society‚Äôs Successes

How many times have we heard a bloviating politician say something like, “In the wealthiest nation on earth, it is unacceptable that (fill in the blank with whatever social ill the politician is calling attention to)”?

We hear this frequently when the topic is healthcare or the income gap. Resident talking-head Arianna Huffington used this exact language while arguing for a public option on Larry King Live this week. Another good example is President Obama last month saying, "In the United States of America, no one should have to worry that they'll go without health insurance - not for one year, not for one month, not for one day. And once I sign my health reform plan into law - they won't.''

F.A. Hayek (1899-1992) was a Nobel Prize-winning economist and a leading political philosopher of classical liberalism/anti-collectivism of the twentieth century. In his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek writes in the first chapter about the danger of liberalism’s new-found prosperity:

“It might even be said that the very successes of liberalism became the cause of its decline. Because of the success already achieved, man became increasingly unwilling to tolerate the evils still with him which now appeared both unbearable and unnecessary.” (1) 

These evils included first and foremost that some people had more money and comforts than others, and this was seen as an inequality which could be corrected. The result was the benefactors of liberalism sought to right these wrongs through legislative do-goodery, and moved quickly towards the belief that liberalism needed to evolve into a more collectivist, socially-minded system. Much like today’s Baby Boomers, the early twentieth century progressives (specifically in Germany) Hayek is writing about had experienced more economic and material success than any previous generation. So then, as the most comfortable in society, they sought to correct lingering imperfections in society through central planning. Hayek warns this mindset is taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of a prosperous, liberal society. 

Not only did this move their society to collectivism, it stifled the successes of nineteenth century liberalism. Furthermore, in arguing for more collectivist do-goodery, progressives co-opted the language and rhetoric of morality to frame the debate—a tactic still frequently used today.

On this, Hayek wrote:

“The states ceases to be a piece of utilitarian machinery intended to help individuals in the fullest development of their individual personality and becomes a ‘moral’ institution—where ‘moral’ is not used in contrast to immoral but describes an institution which imposes on its members its views on all more questions.” (2)

So while we’ve been sold something like health reform as a major plank on the platform of a “new” politics, the reality is that these ideas have been around for over a century, and there is nothing unique about waging these battles.


(1) Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1994), 23.

(2) Hayek, 85.


Schumpeter on Michael Moore's Anti-Capitalism Film

Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1883 to 1950), a highly respected economist of the Austrian school, famously predicted the fall of Capitalism.  But unlike Marx, Schumpeter defended the values of Capitalism and felt its success, not its failure, would lead to its fall.  To Schumpeter, the success of Capitalism would spurn the growth of a comfortable, rationalist class willing to undermine the very system that gave them power.

Below is a selection from Schumpeter's Capitalism Socialism and Democracy where Schumpeter outlines two reasons for the growing hostility toward Capitalism.  This book was first published in 1942.  Today as we watch Michael Moore use film to criticize a system that has made him millions, we can't help but think Schumpeter would not be surprised.

 ...capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own; the bourgeois finds to his amazement that the rationalist attitude does not stop at the credentials of kings and popes but goes on to attack private property and the whole scheme of bourgeois values.   

The bourgeois fortress thus becomes politically defenseless.  Defenseless fortresses invite aggression especially if there is rich booty in them.  Aggressors will work themselves up into a state of rationalizing hostility--aggressors always do...

And those industrialists will assuredly not fail to point out that a sensible workman, in weighing the pro's and con's of his contract with, say one of the big steel or automotive concerns, might well come to the conclusion that, everything considered, he is not doing so badly and that the advantages of this bargain are not all on one side.  Yes--certainly, only all that is quite irrelevant.

For, first it is an error to believe that political attack arises primarily from grievance and that it can be turned by justification.  Political criticism cannot be met effectively by rational argument.  From the fact that the criticism of the capitalist order proceeds from ... an attitude which spurns allegiance to extra-rational values, it does not follow that rational refutation will be accepted.  Such refutation may tear the rational garb of attack but can never reach the extra-rational driving power that always lurks behind it...

Second, ... (the case for capitalism) ... could never be made simple.  People at large would have to be possessed of an insight and a power of analysis which are altogether beond them.  Why, practically every nonsense that has bever been said about capitlism has been championed by some professed economist.  But even if this is disregarded, rational recognition of the economic performance of capitlism and of the hopes it holds out for the future would require an almost impossible moral feat by the have-not ... any pro-capitalist argument must rest on long-run considerations.

Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, (New York:  Harper Perennial, 1976), 143-145.


Feature Topic: The Relationship Between Justice and Truth

 Religion and Ethics Newsweekly - Headline :  Obama Appeals to Social Justice and National Character in Health Care Reform Speech 11 Sept 2009

Malcolm Muggeridge - 1972 

Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a British born journalist popular in the nineteen hundreds.  Initially attracted by Communism, Muggeridge and his wife lived in Moscow in the 1930's where he acted as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.  Increasingly, Muggeridge recognized the failings of Communism and Stalin's regime, but his writings exposing the widespread famine in the Soviet Union were censored by his editors and refuted by other journalists and publications (most notably, the New York Times).  Below is an excerpt from Chronicles of Wasted Time, a collection of Muggeridge's publications.  In it, Muggeridge rebukes immoral policies enacted under the "false face" of justice and provides a chilling example of the cynicism that can exist in government.

"...truth is very beautiful; more so, as I consider, than justice -- today's pursuit -- which easily puts on a false face.  In the nearly seven decades I have lived through, the world has overflowed with bloodshed and explosions whose dust has never had time to settle before others have erupted; all in purportedly just causes. The quest for justice continues, and the weapons and hatred pile up; but truth was an early casualty.  The lies on behalf of which our wars have been fought and our peace treaties concludes!  The lies of revolution and of counter-revolution!  The lies of advertising, of news, of salesmanship, of politics!  The lies of the priest in his pulpit, the professor at his podium, the journalist at his typewriter!  The lie stuck like a fish-bone in the throat of the microphone, the hand-held lies of the prowling cameraman!  Ignazio Silone told me once how, when he was a member of the old Comintern, some strategem was under discussion, and the delegate, a newcomer who had never attended before, made the extraordinary observation that if such and such statement were to be put out, it wouldn't be true.  There was a moment of dazed silence, and then everyone began to laugh.   They laughed and laughed until tears ran down their cheeks and the Kremlin walls seemed to shake.  The same laughter echoes in every council chamber and cabinet room, wherever two or more are gathered together to exercise authority.  It is truth that has died, not God."

Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, (Vancouver:  Regent College Publishing, 2006), 19-20.



Feature Topic: Did America Elect a New Kind of Politician?

CBS News - Headline:  Obama Seen As Different Kind of Politician 27 April 2009 

H.L. Mencken - 9 November 1936

H.L. Mencken, a famous columnist for the Baltimore Sun in the early 1900's, penned below words in 1936 after the defeat of Alf Landon by incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Landon ran against FDR’s New Deal, but in the end lost the argument against social engineering and central planning. 

"Coroner's Inquest"

The Hon. Mr. Roosevelt’s colossal victory in last Tuesday’s plebiscite gave him plenty of excuse to leap and exult, but if he is really the smart politician that he seems to be he must be entertaining certain stealthy pizzicato qualms today.  He now carries all the burdens of omnipotence.  There is no one to say nay__that is, no one he is bound to heed.  He has in his hands a blank check from and upon the American people, authorizing him to dispose of all their goods and liberties precisely as he listeth. 

In brief, he has become a sort of chartered libertine, and it will be interesting to note how he reacts to his franchise.  The great majority of his lieges believe firmly in the Utopia that he has been preaching since 1933, and they will now expect him to bring it in at last.  He can no longer make the excuse that wicked men are hindering him, nor can he plead that he is navigating unmapped waters and must proceed cautiously…

What everyone will look for now is full steam ahead.  Either we must soon see the glorious shores of Utopia or the whole argosy will be wrecked…

Against his success in this great moral enterprise stand two inconvenient facts.  The first is the fact that many, and perhaps indeed most of the woes and malaises aforesaid appear to be inherently incurable.  The second is the fact that people in the mass are very mercurial, and especially the sort of people who believe in miracles.  They are all with him today, but that is no assurance that they will be with him tomorrow.  On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that they will turn on him, soon or late, as they have turned on all popular messiahs since the dawn of history… 

But it is not to be forgotten that 16 million Americans voted against him.  These may be trusted to stay put, and millions of those who voted for him may be trusted to begin suffering the pangs of Katzenjammer very shortly.

The immense improbability of Hon. Mr. Landon’s election was manifest from the day he made his first speech.  It was, as such things go, a pretty good speech, and it was followed by many even better ones, but there was nothing in any of them to lift and frenzy multitudes, and there was nothing in the hon. Gentleman’s delivery of them to compensate for their ineffectiveness.  He turned out, indeed, to be one of the worst public speakers recorded in the archives of faunal zoology.  Over and over again, facing an eagerly friendly audience, he scotched its nascent whoops and reduced it to scratching itself…

Worse, the content of his speeches was often as ineffective as their manner of delivery.  There was only one way to beat Roosevelt, and that was to attack him with horse, foot and dragoons, denouncing his mountebankeries in a voice of brass and allowing him no virtue whatever.  Above the level of the dole-birds, at the start of the campaign, there was a great deal of doubt about the New Deal, and if the opposition candidate had belabored its Father Divine in the grand manner, keeping him constantly on the defensive, there might have been a different tale to tell last Tuesday.

But the honorable Mr. Landon, it quickly appeared, was quite incapable of that sort of war.  He was too mild a fellow for it, and, perhaps I should add, too candid, too conscientious.   He conceived it to be his high duty, not to flog and flay Roosevelt, but to submit his own ideas to the country, and the more he submitted them the more it became evident that some of them, and not the least important, were indistinguishable from the fundamental hallucinations of the new New Deal.  When he came out for the bailout of Wall Street and over-mortgaged homeowners he simple surrendered to the enemy, and from that time on his campaign was dead.

In a word, Republicans nominated the wrong candidate.  They got an honest man, and one who, if he had gone to the White House, would have made a diligent, reliable and courageous President, but the majority of them took him unwillingly, and never agreed with the notions he expounded so laboriously and so futilely.  In short, he was nominated by default.

Landon is now an afterthought, Roosevelt a national hero.  Since the New Deal, government has grown more powerful and Conservative thought has fallen deeper.   In 1936 Mencken and his philosophical counterparts faced a similar problem as Conservatives today.  His remedy is still pertinent:

The question before the house is, When and by whom will a forthright attack upon it (big government) be made?  And will the foreordained revolutionist, if he ever appears, be realist enough to see that the only remedy that will really work is to make government weak, and to keep it weak?[1]


H.L. Mencken, On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe, (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).


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