The Open Society: The Karl Popper-George Soros Connection
I first came across the writings of Austro-British philosopher Karl Popper in a Philosophy of History class, reading his arguments against historicism. Later, in a Philosophy of Science course, I became familiar with Popper’s theory of the advance of scientific knowledge through the falsification of theories and their replacement by new theories that had not yet been disproven, but were capable of being falsified at some point in the future with the appropriate experiment or observations. According to Popper, any theory that could not be falsified or proven wrong was by definition unscientific. Popper originally expounded these ideas in The Logic of Scientific Discovery: originally published in German in 1934, it was later revised by Popper in an English translation in 1959.
Popper was born in Austria to assimilated Jewish parents who had converted to Christianity. With the threat of a Nazi invasion of Austria in 1937, Popper emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he lectured on philosophy at Canterbury University. (He wrote his most influential work, The Open Society and its Enemies, in New Zealand.) In 1946, he emigrated to England where he taught logic and scientific method at the London School of Economics (Wikipedia).
Popper initially wrote the “Poverty of Historicism” as a paper in 1936, publishing a book with the same title in 1957, dedicated “In memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victim to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.” Although attracted to Marxism as a youth, Popper later rejected Marxism as a form of historicism that attempted to predict the future, in favor of social liberalism. Popper defined historicism as
“an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim…” . “The belief… that it is the task of the social sciences to lay bare the law of evolution of society in order to foretell its future… might be described as the central Historicist doctrine.” (Wikipedia)
Popper published The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945. In Vol. 1, The Spell of Plato, Popper argued that Western philosophy had been mesmerized by Plato, sanitizing many of his autocratic and totalitarian views. Popper pointed to the vast difference between the Plato of the Socratic Dialogues, who advocated the limits of human knowledge and free inquiry, with the Plato of The Republic, who advocated a totalitarian society (a sort of aristocratic communism) and state. By way of contrast, Popper sided with the Greeks who favored freedom and democracy such as Pericles, Antisthenes, Democritus, and Antiphon the Sophist. In Vol. 2 of The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper focuses on Hegel and Marx, and likewise criticizes them for being advocates of the closed society.
I came across Popper’s name again last year, while reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan (2007). Taleb was influenced by Popper’s theory of falsification (pp. 57 – 58), as well his theory elucidated in the The Poverty of Historicism about the unpredictability of historical events (p. 171). Taleb inspired a desire to read Popper again, so I picked up and read The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1, after which I read Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness (2004). In the latter work, Taleb revealed that George Soros’ writings had led Taleb to rediscover Popper; Soros, according to Taleb, had become “a promoter of the ideas of Karl Popper” (p. 122), although as Taleb opined, Soros was a lot more effective as a trader than as a philosopher. Meanwhile, I had been occasionally tuning into Glenn Beck’s exposure of Soros on Fox News and Beck mentioned that Soros had named one of his front groups “The Open Society.” This, along with Taleb’s mention of the Soros-Popper connection, led to a moment of cognitive dissonance: George Soros did not appear to be an exponent of the open society. Googling Soros’ name, I discovered that he had been a student of Popper’s at the London School of Economics.
Now I don’t know that much about George Soros, but from what I do know, he doesn’t seem to be an exponent of open societies. Although during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he claims to have “supported individual dissidents in many Eastern Bloc countries”, Soros apparently surrounds himself with assorted Marxists, has extolled Marxist methods and written on the dangers of capitalism, and claimed that people do not know their own self interest. In a paper written in 1997 (“The Capitalist Threat,” Atlantic Monthly, Volume 279, No. 2, February 1997), Soros wrote, “The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.” Reading Soros’ “The Capitalist Threat” allows one to attain a certain amount of insight into his thinking.
I will begin with Soros’s supposed advocacy of freedom of speech and dissent. In the above work, Soros wrote, the open society insists “on freedom of expression and protecting dissent.” And yet, his actions are not consistent with his words. For example in a recent CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria Soros made the following claims about Fox News:
FOX News makes a habit. It has imported the methods of George Orwell, you know, newspeak, where you can tell the people falsehoods and deceive them. But this is a very, very dangerous way of deceiving people.
But, actually, they did succeed. They succeeded in Germany where the Weimar Republic collapsed and you had a — a Nazi regime follow it. So this is a very, very dangerous way of deceiving people, and I would like people to be aware that they are being deceived.
Now this is interesting: Fox News is like the Nazi regime because it’s deceiving people, and MSNBC and the MSM are apparently telling the truth. But if all the so-called Mainstream (actually Leftwing) Media (NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS) plus the cable channels MSNBC and CNN are telling the truth and only Fox is deceiving people, why is the Left so set upon attacking and doing away with Fox News? Wouldn’t they be satisfied with a 6 to 1 advantage in media outlets, or is it their desire to shut down all dissent of the Obama Administration and the Left? For example, on November 18, 2010, Senator Jay Rockefeller stated that he wanted the FCC to shut down Fox News, “There’s a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to Fox and to MSNBC, ‘Out. Off. End. Goodbye.’” How generous of Senator Jay to offer up MSNBC as a sacrifice to the Right, while leaving all the Leftwing MSM and other Leftwing Cable channels intact, including tax payer funded PBS. (One could certainly argue with credibility that Fox is less biased than the MSM channels, in that it generally does have more balance on its Sunday News shows than the MSM stations, which rarely have more than a token conservative against full panels of Leftist Progressive commentators.) I for one would certainly like to tell Senator Jay Gotbucks, Goodbye! Get back to West Virginia!
But getting back to Soros’ “The Capitalist Threat”: Although he certainly makes some interesting points about human fallibility, Soros’ commitment to individual freedom is rather limited in that work. While Popper consistently favored the individual over the collective (The Open society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2, pp. 226, 245 – 46), Soros wrote,
I contend that an open society may also be threatened from the opposite direction — from excessive individualism. Too much competition and too little cooperation can cause intolerable inequities and instability.
While excessive individualism may not be a good thing, and a great deal of cooperation is needed to make society function, just who determines what is too much individualism and competition and how do you correct “intolerable inequities”? While Soros contends that “the open society” is supposed to provide the framework to enable society to function well, one wonders how an open society is supposed to curb excessive individualism, competition, and “intolerable inequities.” Certainly, following Popper, free institutions such as a constitutional government, free elections, rule of law, and other such institutions conducive to an open society are essential. I agree with Jonah Goldberg who wrote (“Liberty, 21st Century-Style”):
Democracy is essential to a liberal order, but it is less important than the rule of law, honest courts, individual rights (including property rights), and the institutions — legal and cultural — that nurture them.
But when Soros speaks of excessive individualism, competition, and “intolerable inequities” what he’s really driving at is an all powerful and coercive state that has the power to redistribute wealth and power. Soros was also apparently an advocate of a “new world order,” no doubt composed of world leaders who held beliefs similar to his own. He wrote, “Laissez-faire ideology . . . does not recognize the need for a world order” (Ibid.). Apparently, Soros’ New World Order wasn’t the same order envisioned by George Bush senior, as he also wrote in his 2006 work, The Age of Fallibility, that “the main obstacle to a stable and just world order is the United States.”
Consistent with his collectivist bias, Soros continually attacks laissez faire capitalism as if that was the prevalent economic system in the contemporary global system. As I wrote in What Caused the Financial Collapse? Book Review: Meltdown by Thomas Woods, Jr., to consider our current economic system laissez faire when “government spending at the time (in 2008) was forty per cent of GDP,” nine out of fifteen cabinet positions interfere in the economy, and ‘we have an alphabet soup of “one hundred federal agencies and commissions” to monitor every aspect of our individual and economic lives,’ is quite frankly bordering on the delusional. What we really have is a system of crony capitalism, a system in which big players like Soros can rig the system by getting inside information or special deals by buying influence in Washington, D.C. And furthermore, when you have a central bank determining what interest rates will be and what the cost of borrowing money should be, and how much money should be circulating in the economy, what you have is hardly laissez faire capitalism. While I would argue that America’s two greatest financial collapses, the Great Depression and the current fiscal crisis, have occurred since the creation of the Federal Reserve, and that therefore, one might be led to believe that the Fed and its inflationary monetary policies had something to do with those breakdowns, Soros argues that on the contrary, the Fed is the cure: “History has shown that financial markets do break down, causing economic depression and social unrest. The breakdowns have led to the evolution of central banking and other forms of regulation.”
Finally, it is significant that Popper was a close friend of Austrian economist and social theorist Friedrich Hayek. In 1947, Popper along with Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and others, helped found the Mont Pelerin Society to defend classical liberalism, in the spirit of the Open Society. Hayek was of course the economist who exerted the most influence on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a political leader Soros strongly disapproved of. While Popper was not as strong an advocate of free market capitalism as the Austrians Hayek and von Mises, he was in favor of piece meal social engineering; he was certainly no advocate of collectivism or statism, in any of its forms. While it’s not possible in a brief article to give a definitive account of the divergence between Soros’s thinking and that of his former mentor, Karl Popper, I hope to have at least outlined an argument that makes clear that Popper had close affinities with classical (libertarian) liberalism, whereas Soros’ thinking has increasingly veered towards far Left collectivism, statism, and even Marxism.
_________________"For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root."
David Thoreau (1817-1862)
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