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April 29, 2021 Reading Time: 7 minutes

Karl Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1945, was one of the intellectual foundations of the political course that resulted in the formation of a Western community to oppose the Soviet empire. The assertion of freedom against the claim to power of totalitarianism set a trend that encompassed all the major social groups and political parties in the West. This setting shaped politics and society for four decades. In 1989, no new course seemed necessary: freedom and the rule of law had prevailed. That was a mistake. We now face again a crossroads between freedom and totalitarianism.

The open society is characterized by recognizing every human being as a person: the person has an inalienable dignity. When we think and act, we are free. This freedom gives rise to fundamental rights. These are rights of defense against external interference in one’s own judgement about how one wants to conduct one’s life. 

By contrast, according to Popper, the intellectual enemies of the open society are those who claim to possess knowledge of a common good. This knowledge is both factual-scientific and normative-moral: it is moral knowledge about the highest good together with technocratic knowledge about how to steer people’s lives in order to achieve this good. Therefore, this knowledge stands above the freedom of individual people, namely above their own judgement about how they want to shape their lives.

These enemies of the open society have lost their credibility as a result of the mass murders that proved inevitable on the way to accomplish the alleged good. Not only were human dignity and fundamental rights eliminated, but at the same time a bad result was achieved in relation to the alleged good. Under communist regimes, on the way to a classless, exploitation-free society, more severe economic exploitation occurred than ever seen in a capitalist society. Under National Socialism, the path to the goal of a pure-blooded Volksgemeinschaft led these very people to the brink of ruin.

Nonetheless, today, we face new enemies of the open society from within our own societies. Again, they make knowledge claims that are both cognitive and moral. The difference is that they don’t operate with the mirage of an absolute good, but with deliberately stoked fear of threats, such as the spread of the coronavirus or climate change. These are undoubtedly serious challenges. But they are employed to set certain values absolute, such as health protection or climate protection. 

An alliance of some scientists, politicians and business leaders claims to have the knowledge of how to steer society down to family and individual life in order to safeguard these values. Again, the issue is about a higher social good – health protection, living conditions of future generations – that is posed as overriding individual human dignity and basic rights.

The mechanism employed is to spotlight these challenges in such a way that they appear as existential crises: a killer virus going around, a climate crisis threatening the livelihoods of our children. The fear that is stirred up in this way then makes it possible to gain acceptance for setting aside the basic values of our coexistence – just as in the totalitarianisms criticized by Popper, in which the supposedly good motivated many people to commit de facto criminal acts.

This mechanism strikes the open society at its heart, because one plays out a well-known problem, namely the one of negative externalities. The freedom of one person ends where it threatens the freedom of others. Actions of one person, including the contracts she enters into, have an impact on third parties who are outside of these relationships, but whose freedom to shape their lives can be impaired by these actions. The boundary beyond which the free shaping of one’s life causes harm to the free shaping of the lives of others is not fixed from the outset. It can be set in a broad or in a narrow way. The mentioned mechanism consists in spreading fear and exploiting the moral value of solidarity to define this boundary in so narrow a manner that, in the end, there is no room for the free shaping of one’s life left: any exercise of freedom can be construed as generating negative externalities that threaten the freedom of others.

The new enemies of the open society stoke fears of the spread of a supposed once-in-a-century pandemic – but, of course, every form of physical contact can contribute to spreading the coronavirus (as well as other viruses and bacteria). They stoke fears of an impending climate catastrophe – but, of course, every action has an impact on the non-human environment and may thus contribute to climate change. 

Consequently, everyone has to prove that their actions do not unintentionally further the spread of a virus or the change of climate, etc. – this list could be extended at will. In this manner, everybody is placed under a general suspicion of potentially harming others with everything they do. 

The burden of proof thus is reversed: it is no longer required to provide concrete evidence that someone impairs the freedom of others with certainty of their actions. Rather, everyone must prove from the outset that their actions cannot have unintended consequences that potentially harm others. Accordingly, people can free themselves from this general suspicion only by acquiring a certificate that clears them – like a vaccination certificate, a sustainability passport or a social pass in general. This is a kind of modern sale of indulgences.

The crossroads with which we are confronted hence is this one: an open society that unconditionally recognizes everyone as a person with an inalienable dignity and fundamental rights; or a closed society to whose social life one gains access through a certificate whose conditions are defined by certain experts, as envisaged by Plato’s philosopher-kings. Like the latter, whose knowledge claims were debunked by Popper, their present-day descendants have no knowledge that would put them in a position to set such conditions without arbitrariness.

We see a well-known result confirmed: if one places value X – in the present case health protection, or climate protection – above human dignity and fundamental rights, then one not only destroys these, but also eventually achieves a bad result in relation to X. The serious negative effects for health protection, for the entire population and viewed globally, as a consequence of the devastating damage caused by lockdowns and the like are now evident. 

By the same token, the facts already show that CO2 emissions in industrialised countries without an energy transition hitherto (such as the US, France, England) have declined by the same percentage as in countries that have pursued an energy transition at enormous costs in the last 20 years (Germany). The decisive factor is technological innovation and not political paternalism based on the advice of scientists who claim moral-normative knowledge to control society.

Why does this happen? For many scientists and intellectuals, it is apparently difficult to admit to not having normative knowledge that enables the steering of society. They succumb to the temptation that Popper already identified in the intellectuals and scientists he criticized. For politicians, it is not attractive to do nothing and let people’s lives take their course. 

Hence, they welcome the opportunity to talk up old challenges that arise in a new form into existential crises and to spread fear with pseudo-scientific models that lead to catastrophic forecasts. Then, scientists can put themselves in the limelight with political demands that have no legal limits due to the alleged emergency. This scientific legitimacy then provides politicians with a power to interfere in people’s lives that they could never obtain through democratic, constitutional means. They are willingly joined by those business people who profit from this policy and can pass on the risks of their economic activities to the taxpayer.

Some scientists, politicians and business leaders were prepared to use the next virus outbreak to push such plans. But Popper’s philosophy of science teaches us that no individual or group of individuals can determine the course of society by means of a prepared plan (a “conspiracy”). It was contingent circumstances – such as perhaps the images from Wuhan and Bergamo – combined with panic reactions that led to the result that this time these plans found favor in broad circles of media, politicians and scientists.

This situation compares well with the outbreak of the First World War, which also developed out of contingent circumstances in July 1914. Indeed, there is the danger of the history of the 20th century repeating itself in the 21st century: the political handling of the corona pandemic is equivalent to the First World War. 

Demands for a radical reset of society like zero Covid and its counterpart in climate activism correspond to Bolshevism. Against these demands and the failure of the elites as a whole, a radical right-wing populism is forming that could develop into the contemporary equivalent of fascism. The economic consequences of the lockdowns and the unlimited money printing to cover them up may lead to inflation and eventually an economic crisis like the one at the end of the 1920s. It is important to be aware of this danger, to recognize the parallels with the course of the 20th century and to oppose the fatal trend that has formed in dealing with the corona pandemic.

The problem that comes to light here is an old one. It is also inherent in the purely protective state: in order to protect everyone effectively from violence, the whereabouts of everyone at all times would have to be verifiable; in order to protect everyone’s health effectively from infection by viruses, the physical contacts of everyone at all times would have to be controllable. The problem is the arbitrary definition of negative externalities, against which even classical liberalism and libertarianism aren’t immune; for it is not simply obvious what counts and what doesn’t count as a negative externality. 

Thus, one can derive negative externalities from the spread of viruses or the change in the world’s climate that ultimately occur in all human actions and call for regulation, be it state regulation or market regulation via the expansion of property rights. For example, one could grant each person property rights to the air around them, so that this air must not be contaminated by viruses that are spread by human bodies or must meet certain climatic conditions that are influenced by human actions, etc.

Consequently, the opposition is not that between the state and free markets. Control can be exercised by state or private entities. The certificates that cleanse people of producing negative externalities and that allow them to participate in social and economic life can be issued by private or state agencies. There can be competition with regard to them and their concrete design. All this is ultimately irrelevant. The point is the totalitarianism of all-encompassing control.

This totalitarianism can only be countered by a substantial conception of persons that is based on their freedom and their dignity. Such a conception recognizes fundamental rights that apply unconditionally: their validity cannot be subordinated to a higher goal. On this foundation, one can then delimit negative externalities in the guise of concrete and significant damage to the freedom of others, which indeed call for external interventions in the way people conduct their lives.

It is high time that we become aware of the crossroads at which we stand. Doing so requires a sober attitude that does not allow itself to be clouded by the fears stirred up by the new enemies of the open society; namely the respect and trust in what distinguishes each and every one of us as a rational living being: the dignity of the person, which consists in her freedom of thought and action.

Michael Esfeld

Michael Esfeld

Michael Esfeld is a professor of philosophy of science at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland

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