One of Karl Popper’s most influential book is ‘The open society and its enemies.’ Published in 1945, he even considered it his own contribution to the effort of World War II.
Popper believed that in Ancient Greece we could find the first traces of Western open societies. Their main feature is that nomos (legal order) is no longer part of the physis (natural order). Thus, in an open society social issues can be discussed. Moreover, each individual cannot rely on the clan, but has to be responsible for themselves. The open society makes possible something extraordinary – it unleashes the critical powers of man.
Let’s now leave the fifth century b.C. and visit the much closer year of 2010. In the US, a very advanced democracy, an important health care law is on the making. And then Speaker Nancy Pelosi says in public that “we have to pass the law so you can find out what’s in it”. This quote exemplifies very well how parliamentary debate can degenerate into an acritical rush.
Even closer, both geographically and chronologically, are the recent accusations of European Union secret law making.
Secret EU law making reached a high in 2016 that has only been matched once before, according to figures obtained by EUobserver.
The normal process starts with a bill from the European Commission. The bill is then channelled through the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, representing member states.
If no agreement is reached at first reading, a second reading is launched. But according to figures provided by the parliament, not a single bill ended up in a second reading agreement in 2016, only the second time this has happened since EU parliament record keeping began in 2004.
Second readings are important because they open up the debate to the public at large. Removing this phase means the details are being agreed behind closed doors and people have to rely on insider information to understand what is happening.
Well-connected lobbyists or specialised reporters may be able to follow the law-making process, but most people will struggle to make sense of why or how decisions were made. MEPs may debate the bill at the committee level, but the real decisions remain broadly out of sight.
Unlike many of today's members of Parliament, Popper believed that what distinguished human beings from animals was our ability for critical discussion. Therefore, in the political arena, we are able to debate and criticize public policy proposals before they are adopted. Through this process we can discard the damaging ones before they hurt us. In the end, this rational method of critical discussion makes our hypothesis, to cite Popper, “die in our stead”.
What is more, Popper believed in reformism, but he had a gradualist approach. He thought that politicians should always be aware that their knowledge is finite. Therefore, reforms should be always very limited in their scope, and they should always state in advance what results they will achieve. The impact of the reform should be zealously measured and contrasted with the expected results.
Twenty five centuries ago, Pericles, one of the most celebrated Athenian statesmen, noted that “even if only a few of us are capable of devising a policy or putting it into practice, all of us are capable of judging it.”
Perhaps we should keep this in mind more than ever.