Owing to its anonymity, public opinion is an irresponsible form of power, and therefore particularly dangerous from the liberal point of view.
That was written a few years before the social media gave organized activists the capacity to stampede a government into closing down industries overnight (live cattle trade, the maga trawler in WA) but it speaks to our condition. It comes from a paper on “Public Opinion and Liberal Principles“, delivered at the Mont Pelerin Society in Italy circa 1954. The author was the Austrian-born, honourary ANZAC (during WW2) Karl Popper.
Other key points from the Powerpoint display
(1) The state is a necessary evil and its powers should be kept to the minimum that is necessary.
(2) A democracy is a state where the government can be changed without bloodshed.
(3) Democracy cannot confer benefits on people. “Democracy provides no more than a framework within which the citizens may act in a more or less organised and coherent way”.
(4) Democracy does not mean that the majority is right.
(5) Institutions need to be tempered and supported by traditions.
(6) There is no Liberal Utopia. There are always problems, conflicts of interests, choices to be made between the lesser of evils.
(7) Liberalism is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It is about modifying or changing institutions and traditions rather than wholesale replacement of the existing order. The exception to this is when a tyranny is in place, that is a government that can only be changed by violence and bloodshed.
8) The importance of the moral framework.
Among the traditions that we must count as the most important is what we may call the ‘moral framework’ (corresponding to the institutional ‘legal framework’) of a society. This incorporates the society’s traditional sense of justice or fairness, or the degree of moral sensitivity that it has reached… Nothing is more dangerous than the destruction of this traditional framework. (Its destruction was consciously aimed at by Nazism).
Moving on to the dangers of public opinion, he noted that it can be very powerful and hence liberals (wary of concentrations of power and their danger) should treat it with a degree of suspicion: “Owing to its anonymity, public opinion is an irresponsible form of power, and therefore particularly dangerous from the liberal point of view.”
On the liberal theory of free discussion, he suggested that freedom of thought and discussion are ultimate liberal values that are not in need of further defence or justification. However he noted that they can be given additional support on account of the way they contribute to the search for truth and the elimination of error by critical public discussion.
In connection with some practical problems such as censorship and monopolies of publicity he had no theses to offer, just questions, for example what should be done about the influence and responsibility of the intelligentsia in connection with spreading ideas such as socialism, and their role in the acceptance of tyrannical fashions such as abstract art and nowadays political correctness?
It may sometimes assume the role of an enlightened arbiter of justice. Unfortunately it can be managed. These dangers can be counteracted only by strengthening the liberal tradition. Public opinion should be distinguished from the publicity of free and critical discussion which is (or should be) the rule in science, and which includes the discussion of moral and other issues. Public opinion is influenced by, but is not the result of, nor under the control of, discussions of this kind. Their beneficial influence will be the greater the more honestly, simply, and clearly, these discussions are conducted.
On the topic of strengthening the liberal tradition, this morning the Power Wireless warned that the O’Farrell government is introducing the compulsory scanning of IDs to enter pubs and bars in Kings Cross. (The IDs have to include the address and date of birth. Someone suggested that many of the sailors here recently did not carry IDs with those details). Tens of thousands of people will be penalized for the sins of a handful of drunken louts, in particular the man who king-hit a youth and killed him in Victoria Street. The lout in question did not get drunk in Kings Cross, he drove from Quakers Hill with three companions and a carton of high octane spirts. This is the O’Farrell who was concerned that the local laws on hatespeech were not being used enough.