The tension between freedom and solidarity during the Corona Crisis – On the Structure of the best possible political decision-making in an Open Society
For a long time, the people of the world have endured the Corona lockdowns, obeying the ever-changing harshness and severity of their governments‘ instructions, silently obeying the government’s proclaimed „dictates of reason”. But now we are witnessing increasing protests and demonstrations, explicit violations of the law’s commandments, and, more recently, strident statements against the governments‘ restrictions on our public behavior from intellectuals. For example, the philosopher Markus Gabriel from Bonn wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 20, referring to Sir Karl Popper’s thoughts on the open society, that in democracies the state is too weak to cope with the complexity of this global pandemic. The state is overburdened if it is to be able to do justice to this complexity by measures imposed from the top. Instead, it must be countered by multi-layered cooperation driven by the freedom of individual citizens and organized locally. In particular, it is a matter of recognizing the unforeseen and often in principle unpredictable consequences of central governments’ decisions. To this end, Gabriel argues, power must be returned to the most diverse, complexly interlocking forces in bourgeois society, which then promise to meet this crisis on their own strength and decision-making capacity.
Unlike the „conspiracy theory“ bellowing dullards of QAnon type thinkers, these thoughts must be taken very seriously, because they clearly address a real weakness of our liberal and open society in the face of this crisis. But the conflict is even deeper: The Corona pandemic basically reflects nothing else than a long conflict of modernity, namely the struggle between individual freedom and social solidarity. The need to protect our fellow citizens who are particularly threatened by the COVID-19 virus is beyond question, but how much should each individual citizen be affected by the measures taken for this protection? This reflects nothing other than the central question in an open society: the underprivileged people in our society, the poor, the sick and the needy, need our protection as a whole society, but to what extent may this protection affect the individual freedom of each citizen?
Karl Popper was the most important source of ideas for a liberal and open society in the first half of the 20th century, when totalitarian fascism and ideologically narrow-minded Soviet communism posed an existential threat to open societies in Europe. He articulated the idea, still central to an open society today, that any political decision must be correctable in the potential falsity of its underlying assumptions, the possibility of unintended and, because of the complexity of our modern society, necessarily unforeseeable consequences, and, lastly, the possible fatality of the negativity of its effects, at the latest by voting out of office the responsible political decision-makers. Ideological theories and totalitarian dogmas necessarily fail because of the complexity of the social reality of our societies, so Popper’s central argument. Markus Gabriel correctly reflects this and describes from it the impossibility of successful central conspiracies, as such are proclaimed again and again by the political dullards and narrow-minded screamers.
It becomes interesting, however, only if one transfers Popper’s thoughts, which are more than 75 years old and are treated today in university beginners‘ seminars in the fields of philosophy and political science, concretely to the present Corona crisis. Here the plea of many right-wing bourgeois political thinkers is that the government can no longer do justice to the complexity associated with this crisis with its centralist orders of lockdowns and massive restrictions on all our freedom of movement and action. We should therefore dispense those and return to citizens their freedoms. This demand is not infrequently supplemented by the claim that citizens are far better able to master the crisis „from below“ in their capacity to reason, rather than having appropriate measures imposed on them „from above“. Gabriel even goes so far as to say that „the state alone does not solve complex problems in a liberal democracy.“ It is „itself only a part of society, the complexity of which cannot be reduced to a monarchist or oligarchic pinnacle.“ The correctness of this statement is beyond question; however, it comes e with a suggestion or even implication that is far from reality, namely, that in our Western democracies, in times of corona crisis, the governments act in complete isolation and without any feedback with other parts of society. In fact, governments have always consulted and coordinated their decisions with very many different groups (scientists, economists, business representatives, decision-makers at lower political levels, lawyers, etc.). Moreover, they have always reacted to emerging developments and thus acted differently than oligarchic or monarchist government representatives, who in light of changing circumstances do not need to see their decisions reflected in the public sphere again and again.
For example, until November of last year, when the Corona figures in Switzerland had already exceeded all records and international benchmarks, the Swiss government still publicly invoked the self-responsibility of its citizens and wanted to rely on it – until it was no longer possible, for which it then faced strong criticism at home and abroad due to its late reaction with tougher Corona measures. It just did not seem to work out solely based on the reference to the freedom of the citizens. Incidentally, there had already been an indication of this in the weeks and months before, when, despite the acute Corona danger, many citizens did not allow themselves to be deterred from enjoying the party life in discotheques and beach clubs without restriction. Such irresponsibilities persist to this day: people fly to Mallorca, or if more well-heeled, to Dubai or Madagascar.
In the area of tension between the freedom of the individual, including her or his his personal responsibility, and solidarity, including the government’s definition of the latter, it seems to be not entirely unproblematic to put all one’s cards on the former. In fact, as Gabriel claims, the government alone is too weak in the open society to define and prescribe the solution from the top. But from the bottom, such a solution does not come about all by itself. This can be seen particularly well in Brazil, where the government to this day refuses to interfere with the civil liberties of its citizens („to defend the freedom of the people,“ because „more precious than life is freedom,“ according to Brazil’s President Bolsonaro) and instead, following this attitude, pleads for the principle of „business before health”. The results should give even the biggest apologists freedom pause for thought: The entire country has become a COVID-19 disaster zone and, according to health experts, an „open-air laboratory for the coronavirus“ and thus a risk to the global community.
We keep coming up against the central problem: how to do justice to the complexity of social reality in our open societies today, especially in the face of the COVID crisis? Here it is worth taking a closer look at Karl Popper’s philosophy. Indeed, his philosophy of the open society has a foundation that Markus Gabriel withholds from us. „The Open Society and Its Enemies“ from 1945 is by no means Popper’s „opus magnum,“ as Gabriel claims. Rather, Popper’s thoughts in it are based on his scientific epistemology, which Popper had already developed in 1934 in his work “ The Logic of Scientific Discovery“. The need to be able to correct political decisions and to vote out government without violence finds its counterpart in the possibility to falsify scientific statements and to correct those again and again. This, according to Popper, is the merit of scientific thinking: not insisting on an ultimate truth, but the dynamic of constantly questioning the status quo of our own intellectual soundness and the never-ending critical reflection of our present thinking, knowledge and opinion are at the heart of the scientific method. There is little room for fixed and eternally immutable truths. This is not always easy for non-scientists to understand. What is normal in science, namely that every scientific finding is always doubted and controversially discussed within the scientific community, creates uncertainty among laypeople – and unfortunately also allows politicians to throw up their hands when it comes to important scientific findings, such as the properties of the corona virus or climate change, along the lines of: „Look, the scientists themselves don’t agree! How should we then know what to do?“
But only this methodical basis of doubt and constant questioning, and thus the cautious approach to the multidimensionality of truth, does justice to the complexity of the structures of our world and human knowledge of such. Popper now transferred this as clear as brilliant thought to society and its own complexity. We do not arrive at the optimal structure of rule and decision at one stroke, but slowly walk our way forward via the correction of wrong decisions again and again. Gabriel correctly refers to this as well. However, there is no congruence with his description of how Western governments have gone ahead to meet the immense complexity of the task of an optimal pandemic response. Have the governments themselves not repeatedly adjusted their decisions once they have been made, meeting with task forces, requesting and involving various levels of decision-makers, and emphasizing the temporality of their decisions, ready to make adjustments to those at any time? Does the alternative demanded by Gabriel and many right-wing political advocates, of relying solely on the freedom of citizens and their self-responsibility, not itself appear as a dogmatic simplification that can never do justice to the complexity of the situation? A look at the effects observable in Brazil seems to provide a clear answer to the last question.
In fact, the process of political decision-making in the open society, which at times seems somewhat controversial and discordant, and not least erratic, with its multi-layered inputs and at times even corrections openly interpreted as weakness during the Corona crisis (sometimes even with public apologies, such as Angela Merkel’s recently), appears to be probably the best equivalent of the Popperian ideal of the open society and its structural strength in the face of the complexity of contemporary social structures. The demand to put all this in the hands of self-responsible, free citizens, on the other hand, seems rather the result of a dogmatic illusion. So, after Gabriel correctly and wonderfully refers to the anti-dogmatic character of Popper’s doctrine, he himself falls for the dogmatic belief that the freedom of the individual and his self-responsibility offer the optimal solution to the hyper-complex problems surrounding the COVID crisis. In all this, it is to be expected that the state and the government will let us return as soon as possible to the freedom of the so eagerly longed for self-determination of our daily lives.