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Published · 7-minute read

Popper’s Criterion Is Insufficient

The philosopher Karl Popper’s criterion of democracy famously states that democracy is a political system in which bad leaders and policies can be removed without bloodshed. This criterion shifts the focus from authoritarian questions such as ‘who should rule’ – the king, the aristocrats, ‘the people’ – to the peaceful correction of errors. So, although the term ‘democracy’ literally means ‘rule of the people’, that is not, according to Popper, what democracy is really about. Again, it’s about the ability to remove bad leaders and policies without bloodshed.

This criterion allows us to split the countries of the world into two camps – those in which this peaceful removal (and with it, the peaceful transfer of power to new leaders and policies) is possible, and those in which it is not. The US is perhaps the most salient example, and arguably the longest-running success story in history, that enables this peaceful removal. So does the Anglosphere more generally, along with much of Europe. Russia does not – you cannot remove Putin from power without bloodshed. Nor do China or North Korea.

There’s also the distinction David Deutsch suggests in chapter 10 of his book The Beginning of Infinity – that Western countries entertain their fallibility and seek improvement, whereas non-Western countries do not. (In that chapter, Deutsch does not mention the West directly – he uses Athens vs Sparta to symbolize the West vs the rest.) Whichever distinction you choose, you see in both a binary categorization of good vs bad, of Western vs non-Western. As Deutsch himself points out, the distinction is not one of perspective or degree but of objective principle. And so there is an objective difference between the good and the bad actors on the world’s political stage. Although Western countries are no doubt flawed, and always will be, we see in Popper’s as well as Deutsch’s criterion the distinction between the proverbial good guys and the bad guys. The West is the good guys; the rest is made up of barbarians at the gate.

But how good exactly are the good guys? Popper’s criterion leaves much to be desired because it focuses only on whether the people use, or would need to use, violence against politicians – not the other way round. But the violence that the political institutions of the West perpetrate against their peaceful subjects is staggering, and it does little good pointing out that these subjects can, in principle, remove the leaders of those institutions without bloodshed. They would be perfectly morally justified in taking up arms to defend themselves against political violence – even though their masters forbid them from defending themselves in such a manner. And, because our kindly masters could try to get me in trouble for pointing this out, I have to preemptively state that I do not advocate violence against them, and I do thank them for allowing me to continue financing them against my will.

At this point, most of my readers will no doubt wonder how exactly Western political institutions employ violence against their subjects. There may be some corruption, they will be quick to admit, but overall, things are above board – you may walk down the street and no politician will come to harm you. That is true, but I invite you to consider in earnest what happens if you refuse to pay your taxes and to take that very seriously. The short answer is that they will put you in a metal cage (jail) against your will. Since, by law of nature, you must work to sustain yourself, and since, by law of the state, you are forced to hand over part of your earnings, you are a slave.1 All sorts of specious justifications for this kind of slavery may come to mind – the ‘needs’ of the ‘collective’ is usually a big one – but none of them change the fact that systematic political violence against citizens is rampant, even in the West. Worse, this violence is aggressive, whereas Popper’s criterion arguably speaks only of defensive violence. And that is not to mention all the other laws that legislatures across the West pass which, ‘democratically justified’ or not, violate man’s natural rights – such as the draft, jury duty, and so on.

The ability to change leaders non-violently helps some, but only little if the new leaders continue to point a gun in your face. If you are a slave, the ability to choose a new master without bloodshed does not make you a free man.2 It does make your masters objectively better than the old ones who would not allow such a peaceful transfer of power – hence I continue to think that Western governments are better than non-Western ones – but it does not change the fact that slavery is an abomination; that we want nobody to have power over us; that we yearn, uncompromisingly, for freedom.

So, while I do not wish to throw Popper’s criterion out with the bathwater, I do wish to emphasize that it is grossly insufficient. It unjustly favors politicians in their pursuit of a life without political violence while making no mention of whether their subjects are the victims of such violence. Lack of violence has to go both ways. A political system that finances itself through institutionalized violence is not and cannot be a democracy, even if those robbed can, in principle, peacefully replace their robbers with new robbers. Such a political system is still tyrannical. And so Popper’s criterion is not only insufficient but also false. Here’s mine:

Democracy is a political system from which political violence is completely absent.

This criterion retains the good parts of Popper’s – it still means no bloodshed is required to remove bad leaders or policies – while also protecting citizens from institutionalized violence. In turn, it allows for more peaceful error correction than Popper’s criterion, because the latter still accommodates violence. Another way to state my criterion that makes the focus on error correction more explicit is this: democracy is a political system in which all problems can be solved peacefully.

As Popper points out, nothing is gained by defining terms or navel-gazing about words. We can instead call whatever system meets my criterion undemocratic or consider it the absence of a political system – that’s not important. What is important is that institutionalized violence has no place in a civilized society. To be clear, my criterion shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a pacifist stance. The members of any society which meets it still have every right to defend themselves against intruders and other criminals with force. I don’t consider defensive force violence for these purposes.

By my criterion, due to the violence perpetrated by Western political institutions against peaceful citizens every day, Western countries are not democracies. I am not aware of a single country in the world that meets my criterion. Which brings us to the question of what is to be done about this problem.

The enemies of freedom are correct that we currently need the government and its violent ways because we do not know how to live without it. But they mistake necessity for desirability. This, in turn, leads to what one might call the fetishization of political institutions.3 Many people have such a strong preference for institutionalized violence that they believe it should never be gotten rid of. It is true that we do not yet know how to live without it – like a slave who has never lived without a master might have much trouble being freed and left to his own devices overnight – but that fact is regrettable and no defense of violence or slavery. There’s the related problem of whether it is immoral to set free someone who’d prefer to remain a slave, as many in our society who find all kinds of reasons against liberty and for violence seem to. But whatever the answer, it is desirable to learn to be free. Violent government is a currently necessary evil, but it’s a soluble problem.

One of the primary reasons we cannot get rid of our violent political institutions overnight is our fallibility. The Popperian way to reason about this is that we can always be mistaken, even in our best ideas, and want changes to be reversible when they turn out to have been bad. It is not, as some have argued, that our political institutions are the only known way to solve problems without violence. On the contrary! They are, in fact, notoriously bad at solving problems peacefully and by far the biggest perpetrators of violence in society. (What did we expect, having given the government the monopoly on violence?) If you value peace and abhor violence, your priority should be to remove political institutions’ stranglehold on their subjects.

In discussions about this topic, some have misinterpreted my stance on Popper’s criterion as ‘unpopperian’ – as authoritatively seeking a certain ‘state’ or solution instead of focusing on the means of error correction. Since I wish to establish a state without institutionalized violence, they argue, I aim for some kind of utopia. But Popper also sought a certain state – that of being able to remove bad leaders and policies without bloodshed. And any identification of a problem is a claim that a state with that problem having been solved is preferable. To abuse Popper’s legitimate focus on error correction to entrench institutionalized violence is perverse. Nor does my stance abandon Popper’s focus on error correction: on the contrary, it puts it in the spotlight, because aggressive violence, which Popper’s criterion still accommodates as long as it is initiated by politicians, never helps to correct errors. And, should the countries of the West manage their transformation into truly peaceful societies, there will still be infinitely many problems left to solve, so the claim that I argue for utopia must be false as well.

Libertarianism, stated simply, just takes seriously the notion that institutionalized violence has no place in a civilized society. (Most people disagree, which is why I have no choice but to conclude that they like violence, at least to some notable degree.) Popperian libertarianism, in particular, combines libertarianism with the Popperian notion that revolutions should be avoided in favor of piecemeal changes because we are fallible.

The fetishization of our political institutions, and with them, their violence, comes at a price: complacency. Yes, again, we do not currently know how to live freely – but those who stress this in defense of violence never display any urgency to learn how! We have to actively work on getting rid of institutionalized violence. Government tends to grow in power, and some significant minimum of work is required just to balance that out. Even more work is required to reduce government – and it will resist. There are comparatively few people in the world who are aware of the problem, and even fewer who work on it.

Those with a fetish for our institutions are not strongly disgusted at how the biggest gang of robbers and murderers, as many libertarians have described the government, steals their hard-earned money every month. Every penny paid to the government under threat of violence should make them feel violated. They just don’t realize that the fact that we (currently) depend on this gang is tragic. Why else are they not ashamed of their support for violence?

There’s no logical contradiction in saying that 1) we currently need this gang of robbers and murderers to survive as a society and 2) that we should get to a state without this dependency as quickly as possible because 3) depending on this gang is disgusting. If cancer had taken over some of your organs’ vital functions, rendering you unable to remove that cancer all at once, you wouldn’t praise it for performing those functions! It’s still cancer; it still has to be removed – only slowly, over time, with much trial and error. If a doctor did knowingly remove this cancer all at once, one could rightfully call him a murderer, and he’d perhaps be no better a murderer than that cancer itself. Revolutionary libertarians ironically want to commit this same murder. But they’re right about being libertarian – they’re wrong only about being revolutionary.

Whatever the case – our only option is to fight that cancer. It’s a miracle the patient has survived this long.

After the thousandth experiment in political violence fails, will people implement yet another system based on it, or will they finally learn that peace is the only viable option?

Thanks to Logan Chipkin and Mart van Megen for commenting on a draft of this post.


  1. Compare also Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, chapter 12 titled ‘Man’s Rights’: “Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.” 

  2. Other versions of this idea have been circulating. I have previously quoted Lysander Spooner: “A man is none the less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years.” (Source, paragraph NT.6.6.7). I’m told Jan Lester said something similar. 

  3. Some of those familiar with David Deutsch’s and Sarah Fitz-Claridge’s work on Taking Children Seriously may recognize that ‘fetishization of political institutions’ is similar phrasing to ‘fetishization of consent’, or what Deutsch calls ‘the libertarian mistake’. Fitz-Claridge explains what that mistake means here. The overlap in phrasing is incidental and not indicative of any overlap in content. 


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What people are saying

Presumably the popperian libertarian because he wants to avoid revolutionary changes, would want any change implemented society wide to be done via existing state institutions. So they’d want a libertarian party or libertarian members of parliament to formulate and attempt to introduce legislation and get it passed that would slowly diminish the state’s role in the areas of human activity it has a role in. Is this right? If so, why isn’t this just a fetishization of political institutions?

#372 · Jose Chalupa (people may not be who they say they are) ·
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I personally wouldn’t take that approach but if somebody were to take it they might say they’re still not fetishizing political institutions because they wish they didn’t have to take that approach but see no other way. Maybe they feel like taking a shower every time they get home from Congress.

#373 · dennis (verified commenter) · in response to comment #372
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I don’t agree with that psychological theory, it accepts as definition that being proud of working in the English parliament for example, or proud of being chief of police in your home city psychopathic.

Either way, what approach would you personally take, or you think would be better?

#374 · Jose Chalupa (people may not be who they say they are) · in response to comment #373
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I looked up the definition of the word ‘psychopath’ and the first entry here says:

A person who engages repeatedly in criminal and antisocial behavior without remorse or empathy for those victimized.

On the one hand, a lot of politicians’ behavior isn’t legally speaking criminal, but it’s certainly morally criminal and also antisocial (even though it’s often advertised as the opposite – like, some policies are promoted as being ‘for the good of the community’ when really they end up hurting the community). Politicians also usually have no empathy for those they steal from (their victims, the citizens) or coerce in other ways. One of the ‘cloaking’ effects of the enormous bureaucracy surrounding politicians is that they aren’t the ones collecting taxes anyway but have minions doing that for them (IRS employees).

On the other hand, they don’t consider their victims, victims but beneficiaries of their ‘services’ who are better off for paying taxes (and all the other ways in which politicians violate their natural rights). It’s unclear to me whether a psychopath is only someone who knows they’re hurting someone else and still do it, or whether it doesn’t matter if they know. That determines whether most politicians are psychopaths or not.

Is a parent who beats his child and thinks it’s for the child’s best a psychopath or not? Does the classification really matter, or can we agree that beating the child is disgusting either way?

In any case, you asked:

[W]hat approach would you personally take, or you think would be better?

In no particular order: people should get a gun, become harder to govern, know their rights, build wealth, use and offer peaceful, voluntary alternatives to government ‘services’ (e.g. choose private carriers like FedEx over USPS for sending mail), never work in the ‘public’ sector, refuse to accept blood money in the form of government handouts (unless, maybe, their taxes offset them), make sure not to overpay taxes so as not to feed the beast unnecessarily, speak truth to power, challenge unjust laws in court… The list goes on.

#375 · dennis (verified commenter) · in response to comment #374 · Referenced in comment #398
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I thought of two more things people can do.

First, companies can aggressively poach government workers so there are fewer and fewer government workers left and it gets harder and harder for the government to function on a daily basis because it simply runs out of them. (The private sector has to be willing to pay higher salaries as government workers become scarce.) This approach can also promote the building of private alternatives to government ‘services’. For example, consider private-security companies hiring cops.

Second, whenever you interact with a government worker, invite them to think about the source of their salary (it’s paid with money that was robbed of peaceful citizens). Then, invite them to consider a switch to the private sector. Not everyone will be convinced, but if even a single person switches, that will be a win.

By the way, in my previous comment I wrote that people should “never work in the ‘public’ sector”. To be clear, they shouldn’t work for the public sector either – e.g., they should not accept government contracts.

#398 · dennis (verified commenter) · in response to comment #375
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