Front Page Titles (by Subject) Social Engineering - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1
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Social Engineering - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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“Karl Popper as Social Philosopher.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5 (1975): 157–171.
Recent books on Karl Popper's thought have failed to assess his social philosophy critically. [See P.A. Schelpp, ed., The Philosophy of Karl Popper, LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1974; and Brian Magee, Popper, London: Collins, 1973.] Yet Popper appears vulnerable in this area. We need to examine the major defects and criticisms in his approach to the study of society.
First, we can present a sketchy overview of leading themes in Popper's social thought. The methodology of the natural sciences determines Popper's own view of the social sciences, their possibilities and limitations. Natural scientists do not so much absolutely prove a hypothesis to be true, as seek to design experiments that could conceivably falsify or disprove them. “True” theories have survived a number of tests and have not yet been proven false. If theories have not been subjected to this ongoing process of attempted falsification, we term them unscientific. Popper applies this scientific methodology to any claim of the social sciences, and asks whether we can falsify it by observations.
Popper condemns the doctrine of “his toricism” precisely on these scientific and “falsification” grounds. [See The Poverty of Historicism, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957.] Historicism claims, through studying the history of society, to detect patterns and recurrences which will enable us to predict the future. The Popperian employs a methodological objection to historicism: historical facts are unique past events; they tell us nothing predictable about future unique events. Popper brands historicism as the ideology that robs people of their freedom to choose their social institutions through its assumption that the future is already determined. “Closed societies” (as opposed to “open” and democratic ones), being conformist and obedient to authority and tradition, do resemble the historicist image because they discourage individual choice.
One can use historicism dangerously as a tool for holistic and utopian social engineering to create the perfect society according to one master plan. According to Popper's methodology of falsifiability, these large-scale plans are again untestable; in addition, they dangerously concentrate undemocratic power in a central authority. In keeping with proper methodology, piecemeal planning can scientifically observe the effects of change on smaller social units.
These Popperian social ideas are weak in several respects. Popper's criticism of Marxism and psychoanalysis as “unfalsifiable,” and thus “unscientific,” loses much of its force since he recognizes other unfalsifiable theories that are nevertheless useful and valuable. For example, Popper views metaphysics to be unfalsifiable but, nevertheless, useful because it exists against a background of other theories which heuristically can stimulate inquiry. In addition, in his view, Popper's own work isn't “scientific,” because it is unfalsifiable.
More importantly, ineffectiveness colors Popper's critique of utopian social engineering. Taking physics as the paradigm of science, Popper objects to utopian social and political plans on the grounds that they are untestable. We can try them only on a large-scale and, if they fail, we lose everything. Accordingly, Popper favors piecemeal social engineering and planning because he finds such an approach closer to physics: we try something on a small-scale and, if it works, only then do we extend it on a wider scale. One does not take issue with the testability of the type of change but whether one can justify social engineering in the collectivist sense. Otherwise, we can hold Popper liable to the objection that large-scale plans and small-scale engineering both affect people in similar ways. They differ only in that the latter is “uncoordinated.” By stating the issue in the terms of the testability of social plans, Popper fails to deal with the central issue of what sort of planning one can justify.