Birthing the Culture War

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

Over the last half century, America has become embroiled in a culture war between so-called Open Society liberals and Reaganite conservatives. Authors David Horowitz and Richard Poe describe the Open Society in their book, “The Shadow Party,” as founded upon Karl Popper’s philosophy that “A truly open person never assumes that his beliefs are superior to someone else’s and never forgets his own fallibility.” According to Horowitz and Poe, George Soros then adopted this philosophy, founding the Open Society Institute. OSI describes its dedication to “support the rule of law, education, public health, and independent media” and “to build alliances across borders and continents on issues such as combating corruption and rights abuses.” In contrast, Horowitz and Poe describe Soros as an ultrarich mastermind reminiscent of the Bond media mogul nemesis, Eliot Carver. Horowitz and Poe claim that Soros has funded and manufactured the ascension of sixties radicals into positions of power within the Democratic Party in order to promote radical left-wing policies such as marijuana legalization and amnesty for illegal aliens.

In The Road to Serfdom, economist Friedrich Hayek argues that government intervention in the economy naturally precludes a decline in civil liberties, resulting in totalitarian rule. This contradicted his 1930’s colleagues’ work, much of which asserted that capitalist and communist societies must devise a ‘third way’ using the happy medium of socialism. While originally obscure, Hayek’s book was catapulted onto the public scene when Reader’s Digest published a condensed version of his writings. The work became so popular that Hayek quickly became a public icon, evoking strong socialist opposition, and his “Road to Serfdom” thesis was further simplified and disseminated in cartoon form.

Many consider his work pivotal in the formation of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s conservative political platforms. Cato Institute Fellow Gerald O’Driscoll wrote that “From the beginning, it was Hayek’s intention to use the society’s deliberations strategically to disseminate liberal ideas. Hayek viewed it as an intellectual bulwark against the rise of totalitarianism he feared in the postwar era. He recognized that, as a practical matter, the largely Catholic parties of the center—the Christian Democrats—would be the chief political force countering the new totalitarianism of the left.”

In contrast, Popper rejected the positivist dogmas of many great western philosophers, labeling their absolutist philosophies precursors to totalitarianism. In his famous book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper names Aristotle, Plato, and Heraclitus as the “first great enemies of the Open Society, claiming that the 19th Century philosopher, Georg Hegel, “represents the ‘missing link,’ as it were, between Plato and the modern form of totalitarianism.” Popper opposes the concept of a historical ‘dialectic’ which lends itself to Hegelian or Platonic idealism.

It seems quite paradoxical that Ronald Reagan and George Soros would share a common ideological heritage. However, both Popper and Hayek grew up in Vienna and taught at the London School of Economics. Bruce Caldwell, Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina, and editor of The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents: The Definitive Edition credits Hayek for significantly contributing to Popper’s post at the LSE. He told a Heritage audience in August that Popper and Hayek had exchanged correspondence during Popper’s time in New Zealand, and that their exchange resulted largely from “the fact that they had very similar ideas and Hayek would send some of the stuff he wrote, and Popper would read it and say ‘Geez, you know, I was thinking about these same ideas.’” Caldwell argues that there “was no direct influence [on each other] during this period, but they came to really appreciate each others’ ideas.” Caldwell’s paper to the Vienna Popper Centenary Conference concluded that “statements to the contrary made by each man notwithstanding, a plausible case can be made that neither Popper nor Hayek had a real influence on the other’s writings. I have offered arguments for my interpretation, though I also freely admit that the evidence at hand is capable of supporting alternative interpretations.”

One alternative explanation, offered by economist Jack Birner in a response to Caldwell’s paper, is that Hayek and Popper disagreed on the “mind-body problem.” To that end, Birner argues, “Popper follows the scepticist [sic] and anti-inductivist leads in Hume whereas Hayek works out its empiricist and conservative elements.” “Nevertheless, they did influence each other,” asserts Birner, with Hayek assisting Popper’s formulation of Neo-Darwinism and Popper exhorting Hayek to defend his explanations about the emergence of higher functions of language.

Bethany Stotts
is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.