The Open Society and Its Complexities

Gerald F Gaus

My review 2022-10-04

The focus of this multifaceted text is how the Open Society - a free, individualistic, diverse, dynamic society - can work given human nature and the complexity of the Open Society. It is organized as an investigation of what the author Gerald Gaus calls Friedrich Hayek's three unsettling theses: 1) That human nature has a tribal and parochial egalitarian basis which fundamentally is in conflict with the Open Society, and must be kept in check by it. 2) The Open Society is too complex to be amenable to justification, i.e. rational analysis and criticism. 3) The complexity of the Open Society is such that conscious human control and governance is impossible. At most, the state can provide the framework for the openness of the Open Society. Basically, the project that Gaus embarks on is to make a more optimistic case for the Open Society by critically discussing, and to some extent refuting Hayek's theses.

Gaus' argument concerning Hayek's first thesis takes into account the advances in understanding of the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens that has taken place during the last 30 or so years. He notes that the idea that morality has sprung out of the needs of the hypersocial human animal during its evolution has become commonplace. In Gaus' view, political philosophy must now be discussed with explicit reference to human nature as nowadays understood in an evolutionary context. This includes the fact that humans are a fundamentally cultural species, which has many important ramifications. Gaus argues that human sociality is based on cooperation and that there are strong forces in it that drive towards inclusion, impartiality and self-organization which Hayek did not take into account, and which undermine Hayek's first thesis that human nature is at odds with the Open Society.

Gaus' argument on the second and third of Hayek's theses uses a range of arguments from different fields. It is a complex text, which is hard to summarize. It has many interesting threads, and requires much thinking on the part of the reader. The upshot is that Hayek did have many valid points, but that there is actually considerable space for both critical evaluation of society, and for attempts at reforming it consciously.

Although Gaus uses the term Open Society, which Karl Popper made famous, his account is almost wholly based on Hayek's evolutionary view of a free society - what Hayek called the Great Society. Although he refers to Popper in some passages, he is clear that he considers Hayek's analysis superior to Popper's. But, somewhat strangely, Gaus ends up in a position which is more similar to Popper's; he does not use the term, but he views social engineering - which Popper argued for - in a more positive light than Hayek. Now, it is clear that Popper did not flesh out his analysis of the Open Society very much; Gaus does a lot more work in this regard. But still, some discussion about the fact that Gaus' position ends up closer to Popper than to Hayek would have been useful.

The text is dense, and it draws on arguments from a broad range of scientific fields, such as anthropoly, primatology, psychology, cultural studies of various kinds, economics, game theory and complexity theory. This makes the book rather hard to read, even though the language in itself is not that difficult. There is just so much in it! Some issues are investigated through formalized analysis, which occasionally provides more clarity, in others not. This book cannot be recommended to the average politically interested person. Someone else needs to write a popular version of Gaus' account.

In these days, when the Open Society is threatened from many directions, it is somewhat startling to read the end of Gaus' text, where he is confident about the future: "For a time, opponents of diversity and openness may check exploration, creativity, diversity, and freedom, but the forces propelling the new civilization proclaimed by Popper and Hayek cannot long be contained." It should be noted that Popper did not take this for granted at all. One may hope that Gaus' optimistic conclusion will turn out to be well-founded.