Thursday, May 9, 2013
Why I Believe in Imaginary Lines
Liberty proponents often ridicule and excoriate supporters of state power by pointing to the arbitrariness of various rules within the system. They'll lament the concept of political jurisdictions and boundaries, and, often, literally laugh them off as "imaginary lines". They'll refer to the state itself sometimes as "a fiction". I'm not sure if this is a good rhetorical approach in the long run.
The basic thrust of such gestures is that these rules and jurisdictions are immaterial. They do not exist in a tangible sense. They are the product of men and their ideas. So far, so good. This much I think we can agree on. Where I part, however, is in thinking that this is good grounds to dismiss the claims.
Consider, for instance, that you catch a burglar in your house. You stop him at gunpoint and tell him to get out of your house. He asks you what authority you have in forcing him to leave. You reply, of course, that he is on your property. He laughs at you. "By property you mean an imaginary line you magically placed around this house?"
So, then we see the obvious question of what makes his line of argumentation any less meaningful than the one explored previously? The answer, of course, is that it isn't less meaningful. It holds the same rhetorical weight. So does that mean that this particular argument is so good that it can defeat both the concepts of property and state-authority? No; fortunately for us, I believe, it means that the argument is so bad that it defeats neither.
Property is a social construct. It is a concept. It is immaterial. That does not make it any less real. The truth-value and functionality of concepts do not lie in their (non)tangibility.
Our chief mission, in this regard, is to reveal the inconsistency and unworkable nature of concepts like political authority through reason. Banishing ideas and concepts to the realm of mystical relics based on their immaterial nature actually does a pretty big disservice to the cause. Hume's Guillotine is a powerful argument to employ. But, in using it, you have to remain mindful that it cuts both ways.