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Watching out for metaphors

30 September, 2015 - 17:16

Political science, as noted in the Introduction to this book, is a science that tries to connect the "micro" level of individual lives and actions with the "macro" level of collective circumstances and consequences. The distinctive focal point of political science is government, and the distinctive thing about the organization we call government is that it can legitimately threaten sanctions against all individuals who violate its laws.

Although our original definition of an association assumed that individual people are the parties making it up, we then observed that once associations exist, they become parties which can then in turn enter into still further associations. But given our definition of an association, thus generalized—the relationship existing when one party's satisfaction is being changed by the actions of another party—we must be careful to note that we are now using terms like "action" metaphorically rather than literally.

Indeed, if we talk about "actions" by organizations and other associations, we are implicitly using a lot of other words metaphorically too. Does an organization literally have goals, or does it just "act" (sometimes) as if it had goals? Does it have "satisfaction" (defined as a ratio, remember, between perceived attainments and desires) or do we infer existence of an organizational equivalent to satisfaction from its "actions"?

We should be very careful not to take metaphorical language of this type too literally. Up to a point, the analogies expressed by metaphors can be useful, but beyond that point they can be extremely misleading. We should always remember that literally, organizations cannot act—only individuals can act, including acting on behalf of an organization. We must not confuse the organization—which is made up of many individuals—with an individual, we must not confuse the macro with the micro.

As an example of the dangers of taking political metaphors literally, let us consider the concept of freedom applied not at the micro level but at the macro. We all know how important freedom is for us as individual human beings. Therefore, we generalize, freedom is good! But if freedom is good, then it seems to follow that all countries should be free, all nations should be free, all "peoples" (as it is sometimes put) should be free.

There is, however, at least one important difference between countries, nations, and "peoples", on the one hand, and individual people, on the other hand. These macro level entities are made up of large numbers of individual people, but it is usually far from obvious just which individuals "belong" to which countries, nations, or "peoples". And there are no adequate democratic or legal procedures for determining where one country, nation, or "people" leaves off and another begins when there is disagreement about this, which there always is! You can not resolve democratically the issue who will be included in just which electorate, which is precisely the issue in international boundary disputes. Thus there is always an issue as to just what are the macro-level entities that ought to be free, while no similar problem exists at the micro-level of individuals.

A second important difference is that individual claims to freedom are not unlimited. Rather, individual freedom is presumed to exist in the context of a government whose laws by definition are intended to limit the extent of that freedom in the interest of the general welfare. No similar limit on freedom is generally acknowledged when it comes to the claims of macro-level entities to freedom. Yet if law and order are necessary to a decent life at the local or national level, it would appear that they are equally necessary at the world level. Unthinking extrapolation of the value of freedom from its literal and limited application to individuals to a metaphorical and unlimited application to countries, nations, or "peoples" prevents us from seeing the need for the rule of law at the world level, the need for a world government.

Another way of stating this point is that there is a conflict between national freedom and maximizing individual freedom. With national freedom comes restrictions on individual freedom in the name of national defense: high taxes, military conscription, prohibition of travel to some countries, limits on immigration and emigration, obstacles to the flow of capital, goods, and ideas.

Let there be no doubt about it: individual liberty cannot be maximized in a world in which national freedom exists. Rather than uncritically hailing the virtues of national freedom, serious thinkers must therefore ask how much are we willing to pay for it?

A world government is not in the works in the very near future. Conducting foreign affairs with other independent governments will continue to be a regrettable necessity for some time. Things cannot be improved overnight. But this is no excuse for failing to ask ourselves where we want to be going, or how to go about getting there.