By Jin-yeong Yi
“What then is my property? Nothing but what is in my power! To what property am I entitled? To every property to which I—empower myself. I give myself the right of property in taking property to myself, or giving myself the proprietor’s power, full power, empowerment.
Everything over which I have might that cannot be torn from me remains my property; well, then let might decide about property, and I will expect everything from my might! Alien might, might that I leave to another, makes me an owned slave: then let my own might make me an owner. Let me then withdraw the might that I have conceded to others out of ignorance regarding the strength of my own might! Let me say to myself, what my might reaches to is my property; and let me claim as property everything that I feel myself strong enough to attain, and let me extend my actual property as far as I entitle, that is, empower, myself to take.”
—Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own
Recognizing something as imaginary is not inconsistent with personally valuing it for its utility. For instance, I like the idea that the computer I purchased in the store is my “property” and that there’s no obligation for me to share it with anyone else. However, if someone were to take “my” computer away from me, I would grudgingly acknowledge that that person has done nothing wrong and has no inherent obligation to return it to me. Luckily for me, neither would it be “wrong” for me to report the theft to the police or find some way to steal it back, but either way I would have no objective “moral law” that I could appeal to. (It wouldn’t be wrong for me to appeal to such an imaginary law, but I would be philosophically inconsistent if I did so, now wouldn’t I?) That’s why I appreciate the concept of “the right to property” and human “rights” in general, as well as the laws that protect them, even while recognizing that these don’t actually exist in reality.
Besides the fact that politics ultimately boils down to proclivity and predilection, which in turn boil down to personality, the elephant in the room of today and yesterday’s political arena is that “sovereignty” itself is a human construct. No individual or group owns any piece of land, no matter how many pieces of fancy cotton paper they gave in exchange for it, or how long they’ve occupied it, or what they’ve accomplished with it.
Even if there were inherent rights and an objective moral law, I think it’s safe to say that humankind would never agree as to what those actually are. And so it is unlikely that the disputes about which nation owns what piece of land (with its imaginary label or labels) will be resolved peacefully. Does “North America” belong to those of European ancestry, or to the Mexicans, or to the Amerinds? Does “Palestine” belong to the Israelis or the Palestinians? Does “Taiwan” belong to the Chinese or the Taiwanese? Do the “Liancourt Rocks” belong to the Koreans or the Japanese?
Answer: none of the above. We can cite as many historical and legal documents as we want, but at the end of the day, a human construct is a human construct. And before I am accused of being a Kumbaya cheerleader, let me point out that the notion that the earth belongs to “all of us” is also false. The way I see it, the reality is quite the reverse: the earth belongs to no one.
With that said, I do value the concept of countries. I reject John Lennon’s vision of “all the people sharing all the world.” I enjoy the idea and the reality of global ethnocultural diversity; of there being distinct languages, cultures, and peoples in different parts of the world; and I think national sovereignty, though a human construct, is necessary for protecting and preserving this diversity.
But it may also turn out to be our undoing. Ethnic strife will probably never cease so long as humanity exists. As it’s a game whose rules were invented entirely by humans, it should come as no surprise that the rules always seem to be changing, that the goalposts always seem to be moving, and that there’s no real agreement as to what the rules are and where the goalposts are in the first place. Although cooperation is always an option, I expect that current and future issues will be resolved in the oldest and most straightforward way of settling disputes: through force and violence.