When you point out the inherent flaws in a theory such as, say, socialism, you sometimes hear the response, “Well, it would work if only people weren’t selfish about it and agreed to go along with it. Socialism is fine in theory; it’s people that make a mess of it.”

One is tempted to point out that to say a theory of how to organize human society only fails because it can’t account for humanity itself is an odd defense, rather like saying your boat works fine until you get it in the water. But it raises a larger question: whether any theory would work if only everyone would go along with it—and more fundamentally, whether things have a true nature or are merely generally agreed upon manners of speaking

The Words We Use

To tackle this, I’m going to start with something that might seem a little off-base: the nature of language.  

When I say or write a word, such as “four,” I am attempting to convey an idea that is in my head to yours. Our minds have no direct common communication, so the only way I can do that is to create signs in the environment we share, such as sounds or images. These, by common consent, correspond to particular ideas. That this is by consent rather than by nature can be seen by the fact that the same ideas can be expressed by totally different sounds: ‘four,’ ‘quattuor,’ ‘she,’ and so on all convey the same idea, only in the established ‘styles’ of English, Latin, and Japanese. Likewise, the same sounds can be used to convey different ideas: ‘four’ sounds the same as ‘for’ and ‘fore,’ but they all mean different things.

From there, take a step back from the words to consider the ideas themselves. Ideas are reflections of perceived realities. The idea ‘rock’ is the reflection in my mind of a particular reality that I encounter. It may or may not be a completely accurate reflection; if I see a given rock, I may believe that it is heavy (that is, my idea of it is as something heavy), only to find when I pick it up that it is light, whereupon the idea in my head would change to more closely resemble the actual rock itself. This what we mean by calling our thoughts ‘true’ or ‘false.’ A true thought accurately reflects the reality it corresponds to, as far as it goes, while a false one does not (as we will see, this applies to more abstract concepts as well as to concrete physical reality).

Thus, there are three elements in any given word: the sounds or symbols that make up the word itself (such as ‘four’), the idea that is being conveyed, and the reality that this idea reflects.

Now, we have established that the words used are a matter of convention and consent; that everyone in a particular region agreed to use the sound ‘four’ to convey that particular idea. However, the idea itself is not a matter of convention, because it reflects an objective reality that we encounter in the real world (or at least an objective concept).

Wrong Word or Wrong Idea?

Your idea may still be erroneous—that is, it might be an imperfect or inaccurate reflection—but it is still a reflection of that reality and not another (e.g. if a man has an idea that an elephant can fly because his only experience of them is seeing Dumbo, that doesn’t mean his idea of an elephant is really an idea of a bird, or that it bears no resemblance at all to the reality ‘elephant’). Anyone can see that if you have four units of anything that is not the same as having five units. The concept isn’t even based on our senses; to have one thought is not the same as having two thoughts, or even to having the same thought twice. No amount of definitional juggling or sleight of hand can change that.

So, if everyone were to agree that “two-plus-two equals five,” that would only mean either that ‘five’ now corresponded to the same idea as ‘four,’ or that everyone was simply wrong, because their idea of ‘five’ would not correspond to the real quantity (anyone who tries to deny this should have his paycheck cut in half until he agrees that quantity is objective).

Again, this does not only apply to obviously objective realities such as quantity. The word “theft” conveys the idea of “to take what belongs to someone else without their permission.” This is an action that can and is, in fact, committed. If I say “this person has stolen from me,” the idea I am conveying may or may not be true to the reality (depending on whether I, in fact, owned the object, whether this person in fact took it, and so on), but it expresses a specific, understood action.

“Theft” is not the same as “gift” or “purchase,” because the real events corresponding to those ideas do not involve the same factors. To say, “I purchased this car” conveys the idea that its previous owner willingly transferred it to me in exchange for something that he considered of equal value. To say, “I stole this car” conveys the idea that I took it without the owner’s permission. These statements become true or false depending on whether they reflect what, in fact, happens, and regardless of whether the man I purchased the car from then regrets selling it or whether the man I stole it from then decides to let me keep it.

Again, these ideas and realities are not based on convention; either I believed I had the owner’s permission to take the car or I did not. The two states of affairs are objectively different for that fact and hence correspond to two different ideas expressed in different words. If you called what is objectively a theft “borrowing” you would be misusing the language, because that word does not correspond to the actual reality of the situation. Or, to put it more simply, you would be (objectively) lying.

This is why the “if everyone agreed” argument doesn’t work; if everyone agreed to call theft ‘redistribution,’ it would not change what was actually happening, and it is that which people react to. People do not object to words, but to the reality those words describe, just as the nature of mathematics is not altered by the numerals or counting system you use to express it. It may be more or less accurate at describing the reality, but it can never change it.

Why People Resort to Playing Semantics

I think most people, trying to salvage the argument, would plead one of two things; the first is that the ideas most people have do not accurately reflect reality, and therefore if everyone’s ideas were more truthful, the system would work. For instance, it might be argued that the reality behind the idea of “ownership” is other than most men believe it to be, and hence what is being done is not truly theft.

Very likely the truth behind the general idea of ‘ownership’ is other than the idea reflecting it, but the problem is that it cannot be wholly other, or else it would not, in fact, be the idea of ownership. If your idea of ‘elephant’ is “a small, feathered, flying creature with a beak,” then the problem is not the idea, but the word you use; you have simply mixed up the word ‘elephant’ with ‘bird.’ If someone started to ‘correct’ your idea of elephant by saying that is a large, wrinkly land animal with a trunk, your response will not be to say, “I see; that’s a more correct version of the idea I had,” but rather to ask, “then what am I thinking of?”

Similarly, if you try to convince people that the ‘correct’ idea of ownership is “collective property that has no particular relation to any one person,” their answer, if they understand you and themselves, will be, “then what do you call it when a thing is related to a particular person? Because that’s what I meant by ‘ownership.’” You can either say ‘that doesn’t exist,’ in which case you are arguing against what they can perceive and are on the ground of objective fact, or you can tell them to simply negate what they know for a fact, which is to say, lie. Once again, you will only have changed the word, not the idea. If you want to change that, you move onto the ground of objective fact, where whether people agree or not is irrelevant.

I can also see the argument being made, “well, people shouldn’t react to these realities in this way.” Indeed, I think that is what the “if everyone agreed” argument generally amounts to: “if men did not mind being robbed, or if they were willing to lie, then we wouldn’t have a problem.”

One could, of course, turn it around and say, “If men did not mind being poor, or mind that others are poor, then we wouldn’t have a problem. And history shows that men are much more easily reconciled to poverty than they are to theft or lies.” One could also point out that encouraging men to take a lax view of theft and deceit would seem a short sighted strategy.

But more fundamentally, this amounts to saying “if men were other than they are, then our idea of how to organize them would work.” Which is another way of saying that it doesn’t work. To say a thing would be so if reality were different is only to say that it isn’t so.