Imaginary Lines


Most of us, I’m sure, have had some sort of imaginary friend when we were growing up. They played with us, they experienced what we did, they accompanied us in many of our youthful romps. Being an only child, I had my fun in the sun with my imaginary friend, Barney, for about two years. And no, he wasn’t inspired by the purple dinosaur.

But here’s the thing about imaginary friends — when you take away all the fun times you have with them and the meaning you put into them… you’re left with nothing. They don’t really exist. They are, like their names say, imaginary; a figment of our minds.

The same is true with many things in this world:  how good that piece of lemon meringue pie at the crappy diner really was; how attractive the girl at the bar last night was after… well, I forget how many drinks; or maybe your false self-confidence after thinking you just aced that calculus final. There’s a rather large margin for error built into our imaginations (that is, our perceptions of reality) that separates it from actual reality. It only takes a mere overlooking to miss the strand of hair in your meringue, or maybe until sobriety resumes for you to look over at the whale under the sheets next to you, or notification to check your D-minus result on the online grading system. Eventually, somehow, reality will triumph, no matter how much you chose to overlook the real facts of a situation.

So it is with lines. You know, the idea of straightness between two clearly defined points of origin and terminus. As opposed to a ray, the even-more-imaginary construct that has no beginning or end. Despite the fact that a line is constricted by a point of beginning and a point of ending, the idea behind those two points being connected is, for all intents and purposes, imaginary. Sure, we can go out and physically construct a line between “this” X,Y coordinate and “that” X,Y coordinate, and we’ll actually construct a line out of physical materiel in order to illustrate our idea. This isn’t to dismiss the idea itself, but just to help realize its limits. Outside of our imaginations, the line itself doesn’t exist. We imagine the straight path between the two points, but unless it is physically drawn, built, constructed, etc, into reality the line is not in existence.

This is truest when applied to political boundaries. I specify “political” boundaries because there is a difference between “political” and “propertied” boundaries. The former is an ambiguously marked territory designated by only the eagerness of the powers-that-be, while the latter is obtained through economic transaction and is patented via that transaction to make the contents of the boundary subject to ownership of the proprietor. There is, however, the Georgist idea of landed property ownership which is based on the principle that only developed material property can be owned while the land itself is “free” for all to access. This would be a great topic for another article, but isn’t very pertinent to the discussion at hand.

Instead, I want to draw attention to the idea that political boundaries are quite unlike (and, dare I say, diametrically opposed to) privately owned property. My recent reading of the book Measuring America by Andro Linklater has allowed me to reflect on how this continent was largely claimed by the American government. And, yes… I meant to say the American government and not the American people. Contrary to what our perceptions may be (again, there’s our imaginations!), the vast majority of the American continent was settled via planned communities and government-surveyed areas.

In Mexico, the Spanish theocratic empire established a hard-lined policy of missionary-settled villages throughout Sonora and the American southwest, in addition to an iron-fisted military presence across their domain. Areas were settled because either the Spanish priests (who were affiliated directly with the Crown) saw an opportunity to convert indigenous peoples while giving the Spanish government the glory, or through military conquest which produced forts, barracks, and fortified towns that secured key natural resources or locations (New Orleans and San Gabriel were two such cities) which were vital to the empire’s success.

In Canada, the British Empire via its strict mercantilist system fabricated government-mandated companies to stake claims to North American resources; anything from tea to furs to minerals to lumber were on the list for British-controlled companies. A couple of the biggest names were the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. These organizations were given charter and territory by the British Crown in specific areas of the New World. With them came settlers that established towns around the centers of operations throughout the west and north. Vancouver, Washington and Thunder Bay, Ontario are two cities which arose because of mercantilist policy and pursuits.

America was a synthesis. It combined the military presence of the Spanish with the mercantilist efforts of the British companies. By employing the US Army to establish a series of fortifications throughout the frontier and subdue the hostile Native tribes, and by using the Army’s Corps of Engineers to both scout and survey the vast swaths of land in the west, the US government proved its dominance throughout the region. The Indian Wars were fought for decades to give subsidized American companies the opportunity to exploit the resources, while the soldier-explorers (and later the civilian explorers under the State Department) exposed the resources to be exploited as well as plotted out the systematic measuring of the frontier for settlement.

This systematic measuring had its beginnings along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in areas such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. But after those initial trials, the real practice began in the state of Ohio. East Liverpool, to be exact. Measuring out townships in what were supposed to be squares, the government surveyors proved to be ineffective and/or lazy in their application of proper surveying techniques. The development and progression of those techniques in the ensuing decades helped to fine-tune this practice, and later applications of it in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, etc, proved to be more effective. Looking at a map of many cities in the mid and far west states reveals this “immaculate grid” of surveying.

In other words, settlement was forced. Imaginary lines only conceived of on paper were put into delineated features on the surface of the earth. Roads followed the paths of these parcels and townships. Railroad companies were awarded large land grants of alternating tracts along the path of the line in which they established station-cities and sold off sections of their parcels to create artificial communities based on economic nothingness. This was especially true in such plains states as Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas where the land was so agriculturally and economically anemic that even the government could barely get enough settlers to pay a measly $15 application fee for their “Forty Acres” to make it worth their while. The railroads had the same issue once it was known that their newly established town was barren of most everything that was vital to living.

This type of inorganic settlement gave rise to boomtowns which only existed for a short while before shriveling up and dying, regardless of whether it came into being because of a glut of natural resources or not. Centrally-planned communities didn’t always go so well, and the lack of fiscal accountability in regards to the perpetuation of the government policies which made these settlements possible allowed it to go on for more than a century before the market (ie, reality) caught up to the lofty heights to which the planners aspired.

Relating this back to my original point, these planned societies may well have been physically laid out, but it was inorganic and unnaturally occurring due to government-subsidized production (ie, mercantilism). Many cities and towns were developed in a much more natural manner, albeit not without any government intervention. New York City was largely successful as a port and trade hub for Atlantic business. It was, however, touched by the state when it laid out the majority of Manhattan’s streets upon a centrally-planned grid system. But economics proved stronger, developing the river trade systems and most of its surrounding boroughs and towns (not to mention the immigrant sections and myriad of businesses) to meet the true market demands of the metropolis.

This is in stark comparison to the political boundaries which are merely lines on paper without deed, patent, or true ownership. Most state boundaries were claimed, staked, and measured via previous charter edicts, natural boundaries such as rivers or mountains, or by government decree along an ambiguous line of latitude or longitude. These boundaries are not based on ownership, they are based on domain through political power. In comparison to the more violent alternatives, few times in history has money or goods exchanged hands for the acquiring of land, and this is especially true in America. Manhattan island may have been bought for a chest full of trinkets from the Lenape Indians, but most land was acquired either through force (read:  war) or by the bullying of indigenous peoples via threats of war or one-sided, fraudulent treaties.

The same is true of the boundaries between countries. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, resulting from the Mexican-American War, established much of the contested southwestern boundary between the two fledgling nations. This treaty was surveyed and re-surveyed, negotiated and re-negotiated, and eventually wound up conceding portions of Arizona which provided for better routes for a southwestern rail line. The Gadsden Purchase furthered the purpose of the treaty, and was done so to obtain even more land for a future railway. Texas was also annexed by the US government during this phase. To the north saw many treaties with the British that wrestled to delineate some sort of territorial boundary between the two empires and separate the domains of the rival mercantilist companies:  Hudson’s Bay and American Fur Company. Eventually the 49th Parallel was struck as the latitude to be used. None of this mentions the battles during the War of 1812 which solidified the boundaries in the east along the St Lawrence River and some sections of Ontario.

Even the states have trouble with the domination of their territories. The Mason-Dixon Line was struck to quell the conflict between Pennsylvania and Maryland because neither state knew which had the jurisdiction to tax the inhabitants along their border. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were all artificially separated by longitudinal lines which were largely the basis of the surveying of their internal townships. Wyoming and Colorado are the only two states of the exact same size, an equal amount of longitude wide by an equal amount of latitude tall. The border between Idaho and Montana conceded land previously controlled by the former to the latter because the Idahoan governor gave into a bribe of gold by Montana’s capital. And lest we forget that West Virginia (which was not a state before 1861) was broken apart from Virgina by Abraham Lincoln’s federal government and achieved statehood before the end of the Civil War.

All this to say — our country, our world, has been plagued by artificial boundaries since its inception. Chief among these are political subdivisions:  countries, states, counties, townships, cities, villages. These imaginary lines are an attempt to organize our society into easier-to-manage areas, keying them to the organization of the state in all its capacities. Nevermind the cultures and identities of the inhabitants are influenced by these boundaries; those emotions and civilizations are merely convinced of the false boundaries, not founded on them.

This point is proven true by looking at how true, organic growth of civilization occurs. You can see this the easiest by comparing the politically-established divisions to that of the expanses of cities, which, for arguments sake here, are naturally occurring. Cities develop because of economic unity amongst inhabitants. They coalesce around a certain object(s) which are deemed valuable. This could be a waterway, an easy route of transportation, a mineral resource, a steady and abundant food supply, the presence of intelligent people looking for ways to innovate and create, etc. Whatever the reason, cities rise up to fully support not only the natural resources which are found in the vicinity, but the demands of the inhabitants that populate that area. Markets coagulate and distribute necessary goods like foods, medicines, and merchandise. Ports provide access to waterways to harvest foodstuff, maintain and increase trade, and provide access to new opportunities. Bakers provide sustenance. Tailors and cobblers provide coverings from the elements. Carpenters and masons provide shelter. Buses, trollies, trains, etc provide access and transport inside and without the city.

Cities are the most natural development of civilized man. They are the pinnacle of economic progression. And for these reasons, we can use them as a comparative tool to illustrate just how silly political boundaries are.

There are, by my count, no less than 14 major US cities which overlap a political division between two states and/or countries. They include:  Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA; San Diego, CA/Tijuana, Mexico; Ciudad Juarez, Mexico/El Paso, TX; Omaha, NE/Council Bluffs, IA; Kansas City, KS/Kansas City, MO; St Louis, MO/East St Louis, IL; Cincinnati, OH; Memphis, TN; Louisville, KY; Detroit, MI/La Salle, ON; Washington, DC/Arlington, VA; Philadelphia, PA/Trenton, NJ; Buffalo, NY/Niagara, ON; New York City, NY.

The last of these is the most prominent and the best example. Everyone is familiar with the Big Apple. Situated on the mouth of the Hudson River and with a city center on the island of Manhattan, NYC officially stretches across five boroughs with as many as 8.2 million inhabitants within its artificial city limits. But remove all those boundaries of boroughs, counties, city limits, and state lines, and the NYC metro area encompasses nearly 12,000 square miles with a total population of 22.1 million that sprawls over four states and no less than 15 official cities, most of which are either in New Jersey or Connecticut.

To say you’re a “New Yorker” only if you live in one of the five boroughs is more than a bit narrow-minded, and is rather ignorant of the metropolis that is NYC. That line of thinking alienates your fellow partners in life and the economy. It creates false dichotomies of “we’re better than you” or “wrong side of the tracks” type of thinking. In actuality, a Harrisonian from New Jersey is as much a New Yorker as a Bronxian or Harlemite. They live, eat, sleep, play, work, and breath in the largest city in America. They are united around the city center, all bustling about in economic harmony, struggling to meet each others needs day in, day out. They are truly one city. This fact is true for all border towns in the world.

Even the US government has trouble wrestling with the idea of how to calculate this natural cross-border growth. The best they’ve come up with is the Census Designated Place (CDP) designed to collect data for the US Census work every ten years. These CDP’s are cobbled together to erect the Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) which are used for everything from marketing strategies to TV viewer areas to jerry-mandering congressional districts to the very basic and raw census data that most of us never even utilize.

What does all of this thinking leave us with, then?

Imaginary lines.

The perceptions of these lines and how they affect our thinking and attitudes towards others, our society, our economic relations, and ourselves are hindering us in ways we can’t fully realize. Sometimes its as simple (or as dangerous) as fostering resentment or hate for the folks across the border. At other times, it causes us to downright refuse to participate in economic transactions with the “others”. Or, and I would argue worst of all, it ingrains into our psyche the idea that we are truly separated from the full potential of societal reality; that is, it constricts our possibilities (or rather what we think our possibilities are) and convinces us to not pursue our dreams, ambitions, aspirations, or purposes.This is most reflected in the red tape of bureaucracy that exists whilst trying to deal in interstate/county/city/national commerce. Trying not to get tripped up by the asinine demands placed upon us by our “leaders” is enough to convince anyone not to do something. No one wants to venture a walk across quagmire of quicksand, mosquitoes, and poisonous amphibians. Death by a thousand paper cuts.

You’re probably asking yourself “What’s the point of this seeming rant about political borders, and why should I be reading it?”. Simple:  I’m asking you to open your mind to the reality that’s before you. Society gushes forth because of the harmony humanity has with each other and with their environment that’s around them; not because of artificially erected imaginary lines that are only ever tangential on a map. True boundaries are built out of ownership of property, and this propriety is spurred from economic growth which comes from free trade and the division of labor.

My call to arms is this:  San Diegoans, stand tall with Tijuanans; St Louisites, unite with your Southern Illinois neighbors; and, for the love of God, New Yorkers, be welcoming and hospitable to your Northern New Jersey and Western Connecticut brethren. You are all one city, in this life together, for the better of your metropolis. Start acting like it.

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