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A Postmortem on Classical Liberalism in the 2016 Presidential Primary

At the beginning of the campaign for the Republican nomination, many thought that it was a libertarian moment in which even Rand Paul might well emerge victorious. But with tonight’s results from Indiana, the Republican Party seems poised to nominate the most illiberal candidate in its history—someone who wants to restrict trade and civil liberties and has no interest in taming the growth of the state. Trump’s prospective nomination suggests that classical liberalism in the more classically liberal of our two parties is in radical decline. If so, what is most distinctive about America—its foundation in liberty—is at risk. We need to know why classical liberalism has so signally failed in 2016 if this failure is to be reversed.

  1. It is just a fluke. Trump is a sui generis candidate who exploited his celebrity to move out in front of a fragmented field. The opponents left standing were not attractive even to classical liberals—Kasich because of his own positions and Cruz because of his personality. The problem with this explanation is that Trump himself has obvious ideological heresies and character flaws. Moreover, his victories have become more decisive even in the narrower field.
  1. Trump’s victory reflects Republican fury that the Republican Congress has not stopped Obama. Primary voters are looking for a tough outsider, even a caudillo, who will finally shake things up. The difficulty with this explanation is that Congress cannot easily stop a President unless a party has overwhelming legislative majorities.  If Congress had shut down the government in a fight with Obama, history shows that the public, including many Republicans, would have rapidly turned against it. But perhaps the public does not understand these basic facts of governance.   Under this explanation, chalk up Trump’s victory to ignorance of our political institutions against a particular political background.
  1. Government has grown so big, that citizens feel that they are chumps if they do not elect a leader who will fight  for them against their fellow citizens in the zero-sum game of redistribution.  The problem with this explanation is that government has been growing bigger for a long time: why choose this time to give up on shrinking it?
  1. Inequality is growing and Trump supporters are angry at a free market and free society that is not delivering for them. But as I have argued before, the free market is flourishing today through creating free and cheap goods through accelerating technology. Perhaps older voters (and Trump voters skew decidedly older) are missing out on many of fruits of the computational revolution: they don’t use smart phones listen to free music. Thus, in our technological era, the oldest voters, who should sources of wisdom and stability, are more inclined to be a part of an angry mob in a world that they find more difficult to navigate than the young.

As social science regressions teach us, a phenomenon can often be explained only by multiple factors, and I believe there may be some truth in all of these. (I invite other explanations in the comments as well). The first two explanations above are the most hopeful, because the phenomenon that they describe will pass. The latter two suggest that classical liberalism will continue to decline.  Given that the rise of Sanders threatens to extirpate the last vestiges of classical liberalism in the Democratic Party, there has never been a time in my life when limited and accountable government in the United States is under greater threat.

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on May 04, 2016 at 05:27:58 am

On Classical Liberalism:

4. Inequality is growing and Trump supporters are angry at a free market and free society that is not delivering for them.

John O. McGinnis

If the object is to give the State consistency, bring the two extremes as near to each other as possible; allow neither rich men nor beggars. These two estates, which are naturally inseparable, are equally fatal to the common good; from the one come the friends of tyranny, and from the other tyrants. It is always between them that public liberty is put up to auction; the one buys, and the other sells.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born.

Friedrich Hayek

Perhaps it is best to view some patterned principles of distributive justice as rough rules of thumb meant to approximate the general results of applying the principle of rectification of injustice. [A] rough rule of thumb for rectifying injustices might seem to be the following: organize society so as to maximize the position of whatever group ends up least well-off in the society.

Robert Nozick

[Eventually] Socialism (which is really rather a bad name for the business) will be spoken of, if at all, as a crazy religion held by a fanatical sect in that darkest of dark ages, the nineteenth century. Already, indeed, I am told that Socialism has had its day, and that the sooner we stop talking nonsense about it and set to work, like the practical people we are, to nationalize the coal mines and complete a national electrification scheme, the better. And I, who said forty years ago that we should have had Socialism already but for the Socialists, am quite willing to drop the name if dropping it will help me to get the thing.

George Bernard Shaw

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nobody.really
on May 04, 2016 at 11:24:19 am

What has been most surprising about Trump’s success is the inability of our intellectuals to predict or describe it.

At the root of this incapacity is a disconnect between the intellectual wing of the Republican Party and the voters. The intellectuals, typically affiliated with institutions like Hillsdale, the Federalist Society, right-leaning think tanks, etc., almost uniformly ascribe to some variant of classical liberalism, albeit with different levels of zeal. Especially during the Obama presidency, this has been the true faith.

The problem is that the voters do not and did not share this faith. It would be impossible to precisely define their beliefs, but it seems to be something like Trump’s “America First” platform. I would argue that this draws from the same well of feelings as the Ron Paul movement and the Tea Party did. Despite Trump’s libertarian heresies, much of what he says—for example, auditing the Federal Reserve and reducing foreign entanglements—echoes Ron Paul’s most popular positions.

Even more important, voters are not dogmatic, unlike most intellectuals. Voters want and need policies that will make their lives better. Piety to a political creed is not a luxury many have. Intellectuals have once again made the mistake of assuming that their pens are more powerful than the people who vote.

You are correct that Trump is sui generis, but not in the way you think. Trump has so far succeeded where Ron Paul and the Tea Party (partially) failed. Ordinarily, the path to power is through established channels. In order to attain power outside those channels, a candidate or movement needs a lot of money, publicity, and a host of other things that are almost impossible to secure without help from the “powers that be.”*

Trump had enough money and celebrity to go his own way. Trump also has real charisma—a rare trait among contemporary politicians and something which intellectuals seem to have a hard time identifying. After building a strong base of initial support (probably due in significant part to Trump’s hilarious Rosie O’Donnell response to Megyn Kelly), Trump had everything he needed to win the nomination. He now has everything he needs to make it to the White House.

We are seeing a revolution in real time. It’s right out of Mancur Olson and Buchanan. While we can mourn for the end of classical liberalism’s moment in the sun, we should start looking ahead to how the new order will be structured. This is the greatest opportunity since Reagan, but our “leaders” seem unaware of it.

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*This is what makes citizens feel like chumps. They understand that ordinarily power is held by “the Establishment,” and that organizing an opposition is prohibitively expensive.

As an aside, the reason why people don’t like free trade is no mystery. A cheap I-Phone is small consolation when you get laid off from the factory job you had been lead to believe would be secure for life. Consumer goods are not the summum bonum of human life. This was something recognized by the old classical liberals, but seems to have been forgotten by today’s.

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Dissident
on May 04, 2016 at 13:29:31 pm

As a software engineer I think postmortems is highly undervalued. I've done a number of formal postmortems on software projects and I always find I get substantially more value out of them than the costs of going through one.

In this case I can explain the issues in less theoretical and simpler and more practical terms. Here are some real life examples.

Yesterday this forum had a post (that looks like it's been redacted) which discussed how welfare handouts could equate to $20/hour. That works out to $41,600 per year without taxes. I am a capable and reasonably well paid software engineer with decades of experience. $41,600 is in the ballpark of what I make after taxes! But that's just theory. Let's look at a more practical real-life example.

One guy I know had a reasonable well paying job at an Intel wafer fabrication plant. He married and divorced a welfare woman after having a child with her. After their divorce she went back on welfare and discussed with him what she received from welfare. It was more than he made. And he still had to pay her child support. She spends her money on drugs as you might have already guessed.

Some of the taxes we pay are in the form of insurance premiums via Obamacare. A lot of us are going without even cost of living raises, while our insurance premiums continue to go up to support a federally mandated social medical program via the insurance companies.

I'm really pissed off. And so are my neighbors who are experiencing the same thing.

The public dissatisfaction is driven by the wallet. We're being syphoned too fast and too deep. Trump seems like a man of action who seems like he understands us the most. Thus his (often begrudging) popular appeal to the generally poorly informed and poorly educated average voter.

The theory of course is that liberal government is limited government. It is the limits on government that keep us free from government excess, thus it is liberal. But without an effective limiter, government is not limited. It becomes increasingly less liberal over time.

The Senate was supposed to be the limiter. The popular mind is unsuitable for that task. The Senate was designed as the nexus of government with power to negate ill advised proposed laws and office appointments, such as those of the Supreme Court. But senators need to get reelected, and to do so they must keep their constitutents' aprobation. They must vote their negations according to popular demand, making them popular puppets, not the wise councilors and editors the Framers intended.

Without an effective limiter, liberal government is slowly breaking down. That is to be expected. Despite the frequent dramatic exclamations of "Oh, the humanity!!!" when discussing the failings of the US government, really, there are no suprises when government once again trespasses on our rights.

The solution of course is to correct and revise the Senate to make it an effective limiter. But no one in the US (except little ol' me it seems) is interested in pursuing that. So, perhaps, we can safely predict the eventual demise of the American republic into an unrevertable fasciosocialist mess.

Read the blog posts and commentary here. The public wants to play what Eric Berne called the "Ain't it awful!" game. And the public likes to discuss the flaws in other people's personalities. That's a lot more fun than doing the "It's broke, so let's fix it" work item on our everyday task list. Ain't that just awful?

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Scott Amorian
on May 04, 2016 at 14:21:43 pm

What is the nature of this "new order"? What are its specific parameters? What are its aims? How will we know when it has achieved them?

If proponents of a "new order" are to have so much as a chance to convince the other 66% of us to vote for Mr. Trump, at a minimum it is incumbent upon those proponents to have clear, specific answers to these questions.

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John Thompson
on May 04, 2016 at 15:03:36 pm

The public dissatisfaction is driven by the wallet. We’re being syphoned too fast and too deep.

Perhaps. But note that Trump voters are relatively rich.

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nobody.really
on May 04, 2016 at 15:04:51 pm

What is the nature of the old order? What are its specific parameters? What are its aims? How will we know when it has achieved them?

Ditto for the original order.

Popular government is very fickle. The first two sets of questions are not answerable. Even the third set, original, is hard to answer, in part because the original order was populist to a degree.

There are other forums better suited for rhetorical political nonsense.

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Scott Amorian
on May 04, 2016 at 15:28:56 pm

The problem with highly complex systems is that they progress exponentially. Adding one simple component to a simple system adds to the overall complexity only a tiny bit. Adding a similar simple component to a highly complex system can expand it so much that it comes crashing down.

That's because complexity adds to itself. There is a formal math to this. If you would like I can give you references.

Adding to the already overwhelming complex system of government will lead to side effects that are substantially larger than the proposed programs being implemented.

As someone who works with highly complex systems every day I know that highly complex systems can be managed so they don't come crashing down. But I also know that doing so requires specialized skills. And I know that popular government (government directed by the public majority) is incapable of managing such a task; it isn't rational enough.

That's why socialism always fails. It starts out populist. It acts irrationally. Government begins to collapse. If the government crashes quickly it becomes totalitarian and oppressive. If it crashes slowly, like Great Britain has done and the US is doing, it dissolves into an unmanageable faciosocialist mess.

(Yes. I know there are exceptions, but there are reasons for the exceptions, usually having to do with having a long-established culture that has some knowledge of how to manage such systems, and having to do with being smaller, isolated societies.)

And in the quote of Prof McGinnis, he was presenting a possibility to consider. He was not advocating a theory of socialism.

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Scott Amorian
on May 04, 2016 at 16:03:26 pm

Nobody:

Good quotes above and rather interesting link.

The link leads me to consider whether McGinnis left out one possibility: It ain't money. large government or what-have-you - rather, these SOMEWHAT well off folks are simply PISSED OFF at so much of the foolishness (PC crap) that passes as political discourse / initiatives these days. It feels good to (SEEMINGLY, but probably not actually) have someone tell these benighted politicos to *stuff* their foolishness.

Boy, are they in for a surprise.

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gabe
on May 04, 2016 at 16:25:41 pm

Then again:

1) "Inequality is growing and Trump supporters are angry at a free market and free society that is not delivering for them" - MAYBE, they are right!!!
2) " But as I have argued before, the free market is flourishing today through creating free and cheap goods through accelerating technology.." And perhaps, McGinnis overvalues free trade.

Judging by this graph, one may want to consider a slightly different take.

http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2016/05/if_trade_made_the_us_rich_explain_this_graph.html

Gee, the more *free* trade, the lower our GDP growth.

Hmmm! what the heck does that mean?

As Mr. Serling used to say: "Offered for your consideration."

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gabe
on May 04, 2016 at 17:19:51 pm

Assume there is a fairly nice restaurant in your town. It has been there for decades and is something of an institution. You had many memorable family events there; it is where you took your date when you wanted to look classy, and where you celebrated notable events. One evening you go there and the place is busy, not uncommon for its reputation. This night however, at one of the tables, the party is loud and obnoxious. Their children are unruly and disruptive, running between tables, throwing things at each other and yelling. The adults are boorish, making fun of the cuisine and the type of people who would find it desirable. They make snide, open remarks about the waitstaff.

The other patrons are quite naturally annoyed, but they say out loud, for a number of reasons. They don't want to make a scene; they don't want to risk a confrontation that will escalate into violence and cause their experience to deteriorate further. they think they can just wait the boors out. They summon the manager and ask him to intervene, but he just wrings his hands and nods nervously saying he understands. Oh, and what happened to the rack of lamb that used to be on the menu? The restaurant removed it because the people disrupting everyone's dinner did not like the thought of cute little lambs being eaten.

The other diners' patience is not rewarded. Eventually one of them stands up and tells the disruptive table to quiet down, to put a leash on their kids, and that no one is interested in what they think is wrong with the restaurant. His language is a little rough, making some people, even those that may agree with basic point, uncomfortable, and he includes some "was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" gaffes..The manager shrinks back against the wall, chewing his knuckles. Other diners avert their gaze and pay undue attention to their soup. But some people start to applaud, The guy confronting the trouble makers is saying things they want to say, but don't think they can. It doesn't matter whether it makes sense or not or whether it accomplishes anything, or even makes matters worse. He says what they would like to say, but more importantly seems to feel the same way they do.

That, in oversimplified metaphor, is the Trump phenomenon.

And yes, the restaurant manager is the Republican Congress.

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z9z99
on May 04, 2016 at 17:49:12 pm

The American Thinker graph purports to show that US growth rates have declined as trade has increased – and then purports to argue that the decline was caused by the increase. And maybe so. But maybe not. I would like to hear a theory of causation; the blogger provides none.

To put it another way, the relevant issue is not how large growth it today relative to the past; the relevant issue is how large growth is today relative to how large it would be under some other plausible policy regime. The American Thinker seeks to imply – again, without much argument – that we’d have greater growth if we had less trade.

The obvious retort would be that 1960s America was a wildly atypical period in world history. Merely 15 years after all of our trade rivals had reduced their physical capital to rubble and their human capital to graveyards – yet preceding the era in which wide-spread automation, college education, civil rights, and working women would create competition for jobs – you could not invent circumstances that would give greater economic power to undereducated white American men. But those circumstances are gone, and the growth of trade was only one component of that change. Thus, we’re regressing to the mean in which the class of workers without substantial education has little status in society – as it has throughout most of history.

The less obvious retort is based on the theory of diminishing marginal returns. If you have $1 to invest, you’ll invest it where you expect to get the best risk-adjusted return. And you invest your second $1 where you expect to get the second-best return. And so on. But with each dollar invested, your expected return declines. Given that the world has never been richer, investors are left to pursue ever narrower returns. (This is one theory about the factors leading to the recent housing market melt-down: Investors weren’t merely duped into buying collateralized debt obligations; they demanded more investment opportunities because they had scads of money and government bonds were paying basically nothing.)

So with ever more investment we get ever more growth – hooray! -- but we should expect the rate of growth to decline basically forever. And we should expect that dynamic with our without international trade.

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nobody.really
on May 04, 2016 at 19:08:38 pm

nobody,

I wonder how the strength of the dollar correlates with growth and trade, and whether just referring to "trade" misses a distinction between net imports and net exports. I have a hard time believing that trade per se impedes growth.

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z9z99
on May 04, 2016 at 20:23:56 pm

Hey, nb:

As in Twilight Zone, I only *offered* for consideration.

I can come up with several "theories" as to why GDP growth may be slowed (lower domestic employment could factor in as one example) and also some as to why the American thinker piece is off target.

Then again, I no longer place much value in GDP figures as it appears that GDP now includes the *value* of the junk e-mail, robo calls and other irksome solicitations one receives.

To my mind, and I think to the minds of many folks adversely affected by *free* trade, the component elements of GDP is what matters. Cars made in the US, etc etc etc and the consequent higher domestic employment levels are what would appear to be significant to those Trumpsters (and to me, also).

It is in this sense that trade may reduce growth.

But I ain;t saying that is so - only "offering for your consideration."

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gabe
on May 04, 2016 at 20:28:07 pm

What the Nazis didn't bomb Pearl Harbor? Ya kiddin' me, right!

And I did not swear that much at the restaurant, but I was pissed off about the absence of lamb.

The headwaiter, a Mr. Boehner, as I recall, smiled AND then moved me to a seat in the rear facing the kitchen - but he did add how much he appreciated my views.

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gabe
on May 05, 2016 at 00:02:22 am

Of course the Nazis bombed Pearl Harbor. Haven't you seen Animal House?

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djf
on May 05, 2016 at 09:01:35 am

[…] Keep reading at A Postmortem on Classical Liberalism in the 2016 Presidential Primary […]

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Trump, Clinton, and Sanders | nebraskaenergyobserver
on May 05, 2016 at 11:22:28 am

Animal House? Is that a movie about the current Presidential Campaign?

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gabe
on May 05, 2016 at 11:57:19 am

Gilens and Page wrote a paper discussing how the opinions of the wealthy matter in government while the opinions of the average person do not in matters of government. The pay-per-view version is here

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9354310

While I was researching the use of the secret ballot in Congress I came across one guy, James D'Angelo (a big advocate of bitcoin), who read the paper and did a fascinating review of the paper as part of a discussion on secret balloting. The guy's a bit wonky. The video is about an hour long. The occasional pop-ups of Richard Riesch are sometimes comical. But it could be an interesting video essay for anyone who is interested.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gEz__sMVaY

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Scott Amorian
on May 05, 2016 at 11:58:05 am

Hmmm... I meant to insert a link, not the whole damn video.

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Scott Amorian
on May 05, 2016 at 13:37:17 pm

Without an effective limiter, liberal government is slowly breaking down.

You beat Andrew Sullivan to the punch.

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nobody.really
on May 05, 2016 at 16:04:17 pm

Some relevant numbers are here

http://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/candidate.php?id=N00000019

and here

http://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/candidate.php?id=N00023864

The sections on "Source of Funds" tells the main story. Those indicate how "owned" (how much political debt) is held by each candidate. That is one indicator of a lack of fiducial adherence.

It's pretty obvious who is their own person and who is establishment. A lot of people are fed up with the establishment because they believe that the establishment is the source of government problems. So they support Trump for that reason, as well as voting their wallets.

If Gilens and Page are correct the opinions of the general population matter not at all in influencing policy making. Wealth and organized political power (special interest groups) dominate policy making.

What's happening with Trump is that the members of the general public recognize that their opinions are muted, and that their only way of accessing policy is through the election of candidates. Trump is doing the better job of echoing the public's frustration, so a lot of the public sides with Trump. It isn't about political philosophy so much as it is about frustration with the system. The system is picking their pockets and they can't call the police because it's the police that are doing the pickpocketing. So they look for someone powerful enough to address and hopefully correct the behavior of the police.

In the eyes of those frustrated voters, Clinton and the also-ran Republicans are the establishment. Trump is not. The establishment is the problem. So Trump looks like the solution.

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Scott Amorian
on May 05, 2016 at 20:09:39 pm

Trump is starting fundraising for the general election campaign. So much for his independence.

The voters who think Trump is not the establishment are deluding themselves. Most of the Republican establishment - not all, but most - are reconciling themselves to him right now. They do so reluctantly, but they are learning to live with Trump.

The Establishment is to blame for Trump insofar as they refused to appeal to the views, interests and concerns of ordinary voters, most importantly by refusing to drop the amnesty/open borders part of their donors' agenda. But you cannot explain Trump's rise without admitting that the rationality and engagement of the Republican electorate has declined since the 80s. I don't think the Republican Establishment can be blamed for that.

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djf
on May 07, 2016 at 20:54:56 pm

Classical liberalism has been dying in the United States since 1829, when Andrew Jackson began the transformation of our constitutional republic into a popular democracy. The proximate cause of death is the failure of FDR's technocratic revolution to deliver widely distributed prosperity. From this viewpoint, Trump is the logical consequence of inexorable decay, triggered by the partisan realignment of the Dixiecrats. Now all of the Americas will become the domain of the caudillo.

But the underlying trend is the dynamism of the Third Industrial Revolution, in which The Internet, containerized shipping, widebody transoceanic airliners and robotics are transforming how production is organized in ways not experienced since the turn of the last century. Within this epic trend, Trump represents the growing pains of our political economy, manifesting themselves in the form of a temporary electoral tantrum. He is the echo of an earlier populist spasm, when great innovation transformed a decentralized and rural agrarian society dominated by human- and animal-powered agriculture to a highly centralized and urban industrial society dominated by machine-powered manufacturing.

Trump is the mob, standing athwart progress, shouting, “Stop this creative destruction!”

This too shall pass. But if and only if our modern technocratic gentry recognizes its failure, relinquishes its privileges, and rejects the mob’s demand. The prospects for such a harmonious transition are not good. The last time we did this, it took two World Wars and a global depression before the opposition was sufficiently exhausted or dead.

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circleglider
on May 08, 2016 at 10:21:48 am

We don't know what the new order is because it is being created right now. Those in opposition to the left now have a huge opportunity to actually shape the future by shaping how power will be arranged under he new order. That's why it's so important to stop mourning yesterday's creed, and instead of mourning begin building and working. To be successful the actors will need to be clear-eyed and hard, not blinded by a fallen ideology.

Hopefully the new ideology which will arise to justify the new order can be something related to classical liberalism, but that won't happen automatically.

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Dissident

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