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The Contexts of Individual Liberty

At the end of the day, the best and most deeply committed collectivists ought to be advocates of a small and limited government. Why? Because the state isn’t the only collective; it’s just the most obvious one. State collectivism received a devastating critique in James R. Otteson’s recent book (reviewed here), and I want to supplement Otteson’s case: In addition to the solitary individual staring down the centralized bureaucracy, we can think about the collections of individuals in civil society who are greater than the sum of their parts.

For the danger of state collectivism isn’t just that the individual will get squashed. The smaller collectives will, too. A government that is cavalier about respecting individual freedoms is not going to go out of its way to preserve collective freedoms. China is currently the largest country in the world to set itself against the family (the one child policy) and the church (for example, the Shouwang Church). That’s unsurprising, given the Communist Party of China’s commitment to state power.

But the state isn’t the only collective in town, and it’s a mistake to think it is. It’s also wrong to think local commitments will undermine national ones. As Edmund Burke remarked, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” The “little platoons,” far from fostering disaffection from the state, contribute to our love of country. Burke continues, “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”

Subsidiary institutions between the state and the individual can support free and limited government in three ways. First, they can actually enhance the affection that individual citizens have for the state (as Burke notes). Second, they provide their own unique reasons for action on behalf of specific communities, and beyond the borders of those communities. Finally, subsidiary institutions raise a bulwark against the state’s natural inclination to acquire more and more power.

Take the most obvious non-state collective: the family. The family is a collection of members, tightly interwoven through natural births, adoption, marriage—and when you have Grandma come to live with you in the summertime. In some cultures, family covers a wide terrain, from your brother to your second cousin once removed. In others, family just barely covers the people under one roof (and may not even do that). Regardless, fierce family loyalty need not conflict with the state. It can actually strengthen it. Consider, for example, four generations of McCains who have served in the U.S. Navy: Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a naval aviator in Vietnam and a prisoner of war, is the son and grandson of four-star admirals, as well as the father of a recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Pledging allegiance to the flag is one thing. Seeing the courage of a man you admire—your father or your grandfather—heightens that feeling.

Families naturally extend an individual’s concern beyond himself. I’m not just making the obvious point about caring for one’s spouse and children. I’m also saying that, when a man becomes a father, he becomes concerned about the neighborhood. The right of parents to educate their children has been legally recognized in cases like Meyer v. Nebraska, decided in 1923, and Farrington v. Tokushige, decided in 1927. As Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) says:

The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

We forget that these court cases were about practical, local issues: whether or not a kid in Nebraska can learn German; whether or not every child is legally required to attend public school in Oregon (and thereby closing the parochial schools that some Oregonians feared). The fierce loyalty of parents to their children cannot be overcome by state power. If it’s illegal to teach your kid German, but you think you should teach him German anyway, then you teach your kid German, regardless.

Beyond the family, ethnicity also plays a role. You teach your daughter German, or Spanish, or Chinese, generally when there are communities that speak that language. Sometimes these commitments are linguistic. Other times they arise from a shared moral imperative. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed American law and culture with the support of his family, but most importantly with the support of African Americans who took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56 or the Selma-to-Montgomery marches a decade later. Yet African Americans can speak plainly and honestly about love for country. King does in many of his speeches. Since the start of the all-volunteer military, African Americans have had levels of participation greater than their share of the U.S. population. Whatever their individual reasons for joining the military, being willing to die for one’s country certainly says something about one’s attitude towards it.

Now consider churches, synagogues, and mosques. Given that over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christians, I’ll focus on churches. From local churches to denominations, and from specifically outlined organizational attachments to commitments that can’t be articulated in a flowchart, Christian religious groups bring together a cross-section of the culture. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, almost perfectly matches the income distribution of the total U.S. population, and it is nearly the same for evangelical Protestants. So that means broad socioeconomic slices of the nation intermingle within discrete religious categories.

That means the truck driver, the doctor, and the bank president all attend the same parish church. As with the family, church identity can increase one’s affection for the local community and the nation as a whole. That’s because, even more than one’s family—united by blood ties, adoption, and marriage—churchgoing thrusts you into the vast ocean that is America. But, unlike those you encounter on a trip to the local Walmart, the people at church are united to you by a shared identity. The result: you’ll be sensitive to how what’s happening locally and nationally impacts people who aren’t in your family or part of your immediate social circles.

No wonder, then, that churches can and do resist the expansion of state power. They do so directly, through court challenges, and indirectly by offering a competing moral voice. So, for example, it wasn’t individuals but churches and religiously-minded institutions that filed some of the most prominent lawsuits over the Affordable Care Act. (One obvious exception is Hobby Lobby, but, even here, the religious beliefs of the owners featured prominently in the decision.)

Families, ethnicities, and churches are simply the most obvious examples. But there are many more: the University of Texas at Austin, for example, has an alumni base of almost half a million people (which is quite a burnt orange special interest group, if you ask me). And let’s not forget the persistence of lodges, bowling clubs, and other such groups, even if we are more likely to bowl alone.

These subsidiary institutions shouldn’t simply be defended. They should be celebrated as part of the fabric of our national heritage. The First Amendment recognizes the rights of free people to worship, speak, assemble, and print what they want. It’s right to do so, because people do not face the national government alone.

Reader Discussion

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on July 13, 2015 at 09:18:01 am

As its symbols are scorned, perhaps we might reflect that the War Between the States also concerned that same philosophy, whether "Union" (and centralization - with its force for collectivization) or de-centralized States would determine the social structures available for individuals to exercise their liberties.

It was not 50 years earlier that New England people, for good reasons to maintain their own interests and freedoms, had a serious secession movement. By around 1850 the forces for centralization were formed. They have continued, with limited abatements, but increasingly centralizing powers ever since. Providing and maintaining those powers costs more than money.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on July 13, 2015 at 12:12:42 pm

As its symbols are scorned, perhaps we might reflect that the War Between the States also concerned that same philosophy, whether “Union” (and centralization – with its force for collectivization) or de-centralized States would determine the social structures available for individuals to exercise their liberties.

Could not have put it better myself. The Union forces crushed the decentralizing forces of the Confederacy. And look at the terrible toll it inflicted on “the social structures available for individuals to exercise their liberties” – when those individuals were slaves.

Similarly, it’s easy to write odes to the virtues of families – when you’re not being beaten and raped nightly by the head of the house. When Bruce embraces the rights of households to influence a child’s education, is he also embracing the discretion of a parent to send their kids to work in the mines in lieu of education – or as an “alternative” educational program?

Or, let’s look at the tougher cases: Should Christian Scientists be permitted to withhold life-saving medical treatments from their kids as a manifestation of the parents’ religious faith?

I suspect people have been abusing children and animals since the dawn of time. Yet we’ve only begun clamping down on this behavior relatively recently. Why? Because as our society gets richer we have the privilege to choose not to put up with behaviors that we used to put up with.

So, fine – let’s “celebrate” subsidiary institutions. But let’s not get too rose-colored about them. There is no autonomy; there is only greater and lesser degrees of oppression. And the idea that smaller groups are necessarily less oppressive than larger ones is simply false.

It’s surely true that ever more social norms are being imposed at the federal level: No more legal slavery. Reduced discretion to discriminate on the basis of various suspect categories, including physical disability. Sanctions for sexual harassment in the workplace. Etc. And in each case, government is acting to intrude upon the autonomy of some subsidiary institution.

You’re free to say that these developments reflect a net loss of autonomy for society. Such a remark would reveal little about the facts – though it would reveal much about you.

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nobody.really
on July 13, 2015 at 13:57:07 pm

Oh but you reveal much about yourself, Mr. anonymous. You are fine with the federal government imposing its will upon more and more people, and you have all the faith in the world that the federal government never errs. Of course, that is a lie as bold as day, as any government of men will err, and the more power it has, the more it will err, and the worse the results of such errors will be.

Unsupported is your belief that federal action is routinely required and is the best solution for social ills. To you, the loss of freedom of individuals and subsidiary collections of people is collateral damage, because you cynically think of them as only different means of oppression (as though abuses by statistically few families are reasons to remove all families). You favor an invasive government to enforce your morality - which if someone argued for different ends, I'm sure you would oppose. What has changed is the willingness to use the big hammer of federal power to solve all ills, due to the rise of those who respect nothing but force and worship only mankind's use of force. These people like yourself are the intolerant, and they would rather run roughshod over the little guy, having already painted him as demonic, than to admit any limit or competition to their worldview.

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InRussetShadows
on July 13, 2015 at 15:06:26 pm
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R Richard Schweitzer
on July 13, 2015 at 15:20:56 pm

'@ N B

The test was necessary because Wordpress struck the reply as though I had not entered name and Email (which I had) [webmaster note]

Response to ad hominem is usually fruitless.

In your case, I have saved to discs other materials of your thinking. Thus, it is surprising to read conclusions and judgments which are not based on any source in my post.

If, the movement of centralization did not begin (circa 1850) and was not confirmed by that war, as in my understanding, what then did confirm that centralization and its resultant collectivization (regardless of how you judge those results).

You do not know me, and cannot judge me. It may be beneath your efforts, but should you ever care to come to New England and would like to do so, post a request for contact and I will respond.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on July 13, 2015 at 15:27:14 pm

You are fine with the federal government imposing its will upon more and more people, and you have all the faith in the world that the federal government never errs.

Where do I say I think the feds never err? I merely observe that we’re prone to error, whether we’re subject to small tyrants or large ones, and I see no reason to conclude that the magnitude of the harm to any given individual is less because the tyrant is small than if the tyrant were large.

[T]he more power [government] has, the more it will err, and the worse the results of such errors will be.

Perhaps -- but err compared to what? Axis powers did all kinds of terrible things in fighting WWII. Should we therefore conclude that it would have been better if Axis powers had simply surrendered, thereby avoiding any chance of error?

For me, the issue is not whether government is perfect. The issue is how to produce the best results. I prefer a world without legal slavery, even if produced by imperfect means.

Unsupported is your belief that federal action is routinely required and is the best solution for social ills. To you, the loss of freedom of individuals and subsidiary collections of people is collateral damage, because you cynically think of them as only different means of oppression (as though abuses by statistically few families are reasons to remove all families).

Who has proposed removing all families? I merely propose rescuing kids from abusive parents, requiring that they receive an education meeting certain minimum standards, etc. In short, I claim that families are not uniformly benign. And I favor having some more powerful institution (for what it’s worth, it’s generally not the feds) that can intervene when appropriate. I acknowledge that not every intervention may work, but I suspect that a policy of intervening, even if implemented imperfectly, will produce better outcomes than a policy of ignoring abuse, even if implemented perfectly.

You favor an invasive government to enforce your morality – which if someone argued for different ends, I’m sure you would oppose.

Absolutely true. If I had been a slave-owner, I very likely would not have cared for the feds ending the practice. This was purely a matter of invasive government imposing one set of preferences over another. My sole solace lies in the idea that the ideas imposed will generally reflect the preferences of the majority – including the majority’s preferences on how much discretion to leave to subsidiary organizations. But ultimately, what other solace can we have?

What has changed is the willingness to use the big hammer of federal power to solve all ills, due to the rise of those who respect nothing but force and worship only mankind’s use of force.

Again, I’m not hung up on the feds being the sole intervener. States, counties, cities, towns, villages, townships, parishes, synagogues, families, PTAs, cub dens, groups of concerned friends organized for an intervention, whatever. For that matter, the UN Criminal Court can intervene when they find jurisdiction. I’m flexible.

These people like yourself are the intolerant, and they would rather run roughshod over the little guy, having already painted him as demonic, than to admit any limit or competition to their worldview.

You accuse me of favoring policies that give little deference to the preferences of little-guy slave-owners, negligent parents, and pedophile priests? Guilty as charged.

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nobody.really
on July 13, 2015 at 15:29:33 pm

Goodness gracious nobody!

Are there no more windmills for you to savage?

To your lights, the world is awash with child abusers, slaveholders, sexual harassers, etc. etc. and only awaits the intervention of the Federal Government to make the world, at long last, a safe place for all of God's "lil chillins."

Once again, you disappoint me - you are smarter than this to buy into the whole "victim" epistemology that is so prevalent today. Indeed, there are "dirtbags" of all races, sexes, preferences, etc. - this, however, does not mean that there is an overwhelming level of abuse prevailing amongst the populace, nor that it is of such a magnitude as to require the "ever-gentel" ministrations of the Fed Guvmnt.

You are correct about one thing - there was nothing precious about the Confederacy. I would also add that, contrary to popular opinion, it was the decentralized paradise that many would have us believe. Look only to their economic system BOTH before and during the War. Some of Jeff Davis policies would have made V.I. Lenin purple with envy!

take care as always
gabe

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gabe
on July 13, 2015 at 15:31:19 pm

Oops:

Should read: "It was NOT the decentralized paradise..."

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gabe
on July 13, 2015 at 15:36:04 pm

Are there no more windmills for you to savage?

According to my hunting license, they're out of season. (Damn government....)

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nobody.really
on July 13, 2015 at 15:37:29 pm

'@ N B

Lest you think I do not observe what you post:

What you write about are things, issues or points that **could have been made** (but were not) and

***if***

*I* had made them, or taken those positions ( made up by you - not me) then you could say - "it would reveal much about you" thereby passing judgment.

Yet, you lacked the grace to make that clear. The implied "smear" and sneer were more important.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on July 13, 2015 at 16:10:51 pm

Who needs a license - certainly not many of our friends on the left who usually do fine without one and proceed to fire indiscriminately at any ol' thing that pleases them (or more apt - displeases them).

Then again - and just for the fun of it and to demonstrate just how badly certain protected classes are being abused or ignored, there is this from todays headlines:

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2015/07/13/taxpayers-have-now-spent-35-million-to-find-out-why-lesbians-are-obese/?intcmp=latestnews

Is this the sort of intervention we may expect? I suppose, however, it has paid, via Nat'l Science Foundation grant(s), the salaries of some enterprising your academics. Let's hear it for full academic employment!!!!!

take care

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gabe
on July 13, 2015 at 16:29:01 pm

Reading posts to this site has serves several purposes for me.

They allow access to educated, civilized discussions, such as are not easily found on other sites

They often educate me on one or another obscure or not-so-obscure subject.

They introduce me to published books of interest not referred to elsewhere.

An addition benefit is derived from the tone and substance of comments posted by R. Richard Schweitzer. They demonstrate a quality of the trained intellect; the ability to get to the "heart of the matter", nothing extraneous added (a quality that I do not possess and can only admire from afar).

I was troubled by the personal insult that was posted above and hope that it was unintentional.

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Linda Smith
on July 13, 2015 at 20:42:39 pm

Linda:

How right you are - R. Richard is AWESOME - in fact, as we used to say in olden times, "He is a gentleman, a scholar and (quite possibly) a haberdashers delight."

I. too. have benefitted from his commentary - so let's hear it for R. Richard!!!!

He is "sumpin' else."

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gabe
on July 13, 2015 at 20:50:31 pm

Nobody:

This should follow my earlier reply on this thread but can't figure out how to get it in sequence.

Consider the link I have provided (below, apparently):

does this not concern you that the very agent to whom you would entrust with the protection of LGBT *rights* is the same one that funds a study that does nothing more than perpetuate a myth that "lesbians are fat"
What have they taken this view from the knuckleheads who think this is so or is this a case (so common amongst leftists) of being more bigoted than the alleged opponents of a certain "protected class" (in this case lesbians). Are we to then conclude that the guvmnt, (your intervenor of choice) believes that all lesbians are fat. My own experience is that a) not all lesbians are fat and b) not all fat women are lesbians.

What am I to make of this. Not unlike those statist who, while professing support for minorities, nonetheless believe that they are inferior AND require the ACTIVE support and intervention of some benighted guvmnt agent.

Thank goodness, I still able to believe my own eyes.
What say you, nobuddy?

take care
gabe

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gabe
on July 13, 2015 at 21:20:35 pm

In truth, I have some difficultly following some some of the comments here. So let me be clear that I support my argument -- but I mean no offense to R Richard Schweitzer in particular. He (?) merely provided a platform for making a comment I was planning to make in any event, to whit:

People are prone to romanticize subsidiary groups merely because they are small and thus seem harmless to outsiders. But to those who ARE subject to their tyranny, the smallness is no virtue; it merely help obscure the group's exercise of tyrannical power.

And this is a perennial shortcoming of libertarianism (among other philosophies): Judging the goodness or badness of a tyranny based not on how it affects those who must endure it, but on how it affects those who are judging it. *I* didn't have an abusive parent, so *I* don't need to treat the topic as threatening to autonomy, right? But I *do* live under constant threat of arbitrary traffic ticket, so that becomes the emblem of oppression for me. Myopia Uber Alles!

Anyway, my apologies to R Richard Schweitzer if I misunderstood his remarks.

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nobody.really
on July 13, 2015 at 21:29:03 pm

Ms. Smith,

It is certainly appropriate to be troubled by personal gibes that may occasionally seep into these discussions, but one may regard these as an expected consequence of the difficulty in maintaining a principled argument. It happens, and one should not overlook the pleasure to be had in the aesthetics and discipline of Mr. Schweitzer's reply.

One should take opportunities where they are to be found however, and, not holding nobody.really's comment against him, it is remarkable how much progressive policy discourse consists of name-calling. Rather than refine and hone the principles and substance of a particular position, energy is diverted into discovering new ways of implying malignant character on the other side. The contemporary political vocabulary contains a dearth of rights, obligations, duties, compromise and political philosophy, and an excess of racist, sexist, homophobe, climate denier, rape apologist, hater,Iislamophobe, white supremacist, bitter clinger, etc. The governor of California described those who disagreed with his views on immigration enforcement as "troglodyte." In addition, there are more subtle forms of name calling, less directly offensive but equally content-free such as denouncing another's "privilege," insinuating that another is aggressive or violent by claiming they make one feel "unsafe," and by implying that the only possible basis for disagreement is "hate." There is also the cynical and rather deluded gibe that one;s political opponents are "on the wrong side of history."

It is interesting to contemplate the details of this phenomenon. When did we decide that the argument methods of second graders is preferable to reason and common courtesy? When did we decide that logic is subordinate to emotional satisfaction? I would suggest that name-calling is simply a cheap way of exploiting a socializing instinct, a boorish way of implying that if ones opponent does not agree or at least silence his own argument, that he is "the other." It attacks the emotional security one finds in a good reputation and explicitly declares that a person;s beliefs either conform with those of the name-caller, or are the result of bad character. This approach to discourse lacks room for complexity or the notion of "however." Thus, when it moves people to action (usually poorly thought out and silly action) it is prone to excess and obsession, such as pulling the Dukes of Hazard from TVLand, disinviting commencement speakers, sanctioning fraternities, for the conduct of other fraternities (or conduct that turns out to have been imaginary) and banishing <Tom Sawyer from school libraries. The same emotional indulgence that makes the mob easy to mobilize also makes it stupid and gives it a poor track record of accomplishing anything useful. The same can be said for arguments that are "won" by name-calling.

It is a peculiarity of our age that we are given to estimating a person's character by their emotional responses to things rather than by their actions. We insist that our public figures denounce others rather than simply pursue policies felt to benefit the common good. We demand apologies from scientists for their insensitivity to ancillary interests, We elect corrupt and incompetent politicians because they claim to be outraged by the right things.

I suspect that our age invented none of these things; that there have always been principled thinkers of all political orientations as well as mountebanks and populists, bullies, sophists, con artists, and demagogues. But our age seems to have been overcome lately with a discourse of name-calling and political opportunism that not only obscures thoughtful and innovative dialogue, but hinders real progress. We seem to be more interested at the moment in emotional indulgence rather than thinking through many of the complex problems in our civic life.

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z9z99
on July 14, 2015 at 00:24:48 am

does this not concern you that the very agent to whom you would entrust with the protection of LGBT *rights* is the same one that funds a study that does nothing more than perpetuate a myth that “lesbians are fat”

1. I hope the National Institutes of Health in fact are promoting the welfare of LGBT people, as they promote the welfare of other people. I am not aware that anyone has entrusted them to promote the rights of LGBT people.

2. The National Institutes of Health constantly receives funding requests from private parties doing research, and has a panel of experts who decide which programs to fund.

3. Even by the assessment of Fox News, the study has done more than address fat among lesbians. It has also addressed the propensity of sexual minority men to be abnormally lean.

What have they taken this view from the knuckleheads who think this is so or is this a case (so common amongst leftists) of being more bigoted than the alleged opponents of a certain “protected class” (in this case lesbians). Are we to then conclude that the guvmnt, (your intervenor of choice) believes that all lesbians are fat. My own experience is that a) not all lesbians are fat and b) not all fat women are lesbians.

4. I do not find where you found the conclusion that all lesbians are fat, or that all fat people are lesbians.

5. I embrace empiricism. If a well-designed study shows that lesbians are disproportionately likely to have a body-mass index above X, while gay men are disproportionately likely to have a body mass index below Y, I’m willing to believe it.

I can’t see how the fact that this result does or does not conform to stereotype influences the analysis of the evidence. Nor can I see how it would do lesbians (or anyone else) any favors to bury this information simply because it did not conform to some ideological predisposition.

What else would you have me do? Recall the words of F.A. Hayek in his 1960 essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”:

[T]he most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it - or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism.... I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution....

Let me assure you (lest you were confused on the matter) that like Hayek, I do not characterize myself as a conservative.

6. Last I heard, obesity was a major health concern. Thus I can see no special reason why the NIH would want to ignore evidence of things that contribute to obesity – and, apparently, things that contribute to being lean. It would suffice that this information might be useful for promoting the health of homosexuals. But there’s also the possibility that the information might be generalizable. If homosexual men have some attribute that makes them lean, could we learn from this attribute? Could we transplant it into others? We won’t know unless we look.

What am I to make of this. Not unlike those statist who, while professing support for minorities, nonetheless believe that they are inferior AND require the ACTIVE support and intervention of some benighted guvmnt agent.

7. I argue that everyone benefits from the active intervention and support of organizations such as the NIH. True, some people look down on those who receive benefits from government. But I’m thinking of people like Mitt Romney -- not statists per se.

But as Hayek remarked, many conservatives have ideological objections to government and science. While I cannot support their right to send their uninoculated kids into public schools to infect the rest of us, I don’t insist on their duty to use modern medicines on themselves. If they choose to subject themselves to leeches, bleedings, and faith healings instead, I won’t stand in the way. My libertarian leanings go at least that far.

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nobody.really

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