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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Obligation II

When I posted "Obligation," some libtertarians pretended not to know what I was talking about. (Even though I could have clarified my point better, I think it was obvious enough what I was referring to: Plauche was only interested in trying to make an opponent of his ideology look stupid, and not in discussing what he knew me to be saying. It is also humorous that Plauche decides I am a communitarian: ideologues cannot stand the thought that it is possible that others are not ideologues, and so the urge to slap on a label as fast as possible.)

So let me make this very clear with an example. Let's say you are walking along the road on a cold winter night, on your way to an opera you very much want to see. Halfway there, you hear a cry. You look down, and there is a baby lying there, shivering in the cold. Otherwise, the road is deserted.

The baby needs medical care. The problem is that the hospital is in the opposite direction from the opera house. If you take the baby there, you will miss your opera and your ticket will be worthless.

Do you have an obligation to take the baby to the hospital? You bet you do. Should you be legally punishable if you fail to do so? You bet you should. (We might posit, for instance, that your actions are being caught on CCTV.) But I don't see how any strict libertarian could agree with me on these points. Which is a very good demonstration that strict libertarianism is mistaken!

Libertarians are to be applauded for the genuine and admirable devotion to liberty. But they should be called to task for the failure to acknowledge the sort of obligations I outline here. And I'm just the guy to do that!

And the relevance of this to how many libertarians go so tragically wrong on abortion should be obvious: I suppose Long would claim that a law requiring a passerby to aid the infant would be "forcing him to use his body as a taxi to ferry around unwanted infants."

31 comments:

  1. I don't mean to unfairly label you and I typically agree with your criticisms of libertarians. I am reminded, though, of the end of Economics for Real People, where you provide the four divisions within Austrian economics, exemplified by Lachmann, Hayek, Rothbard, and Mises. Do you no longer see yourself under any one of those headings?

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  2. It's nice and all to dream up obligations, but wouldn't that require an ideology that is supposed to compel people to follow by?

    Is then the lack of belief in a plausible ideology that would compel such actions, characterize one as an ideologue?

    Should I then care what some obligating ideologue thinks I should be obligated into doing? In other words, why do you think obligations are imperative?

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  3. "It's nice and all to dream up obligations, but wouldn't that require an ideology that is supposed to compel people to follow by?"

    I think you have confused an ideology with having ideas. Here I talk about what I mean by an ideology.

    "In other words, why do you think obligations are imperative?"

    Well, I certainly don't think ALL obligations are imperative! For instance, I think people are obligated to be polite to others unless given good reason, but I don't think there should be a smiling law passed. But try Alasdair MacIntyre's _Rational Dependent Animals_ for an snwer to why some should be.

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  4. Interestingly, the American legal system—in contrast, I believe, to the European norm—is quite hostile to any obligation on the part of individuals to assist others in need.

    "Generations of first-year law students have been introduced to basic elements of the law through one or another variant of the following hypothetical case: An Olympic swimmer out for a stroll walks by a swimming pool and sees an adorable toddler drowning in the shallow end. He could easily save her with no risk to himself, but instead he pulls up a chair and looks on as she perishes. When beginning law students learn that the despicable athlete was perfectly within his legal 'rights,' their reaction is generally one of surprise and disbelief. Yet the 'facts' of the classroom example are no less bizarre than those of many real cases where the rule has been applied." Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk (2008), p. 78.

    I do not know what exceptions, if any, exist.

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  5. Gene, I think most libertarians would agree you have a moral obligation to help the baby, while most would also deny that you have a legal obligation. (Or that you would have a legal obligation in the world in which they want to live.)

    I'm not sure I disagree with that, so I guess I'm not seeing the oomph of your post.

    Remember, I don't think it's moral to "steal" (my term) people's property to fund a device to stop an asteroid from destroying the earth. So if some moral monster lets a kid die on the side of the road, I don't think I can agree that we should do--what?--to him.

    What do you think we should do? Put him in jail? Cut off his arm? (If so, which one--his strong or his weak arm?)

    Nobody ever has to talk to the guy again, he can be fired from his job, people can even refuse to sell him food. It would effectively be a death sentence, except for the community of Zero Population Growth fanatics and maybe religious people who would feed him.

    So I don't see why you are strutting about, so sure of your moral superiority with this thought experiment. The lesson seems to be: "Libertarians are very anal about when force can be used on others. Gene, he just relies on his gut."

    (BTW this sounds very harsh perhaps; it's not intended that way. You must understand I'm in a hurry, on my way to the opera.)

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  6. Bob, I'm not Stephan Kinsella! My political conclusions are not intended o display *my* moral superiority! They are intended to aim towards the best polity.

    As far as going by my gut, what are you talking about? Anyone who doesn't doesn't draw the legal line right where libertarians do is just using their gut?

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  7. And the relevance of this to how many libertarians go so tragically wrong on abortion should be obvious.

    As Rad Geek states in a comment on the very link you provide:

    This is doubly irrelevant. First, because the analogy of rescue is inappropriate. Whatever duties you may have to rescue those in distress, they derive first, from the condition that they were in before the emergency, and second, from the condition of distress that the emergency puts them in relative to that original condition. But there is no original condition in the case of a pregnancy — there was nothing at all before the conception — and afortiori no condition of distress to be rescued from. Second, because there are obvious issues of alienability and proportionality involved with someone who will be, quite literally, living inside of your body that are not issues with someone who will be riding on your ship. (Imagine that, in order to keep the shipwreck victim alive, you not only have to keep her on the ship; you also have to let her drink your blood every day for the rest of the voyage; or give her a kidney; or whatever you like. Suppose you agree to this in the beginning, but then change your mind. Well, maybe you should have thought things through more before you agreed to it. But I do not think that the shipwrecked has a right to hold you down and take the blood, or the kidney, by force. Not even if it’s just to tide her over until you reach the nearest safe harbor. Do you?

    But I think you’ve been around long enough to know that this kind of “off-the-boat” or “out-the-airlock” example has already been discussed to death. Why raise it again now as if nobody had ever heard of it?


    Now...

    Which is a very good demonstration that strict libertarianism is mistaken!

    And if you're arriving, like so many other privileged doodz, at the conclusion that women should be stopped from having a choice over the deeply intimate use of their body, that is a very good demonstration that you are mistaken.

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  8. "And if you're arriving, like so many other privileged doodz..."

    You are needlessly insulting, and also a fool: men support legalized abortion more strongly then women do. It's about being able to screw them with no consequences! The support comes from men who want to use women as a semen bucket.

    And Rad Geek is wrong. The cases are not *the same*, which is what his argument shows. That says nothing about whether one is relevant to the other.

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  9. "Do you have an obligation to take the baby to the hospital? You bet you do. Should you be legally punishable if you fail to do so? You bet you should."

    Well, centuries of Anglo-American jurisprudence contradicts your opinion on this point. There happen to be some good reasons for that, too. But even if there weren't any good reasons, it would help if you made an argument about why the law should change rather than rely on sheer assertion. (This would be true even if you were merely advancing a philosophical argument about unenforceable moral duties; all the moreso when you add that bit about legal punishment, given that the vast weight of legal authority & scholarship is against you).

    It is notable that under existing law in most states in the U.S., the callous opera-goer in your hypothetical would not be held liable. There might be a few states that could theoretically impose some kind of punishment, but even this would be unlikely. I think you know this already, but it does raise two interesting points.

    First, it is striking that you chose this topic in particular as an opportunity to pick on "strict libertarians." If your basic intuition is correct (that good samaritan laws are justified), then you have not only shown that "strict libertarians" are wrong, but you have also demonstrated that legislators, judges, scholars and centuries of common law are wrong on a fundamental normative issue of criminal law. This would be quite an accomplishment. Why not, then, publish a law review article or persuade people to enact these laws? Why pick on libertarians, of all people, who are but a tiny subset of the people who think this way? You seem to have developed an obsession with attacking libertarianism and libertarians.

    Second, it is ironic that, in the same post in which you deny being a ideological communitarian, you evince a viewpoint that is significantly more communitarian than that of most present-day judges, legislators, and legal scholars, who, although they often rely on communitarian arguments to justify the state and political obligations, at least have enough good sense to perceive the limits of the ideology and recognize the folly of following communitarian thought to its logical conclusion by enacting the very types of laws that you are arguing the government should be in the business of enforcing!

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  10. " then you have not only shown that "strict libertarians" are wrong, but you have also demonstrated that legislators, judges, scholars and centuries of common law are wrong on a fundamental normative issue of criminal law."

    Well, in continental law, this usually would be a crime. So clearly there are a lot of legal scholars who are wrong somewhere!

    "Second, it is ironic that, in the same post in which you deny being a ideological communitarian, you evince a viewpoint that is significantly more communitarian than that of most present-day judges..."

    You have a weird sense of what is ironic. Anyone who on a single issue happens to align with some ideology must be a proponent of the ideology? So I suppose I'm ALSO a libertarian because I oppose drug laws, AND a conservative, because I think towns ought to be able to ban strip clubs.

    But let me amend my point: I think there would be nothing fundamentally wrong with such a law. I am not a legal scholar. Perhaps common law scholars have some good practical reason for rejecting such laws. (Although the US does have many duty to help laws for specific cases.) For example, I think prostitution should be legal for pragmatic reasons, in that laws banning it make things worse.

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  11. Bob: "What do you think we should do? Put him in jail? Cut off his arm?"

    What do you think should be done with someone who took a rock and smashed the babies head in? (I ask this because I don't believe you would endorse the use of force against him, either.)

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  12. "Well, in continental law, this usually would be a crime. So clearly there are a lot of legal scholars who are wrong somewhere!"

    Fair enough!

    I probably overstated my case a bit, to be honest. There is considerable debate about good samaritan laws even in the U.S., but IIRC the preponderance of commentators seem to oppose them (and certainly the laws themselves do and have done). One question to consider is whether good samaritan laws might unintentionally discourage people in certain situations from reporting serious crimes (and whether this effect outweighs any good the law might do). See, e.g., http://www2.law.ucla.edu/volokh/rescue.htm . I don't think too much about Richard Posner or the Law and Economics school of thought in general, but I recall he also seemed to offer some fairly cogent criticisms relating to the workability of these laws, in that it would be impracticable to delineate the extent and limits of a duty to rescue in a principled way. I forget the specifics right now, though.

    I suppose I was mainly just irked at how you just answered your own questions with "you bet" instead of at least offering an argument in support. And I was also a bit puzzled at why you would select a relatively mainstream opinion that libertarians happen to share as an example of the particular wrongness of libertarians.


    "You have a weird sense of what is ironic. Anyone who on a single issue happens to align with some ideology must be a proponent of the ideology? So I suppose I'm ALSO a libertarian because I oppose drug laws, AND a conservative, because I think towns ought to be able to ban strip clubs."

    I'll retract the insinuation that you are a communitarian, then. I suppose it just seemed that way to me, because most of the posts of yours that I've read tend to praise conservative/communitarian ideas or criticize libertarian ideas, and very few do the opposite. (I've never seen a post criticizing the War on Drugs, for instance).

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  13. "I suppose I was mainly just irked at how you just answered your own questions with "you bet" instead of at least offering an argument in support."

    The point of this post was not to argue for that position. It was to clarify how I differ from libertarians on the question of obligation, which "Obligation I" had apparently not made clear.

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  14. Gene,

    Do you consider Henry Hazlitt to be a libertarian?

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  15. I hope I would pick the baby up and take it to safety.

    I'd consider anyone whom I knew not to have done so to be a monster.

    But I differentiate between moral/ethical obligation, social obligation, and legal/political obligation.

    Moral obligation, to me, is extremely personal. I'd be willing to argue for a moral obligation to assist the baby, but not to attempt to forcibly impose my conclusions on anyone else's behavior.

    Social obligation is generally reinforced through non-violent action. If you're an asshole who didn't assist baby in need, people don't want to associate with you, etc.

    Legal/political obligation is the level where force is used, and I object to invoking it on any basis except to prevent or redress actual harm done precisely because we live in a world characterized by various and sundry conceptions of moral and social obligation, and allowing those conceptions to express themselves is a competition to produce the best results.


    The only legal/political obligation I am willing to accept myself, or to forcibly impose on anyone else, is "first, do no harm" -- or, to put it in libertarianese, "do not initiate force."

    Anything beyond that has a negative moral and social effect. It prevents the competitive expression of, and therefore the improvement of, moral and social ideas.

    I'd rather the baby lived. I'd be willing to do a great deal to see that it lived.

    I'd also be willing to help create an environment more conducive to future such babies living by teaching that it's moral to save babies, and shunning those whom I know did not or would not save babies.

    I'd do those things because that's the kind of world I want to live in.

    I would not support forcing people to save babies, because that's NOT the kind of society I want to live in, or want the babies to live in. Slave societies are inherently anti-saving-babies societies.

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  16. "But I differentiate between moral/ethical obligation, social obligation, and legal/political obligation."

    So do I. So, I think, has almost every major political thinker I can bring to mind.

    "Legal/political obligation is the level where force is used, and I object to invoking it on any basis except to prevent or redress actual harm done precisely because we live in a world characterized by various and sundry conceptions of moral and social obligation, and allowing those conceptions to express themselves is a competition to produce the best results."

    Well, this is a moral idea, and the evaluation of what are the "best results" is a moral evaluation. So what you mean by saying that "morality is a personal affair" is that "YOUR (Christian/Islamic/Aristotelean/Buddhist/Marxist) morality had better be kept a personal affair, because in the public sphere only my liberal morality is going to be permitted to have a voice."

    That this is the key contradiction in liberalism is a very well-known fact, but it is very hard for liberals to see it themselves (me among them!) since liberal rhetoric is aimed at disguising this fact and portraying Tom's three-layer system with liberal rules in charge and rival moralities restricted to personal whims as somehow a matter of "universal, natural rights" or some other such business.

    And don't you find it kind of odd to mention the criterion of "actual harm done" to reject legal intrusion in the case of a person leaving a baby to freeze to death outside? That seems like an awful lot of harm to me!

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  17. Gene,

    me too!
    You should read chapter 20 in his foundations of morality. (And not what Rothbard considered to be libertarianism.) Hazlitt makes a very (Aristotelian, hermeneutical) point, imo, which is very relevant and very true. I'm writing my masters thesis this year in which I expose my political philosophy (title is: 'foundations of anarchy: moral, political and economic') and in the moral part I make an Nozickean-Aristotelean argument for natural law, in which I defend the thesis that unchosen, positive obligations do arise - and are consistent with 'libertarian' ideas. But, to be sure, there is a difference between an unchosen, positive obligation, which arises from the specific circumstance in which a particular person is on the one hand and the idea that we own obligation to on organization like the modern state. I'm pretty confident - but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong - that you would agree that there is a (relevant) difference. I consider that difference to be relevant enough to say that we don't own obligation to the modern state, as we own help to a particular victim of life's unfortunate events.

    I'll quote for starters, but I'm interested in your opinions on the whole of the chapter. If you consider Hazlitt a libertarian - a statement which I agree with - it does follow that at least some libertarians are immune to the kind of criticism you have leveled above. Or am I wrong?

    Quoting Hazlitt:

    "A little reflection will show, however, that each of us has special moral duties just as each of us has a special vocation and a special job. In fact, a large number of these special duties grow directly out of our special vocation and our special job. Just as it is the moral duty of each of us to fulfill the condi- tions of an economic contract, so it is the moral duty of each of us to fulfill the implied duties of any job we have accepted. And often, precisely because we have accepted these special duties, they are not the necessary duties of others.
    Let us illustrate this by a few special situations. If you are walking alone along a deserted beach, and someone in the water is drowning and cries for help, and the distance from the shore, the waves and tide, your own swimming ability and other conditions are such that you can probably save him without excessive risk to your own life, then it is your duty to try.

    (...)

    "Clear specific vocation and specific assignment of duties solves many a moral problem of this sort. If you know that a helpless little girl or a woman invalid is in a burning building, is it your duty to try to save her? The answer depends on many circumstances—on the possibility of a successful attempt or the apparent hopelessness of it; on your particular relationship to the victim; on whether other possible rescuers, better equipped, are present. But if professional firemen have arrived, with proper equipment, then the question whose duty it is—if the rescue is feasible at all—is practically settled."

    (

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  18. "But, to be sure, there is a difference between an unchosen, positive obligation, which arises from the specific circumstance in which a particular person is on the one hand and the idea that we own obligation to on organization like the modern state. I'm pretty confident - but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong - that you would agree that there is a (relevant) difference. I consider that difference to be relevant enough to say that we don't own obligation to the modern state, as we own help to a particular victim of life's unfortunate events."

    Yeah, it certainly is different. And I'm not a big fan of the modern state either. I don't really know what to think about what obligations I might have to it.

    In any case, send the material to gcallah@mac.com, and I'll try to take a look.

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  19. Well; I would love to have your opinion but... let me say it needs some cleaning up to do. (I'm not a native English speaker, but writing in English. And I have the tendency to delay references until my own last review of my texts. Bad habit, I know.) But let me get back to you on that.

    The basic idea I defend is that there is no moral obligation just because we both exist - I don't carry the burden of someone else his poverty, just because I exist as well - but I do carry the burden of someone his emergency cases, if he's in that situation through no (real) fault of his own. Also; because I'm a moral subject, someone else ought not assign me responsibilities just because he 'can' (might doesn't make right) but this is not the same as obligations arising from specific, concrete circumstances, as the infant example you have given us. My argument basically goes like this: libertarianism accept that 'contracts ought to be met'. But why only formal contracts with a signature and all? Why not 'implicit' contracts? Suppose your friend has an hart attack; why doesn't the concept of 'friend' entail that there is a positive obligation to help him? Same with 'childeren-parent' relationship. Same with walking past a road: of course you are entitled to your freedom and people ought not come to you and say 'well, you have to do x or we will punish you'. (My contention is that the modern state works like this. I also admit that this is an empirical, rather than an a priori statement.)

    The idea of political obligation - an obligation to a specific kind of state - seems weird to me. I have no problem accepting the argument out of 'emergency situations' to create (positive) obligations that could be enforced, depending on certain customs and so on and so forth. But I fail to see why we ought to accept something like the modern state. Arguments like a constitution and so on and so forth don't seem to work for me. The decisive argument against the state, as far as I can see, is the amount of deliberate, conscious assignment of responsibilities and roles to concrete human beings within a certain system that people did not volunteer too. Again; this is more an empirical than an a priori point, I believe.

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  20. Gene,

    What if all the guy lived for was the opera. What if that was the only joy in his entire life, and that not seeing the opera would cause him so much pain that he could not bare to live any longer?

    Absurd situation yes, but is his life worth less than the baby's to you?

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  21. "Absurd situation yes, but is his life worth less than the baby's to you?"

    As I said, I devised this example because I thought it would clarify the difference between my current view and libertarians on this issue, and not because I thought I was decisively arguing for my contentions about the baby -- I knew I was offering no argument at all.

    That being said, my answer would be: Who cares? If you value opera more than the infants life, your values are diseased, and need to be overridden.

    What would you say, Avram, to someone who told you that mutilating small children gave him immense pleasure, so much pleasure that it far outweighed the suffering these children would undergo?

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  22. Gene,

    You write:

    "So what you mean by saying that 'morality is a personal affair' is that 'YOUR (Christian/Islamic/Aristotelean/Buddhist/Marxist) morality had better be kept a personal affair, because in the public sphere only my liberal morality is going to be permitted to have a voice.'"

    Nice try, but you've got it exactly backward. In fact, I have made exactly the same argument you are making, and I agree with it 100%. More importantly, my position agrees with it as well.

    To legislate, is to legislate morality -- to prohibit something deemed "bad," or to compel something deemed "good." Whenever anyone quacks that "you can't legislate morality," I have a strong urge to slap them silly (but I resist).

    Since the progress of human civilization requires that dueling moral conceptions be allowed to prove themselves or fail, legislation should be kept to the absolute minimum possible.

    An obvious line for the maximum scope of legislation is prohibition on the initiation of force. That's a near-universal moral holding at the personal level. Anything beyond that quickly becomes a slug-fest of people trying to impose whatever moral system they subscribe to on everyone else. It is the original slippery slope, and it is fact and history, not fallacy.

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  23. "And don't you find it kind of odd to mention the criterion of 'actual harm done' to reject legal intrusion in the case of a person leaving a baby to freeze to death outside? That seems like an awful lot of harm to me!"

    It's an awful lot of harm -- but none of it is done by the person you're referring to.

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  24. ""Since the progress of human civilization requires that dueling moral conceptions be allowed to prove themselves or fail, legislation should be kept to the absolute minimum possible.

    "An obvious line for the maximum scope of legislation is prohibition on the initiation of force. That's a near-universal moral holding at the personal level. Anything beyond that quickly becomes a slug-fest of people trying to impose whatever moral system they subscribe to on everyone else."

    This is interesting, Tom, but I don't think we get any simple libertarian answer from this formula. What about the difference between the UK, where there are right-to-wander laws, and someone keeping me from crossing their fields is "initiating force," and the US, where trespassing is considered to be "initiating force"? What about a Marxist who claims that with your acceptance of the use of force to defend private property YOU are imposing the moral system you subscribe to on him in a "slug-fest"? What about people who sincerely believe abortion is murder versus those who sincerely believe outlawing it is forcing women to become incubators? What about someone who believes excessive carbon emissions are an assault on Third Worlders living near coasts versus the SUV owner who says "It's my damned car, I'll drive it where and when I please"?

    What about a Calvinist who says the minimal condition for a minimally ordered society is the rule of the saints? And note: Calvinists have had a LOT more success than libertarians in at least occasionally getting entire societies to agree to THEIR minimum condition!

    Now, I agree, right now, we have such moral pluralism that the best we can hope for is a modus vivendi. But that compromise is for sure going to include Social Security, Medicare, progressive taxes, etc., whatever you or I think of these items. So in a sense you are right: we agree to a public morality that is a sort of blended average of all our preferred moralities. None of us get the society we want, but we all get enough that we don't enter into armed rebellion.

    And the name of that compromise is Barack Obama. For now.

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  25. Gene,

    I don't much believe in "simple libertarian answers," so I don't feel too terrible for not having successfully derived a formula for them ;-)

    The main thing I'd disagree with on your last post is this:

    "None of us get the society we want, but we all get enough that we don't enter into armed rebellion."

    Depending on how expansive your definition of "armed" is, the US and Europe are either already there or close to it.

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  26. Let us hope not, Tom. Few things are more horrific than Civil War.

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  27. Gene,

    Exactly.

    Political government IS civil war, always and everywhere.

    My distant ancestor who work I am dedicated to undoing got it flat wrong when he ascribed "the war of all against all" to the state of nature rather than to ... well, the state.

    Revolt against the state is the only antidote to perpetual civil war.

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  28. "Revolt against the state is the only antidote to perpetual civil war."

    Yes, Tom, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

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