Further Thoughts on Penn's Libertarianism

The last thread about Penn Jillette's book sparked some debate, so I'd like to revisit the topic. This is what Penn says is his view of the legitimate powers of government:

If I had a gun, and I knew a murder was happening... I would use that gun to stop that murder. I might be too much of a coward to use a gun myself to stop murder or rape or robbery, but I think that use of a gun is justified. I'm even okay with using force to enforce voluntary contracts. I would use a gun to protect the other people who chose to live under this free system. If I were a hero, I would use a gun to stop another country from attacking us and taking away our freedoms. [p.150]

Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. We started out with Penn declaring that, in an ideal world, he would heroically use a gun to stop a murder, rape, or robbery. Fair enough, I can get behind that. But then he slides to "enforcing voluntary contracts"? That job may be useful to society, even necessary - but is it heroic? Why is that a more legitimate use of force than the ones he decries?

For instance, why isn't it equally "heroic" to help the sick and the needy? Why isn't it heroic to contribute to building hospitals, schools, libraries, shelters? Personally, I think it's pretty damn heroic to cure someone of cancer, give them a warm bed to sleep in, or get them a heart transplant. A libertarian like Penn might say that there's no merit in doing this if our support is compelled, but it's not at all obvious to me why using guns to enforce voluntary contracts is intrinsically more admirable than using guns to build hospitals or schools.

Penn says he likes libraries but wouldn't object if someone else thinks he has a better use for his own money than spending it to build a library. Well, I can say the same thing: Why should my money be spent on judges and courts just to resolve byzantine legal disputes between massive corporations that have no effect on my life? (The vast majority of lawsuits are filed by corporations suing each other, not by private individuals.) What if I think I have better uses for my money than paying men with guns to enforce voluntary contracts? For example, I can easily imagine an anarcho-libertarian viewpoint which holds that damage to one's own reputation should be the only penalty for breaking a contract.

Or, an even more pertinent example: What if I think I have better things to spend my money on than the police or the military? What if I'm a pacifist and don't believe in having an army at all, or what if I just believe that military spending is too high as it is and disproportionate to any threat our country actually faces? What if I believe the police are unfairly arresting innocent people and want to withhold my funding in protest? Is that a choice I would have in Penn's ideal libertarian state, or would it result in "men with guns" showing up at my doorstep? If the latter, then it seems Penn doesn't believe, after all, that each individual is the best judge of how to spend his or her own money.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

This hysterical, ridiculous "men with guns!" meme works both ways. Using this emotionally charged phrasing, I could say, "There's great joy in running my own business and providing a service that people want and need, but there's no joy in doing it if libertarian government thugs are holding me at gunpoint and forcing me to contribute to this free-market economy." (If you don't think that would happen, try imagining a person living in a libertarian state who declares he doesn't believe in private property and, say, plants a garden on a plot of unused land legally owned by someone else. The guns would come out very quickly, I assure you.)

I would use a gun for defense, police, and courts. Well, well, I'll be hornswoggled, that's pretty much what the Founding Fathers came up with.

Actually, if you want to get technical about it, our founding fathers came up with quite a bit more than just that. For example, Thomas Jefferson was a staunch supporter of public schools and libraries. President John Adams signed into law a bill establishing a government-run health care system for sailors, funded by payroll deductions (yes, really), which in its broad outlines isn't all that different from modern systems like Medicare.

More to the point, of course, the founding fathers didn't permanently enshrine a minimal state, nor did they claim to be infallible. They left us a living Constitution which can be changed and amended, precisely because they knew that future generations might see necessities they overlooked or correct errors they made. To name an obvious one, the founding fathers also didn't seem to have a problem with using guns to enforce slavery - a glaring error which we've thankfully corrected.

If there's an argument to be made for a minimal state, it's going to have to be a better one than a subjective list of what seems most "heroic" to one person. It's inherent in all democracies that the majority will sometimes vote for a course of action, such as establishing an income tax, that not everyone will agree with. That's not necessarily an infringement of human rights; it's the inevitable consequence of having a social contract. And even though not everyone can always get their own way, the social contract of democracy is - should be - sustained by the recognition that we're all better off, on average, living in a democracy than we would be under any other kind of government. If that bargain is intolerable to you, you're welcome to seek a country that's more congenial to your viewpoint, whether it be a cooperative communist utopia, a benevolent theocracy, or a completely free libertarian market-state. And if there are no countries which fit your chosen model anywhere in the world, well, there just may be a reason for that.

September 28, 2011, 5:58 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink83 comments
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Theocracy Causes Famine

Recently, I got an e-mail from the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is working with USAID to raise awareness of the continuing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. The toll in lives is already appalling, including over 29,000 deaths from starvation and outbreaks of measles and cholera, and hundreds more dying every day. The crisis has produced almost a million refugees, including over 400,000 at the Dadaab camp in Kenya.

I have to admit that my first reaction to this news was a feeling of hopelessness. Sometimes it seems that occasional famine is a painful fact of life, especially in poor, overpopulated regions of arid, sub-Saharan nations, and that any effort to help, however well-intentioned, is only going to delay the inevitable. I won't deny that I've had some of these thoughts myself. But I was brought up short by a passage that Johann Hari wrote in a recent book review:

As recently as the mid-1980s, it was thought that famine was usually an "act of God" - a "biblical" failure of rains or crops or seasons. But in the 1990s Amartya Sen, the Nobel­winning economist, showed this was wrong by proving one bold fact: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food correctly - because the ruler is not accountable to the starving.

Although a natural disaster, like drought, is often the trigger, the ultimate cause of famine is almost always a corrupt, greedy, or unaccountable government that siphons off food from the needy. For example, during the infamous Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed itself, but the imperial British rulers of the time demanded that the majority of it be shipped abroad for export. The only space left for the Irish to grow their own food was on small and marginal plots, and when the potato blight wiped out their chief crop, disaster followed.

And the same thing is happening now in Somalia. As Nicholas Kristof writes, the country is experiencing a historic drought - aggravated, no doubt, by climate change - but that alone wouldn't have caused such a severe crisis. Kenya and Ethiopia, which are also affected by the drought, are coping better thanks to technological advances, like drought-resistant crops and irrigation systems. But the closest thing to a government in Somalia is the violent, ignorant Islamist movement called the Shabab that's the only authority in most of the country. Kristof puts it chillingly:

The area where large numbers of people are dying almost perfectly overlays the regions where the Shabab is in control.

The Shabab has actively kept out aid workers and relief shipments, apparently viewing them as unwanted intrusions from corrupt and godless Western countries. They've blocked rivers and stolen water from villagers to divert it to farmers who pay them bribes. They've even tried to prevent starving people from fleeing.

So, yes, famine is an "act of God" - but only in the sense that it's caused by God's self-appointed agents, the forces of religious darkness that don't value human life and are perfectly willing to allow suffering and death. Famine is not inevitable, even in a warming and overpopulated world. The question is whether we, the defenders of humanity and civilization, the people who care about this life, are willing to act to prevent it.

Whenever I think of Somalia, I'm reminded that the brilliant, amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from there. Could there be other minds like hers swept up in the famine, people with the same potential as her even now cradling their dying children or trudging to refugee camps? Will we stand by and permit the strangling darkness of theocracy to snuff out these bright sparks?

If you want to help, see the FBB's Humanist Crisis Response Program, supporting the International Rescue Committee.

September 26, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink44 comments
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What Comes Next For the Middle East?

The last few weeks in the Middle East have been a story of extraordinary courage and heroism. With dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia lying in ruins and the democratic revolt now spreading to Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, it's not too early to start thinking about what will come next.

The omnipresent fear in Western media is that the newly free countries will be taken over by an Islamist majority. This isn't an unreasonable concern (although it hardly justifies the West's decades of supporting brutal, repressive dictators just because they weren't theocrats). However, I think that at least in these two countries, there's reason for optimism.

As this article points out, and as I've observed previously, one of the newest and most surprising things about the protests was the huge and crucial role played by women. Tunisia, in particular, had a strong tradition of women's rights - its female citizens were among the first of any Arab country to gain the vote - and high rates of female education and literacy. The ex-dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali gambled that this liberality would keep people pacified, but it had the opposite effect: the educated populace was more able to see his corruption for what it was and less willing to tolerate it, and women joined the marches in vast numbers. Tunisia's women played such a crucial role in the revolution that even the country's formerly exiled Islamists feel compelled to recognize their leadership:

Crowds of women in traditional Islamic dress welcomed the long-exiled leader of Tunisia's Ennahda movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, upon his return to the country Jan. 30.

But, as Radhia Nasraoui, a prominent Tunisian human rights lawyer points out, unlike the Taliban in 1996 or Iran's mullahs in 1979, Mr. Ghannouchi has felt compelled to repeatedly and publicly pledge to safeguard women's rights in recent weeks.

"It may be tactical, but the fact that he feels he has to talk this way is a pretty good indication that wanting to roll back women rights is no way to gain support in Tunisia right now," Ms. Nasraoui said.

Then there's Egypt. On the surface, there's less reason for optimism here. Before the revolution, aggressive sexual harassment of Egyptian women was routine and omnipresent, as dramatized by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab in his film 678. The savage sexual assault on Lara Logan in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall (whether by regime supporters or opponents will probably never be known) was a highly visible example of the brutality too often tolerated in Egyptian society.

But here, too, there are some green sprouts. Chief among these was the way that women fearlessly joined the crowds in Tahrir Square (and also see my earlier post):

Fatma Emam's mother accused her of wanting to be a man and threatened to disown her if the 28-year-old joined the protests in Tahrir Square. She went anyway.

"There are so many women who like me defied their families," Emam said after spending five days and four nights in downtown Cairo. "The revolution is not only taking place in Tahrir, it is taking place in every Egyptian house. It is the revolution of fighting the patriarch."

...The 25-year-old who helped spark the demonstrations with an online video, Asmaa Mahfouz, said her father refused to allow her to stay in the plaza after dark. "No girl of mine spends the night away from home," Mahfouz said he told her.

In the video, Mahfouz said: "I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square. Come down with us and demand your rights."

I know better than to believe that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda have completely given up their theocratic aims, whatever they say in public. But it also seems clear that they're biding their time, not wanting to move openly unless they believe they have a good chance of success - and if the Middle East's young secular revolutionaries remain vigilant, the theocrats may never get that chance. Now that Egypt's women have tasted real freedom, we can hope, they won't be quieted - they know perfectly well what they'd stand to lose from the imposition of sharia, and they have the confidence that comes of having toppled one dictatorship already.

This is why groups like the Taliban are so fanatically opposed to schools for girls. The way to keep people under your thumb is to keep them poor, isolated and ignorant - because only then can they be persuaded to believe that no change is ever possible. The more educated a nation's people are, the more they can look beyond their own circumstances to the wider world and imagine how things could be different. This is true for both men and women, but since patriarchal religions put special emphasis on controlling women's lives, women's education is particularly deadly to them. That's a lesson to keep in mind as these nations begin to rebuild themselves.

February 28, 2011, 1:52 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink10 comments
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Wednesday Link Roundup

I may write more about some of these stories over the weekend, but in the meantime, I just had to make quick mention of them:

• Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur, whom Daylight Atheism readers have heard about before, has a new pearl of wisdom to bestow on us as regards the democratic revolutions currently sweeping the Middle East (HT: Slacktivist):

I think there are a lot of ways to approach that but if you just talk about a biblical thing, [the protesters] are all in violation of a biblical command – to submit to the powers that be because they're ordained of God. I'm not saying Moammar Gadhafi is the best leader, I'm not saying that Mubarak is a great, benevolent and just leader, not when he's got $70 billion in his own pockets at the expense of people.

But what I am saying is that whatever the government would be, even if it was Caesar in the New Testament, that the believers are commanded to live orderly lives, peaceful, quiet lives, subjecting themselves to the powers that be because they're ordained of God... After all, who said democracy's the best form of government? No matter what the form of government is, the Bible doesn't advocate anything but a theocracy.

Libertarianism in a nutshell, as told by The Volokh Conspiracy (HT: Slacktivist, again - what can I say, he's posted some great stuff lately!):

I think there's a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress's powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective.

And emphasized by the author, in a comment:

Yes, the view I've stated opposes taxation even to prevent the end of civilization, provided that end happens by purely natural means.

I laughed a lot at this, until the sobering realization that some people who believe this have probably been elected to high office. Do read the post about it on Slacktivist - he also discusses a very interesting distinction between "first-order insanity" and "second-order insanity", which could be very useful concepts for atheists.

• A discussion of conservative atheists. Unfortunately, it rather proves the point that they are, for all intents and purposes, utterly irrelevant compared to the religious right:

In 2008, feeling the absence of irreligious voices on the right, Mr. Khan, who also blogs about science for Discover magazine's Web site, started SecularRight.org. Today, the site usually gets 500 to 1,000 hits a day, Mr. Khan said, although there are spikes as high as 10,000.

Sheesh. I get more than 10,000 hits on an average day. When do I get a writeup in the New York Times?

February 23, 2011, 7:45 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink26 comments
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Is America a Christian Nation?

A frequent refrain among the religious right is that the United States of America is a "Christian nation", or that this country was founded on Christian principles. However, I've never seen any religious apologist explain what exactly this is supposed to mean beyond making the mere statement. If this nation was founded on Christian principles, which principles are those? If Christianity played such a major role in our nation's founding, then what specific contributions did it make?

In an attempt to help the religious right answer this key question, I'll list some of America's core defining principles as given in the Constitution, and examine whether any of them could plausibly be said to come from Christianity or the Bible:

Republican democracy. Through a public ballot open to all adult citizens, Americans elect candidates who will represent them at the local, state and federal levels. All officials of the American government are either directly elected by the people or are appointed by others who are elected.

Separation of powers. The American government is divided into legislative, executive and judicial branches. Through various mechanisms, these three branches can check each other's power - the president can issue pardons and veto legislation, Congress can override vetoes and pass constitutional amendments, and the courts can rule laws and executive actions unconstitutional - which prevents too much power from accumulating in the hands of any one individual or group.

Federalism. The U.S. is set up as a series of states with a limited degree of autonomy, united together and overseen by a central, federal government. Power is shared between the two, with some areas being the province of the states and others set by the federal authority.

The process of amendment. The U.S. Constitution can be changed in any way, either to pass new clauses or to repeal existing ones, if the proposed amendment is approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states.

Religious freedom. The Constitution explicitly provides that no religious test shall ever be required for any public office in the United States, nor shall the government officially establish any religion. No law which infringes on the free exercise of religion is permitted.

Freedom of speech, assembly, press and petition. The First Amendment to the Constitution provides that no law shall be passed which abridges the citizens' freedom of speech, nor their right to protest and petition the government, nor the right of the press to report information on the events of the day.

Protection from search and seizure. The police force in America may not enter a person's home or search their possessions without proving reasonable suspicion and obtaining the consent of an independent magistrate, in the form of a search warrant.

Trial by jury. Americans accused of crimes can only be convicted by a jury made up of people living in the area where the crime has taken place. In addition, people on trial have the right to confront witnesses against them and may not be compelled to testify against themselves.

Protection from cruel or unusual punishment. Cruel, degrading, or torturous punishments are constitutionally forbidden.

Equality of all people under the law. Most fundamental to the American experiment is the idea that all people have equal protection under the law, that no one group has any more or fewer legal rights than any other. This more than anything else is the idea that defines us, and though we have not always lived up to it, throughout our history we have steadily been making strides toward expanding the boundaries of liberty to include all Americans.

Now, let's see what Biblical equivalents, if any, these principles have:

Republican democracy: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Rather than democracy, the Bible's preferred model of government is a divine-right kingship, where one individual is hereditarily chosen and wields supreme power. This is what America's founders were rebelling against when they brought forth this nation.

Separation of powers: Explicitly denied by the Bible. As above, in the Bible's divine-right monarchy, a single individual wields supreme power over all functions of government. Some apologists seek to find an equivalent in a verse from Isaiah 33 - "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king" - but what they overlook is that this verse explicitly envisions all three of these powers as being held by the same person.

Federalism: Partial equivalent in the Bible. The Old Testament's society, where each of the twelve tribes of Israel has partial autonomy over its own region, is similar to the American model of states. However, there is a notable dissimilarity as well: the Bible envisions membership in a tribe as hereditary, whereas states are made up of free collections of individuals who can move around at will. In any case, some sort of hierarchy is unavoidable in any organization too large for a single person to directly oversee.

The process of amendment: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Rather than creating a living, dynamic system of laws that can be improved and mended as society sees fit, the Bible claims that its laws are eternal and immutable, literally set in stone, and can neither be added to nor changed. The Old Testament says that each of its laws "shall be a statute forever" (Leviticus 23:41), and the New Testament says that anyone who suggests a different gospel should be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9).

Religious freedom: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Far from granting people the right to worship as they see fit, the Bible says that anyone who encourages believers to serve other gods, or anyone who speaks "blasphemy", should be killed (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, Leviticus 24:16). God himself joins in on many occasions by slaughtering people who worship different gods (Exodus 22:20). Although Jesus does say that people should "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Mark 12:17), there is no indication that any non-Christian should enjoy the same freedom of worship as believers.

Freedom of speech, assembly, press and petition: Explicitly denied by the Bible. As above, the Bible does not grant freedom of speech, but rather threatens death for those who speak in unapproved ways. Ancient Israel had no concept of the press, but there are also many cases in which people were killed for unapproved assemblies or for questioning their leaders (Numbers 16:35).

Protection from search and seizure: No equivalent in the Bible. Lacking a judicial system or separation of powers, ancient Israel had no notion of search warrants or of protection from arbitrary seizure.

Trial by jury: No equivalent in the Bible. Again, the Bible has nothing like our custom of the legal or judicial system. It does say that a man who suspects his wife of committing adultery can bring her before the priests and force her to drink "bitter water" which will cause her belly to swell and her thighs to rot if she is guilty (Numbers 5). If anything, this is most similar to the barbaric concept of trial by ordeal. It also says that anyone who accidentally kills someone may be killed without consequence by a relative of the deceased (whom it calls the "avenger of blood") (Joshua 20). Again, no mention is made of convening a jury to determine the guilt of the accused. Finally, it says that any person may be convicted of a crime on the testimony of just two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15), which is a far cry from the American legal system.

Protection from cruel or unusual punishment: Explicitly denied by the Bible. One of the most common punishments prescribed by the Bible is stoning - bludgeoning a person to death by smashing in his head and face with rocks. This penalty is prescribed for crimes such as disobeying one's parents (Deuteronomy 21:21), picking up sticks on Sunday (Numbers 15:36), or being gay (Leviticus 20:13). This is "cruel and unusual" punishment by any rational definition of that term.

Equality of all people under the law: Explicitly denied by the Bible. The Bible makes it clear that the Israelites enjoyed special favor as compared to everybody else, and were treated differently by the Mosaic law code. For example, foreigners taken as slaves could be kept indefinitely, while Israelite slaves were freed every seven years during Jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-46). Even among Israelites, there were stark divisions: women are worth considerably less than men (Leviticus 27:1-7), and the handicapped are discriminated against (Leviticus 21:17-23). Even Jesus joins in by making statements comparing non-Jews to dogs (Mark 7:27).

* * *

In sum, the basic principles of American democracy cannot be found in either testament of the Bible. This is hardly surprising: America's founders drew their ideas from the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as from the English common law; they said so themselves.

And to this evidence, we must add the fact that many of America's most influential founders held notably unorthodox religious views. Far from being the monolithic group of pious, church-going, by-the-book fundamentalists that today's religious right imagines them as, the founders were a diverse, freethinking group, few of them strictly obedient to any creed. It is almost certainly no coincidence that, while divine-right monarchies across the world have ended in degeneration or destruction, the American system of government whose origins were based in reason and not hobbled by rigid dogma has survived and flourished.

October 13, 2007, 10:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink99 comments
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Why I Am Not a Libertarian III

Opportunity and Obligation

One of the driving notions behind libertarian political theory is that society should be a meritocracy. By removing all restraints on competition, we will create a system where the hardest-working, most talented, most creative people succeed. And this is a good idea which I agree with. We need to encourage effort and innovation to create a healthy society; we should not punish motivation, nor reward laziness. We should give people an incentive to work and to strive. However, where I think libertarians err is in assuming that if we eliminate all or most regulation, the most talented, motivated people will naturally and inevitably rise to the top. This is an oversimplified view of reality, which overlooks the institutional forces and natural barriers that can prevent individuals from succeeding through no fault of their own.

Libertarians often point to examples of people who overcame difficult circumstances to become successful as proof that no social safety net is needed, that the deserving will always stand out. But this conclusion does not follow from a few anecdotal cases. The fact that some people have escaped poverty does not mean that everyone has an equal opportunity to do the same. The few who did escape might simply have been lucky, or had opportunities not available to everyone, while even more talented or motivated people languish in circumstances they cannot escape.

This is why I support social welfare programs created through taxation. The point of redistribution, in the classical liberal philosophy, is not to create equal distribution of wealth, but rather equal distribution of opportunity. Where nature has created an inequality, we should use the power of society to remedy that inequality. By guaranteeing universal access to basic goods like health care and education, differences in natural ability and talent have the best chance to manifest and are less likely to be cut short by bad luck. In this sense, a classic liberal society, rather than a libertarian society, is the truest form of meritocracy.

Inevitably, programs like these will be funded primarily by tax contributions from the wealthy. To fund them most equitably, I advocate a progressive tax code where the percentage of taxed income rises with the individual's level of income.

This is not, as many libertarians seem to think, a desire to punish the wealthy for their success. Again, this is the wrong paradigm by which to approach the issue: a better view is as the repayment of an obligation. All people who live in a society owe that society a debt in exchange for the services it provides and the standard of living it makes possible. And the wealthy, who have been able to achieve so much more than most thanks to the resources society provides, owe society a particularly significant debt which it is right that they repay.

The resources which society provides go beyond basic goods like public utilities, police and national defense, laws against force and fraud, and a system of free speech and free enterprise - although it does provide those. More fundamentally, society institutes and maintains the very economic systems that are arranged so as to reward people who have certain skills and abilities. Except in very rare cases, "talent" is not a universal currency, convertable into wealth in any system in which the bearer happens to live. On the contrary, people are generally talented at certain things, and our society is structured so as to highly reward certain things. When those two overlap, the people who succeed rightfully owe society a debt of gratitude for that.

Even members of the super-rich classes acknowledge this. Warren Buffett has said the following (quoted from p.164 of Janet Lowe's Warren Buffett Speaks: Wit and Wisdom from the World's Greatest Investor):

I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned. ...I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well - disproportionately well... I do think that when you're treated enormously well by this market system, where in effect the market system showers the ability to buy goods and services on you because of some peculiar talent - maybe your adenoids are a certain way, so you can sing and everybody will pay you enormous sums to be on television or whatever - I think society has a big claim on that.

Or Robert Crandall, former chief executive of American Airlines, as quoted in a recent New York Times article "The Richest of the Rich":

The nation's corporate chiefs would be living far less affluent lives, Mr. Crandall said, if fate had put them in, say, Uzbekistan instead of the United States, "where they are the beneficiaries of a market system that rewards a few people in extraordinary ways and leaves others behind."

Or, from the same article, American industrialist and steel titan Andrew Carnegie:

"Carnegie made it abundantly clear that the centerpiece of his gospel of wealth philosophy was that individuals do not create wealth by themselves," said David Nasaw, a historian at City University of New York and the author of "Andrew Carnegie" (Penguin Press). "The creator of wealth in his view was the community, and individuals like himself were trustees of that wealth."

Again, this is not to say that innovative, hard-working individuals should not be able to reap the rewards of their effort. We should have a society based on merit; I find no fault with that. What I do find fault with a system where a few people are given the enormous opportunity needed to become successful, while billions more have little or no access to the same opportunity. People who do become wealthy have a moral obligation to reinvest some of that wealth back into the system so that other people can enjoy the same opportunities it has given to them.

The great insight of capitalism is that wealth, unlike matter and energy, is not a constant but can be created. Ironically, it is libertarians who have forgotten this, implicitly assuming that the amount of wealth in society is fixed and that taxation is a zero-sum game, that one person must lose for another to prosper. On the contrary, by wisely reinvesting the proceeds of taxation, we can create a more prosperous society in which everyone is healthier and happier. This sums up my core objection to libertarianism: its central ethic is "every man for himself", while I believe the superior ethic is "we're all in this together".

Other posts in this series:

July 26, 2007, 8:34 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink53 comments
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Why I Am Not a Libertarian II

Positive and Negative Liberty

The second major reason why I am not a libertarian has to do with the social safety net - programs like public education, universal health care, food stamps or unemployment pay - that are funded by redistributive taxation. Hard-core libertarians decry these programs as theft or even slavery, arguing that it is unfair to tax them to fund programs from which they derive no direct benefit.

In reality, however, these programs do benefit all members of society. Consider universal health care. Though libertarians regularly decry such programs as wasteful government giveaways, there is a sound self-interest argument for establishing a social safety net. Even if a libertarian, through hard work and intelligent economic decisions, has guaranteed their own access to quality medical care for life, what will happen to people who lack that access? Since the poor aren't under regular medical supervision, any new infectious disease that appears will be likely to flourish among them. By the time it spreads out of the have-nots and begins to infect the rest of society, it may have become far more virulent and dangerous, putting many more people at risk. On the other hand, if an epidemic is detected early, it is far easier to stop it. This is not a hypothetical scenario: we see it happening around the world right now with diseases like tuberculosis or avian flu, where virulent, drug-resistant strains emerge first among society's underclass.

A similar argument holds true for anti-poverty social programs, such as welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing and job training. Certainly we should not indefinitely support people who refuse to work, and the emphasis should be on helping recipients return to the workforce as soon as possible. But eliminating these programs entirely would be a foolish idea. Eliminating these programs would not make the need for them go away. If people cannot support themselves through legitimate channels, they are far more likely to turn to crime and the black market, again posing a risk to the rest of society, as well as imposing the greater costs of police and incarceration.

Finally, consider public education. Any rational libertarian would value science, since it produces a great number of inventions and discoveries that directly benefit every member of the public. Therefore, it's in everyone's interest to live in a society where science is valued and supported by the public, as opposed to, for example, a society where powerful religious groups block scientific advances that are contrary to their beliefs. But to create a society of the former type, rather than the latter, we must commit to educating the public. Abdicating that responsibility creates a vacuum where all types of superstition and pseudoscience can rush in.

All of these social programs benefit us in one further way. By committing to educate people, giving them job training and housing, and providing medical care when they are ill, we help them to become productive, valuable citizens - people who contribute to society, rather than being a drain on it. A study by Columbia University, for example, found that an increase of $82,000 per student in public school spending would actually provide a $127,000 net gain to the economy over the lifetime of that student. Again, by helping people live up to their full potential for productivity and innovation, we can create a wealthier, more prosperous society than would otherwise exist, and this directly benefits everyone.

It is wrong to think of these programs as free giveaways to the undeserving. Instead, the proper paradigm is to think of them as investments. Like any investment, the spending for these programs can and will be repaid with interest if distributed wisely. Education is one example; here is another:

The US spent $32 million to fight smallpox over ten years, achieving eradication in 1977. Now we save that sum every two and a half months in reduced spending on vaccines and health care. Total savings have been $17 billion, plus 45 million lives around the world, and as an investment that $32 million has yielded a return of 45 percent per year.

The notion of social programs as an investment in society leads into an important point. There are two different types of freedom which any society must trade off between. One type is negative liberty, the absence of external restraint or coercion. But there's a far more important type, positive liberty, which is the ability to do what one wants to do. For example, I may want to secure an influential, high-paying job, and no one will actively stop me from doing this (negative liberty). Yet I may still be unable to get that job, because I lack access to the education and other resources I would need to pursue it (positive liberty).

Negative liberty is a necessary prerequisite for positive liberty, but is not sufficient for it. Any reasonable person, I think, would agree that positive liberty is the more important of the two. It does me no good to be free of restraint if I still lack the ability to achieve what I desire. Yet a libertarian state, where private property is the most fundamental right and there are no redistributive schemes such as taxation, goes too far in maximizing mere negative liberty at the expense of positive liberty. Rather than seeking to boost one at the expense of the other, we should want to combine the two in the highest proportion. Often, the best way to do this is to pass laws that somewhat decrease negative liberty, but produce a greater, more-than-compensating gain in positive liberty, both for the individual and for society in general.

Libertarians say that we should only concern ourselves with negative liberty - as long as people can choose freely, then everything is as it should be. But it does you no good that you can freely choose if all your options are bad ones. Consider the following horrible dilemma:

Nhem Yen's eldest daughter, who was twenty-four and pregnant with her second child, promptly caught malaria. There was no money to get medical treatment (effective drugs would have cost less than $10), and so she died a day after giving birth. That left Nhem Yen looking after five children of her own and two grandchildren.

The family had one mosquito net that could accommodate about three people. Such nets are quite effective against malaria, but they cost $5 — and Nhem Yen could not afford to buy any more. So every night, she agonized over which of the children to put under the net and which to leave out.

"It's very hard to choose," Nhem Yen told me. "But we have no money to buy another mosquito net. We have no choice."

This is not an isolated instance. As the Times article points out, impossible choices like this are very much the norm in conditions of extreme poverty. People become trapped in cycles of suffering that are all but impossible to escape because they cannot afford to provide for all their needs simultaneously. They have more than enough negative liberty; it is positive liberty they lack. A society that truly sought to maximize liberty would provide the help needed to lift people out of these cruel dilemmas.

It benefits no one for people to remain trapped in situations like this. Private investment and charity have a role to play in lifting people out of poverty, but they will not accomplish that task all by themselves - especially since many of these programs may not see a payoff within the lifetime of an individual investor. Public investment that is driven by moral considerations, rather than short-term profit, is also needed if we are to break the cycles of poverty and dependency. By doing this, we can create a society where the maximum amount of both prosperity and liberty is available to all.

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July 16, 2007, 7:53 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink55 comments
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Why I Am Not a Libertarian

I: The Dilemma of the Commons

I don't usually post purely political essays on Daylight Atheism, as opposed to posts that touch on religion in some way. But the new series beginning with this post is personally important to me, and deserves an exception.

Though I only have anecdotal evidence, it's my experience that the majority of atheists hold a politically liberal view. The second largest group, a substantial minority, takes a libertarian stance. (Classic conservativism is a distant third.) I know many members of the second group personally - some of them post comments on this site!

At its best, libertarianism is a noble affirmation of individual dignity and freedom in the face of tyranny; at its worst, it is a cynical and selfish excuse for the rich to exploit the poor and tell them that they deserve it. However, even in its best incarnations, I don't agree with it. Individualism is a fine thing, but so is community. Neither is solely good or solely bad, and terrible things can result from taking either one of them too far without the counterbalance of the other. I believe libertarianism has gone too far toward one of those ends, and in this series, I'll explain why.

The first and most important reason why I am not a libertarian is the dilemma of the commons. Akin to the famous Prisoner's Dilemma, this problem consists of a situation where everyone could potentially take more than their fair share, or pay less than their fair cost, for the use of a public resource. The usual solution to these problems is to introduce the notion of private property, which gives people an incentive to take care of their segment of the commons. This is feasible in some cases, but some things - some very important things - are public by their very nature and cannot be privatized. In such cases, the only way to solve the dilemma of the commons is to introduce an overarching authority that has the power to regulate the actions of the players.

In general, the things that cannot be privatized are natural phenomena that do not respect property lines. The abstraction of private property assumes that the actions and effects of a given person can be neatly partitioned off, separated from the rest of the world, so that it is easy to identify who is responsible. But nature itself cannot be divided into a set of hermetically sealed boxes. The world in which we all must live, and which we all depend upon, is composed of an enormously complex and intricate web of interdependencies. Any attempt by humans to draw clean lines through this tangle, identifying who is responsible for X and who is responsible for Y, is bound to end in illogic and futility.

Chief among these is the concept of environmental health. We cannot partition the environment. We all drink the same water; we all breathe the same air. Rivers, streams, aquifers and oceans cross property lines, and pollutants entering the water anywhere on the planet can cause problems almost anywhere else. Take the example of a farmer who lives upriver and a fisherman who lives downriver. The farmer may need to use nitrogen fertilizers to promote the growth of his crops; but runoff from those fertilizers that leaks into the river can lead to blooms of phytoplankton that suck all the oxygen from the water, creating dead zones that suffocate the fish that fishermen depend on for their livelihood. Clearly, private property is not going to solve this problem; both farmer and fisherman need to make a living, both can reasonably claim ownership over their section of the river, and the requirements of each are inimical to the other's livelihood. And what if the conflict is not with a fisher, but with people who use that water to drink or bathe, pitted against a company that owns another segment of the river and uses it as a waste dump? Whose ownership of one part of that water triumphs over the ownership rights of the other?

Similarly, how is a libertarian system to deal with the problem of air pollution? A state or municipality that insists on building cheap, dirty coal-fired power plants to run its electric grid will emit sulfur, mercury and other toxins into the air, potentially causing smog and acid rain hundreds of miles away. Similar problems occur with the owners of old, inefficient cars. How can private property resolve this problem? Who owns the air? Certainly, no one could ever prove that it was the emissions of one individual polluter that caused any particular problem. And what if the pollutant is not sulfur dioxide or particulates, but carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming and thereby causes destructive hurricanes, droughts and rising flood waters all over the planet? Again, no individual polluter is wholly responsible for these destructive side effects, and yet inarguably, the less greenhouse gas is emitted into the atmosphere, the better off we will all be.

Or, consider a common problem in the American West: homes built in chaparral and other ecosystems that are adapted to fire. After decades of mismanagement, we have learned that our well-intentioned efforts to manage this habitat by snuffing out small fires were a terrible mistake. Regular burns consume the dead wood from these habitats, keeping fires frequent, but small. Trying to suppress fire altogether only leads to tinder building up until a truly gargantuan wildfire inevitably begins, one that is impossible to contain and is far more destructive than small fires would have been. Again, private property cannot solve this problem. How could a libertarian system handle a stubborn landowner who insisted on stamping out every fire that began on his property, putting not just himself but his neighbors in danger?

Also, consider fish and other wild food sources. The ocean cannot be privatized - fish schools can and do move around, after all - and as a result, fisheries worldwide are collapsing as the most sought-after species are fished to extinction. Even worse, as a fish species draws closer to extinction and becomes rarer, demand increases and a catch can command an even higher price, leading to even more fishers seeking it. Unfettered capitalism cannot stop this destructive spiral.

Finally, not all tragedy-of-the-commons situations involve the environment. What about the issue of compulsory state service - for example, a military draft? There is no better example of a Prisoner's Dilemma situation than this. In a time of war, each individual may reason that he personally is better off not joining the military. But if everyone follows this logic, society in general will collapse and everyone will lose their freedom and possibly their lives. Private property certainly cannot solve this dilemma.

There is no way to get rid of the commons. The products of human industry we can buy, sell and trade, but there are some things that cannot be divided up and that no one person can own. By their very nature, they must be shared and held in trust; either everyone has access to them or no one does. Clean air and water, a safe living environment, responsible use of natural resources, and national security are all among these. A purely libertarian state, with no power to direct what individuals do on their own property, cannot adequately respond to these issues.

Instead, without abandoning the notion of private property - for it is a very useful abstraction in many cases, one that often does motivate people to do the right thing - what we need is a governing authority that can control access to the commons. To address the valid concerns of force and fraud, this authority should be established by mutual agreement of the people, formed by widespread consent and bound by rules governing what actions it may validly take, so that it will not be exploited by one part of society to the detriment of another. But it should not lack the ability to take effective action to prevent the destructive Prisoner's Dilemma situations that would otherwise arise, where the logic of individual selfishness leads to group suicide. Only a classically liberal, rather than a libertarian, society can effectively address this problem.

Other posts in this series:

June 23, 2007, 10:58 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink51 comments
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Some Thoughts on Libertarianism

The Politics of Atheism posts back in April inspired a healthy debate with several regular commenters who advocate a libertarian political philosophy. One of the major claims of this philosophy, defended both on this blog and by prominent libertarians such as Timothy Sandefur, is that "taxation is theft" and that any taking of property from any individual, by the government or by anyone else, without that individual's consent is an immoral act even if done with the best of intentions.

I disagree with this claim, and to see why, let us craft a thought experiment in which we grant the libertarians exactly what they wish. Let us assume that all rules that infringe on people's ability to contract freely or to do as they wish with their own property were abolished, and we started over again in a brave new libertarian world. In this world, the right to own property is absolute, and people who own property can set whatever rules they desire as a condition of allowing others to use it; those others can, in turn, either freely accept and abide by those rules or seek an alternative elsewhere.

It is a key tenet of libertarianism that economic inequality, arising from fair competition in a free market and premised on people's differing levels of natural talent and willingness to work to achieve their goals, is a normal and desirable state of affairs. So be it. Once the initial conditions have been set, we will step back and let the market work. Over time, because of their differing levels of business acumen, foresight and dedication, some people will naturally be more successful than others, and will become wealthy.

Let us now suppose that those who are most successful in this market move toward expanding their property, a natural and necessary step if they want to further boost their wealth by increasing their ability to produce whatever product or service they have been providing. They achieve this by purchasing neighboring tracts of property from their owners who freely agree to sell them. Over time, as this process continues (because free competition inevitably results in a power law distribution), there will be a few individuals who are very wealthy and possess large quantities of land and other resources, and a comparatively large number of individuals who possess little or none.

Next, let us suppose that the largest landholders choose to diversify. Instead of devoting their entire property to uses of their personal choosing, they choose to allow others to move onto and live on their property, and use the resources of that property to make a living - by farming, say, or by mining, or simply by using the space to run a business of their own. In exchange for this privilege, the landholders charge their new tenants a fee. This is a perfectly fair libertarian transaction, since it is free and uncoerced and entails a mutually agreeable trade of value for value.

However, note that if these landholders charged their tenants only a fixed, one-time fee for the right of occupancy, they would be losing out, since a successful tenant might use the landholder's property to derive a potentially unlimited profit. Therefore, instead of charging a fixed amount, let us suppose that the landholders would understandably set the fee as a percentage of what the tenants produce. This seems only fair in a free-market world: as long as you are going to keep using my resources to make a profit, you should keep paying me for that privilege.

Finally, let us suppose one more step: the large landholders, now profiting handsomely from the labors of their tenants, choose to improve their competitive position by using a portion of that profit to offer beneficial services to those tenants: services such as police protection, medical care, education, utilities and infrastructure. A landholder's doing so would make the offer to dwell on their land more attractive to potential tenants, thus increasing their population of tenants, increasing their profit, and allowing them to expand still further.

My question to libertarians is this: How does this world differ from the one we actually live in? By beginning with a strictly libertarian worldview and following it all the way through to its logical conclusion, we end up with a situation identical to the one that actually exists now: independent states which collect taxes from their citizens as a way to fund social programs for the common good. There is not a single step in this process that is inconsistent with the strictest possible interpretation of a libertarian political philosophy. The only differences between the actual world and this scenario are terminological - instead of large landholders, we have states and governments; instead of tenants, citizens; instead of occupancy fees, taxes; instead of beneficial services, social programs. It would seem that we do live in a libertarian world after all. Libertarians should rejoice to hear this. They need not struggle to put their preferred view of politics into effect, because it has already happened.

Why is taxation not theft in this thought experiment? Because, obviously, the tenants/citizens are not being forced to pay anything. They agreed to accept a landholder's terms in exchange for the privilege of living on their property. If they dislike the terms of the social contract of that landholder, they are free to leave and seek another whose politics are more congenial to their own. And this principle holds true in exactly the same way in the real world: if a libertarian dislikes paying taxes, they can leave the state they live in and take up residence in another. (Given this, I concede that taxation imposed by a state that prevented its citizens from leaving would be theft.) Arguing that an individual has the right to refuse paying taxes while still living in that state and taking advantage of the social benefits it provides is analogous to arguing that an individual has the right to violate the terms of a contract they freely agreed to, something which any libertarian should find abhorrent.

There is one difference between this thought experiment and the real world that I have not touched upon, however. The scenario I have described in this post is actually a world of dictatorships, where single individuals or small groups of individuals control all the land available for dwelling and are not accountable to anyone. Large property owners can set absolutely any rules they like for the use of their property, and this may lead to work-or-starve scenarios where people are coerced, not by force but by bad luck and circumstance, into grueling, dangerous, low-paying jobs that leave them little or no practical freedom. This is undesirable. It seems to me that a libertarian should actually prefer our current democratic society to the world of this thought experiment, because it affords us more control over the laws of the land - more freedom - via participation in the democratic process.

June 21, 2006, 11:27 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink99 comments
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The Politics of Atheism III

Business & the Market

In matters of economic organization, as in other areas, atheists should be guided by the evidence. One thing history has shown is that state-controlled economies simply do not work. The Soviet Union, the largest experiment in communism in human history, ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own failed economic structure, and most of the remaining communist countries are either in a state of economic tailspin themselves or are becoming increasingly capitalistic to survive.

On the other hand, unrestrained capitalism has its own flaws. Chief among these is the problem of externalities, where businesses have an incentive to export as much as possible of the pollution and other costs of their operation to society at large, instead of bearing those costs themselves. There are also potential problems of anti-competitive behavior, large-scale fraud and worker mistreatment, all of which are in evidence around the world today. These wrongs are too serious to put our faith in the market and hope that it will correct them on its own. I therefore recommend that atheists support regulations including progressive minimum-wage laws, strict financial reporting to prevent another Enron-style fraud, guarantees of employees' right to unionize, and bans on predatory pricing.

Although commerce should occur as freely as possible, without unnecessarily burdensome regulation, we should advocate necessary oversight because we value the free flow of commerce. A well-regulated market, one where people can put trust in business deals and know that they are paying the true cost of their activities and buying from a company that treats its employees ethically, is far more conducive to successful capitalism than a laissez-faire, "anything goes" economy.

As one example of this principle, atheists should advocate closing the loophole that allows "dietary supplements" to evade testing and regulation. Any product, service or therapy claimed to have medical benefits (including vaguely-worded statements such as "boosts the immune system") should have to support those claims with evidence in the form of properly conducted, double-blind clinical trials.

On the other hand, except in extreme cases, there is no legitimate reason for the government to interfere in the choice of an informed consumer. For this reason, I believe atheists should support the legalization of marijuana, and possibly other recreational drugs as well. Not only is there a strong argument from individual liberty for letting responsible adults choose for themselves what chemicals to take into their bodies (an argument whose force is already accepted in the case of alcohol and tobacco), but the evidence again shows that the alternative is completely infeasible. After several decades, we are now in a good position to evaluate the results of the "war on drugs", and they are as follows: billions of dollars in expenditures, the flourishing of violent criminal gangs, the costly and unjust imprisonment of thousands of nonviolent offenders, and ironically, no decrease whatsoever in the actual availability of illegal drugs.

Much like America's experiment with alcohol prohibition, the war on drugs has been a colossal failure, and we should recognize it as such. Without downplaying the health risks of drug use, we should grant mature adults the right to choose for themselves. Creating legitimate businesses to sell these substances will provide the economy (and the government, via taxes) a huge revenue boost, will allow for regulation and quality control to protect the health of users as much as possible, will encourage true addicts to seek medical help by destigmatizing drug use, and will choke off the lifeblood of the violent and dangerous gangs that currently profit by supplying them.

As per the theory of universal utilitarianism, the purpose of all our endeavors should be to maximize human happiness, and the economy should be no exception. However, situations where a minority is getting rich at the expense of everyone else do not fulfill that directive. For this reason I also recommend that atheists support progressive taxation. The wealthy have earned their wealth only because of our stable society and well-regulated market, and it is not unfair to ask them to give something back to the society that gave them so much opportunity; and no one needs to own billions of dollars in assets in a world where millions of people are still poor and hungry. (Of course, this assumes that money collected through taxes is being used wisely for that purpose. There is no reason to advocate progressive taxation of business in a corrupt or militaristic society.)

Finally, leading into the next point, I wrote in Part I of this series that atheists should not abide totalitarianism in any of its manifestations. This goes for business no less than for government, and means that atheists should immediately divest from and boycott any corporation that assists totalitarian states worldwide to control or censor their people. One of the most egregious offenders in this area is Yahoo, which has turned over information to the Chinese government that resulted in the imprisonment of pro-democracy journalists. This behavior is outrageous and unacceptable, and should not be condoned by the people of any democratic state. Assisting dictators to punish human-rights advocates is far too high a price to pay for doing business.

Foreign Relations

The area of foreign relations presents atheists with a delicate tradeoff. As I have said, atheists should abhor totalitarianism of every kind, and increasing freedom worldwide is without a doubt a noble goal. On the other hand, as the disastrous Iraq war has shown, invading a country to overthrow tyranny usually ends very badly. It is a contradiction in terms to force democracy on a people from outside. If a democratic revolution has already begun in a country and fighters on the side of freedom ask for help, then the United States and other powerful nations should by all means intervene. Likewise, if human-rights violations are taking place on a massive scale (such as the 1990s' ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, or the ongoing genocide in Darfur), then the world should intervene on purely humanitarian grounds. But invading a stable state on our own initiative to rebuild it in our own image almost always ends in failure. For this reason, atheists should always oppose preemptive war for the purpose of nation-building.

This does not, however, mean that we should allow tyranny to flourish unmolested. On the contrary, the international community should exert all possible economic and political pressure to isolate and pacify rogue states (and in this I include both terrorist nations such as North Korea and non-aggressive, but totalitarian, countries such as Turkmenistan and its bizarre national cult of personality). In these cases we should support imposing trade sanctions, banning sales of arms and technology, and in the case of belligerent nations, sending in international monitors supported by the promise of military force to punish noncooperation.

The other side of this coin is contributing to an ethic of international cooperation, which will promote peace worldwide and allow greater pressure to be brought to bear on rogue nations. To this end, the United States should commit to immediately ratifying international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Ottawa Treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines, and the Kyoto Accords mentioned earlier. Most of these treaties have been ratified by the vast majority of nations; for some, the U.S. is the sole holdout aside from recognized totalitarian states and those that are in a state of chaos and currently unable to ratify any treaty. This refusal is unconscionable considering the United States' superpower status.

Miscellaneous Controversial Issues

There is one major political issue that I have not yet discussed, and that is abortion. Although a full version of my position would be too long for this post (and may be the topic of a future posting), I strongly believe that atheists should support the legality of abortion, at least in the early stages of pregnancy. We atheists do not believe in the soul; and without that religious assumption, there is simply no reason to believe that a new human being exists from the moment of conception, before anything like a brain or a nervous system develops. Abortion should be safe, legal and rare, and we should exert all our effort to oppose theocratic efforts to deny women the right to control their own bodies.

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April 24, 2006, 9:24 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink39 comments
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