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1.0 Game Ecology
2.0 Ethical Communities
3.0 Levels of Moral Seriousness
4.0 Larger Populations
5.0 Characterizing Community Size
6.0 Multiple Ethical Systems Within Single Societies
7.0 Enforcement of Community Standards
8.0 State as Defender of Public Morality
9.0 Overlapping Membership by Individuals
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As a college student majoring in social science, I began to take an interest in the natural history of the political system of our civilization, but found that the subject was never treated comprehensively. Now, more than twenty years later, I find myself trying to write such a treatment. Initially I intended this to be only an article, but it keeps growing and threatens to become a book. I'd really rather not go that far, but there is a message here that needs to be written.
So what you have here is only part of the whole. I have developed an outline, and have been filling it in as time passes, but the FNF publication deadline now forces me to stop adding new material. I present several sections here, each of which I hope stands alone fairly well, but which I admit you may have trouble correlating to the central theme, as some connecting sections remain to be written. The feedback in this Forum will help me, both in clarifying the message and in containing it to an appropriate size.
In writing this I draw upon most of a lifetime of reading in a subject which falls under the general heading of "political anthropology." I draw from the eclectic presentations I was exposed to in college, as well as from a continuous diet of self-assigned readings since that time.
The thesis which I intend to develop in the whole work, when complete, is that statist law is inherently negative sum, as opposed to free accord law, which in humans is naturally disposed to be positive sum in the extreme.
Now, having used the terms "negative sum" and "positive sum," I need to explain those terms. We jump in with an excursion into game theory.
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1.1 Categorizing Games by the Sums of Their Points
Any activity can be viewed as a game. Each game will have some goal, which can be thought of as being a "point" or quantity of points which each player seeks to obtain. Different games will have different ways of assigning points. The success of individuals is measured in the minds of players. A player may not visualize quantities of "points" while playing, but will in some way (perhaps subconsciously) perceive how well the goal is being achieved. Game theory provides a way of categorizing games in terms of "points" regardless of how players see the game. It is especially useful in appraising how the acquisition of points by one player influences the ability of other players to gain points.
Thus we find it informative to categorize games by their sum, which is simply the total of all the scores of all the individual players. The sum gives us a view of the whole — whether the whole loses, holds even, or gains.
1.2 Standard Game Types
These first three game types were described as part of Game Theory, a science invented by computer pioneer John Von Neumann in the 1950s.
1.2.1 Negative sum: # points diminishes with play
Thus someone must lose points, even if no one wins.
Example: most human wars.
1.2.2 Zero sum: # points stays constant during play
Thus in order for someone to win points, someone must lose.
Example: the game of poker, when the players are forced to limit their bets to what was on the table at the beginning of play.
1.2.3 Positive sum: # points rises with play
Though some may lose points, some must win.
Example: a healthy economy.
1.3 Additional Positive Sum Types
Even in "positive sum" games a lot of players can lose a lot of points. For them the entire experience can be negative. It is useful therefore to note the possibilities of positive sum games which are not at all negative. For this purpose I have added (with the help of Robert Bass) the following categories of games.
1.3.1 Superlative sum = no losers
though some may not gain.
1.3.2 Supreme sum = all winners
though some may win more than others.
1.4 Questions of Player Perspective
1.4.1 What are points for player?
Individuals interacting with one another may each use a different type of point.
Example: one individual may join an activity thinking of it as a way to get money, while another individual may join the same activity seeking power over other people during the course of play.
1.4.2 Which game type does player see as best way to get his points?
What seems positive sum to one individual may seem negative to another individual. Objective appraisals can be difficult.
1.4.3 Does player see other types of games or other types of points as part of his ecology?
In the last example, both players may (or may not) be aware of one another's perspectives, yet continue to consciously pursue different kinds of points.
1.5 Mixed Interactions
1.5.1 Players with different x-sum approaches
A player may have a personal philosophy which values a particular "x-sum" (one of the summation types: negative sum, zero sum, etc.) over the others. That player may set personal limitations beyond the rules of the game or violate others' concepts of the rules of the game in order to be able to play the particular x-sum.
1.5.2 Players with different scoring (point) systems
As noted above, two players may play with each other but use separate rules — especially scoring rules.
1.5.3 Competition within a positive-sum system
"Zero sum within positive sum": a player may adopt a zero-sum perspective even though the players as a whole operate in a positive sum context.
1.5.4 Cooperation within a zero or negative sum system
"Positive sum within negative sum": an individual is able to play positive sum, even though others around them are playing negative or zero sum.
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The most basic social institutions which foster coordination are those which sustain and develop community ethics. A community's system of ethics provides the foundation for cooperation in all other areas. For most of humanity's time on the earth there were no legal systems as we now know them. Stateless ethical systems flourished throughout the world amidst a wide variety of climates and customs. Today it is commonly assumed that ethical enforcement requires a special social institution dedicated to law enforcement, provided by a state.
But state institutions of justice are neither necessary nor desirable. The systems of early man are still alive, well, and in the absence of interference from the state, capable of dealing with modern conditions.
For most of the time humans have been on the earth, people have been hunters and gatherers. Only after the last ice age, which ended a little over 10,000 years ago, did other forms of subsistence evolve. Hunting and gathering peoples do not have different kinds of communities. There were no special community types devoted to various kinds of productivity, or recreation, or religion, or political affiliation. The skills known to the culture were practiced, with varying degrees of proficiency, by each individual. A given society's cul-ture could be contained entirely within a small group of people varying in size from perhaps 10 to 50 individuals. While many such communities might exist for a given culture, they were all pretty much the same. There were no distinct institution groups devoted to religious or political orientation. Everyone within a community had the same religion. Everyone participated in enforcing ethics without recourse to governmental organization.
The state began as a tribute relationship between an army and a conquered people. Successful states began to take a greater interest in the affairs of the conquered. The military elite of these states usually came from herding peoples who saw the conquered population as cattle to be cultivated. Over time the state's leaders assumed judicial authority over the conquered population and began to assign elements of its army to serve as police. Though institutions described as promoting "self-government" have been established in some societies, citizen participation in them is minimal and largely limited to conforming to decisions made by state officials; the state's law enforcement officials still behave as herdsmen.
A society with a state apparatus is composed of many communities at war (usually "cold war" but sometimes "guerrilla war") with one another. The state will enact a set of laws and encourage propaganda in support of the notion that there is a moral code which is applicable to all individuals and all communities within the society. Indeed, the state will endorse the notion that there is in fact only one community and that any conflicts with its laws are merely the reflection of the immorality of individuals. In fact, states occur only in societies with economies with a system of division of labor based largely on membership in many separate communities. These communities will inherently have differing ethical standards. The effort by the state to conscript all the communities into a single standard may not be an endorsement of morality. It is probably the opposite. When a state promotes a single set of standards it fosters conflict. It sets itself up as an arbiter between conflicting parties, playing them off against one another. This tactic is primarily useful during times of peace and prosperity. During times of conflict with other societies or of times of general poverty there are plenty of "natural" conflicts.
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Morality differs greatly from culture to culture. What is a serious matter in one group may be of little or no consequence in another. Within a given culture important issues can remain very casual affairs, while issues with very little physical significance can provoke extreme concern from group members. As children modern individuals often receive their most severe scolding for walking too near to street traffic. But jaywalking is among the most trivial of offenses for an adult. Similarly, one is taught in an unlicensed (though cautious) situation how to light a match as a child, and needs no permit to use fire as an adult, though fire is one of humanity's deadliest weapons. Yet the use of emotionally charged words may become so controversial that laws are proposed to protect citizens from them. And a food or drug accepted as harmless or even beneficial by one culture may become among the most contraband of substances in a neighboring culture.
The level of seriousness with which an ethic is taken is not correlated with the physical importance of the ethic. It is correlated with the type of reactions of the community when the ethic is violated. It is useful to examine this variable when considering the way groups use ethics to coordinate the behavior of individuals.
At some point, repeated behaviors tend to take on a "life" of their own, and members will tend to follow the ethical standards and expect other members to follow them out of habit. Indeed many of the standards of behavior may not even be "rules," may not even be spoken of officially. Patterns of behavior which work for an individual in the community context will be repeated thoughtlessly and may be copied by others just as thoughtlessly.
In a study of the sociology of ethics, it is useful to categorize a group's patterns of behavior by the level of moral seriousness they are accorded by the members of a group. The categories used here are based on observations made by the sociologist William G. Sumner in his book Folkways (1906).
Beyond mere habits, Sumner noted the existence of folkways, standards of behavior that are socially approved but not considered to be of moral significance. Folkways are the preferred behavior, the customary way of doing things. Group members may be uncomfortable when folkways are not adhered to. They may even mention their discomfort. But failure to adhere to folkways is not "wrong" and does not call for sanctions.
The next serious kind of standard Sumner noted were mores (pronounced "morays"; singular: "mos"). Failure to adhere to mores is deemed "wrong" by the group, but has not been made unlawful. Group members feel strongly about mores and usually consider them essential to the group's welfare. Therefore some sanction against anyone violating a mos is usually undertaken. But because the morality is not a part of the law the sanctioning will be informal and may be limited to ostracism and/or serious criticism.
Sumner focused his discussion on informal morality, but most cultures recognized the existence of law as well. Law (which may be a product of tradition, legislation, or decree) is not only a standard of behavior, but also involves standards of enforcement. When one is accused of breaking a law, the community expects a procedure to be initiated which includes some mandatory form of judgment and, in the case of one found guilty, of punishment. However, many communities do not have any formal moral structure and thus have no laws.
The most severe form of moral standard is the taboo (not discussed by Sumner). A taboo involves unthinkable behavior and can be considered an extreme form of law. A member in good standing of a group simply would not commit a taboo. Thus if someone does commit a taboo, they are no longer considered a part of the group. The minimum punishment is banishment, which may be supplemented by other punishments, possibly by execution. In Western Civilization the notion of a taboo is found in the concept of the outlaw. Anyone branded an outlaw has offended the community so much that they are literally outside the law. They may be killed on sight without a trial by any community member.
3.6 The Standard for Appraising the Level of an Ethic
Generally, if an ethic is readily accepted by individuals it will not be imbued with a great deal of socially charged emotion. Thus it will be low on the scale of moral seriousness. To rate highly on the scale of moral seriousness an ethic must be associated with a behavior which is both important and controversial. That is, the members of the group subscribing to the ethic must feel both that the issue is important and also that a serious risk of deviant behavior exists.
3.7 Hunter-Gatherers Don't Need Lawyers
The most important point to be made regarding levels of moral seriousness for various community standards is that most of the behavioral controls are not a matter of law. Most community standards are adhered to because the individuals who abide by them believe in the standards or conform to them out of habit. No society could function if its morality was strictly a matter of law. Nor could it function if most of its members required constant prodding and complaints from their neighbors (folkway style enforcement) in order to get them to conform its standards.
Only when there is serious disagreement with regard to the community's standards, when significant factions within the community seriously disagree on the ethic, is there a need for a sizable institution for enforcing the standards.
For hunter-gatherers this probably happened rarely. Their small communities relied mostly on habit — to a lesser degree on folkways and mores. If a hunter-gatherer band had a significant internal disagreement, a respected individual not party to the dispute could arbitrate it, but would not need a special rank to do so. If this did not work individuals could and did stop associating with their opponents. Perhaps the band would split into two bands. Perhaps one or more individuals would join a neighboring band.
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4.1 Multiple-Community Societies
After a relatively large number of people began to live near each other in permanent dwellings, that is to say in large villages, societies began to fragment into a number of separate communities. As economic specialization became common, both within and between villages, the specialized communities operating within a larger economy and society became possible. People still preferred to associate in small groups of individuals with common interests. But a single society required the economic coordination of a large (by hunter-gatherer standards) group of people. Therefore small communities within each urban area continued to provide the basis for social organization — and to provide for the formulation and enforcement of ethics.
At first these communities were based on common residence, as neighborhoods emerged in towns. But soon ethnic background provided a further distinction between communities, as individuals from different cultures began to fill cities. Differing ethnic backgrounds often meant differing religions as well. But as religious beliefs spread between people, there came to be recognizable "communities" composed of common believers in a given religion who might have differing ethnic backgrounds.
4.2 The Impact of Increased Population on Ethical Systems
In the earliest villages, it would still have been possible for rival factions to move away from one another to avoid hostile contact. The hunter-gatherers' methods of enforcing ethics could still be used. The experiences of each small community still provided a context for a unique set of habits and traditions. These habits were still taught to children in informal settings, mostly simply by example. But as populations grew, town dwellers became relatively immobile. Increasingly, diplomacy between factions and the use of arbitration were required tools of resolving moral questions. These tools would later be appropriated by the state. But stateless communities could and did live in peace beside one another.
4.3 Social Complexity in Modern Times
Technological innovations have enabled the number of people living within one urban area to become much larger. Technology has also improved communications and transportation over great distances. Various interest groups associated with these economic factors have tended to form communities in themselves. So there are communities made of merchants, of seamen, of various kinds of craftsmen, etc. These groups might tend to associate not only with locals of the same occupation, but also be able to see themselves as belonging to communities which transcend local residence. Increased communication also lets individuals of common ethnic or religious background associate with others like themselves in other towns, and thus to develop or maintain a sense of community.
4.4 Virtual communities: hunter-gatherer ethical systems re-emerging
As communications systems continue to advance, we see the emergence of "virtual communities" composed of individuals whose primary interaction is via electronic media. These communities have an unparalleled flexibility to add or drop members. Single communities can be formed by persons with a wide variety of interests across huge distances. They provide a way for modern persons with limited physical mobility to leave their local communities (sometimes temporarily) and join new communities with behaviors and perspectives which are rare. As a result, individuals who participate in these new groups have a group membership flexibility like that of hunter-gatherers.
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Herding cultures measure the esteem of an individual or group by the number of animals in their flock or herd. To the leaders of a state, this means that the larger the population under the state's control the better. This virtue may be supplemented by advantages of large armies over small ones in battle. But to field a large army the leader must control the productivity of many times as many civilians. The effective limits are those of civilian control.
However, even hunter-gatherers seem to have had some concept of group beyond the small hunting band. Family connections, especially tended to be recognized. Anthropologists have noted patterns in pre-literate organizational hierarchy which seem to repeat themselves and may be biologically based.
5.1 Peer Group
The smallest group is the peer group. This corresponds to the nuclear family. Peer groups may also be formed in other contexts, such as work, recreation, etc. as mentioned above. Even in pre-literate cultures, an individual may be a member of more than one peer group. The family unit might be supplemented by a hunting (or gathering) peer group. An individual might even have friends from other tribes.
Peer ethics tend to be the most informal. Yet a peer group can debate and consciously adopt standards which are in effect laws, and taboos may exist.
The next size of group is the extended family or clan size, formed from several peer-sized groups. One example of a non-family clan sized group is the religious "congregation", usually composed of several families. In some agricultural cultures, the "hamlet" is a residentially based clan sized group. Several peer groups within a relatively small business might form, but the business as a whole be a clan-sized grouping.
As with peer groups, the full range of ethical seriousness is possible for a clan. But because communication between clan members may take more time, a moral issue may be resolved more slowly. If possible, clan ethics will be addressed within the peer groups which make up the clan. But clan-wide enforcement mechanisms may also exist. Gossip becomes an important vehicle for assessing moral issues, and may become the basis for ostracism or praise.
The next sized group in pre-literate cultures is the tribe, composed of several clans. Usually tribes have extensive intermarriage and common culture, but the people may not all live together, or even very near to one another. In pre-literate societies it is common for the peoples of a tribe to believe that they are all descended from a single ancestor, though intermarriage may be the only true kin bond.
The notion of being "good children" of the common ancestor might be a basis for discussion of ethics amongst pre-literate tribe members. This or other common experiences would provide a foundation for a common spoken literature. Stories, especially moral tales, become a vehicle for communication across clan and peer group lines, and also across time.
As urban populations grew and occupational specialties multiplied new kinds of tribes emerged. Tribal sized organization is found in small communities which support several religious congregations. A religious denomination may organize at tribal size across a large geographic area. An industrial organization may also be organized at the tribal level with several departments organized as clan-sized operations. Tribes can come together in one physical location occasionally, but usually remain dispersed most of the time, though in communication via individual or group contacts which cut across clan and peer group lines.
The next sized group in preliterate cultures is the nation. A nation is usually recognized as speakers of a common language. Nations usually have a number of distinct tribal level groups within them. It is extremely rare that all the peoples of a nation would come together in one place, though various forms of communication will be made easier by their common language which will tend to keep them in contact. As a result, even if there are no formal ethical systems that extend across the whole nation, at least some common culture will be maintained which will encourage common values.
Literary tradition and overlapping membership in kin or other groups provided the common ethical link for pre-state communities. There was no effort to promote a morality for the whole nation except through these ways of sharing experiences. The fact that the local communities within a nation would have somewhat varying traditions and thus varying ethical traditions was readily accepted. Notions of "law" would probably be a matter for clan or tribal affairs even if they existed across a whole nation. Of course, diplomacy remained a major tool for resolving inter-tribal issues.
A nation-sized grouping might form across traditional "nationalities" amongst the practitioners of a single profession or the enthusiasts of a single recreational pursuit. Individuals within such groups would tend to adopt a lingo of their own which, while pursuing the profession or hobby, would give them greater affinity to others knowing this lingo than to kinsmen or neighbors.
The largest sized grouping is the civilization. A civilization is a cultural pattern which transcends several nationalities. It may be based on a common religion, or a common economy. It may, but need not, have a common political system. If it is dominated by one political entity, then it is properly termed an empire. Even in the absence of a single political regime, ideas and world views will tend to travel within a civilization more easily than between the peoples of two or more civilizations. While language barriers will make the establishment of common customs and values more difficult than within single nations, there will still be some commonality of ethics.
The recognition of distinct civilizations (as opposed to nations) probably did not occur amongst hunter-gatherers. It may not even have occurred for years after town-dwelling became common. The perspective needed to observe civilizational differences requires contact with highly varied cultures across a wide geographic area.
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While families still provided a basic environment for moral instruction, the new peer associations of the new communities also contributed to the formulation and promoting of ethics. Indeed, the new groups began to provide important ethical reference points, even for morality taught in the home. The ethical differences between cultures had previously been traceable to local geography and the common experience of the specific bands of hunter-gatherers. The new environments which fostered the new types of groups also encourage a change of ethical perspective. Desert dwellers might find it expedient to punish a water thief, while people living in a very wet climate might not even consider the concept of water theft. Similarly, a merchant community would value a certain kind of cleverness in deal making while a farmer would see this as abusive.
Typically, each individual in the new complex societies would initially have learned an ethical tradition in a single small group, probably a family group. But as that individual made additional contacts in the society, they would have come into contact with other communities with other traditions. This would not necessarily have strained human nature, as differing cultures had made peaceful contacts even when all humans were hunter-gatherers. Indeed, it has been observed that hunter-gatherers, not usually needing to defend land, do not tend to have wars, but rather to be able to make friendly contact with other traditions from time to time. A hunter-gatherer might even be granted honorary membership in a "foreign" band.
Similarly a citizen in a complex society might be a member of more than one community, especially as an adult. So in complex societies, adults came to find it necessary to shift ethical perspectives rapidly when moving from group to group. This capacity, a variant of the hunter-gatherers' relationship with neighboring bands, is still with us. We have evolved to institutions which tend to argue for "universal" morality, the state and many religious organizations. Religion, in particular is often though of as being the primary institution for ethics. Yet we continue to be highly flexible in practice.
There is a high correlation in civilized societies between religion and ethics. Yet while all religions do have ethical concerns, many ethical concerns are supported by non-religious interests. For instance a ball player may agree to abide by the rulings of an umpire, but then argue when he is judged to have violated the rules. From a religious point of view the player's honesty or integrity might be questioned. But the rules of the ball game have no religious significance. Other players and fans of the game form a community which understands the rules and supports them as valuable to the game. The "game community" is the foundation of the ball game ethics, not a spiritual belief. Indeed players and fans may have little or no agreement on spiritual matters yet still support the ethics of the game.
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The herdsman needs to understand the nature of his animal, especially as it behaves in a social context. When state leaders seek to herd humans this problem is complicated by the flexibility of human culture. The would-be herder of a large, complex society cannot hope to understand the varieties of lifestyle of the many communities which make up his herd. It is much easier to order the foreign cultures he has conquered to adhere to the leader's own culture. But people naturally adapt their habits to the particulars of their situations. They also enjoy being recognized as members of distinct groups, and are inclined to adopt symbolic ways of displaying group identity such as clothing styles. No elite culture, no matter how repressive, can fully suppress group differences. Yet too much pride by a group might lead it to rebel.
7.1 Informal Enforcement
7.1.1 Negative informal
Enforcement of community standards which are merely habits or folkways is primarily a matter of (usually) informal training of new members by example. Humans naturally tend to try to fit into a new group. Children naturally try to copy the older members of the group. Some explicit reference to group behaviors may be made, but usually when reference to group habits or folkways occurs, it can be done indirectly or through oral or written literary traditions. Perhaps the term "enforcement" does not even apply, as the major effect of these activities is simply to make the habit or folkway more comfortable than alternative behaviors.
7.1.2 Positive informal
Informal enforcement can also include positive incentives.
7.2 Overt Enforcement
7.2.1 Overt negative incentives
When community standards reach the level of mores, practical enforcement issues become overt. If a group member is rude or conducts themselves in an otherwise "immoral" way, the remaining group members feel a need to react. Again, for the most part, there is no organized effort for enforcement. Those who observe the immorality will be critical of it both to the offender and to others. Even if an offender is not confronted directly they will "get the message" through ostracism and the knowledge that others tend to criticize. All individuals will know about the gossip system of the community through direct participation when they are not offending parties, so they can assume that even when they are not directly confronted, that criticism is being made behind their back. A particularly offensive behavior may provoke a physical attack on the offender's person, properties, or perhaps their friends and family. However, to the extent that the community is harmonious, such punishments will tend to be matters of law.
7.2.2 Overt positive incentives
These are also possible.
7.3 Organized Enforcement
7.2.3 Organized negative
Particularly serious offenses may provoke organized efforts to punish the offender. At this point we may say that the matter has become "political," especially if there is not agreement amongst the community on the need for or type of punishment. If possible, the accuser(s) will try to invoke law against the accused. If the accuser succeeds in invoking law then the matter falls within the community's established traditions and the results will not appear custom tailored to the particular offense or offender. This will make the community much more accepting of the proceedings. Failure to invoke law may embroil the community in factional disputes with possibly disastrous results.
7.2.4 Invoking the law
In some groups there may be no formal process for invoking law. However, individuals who are members of such groups will have experiences in other groups where laws do exist, if only via tradition. When a group with no law is faced with a serious crisis, these experiences can be called upon as models for precedents within the lawless group — especially if the alternative is a feud. Similarly, a new law may result from tensions which have no precedent in a group with laws.
The invocation of law involves a number of very specific steps. The details and names of these steps will vary from group to group, but all group invocation requires them in some form. It is interesting to note that these steps are also required when the group reacts to an external threat, such as a war.
A society which is impoverished can be plagued by squabbles over limited supplies of essential products like food and shelter. The state is often portrayed as a force which can contain these conflicts and prevent them from becoming violent. Libertarian thinkers have presented a number of sound economic arguments to the effect that the state's interference in a society generally discourages prosperity, thus adding to the economic sources of conflict. But it is also true that in a prosperous society the efforts of the state to "promote morality" only serve to encourage conflict.
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As has been noted, it is especially important to remember that an individual may be a member of more than one group of the same size. That individual's sense of ethics will vary somewhat as they find themselves in different group contexts. What may be of critical importance in one group may be of little or no consequence in another. Behavior appropriate to one group might be absolutely unacceptable in another. The need for most individuals in civilized societies to adjust to different ethical standards as they move between groups is one of the most important facts of life for these individuals.
Clashes between group standards within a single society are difficult to avoid. Much of the culture of civilized societies is devoted to accommodating the differing standards of groups with overlapping membership. In a society based on mutual self interest and individual liberty, this concern must be of paramount importance. For a society based on at least limited endorsement of initiated force as a means to resolve interpersonal conflicts, the job is much simpler. D
Phil Jacobson has been an activist and student of liberty in North Carolina since the early 1970s. For a living he sells used books, used CDs, and used video games.
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