Bryan Caplan  

What I Didn't Get to Say to the Workshop Audience

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Sunday's Writers Workshop left little time to question the panelists, but all of the questions asked were directed at me.  After my talk, discussion continued in the hall.  Top things left unsaid, or at least unheard by most of the audience:

1. Several audience members asked me variations on, "Don't Americans have a right to control what kind of country we're going to have?"  My short answer was "Absolutely not."  Longer answer: Even if Americans had this right, they should opt for open borders, because it's the best policy for Americans and the world. 

But I deny that Americans have this collective right.  Why?  Because it tramples on individuals' rights to be left alone.  When Saudis assert a right to control religion in their country, Americans rightly perceive this as an oppressors' rationalization for religious persecution.  When Americans assert a right to control residence in their country, they are making an Saudi-style claim.  Doesn't it matter that we're a democracy, not an absolute monarchy?  Not really.  Saudi religious persecution would be just as wrong if enforced by elected officials.

2. In the hall, someone asked me, "If you're wrong, do I get my country back?"  I could have given a Fargo-esque, "Absolutely.  I personally guarantee it."  Instead, I gave the honest answer: no.  I added, of course, that the same holds for every major social change.  If the internet becomes self-aware and turns humanity's nuclear weapons against it, you don't get your country back.  If half the country uses its freedom of religion to convert to fundamentalist Islam, you don't get your country back.  If fossil fuel use leads to a runaway global warming, you don't get your country back.  My point: Every policy - including the Precautionary Principle itself - could conceivably destroy us, and there are no meaningful guarantees.  The best we can do is hone our numeracy - and remember that disaster forecasts are almost always wrong.

3. Someone else in the hall asked me, "How did you get like this?"  I'm an American, born and bred.  How can I be so out-of-touch with mainstream America?  A fun question; I could talk about it for hours.  The quick answer: I was also raised Catholic, but I'm not a Catholic.  I reject mainstream Americanism for the same reason I reject Catholicism: Despite their popularity, they seem false to me.  Indeed, I think they both contradict common sense and common decency.  Don't "common sense" and "common decency" have to be filtered through some national or religious identity?  No.  Common sense and common decency are what's left after you calmly set your ascriptive identity aside.

Where do my distinctive views on immigration come from?  My claims about the wonders of open borders come from the empirics.  But my readiness to side with immigrants - especially illegal immigrants - against the vast majority of Americans comes from my reflections on the ethical treatment of strangers.  When an American family hires a Mexican nanny, I think it rude for other Americans to even express an opinion about it.  To criminalize this relationship - as American law does - is a grave injustice.  And no one is morally obliged to obey such laws.




COMMENTS (28 to date)
Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Perhaps Prof Caplan will tell us what secures his property in America though. Is it not the American rule of law supported by the armed might of America that secures his property or is he himself securing it?

The libertarianism is the denial of the political nature of man. It denies the political context of property, that property requires a stable rule of law to arise. No rule of law, no property.

The political nature of man creates the division of mankind into neighbors (i.e. co-citizens) and strangers (rest of the world). It can not be avoided or rather any attempt to avoid it leads to utopian nightmares.

Pajser writes:

I know, Caplan, how you got like this - you didn't noticed in your formative years that private property is violent, non-consensual restriction of the freedom of the non-owners. Everything past that is very consistent. If one does not "count" that particular restriction of freedom - then yes, the capitalism is voluntary, the taxes (and state as whole - including borders) are strange infringement of freedom and the anarcho-capitalism is ideal of freedom (achievable or not.) It is all consistent - and wrong. From the communist point of view.

Julien couvreur writes:

Bedarz, how do you reconcile your acceptance of national sovereignty with your rejection of individual sovereignty?
What magic is this, and how many individuals does it take to conjure it?

mico writes:

"1. Several audience members asked me variations on, "Don't Americans have a right to control what kind of country we're going to have?" My short answer was "Absolutely not."

...

"I deny that Americans have this collective right. Why? Because it tramples on individuals' rights to be left alone."

Libertarian morality says that people have a right to be left alone; it does not say that people have a right to bother others and certainly not that people have an obligation to give random strangers enormous power over them. America is a not, sadly, a libertarian country. Immigration doesn't mean guest workers, it means citizens, which means voters. And the sort of immigrants America is getting right now vote en bloc against all of your values, for things you believe are morally unjustifiable regardless whether voters want them or not. However it may be in the libertarian society you idealise, in the social democracy in which you actually live you are not defending a pure right to be left alone, you demanding that incumbents surrender some of their personal and economics freedoms for the sake of the increasing those of outsiders. There is no moral obligation to horse-trade liberties in this way; you are making an argument for obligatory charity.

Here is the below the waterline hole in your position. I say it is below the waterline because it is both ultimately fatal and carefully hidden. I cannot comprehend why you continue to refuse to engage with this point. You don't even offer a pre-emptive rebuttal, and skate over your lazy conflation of working rights and citizenship without a comment.

I am on the verge of believing that it is because you don't want to lose all these invites and publicity that you are getting from establishment pro-immigration figures and institutions that are almost exclusively social democrat. They, after all, are not interested in guest workers or advancing libertarianism; for them, throwing a lead sword onto the scales of electoral victory is the *main* benefit of immigration liberalisation.

Jody writes:

Bryan - what are your views on clubs? Can they own property? Can clubs enforce club rules? Be selective on membership and on who can access club property?

Daublin writes:

Jody, I can't speak for Bryan, but an important part of a club is that it can be walked away from. If you want to continue that analogy, then America is a curious kind of club that you can't leave.

I am not sure it's a good analogy on other grounds, though. America is not a unified, hierarchical force, and nor should it be. It's a few hundred million people who all have their own agendas and desires.

This can be a strength if we can let go of our fear of strangers a little bit. There is much more variety among different Americans than there is between the median American and median Mexican.

If that's not enough, maybe just consider that Mexicans are people, too. There's something deeply wrong and inhumane about America's treatment of Mexico. American *people* buy Mexican drugs like crazy, but then the American *government* cracks down on Mexicans for actually selling what we are buying. This causes their government to deteriorate, which creates a vaccuum for various kinds of quasi-governmental mobs to arise. To top it off, people try to leave the resulting hellhole, only to face total disdain and denegration over stupid things like what language they speak. That disdain is often dished out by the very same people buying all the drugs.

Emily writes:

OK, clubs can be walked away from and are much smaller and probably more unified than the United States. What about a private gated community? A city? A state? A country that is much smaller and more unified than the U.S.? At what point does a group of people excluding others go from lawful, just freedom of association to something unjust and unconscionable? Is the distinction about size, ownership, or both?

Psmith writes:

mico, Bryan has certainly engaged with the political externalities case against open borders, although you may not agree with his arguments:

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/12/the_political_e_4.html
http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/09/martin_gilens_v.html
http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/10/turning_the_cam.html

Mark S writes:

@Emily @Jody

The difference between a club and a nation is private property. Anarchists (of any stripe incidentally) do not view nations as owning they land they are on. What the individual does on their property is nobody but the property owner's business. (Pace Pajser and substitute commune for individual/property owner). A group of private property owners (or a commune for that matter) are not compelled to invite anybody or everybody to the land they own/use. However, they have no rights over Bryan: he may invite whomever he wants to his property.

By the religious analogy, one may choose to live in a neighbourhood, city, or even state where only like-minded people of the same religion live. On the other hand, those individuals would have no right to prevent other people from abstaining and practising other religions.

Emily writes:

So if the country were divided up into autonomous corporate franchises (like Snow Crash), it would be lawful and just freedom of association for each of those franchises to have a strict set of rules for excluding people, because the land is private property? But if instead, it were divided up into smaller nation-states of the same size and degree of homogeneity, having those same set of rules for excluding people would be a completely different animal?

Mark S writes:

@Emily

Good question, but I must have been unclear in my distinction. Whether the organizations call themselves "nations" is immaterial, all that matters is whether they own the property. A home-owner association has to actually buy every plot of land in order to be founded. Incorporating a city, however, is usually put up to a vote, which means that property owners who don't consent to the incorporation are now suddenly forced to join the nascent city or have to sell their property.

The HOA, since it outright owns the land, can invite or dis-invite whoever it wants without violating property rights, because it is the property owner. The city, however, if it restricts the comings and goings of guests on its citizens properties then it is reducing the rights of property owners. It is a government entity not leaving individuals alone to pursue their own ends.

The relevance to the United States relies on the claim that the U.S. government does not outright own the land it claims as its territory. That would seem to be consistent with founding documents of the nation and the means by which it came into existence, but if the U.S. were to own its territory, then, of course, it would have the right to such restrictions, since all ownership would be collective ownership.

Daniel Fountain writes:

@Emily

Short answer is clubs are not well defined in the absence of a superseding set of property rights like at the country level.

Long answer: Keep in mind that property rights only apply to people and I use "rights" in the strict literal sense something being bestowed by property rights. Private organizations like clubs are organizations that are defined by some framework of external property rights (you need an external framework to have private property) and possibly implement their own internal property rights. So in this sense any country is a club as defined by global property rights (where might makes right) that also implements its own set of internal property rights. Within these are organizations, and with these sub-orgs are orgs, etc. At any sub-country level the property rights of the club's members are restricted by the super-organization. However this hierarchy means that any action at the country level is an application of might makes right, because that's the only "property right" that exists at the global level (and for now, the solar system level, galactic level, and universe level too).

In essence countries are clubs whose membership (i.e. respect of one's property rights) is bound only by their desire/ability to use force on others. At the sub-country level there is an exogenous force (governments) to prevent your corporations from fighting each other. At the country level there exists no such force, which is why it's a different animal.

It's not just or unjust, that's just how the political hierarchy works.

Ryan writes:

Another point about getting "your" country back, is that, aside from them not having any unique claims to the country, is that their country is never going to be the same as it used to be anyway.

1950s America is gone. Forever. 1990s America even, is long gone. Cultures/societies are never the same for very long -- that's just reality.

MikeDC writes:
...individuals' rights to be left alone

But "right" and "property" only have meaning in a social context. The "right to be left alone", like every other right, only exists insofar as other people agree to let it exist.

Thus, by denying that people can agree with others to establish rights between themselves, you deny that people can have any right to be left alone. And basically, deny that America (or Saudi Arabia or any country) has any right to exist. Which seems like nihilism wrapped in Utopian anarcho-capitalism to me, but hey...

Jesse C writes:

Daublin writes

That disdain is often dished out by the very same people buying all the drugs.

For some definition of "often", that statement is surely true. But I think you're probably really just trying to call those who disagree with you "hypocrites" or something. (To follow in your footsteps...) Drug users are often libertarians, and while they may be philosophically consistent with their view of individual freedom in doing so, it doesn't change the horrific toll the business takes on the loves of real, actual people. Not within the confines of today's reality, at least. I think that's something libertarians should at least think about.

Mark S writes:

@MarkDC

denying that people can agree with others to establish rights between themselves, you deny that people can have any right to be left alone

That was never claimed. Bryan is always very clear that if people can invite people to their property and ask them to leave as they wish. So if somebody joins and HOA or other organization where they agree to not invite certain people then that would not violate the "right to be left alone".

The issue is whether other people get to tell you what to do, not because they have a claim to title on your property, but because they enjoy political sovereignty. No extant nation acquired political sovereignty by voluntary constitutions where property owners unanimously agreed to set up a government among themselves (although Lysander Spooner argued the constitution was such a document even if it is not treated as such). "The Calculus of Consent" is a great book on that topic, and its very different from anything else observed in the world to date. So, it wasn't a case of "others establishing rights between themselves", it was certain groups of people asserting rights over other groups of people without explicit consent.

MikeDC writes:

@ Mike S :)

You're on the right track, but political sovereignty is essentially the world's original HOA. Functionally, voluntary political sovereignty is exactly a recognition and claim to title on each others' property.

Differently, HOAs are ok because they're a voluntary agreement that gives us some property rights over our neighbor's property in exchange for their doing the same. But we need political sovereignty to establish those property rights in the first place.

Now, you seem to be putting stock in the voluntary nature of a HOA, but that's really only true at a fixed point in time if it ever is. If I die, my children inherit my HOA membership (and its obligations) just as they inherit my citizenship by being born (because that's another rule that society has, over time, agreed upon- our kids get to be citizens too).

That is, over time a HOA's "claim to title" becomes in many ways indistinguishable from a political sovereign. Being citizens, we've all inherited "membership in the HOA", and despite what Bryan argues, this very much means that we have obligations to our fellow citizens and limits on our "rights to be left alone". Implying that we can simply walk away from those obligations while still availing ourselves of the rights we seek is likely going to be unsuccessful in addition to immoral.

I think that's why a lot of folks react with such strong negativity to his arguments. While I'd like more immigration, the right way to go about it is to convince my fellow citizens that it's right, not to declaim their right to hold a different opinion when it's that right that gives me any standing at all.

Brian writes:

"But I deny that Americans have this collective right. Why? Because it tramples on individuals' rights to be left alone."

Bryan,

Then you are denying that collective rights of any kind exist? And you are thereby denying that individuals have the right to constitutional associations, or that they can agree to restrict their future actions in exchange for a current benefit?

It seems to me that you willingly forfeited your right to be left alone (which doesn't really exist unless you are completely self-sufficient) when you bought property that was serviced by public roads, public water and electric, and defended by public security and military. When you bought your property, it was with the understanding that these benefits came with the contract as part of the purchase price, but also with the limitations placed on it by the law. If you believe the laws are unjust, you are free not to buy the property or even to settle somewhere besides the U.S., but you are not free to agree to the contract and then decide you won't follow it. And the city/state/nation, with its claims of collective rights, has not harmed you in any way by placing these restrictions on the use of your own property, because the restrictions were clear to you before you voluntarily agreed to the contract.

And yes, those restrictions include the condition that you may not employ anyone you want whenever you want on your own property, but rather that such employment may only be extended to those who have either citizenship or a work permit and under other restrictions as laid out by the law.

Yes, you agreed to all of it implicitly, if not explicitly, when you bought your property. You may not call unjust what you yourself voluntarily accepted for the benefit you desired.

Capital writes:
But we need political sovereignty to establish those property rights in the first place.

No we don't. Sure, having a government that enforces a standard set of property rights can be very convenient. But it isn't necessary for establishing a set of property rights within a given geographical area. Roughly, you only need 2 things to establish property rights:
1. Some general agreement from those within your community (and/or surrounding communities) as to the nature of property rights.
2. A means of defending property rights through force.

(1) is simply a formality that makes exercising property rights less dangerous and trade more convenient.

Although (2) easily lends itself to a function of government, it can also be achieved voluntarily within a propertarian framework in which private individuals offer protection services for money (or some other form of compensation).

But let's say, for the sake of argument, government is the only organization that can adequately defend an agreed upon set of property rights in Community X.

I still don't see how the government's ABILITY to defend a set of property rights somehow grants it legitimate authority over other people's property.

You'll have to come up with an account of how an agent's physical ability to defend property rights confers upon it a legitimate right over other people's property.

Now, you seem to be putting stock in the voluntary nature of a HOA, but that's really only true at a fixed point in time if it ever is. If I die, my children inherit my HOA membership (and its obligations) just as they inherit my citizenship by being born (because that's another rule that society has, over time, agreed upon- our kids get to be citizens too).

I don't see how the voluntary transfer of property titles (and the obligations attached) to a willing recipient is analogous to being subject to a government's claim over everybody's property.

Could you flesh this out a bit more?

Julien Couvreur writes:

@Judy,

A few people provided arguments as to why nation-states are not clubs. Another way to see this is to look at how clubs are formed: with unanimous approval of participants and their contribution of legitimate property. In other words, they are founded voluntarily.
I'm aware of no state with such pedigree.

Also, in practice, clubs tend to have a distinct focus (as a result of division of labor), but the welfare state is a conspicuous bundle. Why not have a separate club for security, another for schooling, and yet another for old age insurance? Why do they need to align to given boundaries. Why not have a blue club and a red club on a given territory, as opposed to a monopoly?

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Julien couvreur,

1) Man is a political animal (Aristotle).
Meaning it is natural for man to live in politically organized communities. And indeed, man has always lived so.

The political nature of man means that mankind is organized into particular, self-ruling, morally authoritative communities that we call tribes or nations.

2) The Individual, the Family and the Nation/Tribe are three irreducible levels of the human organization.

The individual is sovereign in his own sphere (conscience), family in its own and the nation in its own.

3) The Nation/Tribe can call upon the individuals to sacrifice themselves for it. No nation could exist without this readiness to sacrifice.
No family could exist without the readiness of individuals to sacrifice themselves for it.

Jody writes:

Really, I was just interested in Bryan's view of clubs not others because I thought it cut to the heart of the issue - the denial of collective rights (which Brian expanded upon).

However, to further the club-country analogy, I'll briefly respond to the various points raised...

Clubs formed with unanimous consent / exit - see the not infrequent refrain, if you don't like America, you can leave. (admittedly the US makes this harder than others, but there is a process)

clubs have a distinct focus - indeed these are often expressed in their charter. Now see the preamble to the US Constitution where the focus and purpose of the union was defined. (... "provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,...")

nations have territory exclusive of other clubs - the US (and every other country) looks pretty polycentric to me

clubs are not well defined without a country (even though I think Daniel was agreeing with me)- lots of clubs exist outside the protection of a higher power or government protection. See everything from the Hanseatic league to biker gangs.

More clubs and exit - you can leave the US and denounce your membership. Technically, you don't even have to join another "country" club.

countries are not a unified, hierarchical force - neither are clubs of any size. Even HOAs. Pick your favorite national organization and see their most recent schism.

anarchists don't recognize the powers of countries - anclubists don't recognize the powers of clubs either.

localities can't exclude on the basis of [religion, race...] - they used to be able to, until the American super-club collectively changed the rules

founding a country is different from founding a club (exit) - For the formation of the US, see the United Empire Loyalists who left the US for Canada http://www.funtrivia.com/askft/Question12251.html

MikeDC writes:

@ Capital

Roughly, you only need 2 things to establish property rights:
1. Some general agreement from those within your community (and/or surrounding communities) as to the nature of property rights.
2. A means of defending property rights through force.

Yes, I'd argue 1. is the essence of political sovereignty. 2. is a practicality.

I'm not arguing we need a certain level of government, I'm arguing for the right of sovereignty. For people to voluntarily form polities.

You'll have to come up with an account of how an agent's physical ability to defend property rights confers upon it a legitimate right over other people's property.

To put it simply, the agreements with others we reach are not mere formalities. They can't be because to have some agreement on what property we're "defending", we have to reach an agreement on what "property" is in the first place (and here, I'd argue that from a theory perspective, all of our "rights" are ultimately "properties" we hold.

Could you flesh this out a bit more?

Sure. Suppose the best case scenario that Mark S was describing above... a completely voluntary creation of a policy. Everyone gets together and decides
1. which rights/properties we'll protect (you'll help me if someone else tries to take my stuff, or give a boring sermon at church, but not if I give my stuff to someone else and regret it later or burn down the church (which is not located in our polity))

2. over what area we'll protect them (you'll protect me if my property is destroyed that's in the area we agree upon, but you won't go to China to protect my property there). And for the sake of simplicity, assume we're the only current claimants to the territory.

3. how do we change these agreements (I get mad when you loudly worship Slaol on your property at 4AM every mid-summer night).

4. how these rights might transfer (what happens to our agreement and our property when we die, and what happens when we have children) and whether and how we can leave or admit others into the polity (if I get mad and quit wanting to defend your rights, can I?)

Now... this completely voluntary situation becomes analogous to the sort of political sovereignty we see everywhere because of the fourth issue. Even if the agreement is voluntary between you and I and we can leave the agreement, it becomes less clear when it comes to our children and their children. Their consent becomes at best, tacit, in that they accept the properties (and protections therof) we give them.

I recognize that this is a lower level of consent than a well-defined agreement, but at the same time, our kids are reaping the benefits of the property agreement in the first place, so they need to be willing to bear the responsibilities as well.

This seems sustainable and a moral society, but note that it crucially rests on some level of voluntary consent. It's one thing to recognize the rights of your children, which we've established by legal contract. It's entirely different to recognize the rights of, say, a thousand strangers that show up on your property.

They weren't party to our agreement and therefore they haven't actually agreed to recognize my property (or yours). That is, they're not part of the polity.

Now, in practice I'd be in favor of very generous admission terms (nearly open borders), but again, agreeing to the terms of the polity isn't just a formality because the nature of the properties we're protecting is, in reality, always up for debate and agreement. So... the current polity should always have the right to control future membership, just as we, as individuals, should have the right to refuse to consent to a contract with another person.

Massimo writes:

Any law, by definition, "tramples on individuals' rights to be left alone." Every law or rule of society imposes non-optional limits on the behavior of individuals. These arguments are flippant and silly and have no consistent logic to them.

I'm glad others, even on this forum, are pointing out the many contradictions of Caplan's open border doctrine.

Capital writes:

@Mike

I'm not arguing we need a certain level of government, I'm arguing for the right of sovereignty. For people to voluntarily form polities.

And when small groups of people form polities, they assume a special moral status separate from (and above) the majority of other human beings. Ultimately, this is where you and I (and presumably Caplan) diverge.

The rights you're arguing for necessitate a non-contractual, content-independent obligation on the part of the majority to submit to the terms and conditions established by a small group of "special agents" who claim the legitimate right to exercise a monopoly of force over them (and their property).

So in essence, you can't argue for political sovereignty without invoking the legitimacy of government or the obligation for citizens to obey the government (I imagine this government needs to be at a nonzero level to actually exist).

The main point of contention: You believe the unilateral mandates (e.g. signing and enforcing a constitution) issued by these "special agents" are analogous to two (or more) people voluntarily entering into a contractual agreement with each other over property rights. I disagree.

Yes, I'd argue 1. is the essence of political sovereignty.

I don't see how people agreeing on the nature of property rights confers the special moral status (described above) on anyone.

To put it simply, the agreements with others we reach are not mere formalities. They can't be because to have some agreement on what property we're "defending", we have to reach an agreement on what "property" is in the first place.

See my point above.

Now... this completely voluntary situation becomes analogous to the sort of political sovereignty we see everywhere because of the fourth issue.

No, it isn't analogous. You're presupposing the government (and by extension, political sovereignty) was established through a legitimate contractual agreement between everyone living in the same geographical region. That is factually incorrect, so any "tacit consent" or "obligation via transfer" you wish to derive from the creation of political sovereignty isn't legitimate. The social contract isn't actually a contract in any meaningful sense of word.

That's the point MikeS tried to make, as well as the belief Caplan is operating off of. This isn't a popular stance (hence the reason people are arguing past each other), but I believe it's correct.

It's one thing to recognize the rights of your children, which we've established by legal contract. It's entirely different to recognize the rights of, say, a thousand strangers that show up on your property.

You have every right to forbid strangers from trespassing on your property. But the entire half of North America isn't your property (nor are you a minority owner of it), so you don't have a moral basis for keeping people out of the entire half of North America. That's what Caplan means when he denies we have "collective ownership" of the country.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:
Roughly, you only need 2 things to establish property rights: 1. Some general agreement from those within your community (and/or surrounding communities) as to the nature of property rights. 2. A means of defending property rights through force.

(2) is false. Property rights are defended through courts.
You may secure your property from lawless criminals by force but the criminals are not disputing the title of your property. They are simply stealing or robbing you--both lawless acts.

But the disputes on the title of your property are settled through courts. So, ultimately it is the courts that secure your property. Once you lose in the courts, it won't matter how many guns you have. Your legal adversary could be entirely gun-less and yet you could be obliged to yield your property to him.

Julien Couvreur writes:

Bedarz Iliaci,
Regarding your proposed hierarchy of human groups, you seem to have a very rigid view of human relations.
When looking at the network of human relations, you will find clusters such as families and firms, but you will also find many overlapping communities (friends, clubs, ...).
There is no obvious feature of the network that requires the boundary or monopoly of a nation-state, and we know from history that such states did not form voluntarily (unlike various associations cited above).
The error is to think we live in *a* society, when in reality we live in a world of overlapping and fluid communities.

Since you apparently do recognize individual sovereignty, then your original question should now be obvious: there are many ways for individuals in such social arrangements to protect their property. So you are correct that property and law does rely on social arrangements, but cannot conclude that property and law require a State.

Julien Couvreur writes:

@Jody,

Clubs formed with unanimous consent / exit

There are two separate points here, which you conflated:


  • Possibility of exit

  • Yes, America has the possibility of exit. So does a mafia-controlled neighborhood.
    Does your ability to run away let you conclude that the mafia is legitimate?

  • Formation with unanimous consent

  • You appear to have skipped over this argument, which I had raised above. Formation is what truly differentiates voluntary associations, not exit.

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