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KOL123 | Debate with Jan Helfeld on Anarchy vs. Limited Government

Kinsella on Liberty Podcast, Episode 123.

Daniel Rothschild arranged for and moderated a debate between me and Objectivist/classical liberal (or whatever he is) Jan Helfeld. I lost my temper with the guy because I refused to let him do what I’ve seen him do to others—take the moral highground (which, as someone defending the state against me, a real libertarian, I was not going to let him do) and use his boring/bludgeoning “socratic” debate technique to try to boringly wear people down. I refused to give in to either, which resulted in the funny mess that you can see here.

Of course, Helfeld never seriously tried to justify aggression or the state. He read from a prepared script, like a parakeet. And one of his arguments hinted at the idea that the state does commit aggression but that it is worth it because it prevents more serious aggression that would occur under a condition of anarchy; though he never made this argument explicitly. The other one suggested by him is that if Stephan Kinsella might in some conceivable emergency commit trespass to steal food, that means that aggression is not objectionable as a general matter, i.e. the state is justified in stealing $3trillion a year from US taxpayers because a starving Stephan Kinsella could conceivably be willing to break into a cabin in the woods to steal a can of beans. Again, Helfeld does not want to make this argument so explicitly because then it would rightly subject him to ridicule.

My opening statement was originally lost due to technical issues and deleted by Helfeld, but James Cox somehow saved it and spliced it in with take two.

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{ 31 comments… add one }

  • Daniel Rothschild April 29, 2014, 2:10 am

    Haha. I know I didn’t do my job as moderator by letting you constantly rib him but it was so funny and amusing I just wanted to see how far you’d go, so thanks for the laugh. I agree Jan’s “lifeboat situation” was irrelevant, but I’m surprised you didn’t respond, “If I was starving I would probably steal food from someone else but I would also suffer the consequences that result from theft and pay restitution later. The fact that I have to pay him back for what I stole instead of just taking his property without every repayment means that I’m still inline with a respect for property rights since I understand I have to replace items I stole. Now, what the fuck does that have to do with having a state?”

    • Nick April 30, 2014, 5:49 am

      How is it irrelevant? Anarchists that focus only on the absolutist NAP like Kinsella force Helfeld to attack the absolutism of the principle. If the principle is not applicable in every circumstance(exigencies) then the principle cannot be repeated ad nauseum to disguise intellectual bankruptcy. The Minarchist position is that the exigency of impending anarchy(i.e. tribalism/ and poverty, in the Minarchist view) justifies having a state.

      The real debate is therefore what would result from the removal from government. This is what anarchist economists focus on, not religiously repeating NAP mantra…because they understand that to get rid of the state there must be a viable alternative. Debating NAP mantra-spewers is a waste of time.

      • Jan Masek April 30, 2014, 4:07 pm

        In a debate on “Can slavery be justified?”, would you consider to be relevant an argument in favour of “limited slavery” that would say: “don’t repeat the religious mantra about how slavery is bad – first you must answer what will happen to the slaves and slave masters if we set all slaves free?”

        I do not think anarchists focus only on the NAP but if a debate is about NAP, then you talk about NAP. Dr Kinsella certainly can make predictions about what anarchy might look like in the real world. But that was NOT the point of the debate. Definitely not when he repeatedly asked Mr Helfeld how aggression can be justified. He never got the answer.
        Then Mr Helfeld asked his thirsty/extreme duress question about 15 times and every time he asked it he got the answer: “I don’t know.”. Only he could not comprehend that THAT is the answer. And again, it’s completely irrelevant in this debate. Just like if he kept asking “Are you a fan of Liverpool or Everton?”. Who cares?

        • Nick April 30, 2014, 6:59 pm

          Jan, what would happen after the abolition of slavery was ABSOLUTELY a valid concern. Not as much of one as anarchy, of course, since slavery came and went throughout human history.

          If you think Helfeld never explained “when aggression could be justified” then you did not watch the debate. Helfeld explained that aggression is justified in exigent circumstances. He views the possibility of anarchy as an exigency because he foresees a severe decline in standard of living and functional freedom.

          He did it via the socratic method, which was far more powerful than simply engaging Kinsella on his own terms where he can shout “you want to enslave me!” over and over again. NAP jingoists FORCED Helfeld to sidestep a direct answer to make his point. Whenever I answer that sort of question directly I get the “Molyneux treatment”: Don’t bother debating him, he accepts the use of force. You have heard Molyneux say this numerous times, Im sure.

          Many anarchists talk about utilitarian, practical concerns along with NAP. Gil Gillory, David Friedman, even Rothbard. They understood that proposing anarchistic solutions to statist/minarchist critiques is a tall order because of the lack of historical record, but they accepted the challenge and are to be commended for that. Some – the new breed of anarchists – are just jingoists though.

          • PeterK April 30, 2014, 7:43 pm

            If Helfeld starts the debate from the perspective of ” … the possibility of anarchy as an exigency because he foresees a severe decline in standard of living and functional freedom.”, doesn’t that pretty much eliminate the possibility of a fruitful debate? For example, if he debates another anarchist who starts with the presumption that the society we live in is the inevitable end state of a minarchic society, and then proceeds to ask questions from that presumption, isn’t it equally hard to get a worthwhile debate? I don’t think this is an unreasonable position (though we could argue timespan), and I don’t think Helfeld’s position is completely unreasonable, but they both make assumptions that set your opponent at a distinct disadvantage, and don’t really help in converting them to your way of thinking.

            I was under the impression that the Socratic method was to start asking questions based on the assumptions of your interlocutor, and slowly bring them around to your way of thinking, and what Helfeld is doing is nothing of the sort, either here or in the Molyneaux debate.

          • Nick April 30, 2014, 8:03 pm

            Helfeld did achieve his goal here and in the Larken Rose debate, but not in the Molyneux debate. He got his point across.

            I don’t believe that the debate you describe is fruitless at all. Both sides present evidence of their theories, and the theory with greater evidence prevails. Both sides can address both points…minarchists must address the anarchist theory that minarchy doesn’t last long, and anarchists MUST address the “what if” consequences of removing the modern state in any debate with Minarchists. Both are highly relevant. I think Helfeld does a service to anarchists to remove the veneer of absolutism from NAP so that we can talk about the issues that people actually find compelling and relevant. . . What would an anarchic society look like?

          • Jan Masek May 1, 2014, 6:29 pm

            Nick, it may be a concern but it is not an argument against setting all slaves free, immediately. Or do you consider this to be valid reasoning: “Geez, I don’t know if all the slaves will be able to get a job, and I don’t know who will work on the cotton fields now, so let’s just free one slave a day and see what happens.”?
            Ok, exigent circumstances. What exactly is exigent? Who decides that? On what criteria?
            The reason why we even care about property rights is we, civilized people, want to avoid conflict. We don’t want to fight over stuff. To avoid fights, we have to assign property rights in things where a conflict is possible. These rights must be universal otherwise they won’t meet the purpose of no conflict.
            The system Mr Helfeld is advocating is not universal. Someone is always in “exigent” circumstances, which is a vague term. Are the people in Rwanda justified in robbing American tourists of all their stuff? This system does not assign property rights in a way that all people who want to avoid conflict understand well what belongs to whom.
            Of course, some people don’t care and will take it anyway but those people are a “technical problem”, similar to bad weather, hungry lion, a hostile alien from space or King George. We don’t talk to those people, we fight them.
            How in the world is it relevant “what happens”? Well, justice happens.
            As for Mr Helfeld example: my prediction would be that yes, it is aggression to steal water from someone and I would be sued and the punishment would depend on how bad my crime was. If I stole a cup of water from someone who had plenty himself, I would be ordered to give that cup back (which would cost me next to nothing). If he had lack of water himself and I caused his death, I might be sentenced to death, because that is what I caused. But that’s just my opinion, completely irrelevant. Other judges might disagree and the best judges would win over time. In the days of limited government the better judges don’t win because they are not selected by their customers but by one of the parties involved in almost every court case: the government.

          • Nick May 2, 2014, 10:24 am

            Nick, it may be a concern but it is not an argument against setting all slaves free, immediately. Or do you consider this to be valid reasoning: “Geez, I don’t know if all the slaves will be able to get a job, and I don’t know who will work on the cotton fields now, so let’s just free one slave a day and see what happens.”?

            It could be, if the slaves would be freed and subsequently killed. Which is basically the minarchist argument.

            Someone always has to define terms like exigent, just because its difficult and subject doesn’t mean its not necessary. I don’t believe your belief that rights must be “universal” is realistic or necessary, or would even exist in an anarchist society under a common law system.

            Mr. Helfeld’s system is not universal, like you said, but that is exactly his point. Principles, including the NAP, exist contextually. Someone has to put a barrier on what is exigent and what is not, hence government and (private OR public) law.

  • Rocco April 29, 2014, 12:57 pm

    That was wonderful, Stephan. You totally ruined that dude.

    You might have overdone it with all those ad honinums, though!

  • dvide April 29, 2014, 1:32 pm

    I had no idea what relevance ‘extreme duress’ has with trying to justify the state, so I was wondering where he might possibly go with it. Here’s what I thought of. I have no idea if this is Jan’s position, but it’s something that came to my mind.

    A common objection to the state is on grounds of its legitimacy. Throughout history rulers have tried to claim religious justifications, such as the divine right of kings, or tracing the rulers’ linage back to the gods (Caesar claimed to be son of Venus), or whatever. This sort of thing doesn’t really fly any more due to a more enlightened, less superstitious people. Now it’s trendy to say that the state is only justified when there is “consent of the governed”. The erroneous idea is that “the people” came together and all collectively agreed to defer their right of defense to a central institution, in order to be civilized. Of course that’s not true; no such thing ever occurred. It’s not as though every person agreed to such a thing, and even if they did it wouldn’t bind generations who came afterwards. But, crucially, the state necessarily does more than defense. They aggress, through taxes and by preventing competition with them in their geographical zone. The people have no such right to aggress as individuals, so they cannot defer that right to the state (since they don’t have it).

    Under Jan’s vision of anarchy, though, massive gang warfare is unavoidable. He envisions gangs owning guided missiles and billion dollar frigates, extorting everybody all the time and using the extorted money to amass more weaponry. He envisions the defense agencies amassing armies which then turn to aggression given the opportunity, etc. He thinks this is realistic. Given that, the people would be under a permanent state of extreme duress. Under a state of duress, it may be justified to steal an apple to survive (or whatever lifeboat scenario you can think of). So, similarly, it may be justified to steal money from others to pay for an army to defeat the gangs. Under their state of duress from the gangs, they do have the right to aggress against others because it’s the only way to save their own skin, and so the people can collectively agree to defer that right to an organisation (which they call the state) in order to do it in as civilized a manner as possible.

    I think it completely depends on his vision of anarchy being perpetual warfare that cannot possibly be resolved with voluntary means and defense agencies. It’s cartoonish to me and unrealistic. Even then, it still might not be justified on those grounds. It’s a bit of a stretch. If you’re starving and may justifiably steal an apple from somebody who has plenty, it doesn’t give you free reign to do any aggression. A reasonable jury may understand stealing an apple surreptitiously if you’re starving and apple owner was being a psychopathic dick about it, but if you fight and kill over the apple then they may not. Even more so if the person you killed was starving too, and so wasn’t being a dick but was instead in the same dire situation as you.

    Again I don’t know if this is Jan’s position. It’s just some possible objection I thought up.

  • Stephen April 29, 2014, 2:07 pm

    This was worse than Wenzel. Overall, unlistenable. Kinsella started off with a major attitude, but after listening to how petty, annoying, and unprincipled Helfeld was, I get it. Helfeld wasn’t interested in directly answering any questions or having an honest debate. His “arguments” were almost entirely bald assertions. He denied that he wanted to tax Kinsella. Is he dishonest or stupid? I truly don’t know. Terrible “debate,” but mildly entertaining to see Stephan lose his shit.

  • Vanmind April 29, 2014, 2:47 pm

    Wow, thanks. I’ve read posts on other boards from which Helfeld crows, but I never bothered listening to the blather.

    What an unfortunate f*ck-up at the beginning. As if the moderator’s desires mattered, as if the video of the talking heads counted for anything. Boooooooooo. Viewers didn’t care about the vanity party, they wanted to l-i-s-t-e-n.

    “We can’t have anarchy right now.” Reminds me of Ron Paul suggesting that “perhaps some day we’ll be mature enough to have a discussion about…” On what make-believe planet is anyone like Paul or Helfeld in a position to judge the maturity level of others?

    “When people get together and agree to form a government for the purpose of…” Would that be 100% agreement from all people? Or would it be more like a precedented Founding Fathers Fraud?

    Try this quick poem on statists, mid-debate: “If I might repeat your fatal conceit: ‘There are too such things as philosopher kings.'”

    About the “you’re thirsty/drowning what do you do” hypotheticals. If you want to go beyond the always-reasonable “I don’t answer hypotheticals” response, then simply respond: “I am here to debate philosophy, not the well-documented biological phenomenon known as animal instinct.”

    • Daniel Rothschild April 30, 2014, 2:07 am

      I didn’t know there was a fuck up in the beginning since I wasn’t watching the video. People were messaging me during the debate and saying that there were problems and that is was distracting and asked me if I could fix it. I was responding to their needs. Also, Kinsella asked me before we started to make sure the debate was going to be recorded and for nothing to wrong, so I wanted to make sure that the video looked and sounded good. I apologize to both Stephan and Jan for starting over again, but I wanted to make my fans happy and the only way to do so was fix the bugs by making a new video.

      • Stephan Kinsella April 30, 2014, 11:26 am

        Just an honest mistake. I am glad Cox copied the first one before Jan deleted it from his channel, and stitched them together…!

  • Vanmind April 29, 2014, 3:54 pm

    I couldn’t resist making one more point (to come clean: I posted that previous comment after only listening to about 80%). Right at the end, after the “F*ck off,” Helfeld tried to claim some kind of high ground about “the soul.”

    Not only does such a claim amount to preposterous Platonic nonsense (indeed I would guess that Helfeld swallows whole the “philosopher kings have virtuous souls that justify their control of your life” canard), it is a reminder to everyone about the people throughout history who have silver-tongued their way toward absolutism. “F*ck off” is, of course, never as barbaric as “Vote for me and I’ll make your life easier.” The former is the only civilized response to the latter.

    Oh, and the echo thing is not typically very difficult to fix on-the-fly. Mind you, I worked for a while at a VOIP software company. I speak-a-da-SPEEX, so to speak.

  • Nick April 30, 2014, 6:02 am

    I am a minarchist that agrees with Helfeld but I think he “started it” as far as the beef here is concerned. He had a stick up his ass early on about formatting it seemed. You claim Helfeld is a fake lawyer (Im a “real one”) but his procedural “objections” definitely took you out of the fight early by pissing you off, haha.

  • PeterK April 30, 2014, 5:45 pm

    I have to ask, why did you bother agreeing to the debate, especially when you started out the way you did?

    I still think you “won”, but I don’t know that either of you did yourselves or your sides any good.

  • Jaek Bradley April 30, 2014, 7:06 pm

    Jan seems to believe that getting Kinsella to admit to or to at least consider stealing water if he was dying of thirst some how gets Kinsella to undermine his position that Aggression should always being illegal (Anarchy). Walter Block has a great article on why thats not true http://archive.lewrockwell.com/block/block26.html

    What I want to focus on is that, while Jan is for some form of institutionalized aggression (limited government or more accurately state), he is very against government being used to redistribute wealth. Im not sure if he has any children or not but couldn’t you just ask Jan if he had a child dying of thirst would he steal water from some one else to give to his kid (wealth redistribution)? And if he believes Kinsella answering yes to his question or at least considering it undermines Kinsella’s position then Jan answering yes or considering yes to my question (Which I believe if he is being honest he would say yes to) would undermine his stance of being against the use of force (State) for welfare. Therefore this tactic he is employing against kinsella in an attempt to undermine his view of anarchy would not just justify a minimal goverment but a very large redistributive one at the very least.

    • Jake Bradley April 30, 2014, 9:29 pm

      Jan responded to my question in the comment section of his youtube post of this debate and it was very odd. Here it is

      “No, because people are not dying of thirst in the USA. You and other an caps seem to have no idea what my follow up questions are when you answer yes and the debater does not run like Molineux . No need in kinsela’s case since he contradicted himself. First he said he would never under any circumstances initiate force but later he said he did not know if he would under certain circumstances. Contradiction = error = lost”

      He seems to be implying that my question isn’t valid but his to Kinsella is because people “are not dying of thirst in the USA”. This response seems to imply 2 very odd and faulty assumptions on his part.

      First, It seems to assume that people will/are dying of thirst in an Ancap system. He didn’t give any examples or evidence of this being the case. It also implies a sort of consequentialist view with question begging. He is presuposing a consequentialist view point and then stating bad results inevitably occur within (to the point of dying of thirst) the question itself. It seems to me he is basically saying “You must be against people dying of thirst and anarchy will automatically lead people to die of thirst so you must be against anarchy.”

      Second, and more bizarrely his answer to me seems to imply he believes the U.S. as it stands now is a minimal state. My hypothetical that leads to him contradicting his stated views against wealth redistribution by redistributing wealth to his child dying of thirst is irrelevant because his system of minimal government does not lead to that dilema and he uses the current U.S. system as an example of this. This is just a down right weird response. I’ve seen his videos and he clearly doesn’t believe the U.S. as it stands now is a minimal government and as we all know and agree it clearly isn’t. Therefore, the more extreme/worse welfare statists could argue the current welfare system doesn’t lead to people dying of thirst and if he is against people dying of thirst and he is theoretically willing to use force himself to redistribute wealth to save his child then he must be contradicting his minimal state view and actually in principle agrees with the welfare state. My exact response to him is below

      “Exactly, people are not dying of thirst in the U.S. but the U.S. as it stands now is not the ideal minimal government you support, its the large welfare/socialist state you despise. They are not dying from thirst within a large welfare state, not a minimal government state. This means the more socialist/welfare Statists who argue on the other side of you could use that question against you like your attempting to do with Kinsella. They can make the same implication your making about anarchy about your minimal government stance that “without our redistributive welfare system people would die of thirst and the fact that your willing to use force to redistribute wealth in the form of water to your child shows that in principle you agree with us and our current system and its results.” 

  • Irdial May 1, 2014, 6:48 am

    This debate was very entertaining and refreshing. I am sick to death of Statists and their violence, their illogic and fallacious reasoning. These people have a real effect on entrepreneurs and anyone trying to live in peace, and the gentlemanly discourse that is offered to them by default is quite unnatural, and after a point counter-productive.

    I enjoy Jan’s videos where he makes politicians look as absurd as they really are, and its useful to have these monsters exposed as the unthinking creatures that they are, but when it comes to principle, Jan has it absolutely wrong in his support of the State. He has no arguments, and refuses to even attempt to explain his position. I have a strong feeling that all of his positions have been learned by rote, and that he recites them on presentation of stimuli.

    No one seems to have noticed this, but Jan shows all the signs of being Autistic. His need for structure, his packaged responses, and his body language scream Autism / Aspergers syndrome. This doesn’t mean that he cannot be a good debater or cannot hold correct ideas, but it does explain why he is so infuriating and awkward, and why his answers are so mechanical and shallow. Autistic men are notoriously difficult to get along with because they cannot respond to the cues that neurotypical people take for granted, and which make social interaction smooth. Add to this the difficulty of interacting over an internet chat room that removes some of the feedback needed for civil discourse, and the required extra understanding of other people’s position this technology creates, and the problem is exacerbated.

    In any case, this session was very entertaining and informative. It is a classic, no doubt about it. Anyone who is for the State watching it will be put into Jan’s position; they will then be forced to imagine (if they can) how they would answer the simple questions put to him. This will make them think about their beliefs and where they come from which is always a good thing.

    Utterly priceless!

    • Brian May 3, 2014, 2:10 pm

      Jan isn’t autistic, he’s just an asshole. He needed to stick to the format so he could use his Socratic method (Kinsella was too smart to fall for that bullshit). If anything, it’s Kinsella that comes off as on the Aspergers side of the spectrum. He’s an asshole too, but I like him. He’s funny and most importantly, he’s right. Jan is as wrong as he is creepy.

  • Bill Greenjeans May 1, 2014, 2:18 pm

    I recently viewed the debate between anarchy or no government and limited government. It was interesting to hear both sides, however both begin wrong.
    They both assumed that aggressive force was the problem with current governments and that, in the case of Jan, it was necessary but out of hand. The Stephan’s main complaint was the aggressive force used by government to collect taxes was wrong.
    Both happen to be lawyers and so, at least to them, that gave them some sort of qualification to enter into this debate.
    My lawyer friend says that in law school no one learns the law, but only to think like a lawyer. Another lawyer friend says justice is not a virtue but and administration of the law equally applied to all concerned. He also states that the law is moral. So where is the problem for the debaters?
    The problem lies in the fact that the law can not impair the obligations of a contract. If the law is moral then it can not perpetrate a act of aggressive force or if it does it becomes immoral. In other words the law can not rupture it’s on law. Thus, for example, the collection of taxes by aggressive force is by the consent of the “taxpayer”. At some point the taxpayer entered into a contract that allow collection by aggressive force if the terms of the contract were violated. This contract can not be interfered with by government nor anyone else.
    At some time the debaters became party to a contract that they both dislike and they put the blame on the failed government. I do not deny that in the government there are immoral workers who do things that are criminal, notwithstanding for the most part the government workers are just following orders. The debate over whether someone who commits an immoral or illegal act while following orders is coup-able or innocent of the act is for another time.
    Lawyers love to say “ignorance of the law is no excuse or defence”. While there is some truth in that statement, a contract, to be valid, needs to be understood by all parties concerned. If the debaters say “we didn’t enter into any contract to collect taxes” then the facts must be produced. A tax return is a good example of a necessary contract. Understanding the implications of filing a tax return is part of the law that all who do such should know. The law concerning tax returns, while not easy to find because of its “coding” and because of misinformation, is simple when the government records concerning a taxpayers tax returns is reviewed all becomes clear.
    Whether the law concerning tax returns is convoluted intentionally or just bureaucratic paper shuffling over time,is also another debate, however finding out what is in personal tax records and “decoding”that information is not easy and should be done by an expert or the taxpayer needs to go to school.
    The two debaters have good points however they missed the detail of contracts that they are both a party.

    • Stephan Kinsella May 1, 2014, 2:42 pm

      Confusing comment. We anarchists don’t say ignorance of the law is not excuse, and the contract argument made here is literally incoherent.

  • Carl May 1, 2014, 10:30 pm

    Wow, what an unholy mess.

    Format! Format! Format!

  • Neutrinoide May 2, 2014, 10:06 pm

    That is one of the best debate I saw in a while. it shows an Anarchist like you, Stephan is working on another/higher level of understanding of this subject. Therefore exposing peoples like Jan are stupids and dinosaurs. No, I am not sarcastic. Yeah! like we never heard or think about those “super hard scenarios”.

  • Echarles May 4, 2014, 6:18 pm

    Missed opportunity, Stephen, and your frustration worked against you in this debate. I think the approach I would have taken is to ask Jan how private property and voluntary payment for government services advocated by Rand is different from anarcho-capitalism. If Rand considered secession a “right” even in mixed economies (see her essay “Global Balkanization”), then I see no difference between Rothbard and Rand as far as governance. What am I missing?

    • Stephan Kinsella May 4, 2014, 6:54 pm

      Lucky for you, you’re a nym so if you mess up you can get do-overs. I don’t have that luxury… ;)

  • nick May 5, 2014, 4:17 pm

    I think there is a false presumption that Jan is making by bringing up the “drowning and grabbing someone else’s boat” scenario.

    In a true Anarchist vision, the water you’re drowning in is owned by someone and thus governed by the owner of the water. If you’re not there with the owner’s consent, you’re trespassing and already violating the NAP. If you are there with the owner’s consent, one would assume that you and other occupants of the lake are under contract (explicitly or implicitly. Which one doesn’t really matter) to come to the aid of anyone drowning.

    Jan is presuming for the sake of his question that we still have “public” water that is “ungoverned.” Thus his question is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not the NAP is universal.

  • S July 9, 2014, 12:49 am

    This ‘debate’ was deplorable in a number of ways. It would seem that both parties have little to no respect for each other in the first place so I have a hard time understanding why they would spend their time engaging with each other at all. Both come off as pathetic and belligerent because of this. They don’t agree on the context in which they’re arguing, or the definitions of terms being used. Perhaps if they ever engage in the future, it should be in order to bridge THAT gap rather than to propose substantive arguments in which both parties are as good as speaking different languages, inevitably creating a further divide than existed prior.

    That being said, I am completely in agreement with Stephan Kinsella’s position and am a great admirer of his. I would love to see his brilliance exhibited in better ways.

    • Stephan Kinsella July 11, 2014, 9:26 am

      I think Baker and I were both civil to each other. Not sure what you are referring to.

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