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Remembering Tibor Machan, Libertarian Mentor and Friend: Reflections on a Giant

My memoriam for Tibor Machan, R.I.P., was published today at FEE.org: Remembering Tibor Machan, Libertarian Mentor and Friend: Reflections on a Giant.

A local copy is repixeled below.

Update: Jack Criss’s touching tribute is available here. And here is one by Pater Tenebraram.


One of my long-time friends, libertarian philosopher Tibor Machan, passed away last month, on Thursday, March 24, 2016. He was 77. Many other libertarians have already posted their memories of Tibor,1 Which is not surprising, given his significant, longtime, and tireless work for liberty and libertarian theory.

I became familiar with Tibor’s work while I was in college, especially Human Rights and Human Liberties (1975) and Individuals and Their Rights (1989), my two favorite of his works. I was also reading Reason at the time, the magazine Tibor co-founded. My friend Jack Criss, who also knew Tibor, commended him to me as well. I began to correspond with Tibor; he kindly responded to a great number of letters, later emails, over the years, often giving me useful reading suggestions and responding thoughtfully and gently to my philosophical and political questions and arguments. He published my first scholarly paper, “Estoppel: A New Justification for Individual Rights,” in the Fall 1992 issue of his journal Reason Papers. We remained and became closer friends over the next 24 years.  

Let me briefly touch first on a few substantive issues Tibor and I discussed, and sometimes disagreed on—sometimes publicly—over the years, as this constituted a large part of our relationship and my memories of him.

Argumentation/Discourse Ethics

As I have discussed elsewhere,2 while in law school I became fascinated with Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s “argumentation ethics” defense of libertarian rights and started thinking about my own theory of rights, based on the legal concept of “estoppel.” I was at King’s College London in 1991–92, pursuing a master’s degree in law, when I produced the first draft of a paper based on these ideas. Somewhat naïvely, I submitted it to King’s College Law School’s law review, whereupon it was summarily rejected. Not daunted, I submitted an improved draft to Tibor for his journal Reason Papers. It was eventually accepted for publication. I fondly recall speaking with Tibor one dark night about the submission from a students’ pay telephone at King’s in London. So Tibor, via his journal Reason Papers, was responsible for my first published scholarly article. I was always grateful to him for this, of course.

It should be noted that Tibor published my paper even though it incorporated and promoted Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, which Tibor was himself very critical of—see, e.g., his 1993 letter to me. This is just one example of Tibor’s devotion to true scholarship. And in that letter,  he also gave me some useful reading recommendations and offered kind encouragement to me at the beginning of my legal career. An example of his kindness and benevolence.

I always thought was ironic that he was so critical of Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, since Tibor himself advanced an argument that was similar in many respects to the discourse or argumentation ethics approach, in his 1996 article Individualism and Political Dialogue—although, ultimately, I’ve argued that there are flaws in his argument.3 And in fact I always thought the reasoning behind one of Tibor’s claims in Individuals and Their Rights was very complementary to the reasoning behind various “transcendental”/dialogical approaches to rights such as my own estoppel approach and Hoppe’s argumentation ethics:

“[I]f someone attacks another, that act carries with it, as a matter of the logic of aggression, the implication that from a rational moral standpoint the victim may, and often should retaliate.”4

Anarchy/Minarchy; Eminent Domain

Argumentation/discourse ethics was one of several philosophical areas that fascinated me and that also interested Tibor enough to at least dabble in it, but not enough to “solve” it, at least not to my satisfaction (and probably not to Tibor’s, though I can’t say for sure). Others were intellectual property and free will (more on these below). He also ruminated a great deal about minarchy vs. anarchy; his book Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? (2008), edited with anarchist Roderick Long, is an important collection of thought on both sides of this issue.

On the issue of whether government—or, more precisely, the state—is justified, Tibor seemed to me  to waffle a bit, as he recognized, and struggled to overcome, defects in previous defenses of the state. I think he was attempting to do what is, to my mind, the impossible: to justify the state. Tibor seemed to appreciate many of the anarchist criticisms of the state and of arguments for the state, and he seemed to realize there were problems with the Randian defense of minarchy, and he tried, or so it seemed to me, to thread the needle by arguing that “government” by its nature had to be somewhat monopolistic. I never bought this—to my mind—strained argument, and always thought of Tibor as a borderline but somewhat closeted and reluctant anarchist. (To be fair, he would probably deny this, and is not here to defend himself, so I can only plead that this is simply my own private sentiment on the matter.)

I remember once he mooted (only in passing, in an article about the Kelo case, which was partly responding to my own article on Kelo)5 the idea that a minimal state would have to have the power of eminent domain, in order to ensure that it had enough land for essential government buildings. As he wrote:

“There are, in fact, some projects in any community that pertain to the maintenance of justice and certain properly limited institutions are required for that purpose. Since all citizens, qua citizens, adhere to certain very limited public objectives, takings for public use amount to following exactly what all the citizens want, namely, to make sure justice is upheld within the community over which governments have been instituted so as to secure our rights. For that strictly limited purpose, it is okay to obtain property from private parties since, in fact, they are on record consenting by their very citizenship to such specific, limited takings. It is akin to the reason citizens may be subpoenaed for trials—because they are on record, with their citizenship, supporting the objective of achieving the pursuit of justice. … limiting takings to bona fide public uses is in fact perfectly justified within a free society because it amounts to nothing more than the expression of what individual citizens all must have at least implicitly agreed to, namely, the task of upholding justice.”

I thought this was one of his weaker arguments (there is no reason a minimal state could not just lease or buy office space etc.). It was one of the few areas where he was less radical than Randians, who, to their credit, at least do oppose eminent domain.6 And it was odd that Tibor opposed taxation (“Liberty is incompatible with taxation,” he unambiguously wrote),7  yet thought there might be a case for eminent domain. I pointed this out in the comments to his article, leading to one of our sometimes sharp public exchanges on substantive politico-philosophical matters we disagreed on; we had disagreements also on issues like IP, anarchy, federalism, constitutionalism, and the like, but it never got personal and it never affected our friendship. After such a public disagreement, it would usually not even come up in our next conversation on phone or skype, and, if it did, we simply resumed our substantive, and spirited, discussion, intermixed with personal talk. Even where I thought his arguments weak, it was clear that he was an honest, sincere truth-seeker. We would still talk fairly regularly, on the phone initially, on Skype in the last decade or so, every 6 months or year or so, and he would always send me electronic birthday well-wishes. In any case, on this particular issue, to Tibor’s credit, he didn’t really push the argument very strenuously; he toyed with it, considered it, proposed it as a possibility. I think, again to his credit, this is because he was always thinking, always interested in liberty and truth, always trying to honestly figure out these complicated, serious, and difficult issues.

Free Will/Downward Causation

Another issue I discussed intensely with Tibor was the issue of determinism versus free will. Like the Randians, he had various arguments for free will, but like our mutual friend, Objectivist philosopher David Kelley, he inquired more deeply into this difficult issue and tried to extend and add to the analysis. In my correspondence with both Machan and Kelley over the years, I expressed my dissatisfaction with Randian and similar arguments for free will. The standard argument (Rothbard advances a version of this, perhaps acquired from Rand or her followers when he was in her orbit)8 is that free will has a basically axiomatic (undeniably true, apodictic) status because it is presupposed by the very activity of engaging in reasoned discussion about these matters, since in advancing arguments designed to persuade others to accept a given view as true one presupposes that oneself, and others, are free to choose to deny or accept the best reasoning or evidence presented for a given proposition. I believe there are flaws in this argument—it is basically a trick. But in any case, it still does not explain how free will is really possible, in a world of causality. It only seeks to show that you have to believe there is free will, that you can’t deny it. As Hoppe has argued, “even if our freedom is illusory from [God’] standpoint and our actions follow a predictable path, for us this is a necessary and unavoidable illusion“.9

It seemed to me then (and still does now) that causality is impossible to deny, and that it has to imply determinism and rules out genuine free will, though the teleological/human action perspective requires the “illusion” of free will (coming to terms with this implies a kind of compatibilism, I think). That is, we have to understand other human actors as having choice (free will) and purposes, as a cognitive, practical, and even praxeological matter, but this is simply a necessary perspective or cognitive tool; in reality, our behavior is determined (or perhaps random; but neither determinism nor randomness leaves room for true volition—for self-caused behavior).

Kelley and Machan were both very perspicacious on this issue. Kelley saw that if there is genuine free will, this does imply “downward causation,” and he tried to advance philosophical arguments that this is possible.10 I’m no philosopher (but then, it appears to me that most philosophers are not philosophers), but I was never quite persuaded by this, nor by Tibor’s arguments. Tibor quite helpfully pointed me to the work of neuropsychologist Roger Sperry (he was always pointing me to helpful material I had not previously known about), who had explicitly investigated the possibility of “downward causation”; he helpfully sent me this paper about Sperry, by Charles Ripley. See also the email he wrote in 1994 (email in 1994—pretty impressive, Tibor!) that he forwarded to me and others (including Loren Lomasky, Jan Narveson, Aeon Skoble, Steven Hicks, Chris Sciabarra, et al.), where he contends “I do not believe that one can fully appreciate the case for free will these days without familiarity with the work of Roger W. Sperry”. Tibor later wrote his own defenses of free will.11

But despite the mighty efforts of the defenders of free will to find a solid, rational basis for genuine volition, I remain unpersuaded. I understand the desire to show that there is free will. I understand that it seems as if we have it. The problem with the entire debate, as I see it, is that opponents of free will are typically scientistic and ignorant of dualism and praxeological matters and arguments (e.g., Sam Harris, in his 2012 monograph Free Will); while proponents of free will seem blithely naive about physics and of the genuine difficulties here reconciling the causal physical laws, with volition. But I think Kelley, Machan, and some like Sperry have at least gone beyond the simplistic and naive defenses of free will, and recognized that the nub of the issue lies in the possibility of downward causation. I suspect that if progress is really made in trying to sort out these thorny issues, the idea of downward causation will have to play a key role.

Intellectual Property

The notion of intellectual property rights, strongly defended by conservatives, Randians, utilitarians, and most minarchists and Constitutionalists, has come under increasing attack in libertarian circles in recent years, basically since the advent of the Internet in 1995.12 Tibor, an ostensible minarchist, admirer of the Constitution, and former/semi-Randian, also clung to notions of IP. But, again, to his credit, like in his arguments for eminent domain, he did not venture too far into this area, and he did not just repeat the discredited and insufficient justifications provided by Rand, or by utilitarians. He tried to advance new arguments for IP.13 (I tried to do  the same in the mid 90s, but realized it was a losing proposition because IP cannot, be justified.)14

To provide an insufficient summary, Tibor basically tried to argue that there are ontologically various kinds of “things” that “exist”—poems, trucks, etc. And since “The tangible-intangible distinction is not a good one for what can and cannot be owned”, then we need to focus on “intentionality”–things we intentionally create or produce, whether they be “tangible” or “intangible.” Indeed, that intangible things like poems, computer games/programs, novels, songs, arrangements, etc. are more completely “intentional” and “created” than are tangible goods. I.e., Tibor’s theory seems to be that any “ontological type of thing” that we can identify, and that was intentionally created or produced by man, is owned by man.

I think this is flawed for a number of reasons, as I have pointed out elsewhere.15 Naming a thing conceptually does not prove there is some “ontological type of thing that exists and can be owned”; this would be to conflate concepts adopted for conceptual utility with real, existing things. It would be a type of reification. But I also don’t think Tibor thought he had figured this issue out completely. Again, he was sincerely struggling with a difficult issue—trying to figure things out, trying to find out the best way to understand liberty and rights.

Set Your Work Free

On a related matter—it’s a shame more of Tibor’s large corpus of writing is not more readily available online. Gillespie’s Reason memoriam notes, “To read Tibor Machan’s Reason archive, including interviews with figures ranging from Nathaniel Branden to Thomas Szasz to William F. Buckley, go here. Many of his articles are from issues that are not currently available online but we are updating his archive to remedy that.” But once this is done, this would still only constitute a rather small selection of Tibor’s more popular-format writing. It may be decades before many of his scholarly works and books are more accessible.

There should be inexpensive paper copies of all Tibor’s books and free or dirt-cheap online versions like PDF, kindle, and epub easily available and searchable. This is true of a lot of academics, especially of older generations, who are often very prolific but not too worried about the details of the publication process. They sign away their copyrights, or leave the status vague and murky, or don’t insist on reversion of rights or cheaper versions for intelligent laymen or students. This can lead to books with academic pricing that are too expensive for many people too afford, out of print books, no electronic versions, and orphan works problems and difficulty obtaining permissions from heirs or legatees after death.16 For example, I can find no online copies of Human Rights and Human Liberties or Individuals and Their Rights, although, luckily, there are affordable paper versions on Amazon. His virtually unheard of 2004 memoir, The Man Without a Hobby: Adventures of a Gregarious Egoist, is available only in paper and costs $88 at present. And who knows who even owns the copyrights to these and other works? (Even the festschrift put together in his honor for his 70th birthday, Reality, Reason, and Rights: Essays in Honor of Tibor R. Machan (by former Reason Papers editor Aeon Skoble, Douglas Rasmussen, and Douglas J. Den Uyl), is available only in crazy prices for  print and kindle editions.)

I talked to Tibor about this a few times over the years—encouraging him to publish future works under Creative Commons licenses or to have a reversion clause or to free up his works in his will, but he didn’t seem to think it was that important. My hope is that his heirs or legatees—presumably his children—will grant whatever permissions they can, as the need arises, to liberate Tibor’s words.


I have dwelled above on some of the substantive matters Tibor and I discussed or even tangled over, mostly because his writing and philosophical output is one of the things I admired most about him. I have touched only on a fraction of his huge output, and mostly on some matters we disagreed on, and even though this constitutes only a small slice of the large amount of things I learned from Tibor—from his writings, from his suggestions, from our discussions and interactions.

More than many young libertarians realize, perhaps, Tibor was a wide-ranging scholar who wrote deeply and tirelessly on a number of issues important to libertarian theory and on related philosophical issues—besides writing extensively on basic libertarian natural rights, from a neo-Randian perspective,17 he tackled many other issues, such as free will and behaviorism,18 So it’s fitting that some of his closest colleagues—Aeon Skoble, Douglas Rasmussen, and Douglas J. Den Uyl—put together a festschrift in Tibor’s honor for his 70th birthday, Reality, Reason, and Rights: Essays in Honor of Tibor R. Machan (2011).

My notes here have been somewhat disorganized, admittedly. It’s hard to organize one’s thoughts on such a figure, just as life does not always fit a novelist’s plot. In the end, various people remember Tibor differently, indicating the enormous and disparate impact he had on so many lives. For me, he was someone I could count on as a constant and reliable advocate of scholarship and liberty, and a reliable, not flaky, friend.

I mentioned above that Tibor had published my first scholarly article in his journal Reason Papers. I published a couple more articles in Reason Papers, and I helped Tibor’s successor editors get the Reason Papers archives online, as noted hereReason Papers also inspired me to found my own journal, Libertarian Papers, in 2009, as the Journal of Libertarian Studies was winding down. Going full circle, Tibor ended up publishing several of his own articles in Libertarian Papers: “Backing the Founders: The Case for Unalienable Individual Rights”, “A Problem With Aristotle’s Ethical Essentialism”, and “Truth in Philosophy”, “A Priori: A Brief Critical Survey”.

I also published a few more pieces in Reason Papers in the early 90s, and Tibor and I continued to correspond for a while on philosophical and libertarian issues by mail, until the Internet arose and changed things. We ended up meeting in person several times, mostly at Auburn, Alabama, when I was there to attend some Mises Institute conference or event. I remember one time a group of us were in the Auburn Hotel Bar and were planning to go to dinner; Tibor, sort of an outsider, ambled in and joined our group, and we had our usual fun and somewhat boisterous conversations/arguments. When we started heading out for dinner I could tell Tibor sort of wanted to go and was being left out (he had not been there originally nor part of the initial plans), so I maneuvered to have him invited.

Over the last ten or fifteen years or so, Tibor would always have one of those little electronic birthday messages sent to me—it was so sweet. We would talk, usually via Skype, on occasion, probably once every 6 months or year. We talked about personal matters and life—I never met his kids but he talked about and bragged about them. We then would venture into some areas of philosophy that interested us both—often on topics we slightly disagreed on, such as those mentioned above.

As noted above, Tibor was always passionate about liberty, philosophy, ideas, and truth. He was a tireless advocate for liberty and libertarian ideas, and very wide-ranging in his writing, which covered a range of topics, from free will to rights thoery, and works from scholarly books, articles, chapters and monographs, to, especially in recent years, shorter op-ed type pieces. And lots of letters and, later, email, to people commenting on ideas, making suggestions, or just sending a Happy Birthday electronic note. It would be impossible and pointless here to review Tibors’ entire œuvre, but even providing highlights is a bit frustrating since so much of it is not available online or in an easily accessible format, as noted above. But I can mention a few, though this will be an idiosyncratic list. First, and most importantly, from my perspective, are his two foundational books on natural, libertarian rights: Human Rights and Human Liberties (1975) and Individuals and Their Rights (1989). Other important works (again, this is highly subjective and selective) include his 1996 foray into discourse ethics, Individualism and Political Dialogue;19 his book Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? (2008), edited with anarchist Roderick Long; The Libertarian Alternative: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy (editor; 1974); plus his shorter pieces, on human and natural libertarian rights, Towards a Theory of Natural Individual Human RightsA Reconsideration of Natural Rights TheoryAre There Any Human Rights?, and Human Rights Reaffirmed.

On free will, his A Brief Defense of Free Will, and his book Initiative: Human Agency and Society (2000).  On IP, his somewhat tentative thoughts adumbrated in Intellectual Property and the Right to Private Property.pdf. On a more personal level, his 2004 memoir, The Man Without a Hobby: Adventures of a Gregarious Egoist, will be fascinating to many of his friends, family, and admirers, as will his festschriftReality, Reason, and Rights: Essays in Honor of Tibor R. Machan

Among his shorter papers, I can only eclectically select a few favorites that stand out for me: Evidence of Necessary Existence, Objectivity 1, 4, 1992; Posner’s Rortyite (Pragmatic) JurisprudenceIndividualism Versus Classical Liberal Political EconomyWhy Freedom Remains First;  What is Morally Right with Insider TradingMetaphysics, Epistemology, and Natural Law Theory; and  A Revision on the Doctrine of Disability of Mind; and Reason’s June 1971 issue, which features a piece by Tibor titled, “On Securing Liberty.”

And I’ll also mention here subsequent Reason Paper editor Irfan Khawaja’s suggestions about some of Machan’s more important works:

“Though Tibor was best known as a political philosopher, I’ve always thought his most interesting insights were expressed in other parts of philosophy: the two works of Tibor’s I like best are in moral epistemology and applied ethics, respectively. The first is his paper “Epistemology and Moral Knowledge” (Review of Metaphysics[1982]), and the other is a neglected but very insightful paper, “Human Action and the Nature of Moral Evil” in his 1998 book, Classical Individualism. (Here’s a PDF of the whole book. Here’s a review [PDF] of it that I wrote for Reason Papers back in 2000.) What’s common to both papers is a sense of urgency about philosophy–an implicit recognition of the fact that the exercise of moral and epistemic agency is an urgent, practical matter, or put another way, that doxastic and personal irresponsibility are in some sense the root of all evil.”

I’ll close with a recent short “Profiles in Liberty” video interview with Tibor. Tibor, you were a big influence in my life. It would not have been the same without you. The world would not have been the same without you. I, and countless others, learned from you—not only from your philosophical words, but from your example as a steadfast and sincere, honorable and decent champion of liberty, truth, rightness, and goodness. I’ll miss you my friend, but am so glad to have known you.

Tibor’s appearance on William Buckley’s “Firing Line”:

  1. E.g., these memories and obituaries by my friends Jeff TuckerChris SciabarraSheldon RichmanAeon Skoble; and David Kelley; see also those by Nick Gillespie at ReasonDavid Gordon, IES-EuropeDavid Henderson, Timothy Sandefur, Irfan Khawaja, and Nicolas Capaldi (from Tibor’s festschrift, more about which later). []
  2.  How I Became A Libertarian and  The Genesis of Estoppel: My Libertarian Rights Theory. []
  3. Tibor’s article is published at Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of Science and the Humanities 46 (June 1996): 45-55; also included as chapter 13 of Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being (Routledge 1998). For my critique, see New Rationalist Directions in Libertarian Rights Theory, 12:2 Journal of Libertarian Studies: 313-26 (Fall 1996); and my Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics and Its Critics.  []
  4. Machan, Individuals and Their Rights (1989): 176 []
  5. See Machan, Machan’s Musings – Kelo v. New London Versus the Free Society (2005); Kinsella, A Libertarian Defense of ‘Kelo’ and Limited Federal Power (2005). []
  6. Although: I have it on good authority that Murray Rothbard’s correspondence indicates that around 1954, Herb Cornuelle convinced Ayn Rand to oppose eminent domain; she had previously favored eminent domain because the Constitution (apparently) implicitly authorized it. Probably the same reason she favors the state, and intellectual property: both are endorsed by the language and logic of the Constitution. []
  7.  What’s Wrong with Taxation? (2002). []
  8. See Rothbard, The Mantle of Science. []
  9. Hoppe, Economic Science and the Austrian Method (1995); emphasis added. For a fuller quote:

    “‘What is this contradiction? If actions could indeed be conceived of as governed by time-invariantly operating causes, then it is certainly appropriate to ask: But what then about explaining the explainers? What about causally predicting their actions? They are, after all, the persons who carry on the very process of creating hypotheses and of verification  and falsification.

    In order to assimilate confirming or falsifying experiences—to replace old hypotheses with new ones—one must assumedly be able to learn from experience. Every empiricist is, of course, forced to admit this. Otherwise why engage in empirical research at all?

    But if one can learn from experience in as yet unknown ways, then one admittedly cannot know at any given time what one will know at a later time and, accordingly, how one will act on the basis of this knowledge. One can only reconstruct the causes of one’s actions after the event, as one can explain one’s knowledge only after one already possesses it. Indeed, no scientific advance could ever alter the fact that one must regard one’s knowledge and actions as unpredictable on the basis of constantly operating causes. One might hold this conception of freedom to be an illusion. And one might well be correct from the point of view of a scientist with cognitive powers substantially superior to any human intelligence, or from the point of view of God. But we are not God, and even if our freedom is illusory from His standpoint and our actions follow a predictable path, for us this is a necessary and unavoidable illusion. We cannot predict in advance, on the basis of our previous states, the future states of our knowledge or the actions manifesting that knowledge. We can only reconstruct them after the event.” []

  10. See Kelley’s “Nature of Free Will” lecture in this classic series of lectures, Foundations of Knowledge, now available online. []
  11. See e.g. A Brief Defense of Free Will, and his book Initiative: Human Agency and Society (2000).   []
  12. See my “The Death Throes of Pro-IP Libertarianism,” Mises Daily (July 28, 2010); “The Four Historical Phases of IP Abolitionism”(April 13, 2011); and “The Origins of Libertarian IP Abolitionism” (April 1, 2011). []
  13. See Intellectual Property and the Right to Private Property.pdf. []
  14. See There are No Good Arguments for Intellectual Property. []
  15. See this post, and comments: Trademark Ain’t So Hot Either…; Trademark and Fraud (and comments in the Mises blog version thread); Owning Thoughts and Labor; and New Working Paper: Machan on IP, including the criticism and discussion in the comments, such as those of Carl Johan Petrus Ridenfeldt at November 30, 2006 4:59 PM). []
  16. I discuss these issues in  Do Business Without Intellectual Property (Liberty.me, 2014) (PDF); see also Jeffrey Tucker, “Authors: Beware of Copyright,” also included as ch. 24 in Bourbon for Breakfast. []
  17. Human Rights and Human Liberties, Individuals and Their Rights, most significantly; but a host of other important chapters, edited books, monographs, and articles, such as The Libertarian Alternative: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy (editor; 1974), Towards a Theory of Natural Individual Human RightsA Reconsideration of Natural Rights TheoryAre There Any Human Rights?, and Human Rights Reaffirmed. []
  18. See The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (1974) and Initiative: Human Agency and Society (2000). []
  19. Published in Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of Science and the Humanities 46 (June 1996): 45-55; also included as chapter 13 of Classical Individualism (Routledge, 1998). []
{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Sean May 23, 2016, 12:29 am

    Pater Tenebraram > Pater Tenebrarum

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