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Let’s ask the experts

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2007, on the World Wide Web.

Roderick has a good post up called A Question for Critics of Ron Paul’s Critics, which does an excellent job of deflating one of the common rejoinders that Ron Paul boosters make to Ron Paul’s libertarian critics–specifically to those, like me, who consider Paul’s anti-libertarian position on abortion or immigration to be a poison pill. It’s well worth reading the whole thing.

There’s a lot of interesting exchange going on in the comments. Here are excerpts from five different comments that oppose treating Ron Paul’s support for forced pregnancy as a poison pill:

David Miller:

Given the complexities of NAFTA (and the same is true of immigration and abortion), it does seem to me rather silly to use this as a litmus test, ….

Max Raskin:

Immigration, free trade, abortion, and cosmopolitanism don't really mean anything if any of the other candidates get elected and throw us into World War Five.

Rich Paul:

If I have to tolerate Kansas outlawing abortion in order for Kansas to tolerate New Hampshire legalizing drugs, then I think it a good trade.

Otto Kerner:

To me, personally, it seems clear that federalism and opposing the war are much more important libertarian issues than immigration and abortion.

Stephen W. Carson:

To those who support Paul but voice their criticisms of his positions on immigration, abortion, whatever... Hurrah! To those who don't support Paul, for whatever reason, I have only one question: What is your plan for stopping the killing?

Perhaps it is rude to point this out; perhaps it is even dirty pool. Certainly it is not a demonstration that their reasoning is flawed. Nevertheless, can you guess what all five of these commenters have in common when it comes to abortion?

If you’re baffled, try reading the first block quotation in Roe v. Wade Day #34.

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  1. Bob Kaercher

    I don’t think it’s “rude” or “dirty pool” at all, Charles. I see your point. The thing that flabbergasts me about Paul’s proposed law to legalistically define when human life begins is that it totally hijacks any attempt to debate abortion on moral and ethical grounds, something that I would think should disturb principled libertarian opponents of abortion…Unless of course, they’re bereft of any moral and ethical arguments on behalf of their side of the argument.

    BTW, the Gloria Steinem quote at the end of that first block is quite interesting.

  2. Jesse Walker

    Can’t help noticing that you’ve got the same thing in common yourself, Rad. Are you going to refrain from opining on the issue?

  3. Rad Geek

    Jesse,

    No. But I am going to refrain from opining that somebody else’s right to an abortion is an acceptable trade-off for something else that I value politically.

    In any case, my point is diagnostic, not prescriptive.

  4. Jesse Walker

    But it isn’t a very useful diagnosis. Libertarians are overwhelmingly male, so it’s inevitable that we’ll have some outcomes like that. (I might also note that the most fervent anti-abortion rant I’ve ever been subjected to was delivered by a woman.)

    Anyway, a pro-life libertarian has an easy rejoinder to your last comment: that she’ll refrain from opining that someone else’s right not to be aborted is an acceptable trade-off for something else that I value politically. For whatever that’s worth.

    Me, I think abortion is a much more difficult issue from a libertarian perspective than immigration or Iraq, and I’ll adjust my tolerance levels accordingly.

  5. Rad Geek

    Jesse,

    If a given libertarian genuinely believes that abortion is a violation of the prenate’s right to life, then I’d fully expect him or her to say that. My problem would be with the initial premise that abortion is murder, not with the subsequent refusal to trade off the abolition of abortion for something else that she or he finds politically valuable. But none of the commenters were claiming that Ron Paul’s position on abortion is tolerable because abortion is murder. They were claiming that his position on abortion is tolerable because they find other things more important.

    As for the diagnostic claim, it hasn’t anything to do with a tacit claim that all women are pro-choice. Of course that’s not true. I merely observe that somebody might be more willing to make a remark like:

    If I have to tolerate Kansas outlawing abortion in order for Kansas to tolerate New Hampshire legalizing drugs, then I think it a good trade.

    … when he might potentially be interested in using drugs, but will certainly never need to get an abortion.

    If a woman were making the same claim, I would disagree — she has a right to waive her own right to an abortion, but no right to inflict the waiver on other women — but my diagnosis would be different.

    I’m also painfully aware that the libertarian movement, as it stands, is overwhelmingly male. But perhaps common libertarian attitudes towards abortion may not be completely unrelated to that fact?

  6. quasibill

    of course, a similar observation could be made about your unwillingness to balance war in the mid-east against abortion – specifically that it is easy for you to say that is wrong to prioritize one over the other from your comfy chair in the United States, as opposed to being an Iraqi in the middle of the bloodshed, or an Iranian fearful of a coming bloodshed.

    I think Jesse also makes an extremely valid point. Personally, my views on the issue fall closer to the pro-choice side (it’s not the either/or that die hard advocates on both sides make the issue out to be), but I recognize that on the abortion issue, there are principled libertarian arguments on both sides (as opposed to immigration, where I agree the Hoppeian argument is BS).

    Given that, I personally place less importance on the abortion issue, so long as any position on it is decentralist in nature, as opposed to an issue like war, where the principled answer is pretty darn clear, and the consequences are significantly more dire (yes, I’m male, but I have no qualm with saying that killing or permanently maiming hundreds of people/day is significantly more evil than forcing a women to carry an unwanted child for a few extra months – I fear anyone who tries to make the argument that they are equivalent evils)

    But then again, the whole reason I don’t believe in some centralized minarchy is precisely because subjective valuation of the different issues is true. What I may be willing to trade off is unlikely to be what some other person is willing to trade off.

  7. Jesse Walker

    I merely observe that somebody might be more willing to make a remark like […] when he might potentially be interested in using drugs, but will certainly never need to get an abortion.

    But there are plenty of men who believe they have a stake in abortion being legal — basically anyone who’s sexually active, doesn’t want to be a parent, and doesn’t want to be the sort of jerk who abandons someone to raise a kid on her own. (And for that matter, not every man wants to use drugs.)

    There are also plenty of women who believe they have special reason to be pro-life because they’re women, just as there are plenty of women who believe they have special reason to be pro-choice because they’re women. So it isn’t merely that not all women are pro-choice; it’s that the same rhetorical tricks turn up on both sides of the argument, because women on both sides have wombs. While I’m happy to grant that a woman who doesn’t want to be a parent has a greater stake in keeping abortion legal than I do, I also have to grant that a woman who has experienced a nascent person growing inside her has had an experience that I’ll never have.

    All of which is beside the point as far as both the ethics of abortion and the candidacy of Ron Paul are concerned. I just don’t believe that the gender politics of abortion cut only one way. Or if they do, they cut against men regardless of whether we’re pro-choice, pro-life, or pro-something-inbetween.

  8. Rad Geek

    quasibill,

    One can make any observation one wants, but this one would be misplaced.

    Unlike the men I quoted above, I’m not claiming that one should support pro-war or anti-withdrawal candidates in order to protect abortion rights (thus, for example, I will not vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination). I fully advocate taking radical action towards ending the war in Iraq and preventing war on Iran. I just don’t advocate doing so in a way that pisses all over the importance of activism for abortion rights. Other people’s abortion rights aren’t mine to trade off. If there’s no effective way to do this through electoral politics, then the answer is to find means other than electoral politics that don’t involve this kind of political calculus.

    As for what an individual Iraqi or an individual Iranian might think, I certainly sympathize, but no matter how hellish the situation, that doesn’t confer a right to commandeer some innocent woman’s body in order to get relief from unrelated third parties.

    I’m male, but I have no qualm with saying that killing or permanently maiming hundreds of people/day is significantly more evil than forcing a women to carry an unwanted child for a few extra months

    I’m not interested in ranking all the instances of massive suffering in the world to determine whose is worst or whose matters most. My position is based on something else.

    However, I will say that the prospect forced pregnancy affects a lot more than a singular woman (on average, there are about 25,000 abortions every week in the United States alone), and that the implicit claim that criminalizing abortion wouldn’t kill or maim innocent victims is absolutely false.

    Jesse,

    But there are plenty of men who believe they have a stake in abortion being legal ….

    Sure. There are also many men (like me) who have a personal stake in the matter because pro-life laws could very well have killed or maimed or imprisoned women who we know and love. That stuff matters. But I hope you understand why these kind of indirect stakes in the matter are going to tend to be weaker than the direct interest that women have in the matter, and how this is likely to color some men’s political judgments.

    There are also plenty of women who believe they have special reason to be pro-life because they’re women, ….

    I have no problem a woman who concludes that she, personally, could never have an abortion, based on experiences that I as a man will never have. Not my business to pry on that one. I do object to women who believe that their personal experiences as women give them some kind of authority to legally commandeer other women’s bodies for baby-making. Just as an individual woman’s right to abortion is not a man’s to give, it is also not some other woman’s to give.

    But I don’t think that any of this has much to do with my specific claims about men’s likelihood to marginalize or dismiss the importance of abortion rights.

  9. labyrus

    Okay, I just don’t really get the whole “hold your nose and support Ron Paul” thing. It doesn’t make sense because Ron Paul has virtually no chance of winning the presidency. Now, even as someone who’s kind of an idealist and an anarchist, I can recongnize the importance of sometimes participating in an election, if it’s down to two front-runners and one of them is substantially worse than the other on issues that are vital to me. This is defensive voting, it’s a valid tactic when you can vote for a winner.

    However, supporting Ron Paul isn’t defensive voting because it’s obvious to everyone that he has no choice, and the US presidential election is a simple first-past-the-post system. Supporting Ron Paul has no real effect on the decisions made by the American State about the war. It’s simply a symbolic gesture, and if a symbolic gesture is what you’re going for, and you genuinely care about ending the war enough that you’re willing to curtail other people’s rights over it, I could think of dozens of actions that are more likely to actually have an impact.

  10. Michael Enright

    What I found bizarre is the comments that people make suggesting that they are willing to do whatever tradeoff becasue Ron Paul will “stop the war”.

    If the point is to stop the war, then Ron Paul won’t do it because he won’t be ellected. If trade-offs are desired to stop the war then we have to be willing to trade off much much more than these few issues to find a political candidtate who has a reasonable chance of stopping the war. Furthermore, from the sentements expressed, I’m not sure why that is not the logical conclusion.

  11. Jouke van der Krieke

    According to Bryan Caplan’s book “The myth of the rational voter”, men are slightly more pro-choice than women. I think he got it from this article.

  12. quasibill

    Hey, whatever soothes your conscience.

    You are most definitely ranking the evils if you’re not willing to expend the minimal energy it takes to vote for Ron Paul, who, if he wins (which I admit is so unlikely as to be near impossible) will be in a position to turn off the war machine because you disagree with his stance on an issue that he, if elected, will have no real power to affect.

    You ARE trading off, whether you like it or not. Inaction is still a choice. Your other actions have even less of a chance of stopping the slaughter than a vote for Ron Paul. The U.S. military machine laughs at whatever it is you are doing that makes you feel like you’re acting to stop it. Your failure to make even the minimal effort to vote for a person who would end the slaughter if he won is a revealed preference, if you will. And your revealed preference is that the daily slaughter of Iraqis is less important than making a symbolic statement about abortion.

    And it is much easier to make your smug denials of such a trade-off in your comfy chair here in the U.S. It is not misplaced, it is directly analagous to the point you made in the original post – you find it much easier to engage in philosophical sophistry from where you are than an average Iraqi would, because you don’t have to live with the consequences.

    And I’m well aware of the deaths and maimings involved in abortion prohibition – but of course your cites have more to do with a draconian prohibition than with what even Paul claims to favor (instead of what he claims to try to legislate). Again, I am closer to your position (by a long stretch) than his on the issue. I just recognize that the issue of personhood of the unborn is not a cut-and-dried issue, and those that quote only one side of the statistics (be they deaths of pregnant women or deaths of unborn) are engaged in rhetoric and not thoughtful analysis.

    As far as conferring rights, we all agree on that issue. The problem is one that Roderick has set forth – there is a death machine IN OPERATION and you get a chance to vote for a person who will shut it down. While not voting is not a rights violation, and may make some nice symbolic points, I still find it morally repugnant that you refuse to take that minor step because the person who will shut it down has some other beliefs that you disagree with.

    The question is, why do you have the time and comfort to worry about that philosophical issue, instead of worrying about how to survive the next day? Again, you can avoid the issue to salve your conscience, but it is the exact same answer you implied in your post.

    I’m no robotic Paul supporter. I disagree with him on abortion, immigration, and some other minor positions. I don’t support the position he’s running for. But I’m willing to make the minimal effort it requires to get the infinitesmal chance of stopping the slaughter. If the war (and looming expansions of it) weren’t an issue, I would be agreeing with you whole-heartedly. But if I had chance to do something that had an even infintesmal chance to stop the slaughter at no cost to me, and didn’t take it, I’d regret it.

  13. Jesse Walker

    Michael: I don’t think Paul will be elected, and I don’t think he personally will “stop the war.” But if he gives voice to a larger-than-expected antiwar sentiment within the Republican Party, that could certainly help to undermine the war effort.

  14. Bob Kaercher

    “You ARE trading off, whether you like it or not…And it is much easier to make your smug denials of such a trade-off in your comfy chair here in the U.S. It is not misplaced, it is directly analagous to the point you made in the original post – you find it much easier to engage in philosophical sophistry from where you are than an average Iraqi would, because you don’t have to live with the consequences.”

    Oh, please. Relay your comments to the hundreds of thousands of “brave young American men and women” who are the ones who are actually–VOLUNTARILY–carrying out the orders to occupy and brutalize the Afghanis and Iraqis. If they didn’t dutifully follow the orders of their masters like good little soldier boys and girls, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. It is not MY fault if the slaughter continues if I do not faithfully trudge off to the voting booth to cast a ballot for a man to occupy the most powerful office in the Federal government.

    I hate to be the one to burst your high school civics class bubble, but the electoral system is RIGGED. I don’t know, maybe living in Chicago for 12 years has just made me a tad too cynical about the integrity of elections, but if Paul is as sincere as he says he is about withdrawing from Iraq–and I believe he is, and I’m sure the entire Establishment believes he is–everything possible will be done to insure his defeat, to make sure that one way or another, by hook or by crook, he does not enter the Oval Office. BECAUSE PEACE CANDIDATES ARE UNACCEPTABLE TO THE WARMONGERING STATE. There’s too much loot to be had for the military-industrial complex–they simply won’t allow it, trust me.

    You are perfectly free to go cast a vote for Paul if you like, but others are not obligated to go pitch in for the good of the cause using your preferred tactic (and vice versa, I know), but from where I’m standing your method is a complete waste of time and effort. I think I’ve got only, oh, 200+ years of American history to back me up.

  15. Laura J.

    quasibill,

    I daresay Radgeek holds the US government’s invasion and continued occupation of Iraq to be absolutely unacceptable and a travesty of immense proportions; however, he also finds the actual and potential US government invasion of women’s bodies unacceptable. Given that he finds Ron Paul’s position on women’s rights completely and totally unacceptable, why should Radgeek consider Ron Paul’s position on women’s rights completely irrelevant simply because Ron Paul’s position on the occupation is relatively palatable?

  16. John T. Kennedy

    Re Carson:

    To those who don’t support Paul, for whatever reason, I have only one question: What is your plan for stopping the killing?

    1. I don’t have a plan for stopping the killing.

    2. Supporting Ron Paul is a truly pathetic plan for stopping the war in Iraq since he won’t be elected. It’s on a par with a plan to throw pennies a wishing well until the war stops.

  17. John T. Kennedy

    Rad,

    Abortion isn’t murder if you don’t think your killing a human, which may often be the case; but it’s homicide.

    I dislike Paul’s position on abortion because he’s clearly playing both sides of the street. Given his professed values he ought to support a constitutional amendment which recognizes that unborn children have rights.

  18. Micha Ghertner

    JTK,

    Even if Paul believes abortion is murder, couldn’t he argue that his theory of federalism takes priority? That is, the states should be free to set their own policies, even with regard to protection or violation of individual rights. I’m not sure how that fits with the 14th Amendment, though.

  19. Bob Kaercher

    “Supporting Ron Paul is a truly pathetic plan for stopping the war in Iraq since he won’t be elected. It’s on a par with a plan to throw pennies a wishing well until the war stops.”

    Yes, thank you! AMEN!!!

  20. John T. Kennedy

    Micha,

    Even prior to the 14th amendment, that would be exactly analogous to slavery. Would Paul support a Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery?

    A higher law than any federalism is fully implicit in the Bill of Rights; it’s framers held that they were recognizing natural rights, not inventing legal ones.

  21. John T. Kennedy

    Rad,

    As to trading rights, one could simply look at these as defensive preferences. There’s nothing wrong with me preferring to first secure the rights most important to me right now and leave others to secure their own rights as they may.

    In theory one could vote for Paul defensively. If practice voting for any presidential candidate is a ludicrous defensive tactic.

  22. Rad Geek

    Kennedy,

    That’s fine. I don’t actually intend to argue that every libertarian who supports abortion rights needs to treat it as a litmus test in the way that I do. Although I’m happy to explain my own reasons for so treating it.

    What I mean to suggest is that the defensive preferences of the libertarians in question might have something to do with the fact that they’ll never need to get an abortion. That doesn’t make the defensive preferences ipso facto wrong, but judging from the kind of responses that one gets when one makes this kind of point, there are a lot of professedly pro-choice men who’d rather not admit that it’s a factor.

  23. Rad Geek

    quasibill,

    1. If you want to try the praxeological approach, you’re not correctly describing the alternatives involved in the choice. It is not as if I am presented with a choice between (1) ending the war but criminalizing abortion or (2) not ending the war but keeping abortion decriminalized. I am not even presented with the choice between (1) installing Ron Paul in the Presidency with the likelihood that he’ll move to end the war while also moving to criminalize abortion, or (2) blocking Ron Paul from the Presidency with the likelihood that he would have moved to end the war while also moving to criminalize abortion. The choice involved is between (1) making a microscopic contribution to the likelihood that Ron Paul might become President, with almost no chance of affecting the outcome either way; or (2) not making that microscopic contribution, all while there are many other means at my disposal for contributing to efforts to end the war. Sussing out what my revealed preferences tell you about what I value vis-a-vis either the war or abortion from those revealed preferences is going to be somewhat harder than you seem to think.

    2. Even if, counter to fact, I were somehow presented with the choice of magically installing Ron Paul as president, but refused to do so, and even if there were no other strategies available for trying to bring about the end of the war, then it still would not be correct to infer from my refusal that I am thereby trading off the survival of Iraqis or Iranians in favor of women’s abortion rights, or that I am imposing some particular rank ordering between the two. It means that I am imposing side constraints on my actions, which is something different.

    3. For what it’s worth, my position on abortion doesn’t have anything in particular to do with a thesis about fetal personhood. I believe that if a woman had a full-grown philosophy professor whose survival depended on remaining lodged in her uterus, she would have the right to terminate that pregnancy, too, even at the cost of the professor’s life. Hence, I don’t know what one-sided presentation of statistics you’re talking about. I am not disturbed to say that if abortion involves killing a person, over a million people are being killed every year in America due to abortion. That may be a tragedy, but on my view the deaths are killings in self-defense. Of course, if it’s true that at least some prenates aren’t yet persons, then those abortions aren’t even tragedies. Obviously, if you don’t think that there is an unconditional right to an abortion that’s going to affect your view on how a candidate’s position on abortion should figure into your deliberations on voting. But to the extent the debate is about that, it’s no longer about whether or not my actions involve the same kinds of trade-offs that, say, Rich Paul is talking about. It’s about abortion rights simpliciter.

    4. It may very well be the case that the threat of forced pregnancy or back-alley abortions counts as no cost to you. But, to return to the point of this post, not everyone has that luxury.

  24. Rad Geek

    Kennedy,

    A quick addendum to try to make my point a little clearer. If a professedly pro-choice libertarian man, who intend to vote for Ron Paul anyway in spite of his anti-abortion position, were simply to say something like, Well, I realize that criminalizing abortion would violate women’s rights, but, as a man, that doesn’t matter so much to me or my life, so I’m going to vote for Ron Paul anyway for the sake of ending the war, — or a professedly open borders libertarian said something similar, mutatis mutandis, about immigration rights — I might disagree with his stance on any number of grounds, but I wouldn’t take issue with it in the same way that I take issue with the arguments I quoted above.

    The problem for the Paulistas is that putting the issue in such stark terms is probably incompatible with the goal of trying to recruit voters for an electoral campaign.

  25. John T. Kennedy

    Rad,

    “I believe that if a woman had a full-grown philosophy professor whose survival depended on remaining lodged in her uterus, she would have the right to terminate that pregnancy, too, even at the cost of the professor’s life.”

    I’s agree of course, unless she were responsible for putting the professor in that helpless state. Wouldn’t that make a difference?

  26. John T. Kennedy

    As to defensive choices, if I were given the choice between having airport security go back to what it was before 9/11 or ending the war I’d choose the former because it’s a bigger factor in my life.

  27. Rad Geek

    Kennedy,

    Depends. But in any case I don’t think it would make a difference with respect to rights. For two reasons.

    1. Whatever responsibilities she may have don’t extend to non-consensual use of her internal organs, for the same reasons that you can’t rightfully compel specific performance of labor contracts. Similarly, if I make a contract with you that I’ll provide you with a kidney in case yours fail, and then, years later, when you come calling for the kidney and I renege, then I owe you (a lot of) restitution for breaching the terms of our prior agreement, but you’re not entitled to strap me down and cut the kidney out against my will.

    2. A duty to rescue only makes sense where the notion of rescue makes sense. In the kind of thought experiments that Holmes likes to cite, you have a formerly independent person being put into a situation (either voluntarily or involuntarily) where she temporarily depends on the use of someone else’s property for her continued existence. Insofar as there’s a duty to rescue, it derives from your duty to restore her to her former state. But if the professor has never been in a prior state of independence then there’s nothing to restore him to. Helping him achieve a new state of independence is just a positive benefit, which he has no right to demand.

  28. John T. Kennedy

    1. Let’s say she damages the professor’s kidney so that he needs a new one to survive. She has a kidney that could keep him alive. It may be that no one is entitled to compel specific performance, but if he dies for lack of a kidney she’s committed homicide.

    2. Yes there is a difference between a person who has a former state to be restored to and one who doesn’t, but this is still a human being in a helpless state that she’s responsible for. Suppose she finds a way, safe to her, to torture her unborn child. Does that fact that the child had no state to be restored to entitle her to do so?

  29. Micha Ghertner

    JTK,

    It may be that no one is entitled to compel specific performance, but if he dies for lack of a kidney she’s committed homicide.

    In which case, the result would be quite strange: There would be no right to interfere with her getting an abortion, and no right to interfere with her refusal to donate a kidney, but a right to punish after the fact for murder. Is this correct?

    We might also ask, should the male partner also be held criminally liable, since he too was “responsible for putting the professor in that helpless state”? Perhaps we could only say the male party was partially negligent, since the final decision to abort or not abort was not up to him, but he did negligently contribute to placing a person (granting, of course, for the sake of this present argument that the entity in question has the status of personhood)in a helpless state that ultimately lead to that person’s termination. Had he been more careful, he would have either not placed a person in that state to begin with, or done his due diligence and ensured that his female partner planned to carry the person to term.

    Following Rad Geeks earlier suspicion, I would not be at all surprised if the threat of enforcement of such a punitive policy on both the male and female parties changed many men’s opinions on this issue.

  30. Rad Geek

    Kennedy,

    1. Sure, in that case she could be held legally liable for homicide. But only in virtue of the prior violation of rights involved in damaging the kidney, not her subsequent refusal to turn over her own kidney. I don’t regard conception as a prior violation of rights.

      Incidentally, even if I did accept this kind of reasoning for considering abortion homicide, it wouldn’t be a justification for defense association to enforce prohibitory abortion laws (for the same reason that a defense association couldn’t strap down the kidney-bearer and cut out her kidney against her will). As with the kidney case, the most it would be a basis for compelling would be after-the-fact restitution, not ex ante prohibition.

    2. If, again, we imagine that a fetus (embryo, whatever) is a rights-bearing person and is fully capable of feeling comfort, pain, etc., then she would not have the right to torture it gratuitously, however that would work. Similarly, I don’t have a right to torture trespassers in my home. But that’s because the torture serves no defensive purpose. I do have a right to use force, up to and including lethal force if necessary, to throw them out if they won’t go on their own.

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