Ayn Rand, Leftist

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Libertarian philosopher Roderick Long over at the Liberty and Power blog supplied an interesting post on Ayn Rand's birthday on February 2, in which he argues that the mighty libertarian could be read as having quite the lefty streak. An excerpt:

There are in effect two Rands, or two strands in Rand: a left-libertarian, feminist, anti-militarist, anti-corporatist, benevolent, experimental strand, and a conservative, patriarchal, homophobic, flag-worshipping, boss-worshipping, dogmatic strand. Which strand represents the "true" Rand? Well, both of them; she just is precisely the person who tried to combine these two strands.

A better question is: which strand most accurately expresses her fundamental principles? And here it seems to me that the answer is: the left-libertarian strand. The conservative strand, as I see it, is in large part (not entirely–human psychology and intellectual development are complex matters, and I don't mean to be offering some sort of reductionist account) an expression of Rand's understandably hostile reaction to the Soviet environment in which she was raised. I suspect that she tended to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything (well, almost anything–not atheism, obviously, or contextual analysis) that reminded her of Soviet propaganda or was associated in any way with pro-Soviet sympathies.

Very worth reading in its entirety for those interested in Rand or libertarian intellectual history and theory.

As is, by the by, Reason's March 2005 issue noting the centennial of her birth last year, featuring Cathy Young's take on Rand's legacy, and our notorious "Rand-O-Rama" survey of Randiana in culture, popular and otherwise. My own take on Rand's meaning appeared in Cato Policy Report in its March/April 2005 issue.

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  1. Haven’t RTFA, but this-

    “feminist, anti-militarist, anti-corporatist, benevolent, experimental strand, and a conservative, patriarchal, homophobic, flag-worshipping, boss-worshipping, dogmatic strand.”

    -tells me all I need to know.

    Benevolent is a left-trait? Oh stop it. Am I expected to take this seriously?

  2. She stated quite clearly that the right (as it existed then) was a bigger threat to liberty than the left in Capiatalism, as well as in over two dozen issues of the Ayn Rand Letter. This shouldn’t surprise anyone except those who haven’t actually read her.

  3. I suspect that she tended to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that reminded her of Soviet propaganda

    From the list of conservative crap she supported, I think it’s just as likely that she took the facist tendencies of the Soviet Union to heart: killing civilians, censoring government opponents, homophobia, anti-feminism? Sounds like the perfect intersection of mid-20th century USA and USSR.

  4. What wellfellow said. I’m glad the author positioned libertarian thinking in such clear binary terms. Blech.

  5. This reminds me of the point about Orwell being anti-soviet communism in his work. “Animal Farm” was supposedly all about Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky.

    But then again Orwell seems to be a civil (leftist) libertarian above all.

    Orwell was anti-totalitarian, he used the soviets as the biggest baddest example of it. The soviet dictatorshop of the proletariat more resembled corporatism than communism as Narx envisioned it.

    Was “Howard Roark” an anti-comminist or really anti-corporatist? He was both.

    Live (work)free or die was his credo. Isn’t that phrase on a license plate somewhere? (I wonder if New Hampshire prints it’s plates with prison labor? Hehey)

    Check out the Orwell short story (it’s in the Orwell online archives)about him shooting a rogue elephant when he served in the British army in India. Illuminating on this topic somehow?

  6. From the list of conservative crap she supported, I think it’s just as likely that she took the facist tendencies of the Soviet Union to heart: killing civilians, censoring government opponents, homophobia, anti-feminism? Sounds like the perfect intersection of mid-20th century USA and USSR.
    Can you name the conservative crap she supported? As in actual references? I was never a big Rand fan, mostly because all the Objectivists I met were humorless pricks, but I have never found anything in any of her major works that supported censorship, or homophobia, or killing civilians.

  7. I’m not finished being annoyed. I just RTFA despite my hesitation.

    According to this article, “glamorizing rape” is a “decidedly right-leaning” and conservative position.

    This is an “interesting post”??

  8. I’m not finished being annoyed. I just RTFA against my better judgement.

    According to this article, “glamorizing rape” is a “decidedly right-leaning” and conservative position.

    This is an “interesting post”??

  9. oops. this server rules.

  10. It’s very typical of the left to think that they’re benevolent and that the right would be characterized by things like glamorizing rape.

    But then, would the right not likewise think pure thoughts about themselves and horrid things about their opponents?

    Not that anyone of any political persuasion shouldn’t be criticized whenever they spew so (they should be!), but my larger point is that since Long’s failings in this regard are all-too-typical of the all-too-human, perhaps they say very little about him or about his analysis.

    Furthermore, even someone who is full of shit 99% of the time can still be brilliant and thought provoking the other 1%.

    Summary: don’t write Long off just because of a couple of glaring errors that are only typical of the species anyway.

  11. I just RTFA against my better judgement.

    Dontcha hate it when that happens? Of course, you could really get yourself spun up by RTFB…;>

    I didn’t see in any of the literature I’ve read that she put out the accusations you referenced. Then again, I haven’t read all that she wrote, nor attempted to do an indepth study of her life. I do, however, have a bumper sticker on the back of the car which says “Who is John Galt?” which pretty much shows that what I have read, I find value it.

  12. Fyodor,

    His glaring errors are central to his thesis. He is attempting to show that Rand is left-leaning, yet his definition of left-leaning is ignorant at best. His definition of right-leaning is little more than an ad hominem attack. Rubbish.

  13. “His definition of right-leaning is little more than an ad hominem attack. Rubbish.”

    How do you know he wasn’t talking about what he saw as traits common to some on the right, as opposed to defining the right? Just because some A are B doesn’t mean that all A are B, and he doesn’t say that all A (conservatives) are B(assholes).

  14. I’d respect the cunt a lot more if she didn’t start what amounts to a religion out of her ideas. The beauty of libertarianism is its amorality, and objectivism taints it with saying that maximizing self-interest is morally right.

  15. libertarianism is its amorality,

    Libertarianism is not amoral.

  16. As time has passed, I’ve become unsure whether Ayn Rand ever actually had a political philosophy, per se, as opposed to a rationalized collection of knee-jerk reactions for or against people and places that bumped against her narcissistic mindset.

    Her rape fetish, which is on display several times in Atlas Shrugged, is the perfect example: she tries to turn this sick impulse into some kind of bold-living exemplar. “Why do you always have to ask?!”

    But labeling her left, or right, is useless, and as for most libertarians, beside the point.

    If there’s a libertarian dichotomy I can get behind, it’s between two books: Atlas Shrugged, on one hand, and The Illuminatus Trilogy on the other.

    My allegiance goes to the latter.

  17. Is there a distinction (or a congruence?) between what this fellow is saying and Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s writings that attempt to place Rand in the ‘dialectical’ camp?

    Discuss.

  18. What Another Tim said. Does everything have to be divided into left and right, as if those are the only choices? Seems like it was more of an individualist vs. statist thing with Rand anyway.

  19. Libertarianism is not ammoral as it is based on a strict respect for the individual rights.

    I think what Herrick And His Balls is referring to is libertarianism’s neutrality on certain matters on which Rand takes the kind of stand for which libertarianism’s neutrality is often mistaken for tacitly condoning. Specifically, libertarianism is neutral on the matter of private charity, whereas Rand stood foresquare against it, a stand which is conflated with libertarianism’s opposition to taxpayer supported welfare by those who wish to paint libertarianism as being based on nefarious greed and callousness towards those less fortunate.

  20. Ugh, do many libertarians consider themselves (or libertarianism) “amoral?” To me, the very point, the very foundation, of libertarianism is a fundamental moral principle: it is wrong to initiate the use of force against other people.

  21. “The beauty of libertarianism is its amorality.”

    That’s idiotic, Herrick.
    But it’s one of the reasons why Rand despised so-called libertarians.

  22. libertarianism is neutral on the matter of private charity, whereas Rand stood foresquare against it

    Wrong. Jesus H, have you guys even read Rand? She was against the compulsory obligation of providing charity against one’s will to anyone who demanded it and claimed a right to receive it. She was all in favor of voluntary, personal charity and in fact practiced it herself with worthy recipients, people she valued.

  23. And that’s why I despise Rand right back.

  24. I don’t espouse libertarian beliefs because I think they’re morally right. I espouse them because I think they’re logical.

  25. I don’t espouse libertarian beliefs because I think they’re morally right. I espouse them because I think they’re logical.

    Don’t confuse sensible with logical.

  26. Have to go with what Ed said.

    Rand came out in favor of private charity in at least one essay in “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

  27. Rand is arguably closer to libertarianism than any other political outlook.

    However, I’ve always gotten the impression from her writing that she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that if you give people freedom, some of them will choose to step away from the ideals of hard work and moving up in the world to smoke a bowl.

  28. She was all in favor of voluntary, personal charity and in fact practiced it herself with worthy recipients, people she valued.

    Whether or not Objectivism supported a belief in charity turns on one’s definintion of charity. One can argue that the belief that altruism doesn’t exist precludes any sort of charitable action, because the person in question will always see themselves as gaining some sort of value from the transaction. I don’t know if there’s some intangible benevolent motivation that makes it “charity,” but if there is, then Objectivism can’t be charitable.

  29. This looks like the academic anarchist version of a mid-life crisis.

    I’ve been a Long fan for a long time, but his new crusade to convince his fellow anarchic sorts that we’re all really leftists — or at least that we need to stop disagreeing with them, because, really, lefties are better people than we are — is fucking sad.

    Philosophically, it’s unnecessary (none of us are the kind of rightist he’s bitching about), and his tone isn’t helping him make his case, unless his case is only “My feelings are morally superior to yours.”

    This is about making himself (personally) more agreeable to his professional peers — which is totally gonna work — not really about anything he actually believes (which evidently he’s been feeling guilty about lately).

    Buy a Corvette and STFU.

  30. Ed,

    I confess I have not read much Rand and am going largely on what I have heard, plus my interpretation of the movie The Fountainhead, though that may have been influenced by what I heard.

    Still, charity towards those deemed “worthy” and “valued” is clearly different from the same towards strangers or towards one merely feels compassion for, totally aside from their worth. The former sounds more like helping friends than what we typically consider charity. But the latter can still be entirely voluntary. Just so I know, did she comment on purely voluntary charity towards pure strangers?

  31. One can argue that the belief that altruism doesn’t exist precludes any sort of charitable action, because the person in question will always see themselves as gaining some sort of value from the transaction.

    Y’know, I wrestled with this issue as a much younger man. Eventually I came to the conclusion of who gives a fuck about the underlying inner motivation. Well, unless there’s some ulterior agenda, but that will sooner or later be realized in behavior. At least if it matters, anyway. But if someone helps someone else in order to feel good, it seems like a purely philophical matter and pretty unimportant to anything in the real world to point out that it’s not pure altruism because the helper got something out of it by feeling good about it. Obviously there’s a difference between helping someone to feel good and hurting someone (or whatever) to feel good. And there’s a difference between helping people for whatever reason and not helping people. Perhaps Rand’s point was merely to beware of the potential for hidden motives, which is fair enough.

  32. You know what, I shouldn’t be so bitter that she sprouted off a pseudo-religion of humorless freaks, because she did through her popular writing expose ideas of freedom to many people who may not have otherwise been exposed to them.

  33. “I don’t know if there’s some intangible benevolent motivation that makes it “charity,” but if there is, then Objectivism can’t be charitable.”

    But in the Objectivist philosophy, that one gets an internal warm fuzzy from dropping a few bucks in the Salvation Army buckets, or volunteers at a soup kitchen is immaterial.

    In the end, I’ve always been annoyed at the debate over whether or not there’s any such thing as true altruism. The neat thing about Objectivism is it doesn’t give a flying fuck if you derive some sort of pleasure, or happy feeling, or whatever for helping other people. In fact, it condones it.

  34. In re: private charity, I think what Barbara Branden said (back when she was rolling with the Rand clique) sums it up best:

    Whiner: “What about the poor in a totally free society? Who will take care of them?”

    Branden: “If you want to, nobody will stop you.”

    I always liked this retort because it’s a succinct “fuck off” that carries a message.

  35. Why did I write Herrick and Her Balls above? I was probably thinking of Ayn Rand’s.

  36. If there’s a libertarian dichotomy I can get behind, it’s between two books: Atlas Shrugged, on one hand, and The Illuminatus Trilogy on the other.

    My allegiance goes to the latter.

    Well said — I couldn’t agree more.

    I find the author’s distinction between the two sides of Rand quite instructive — and I’ve read every bit of non-fiction Rand ever wrote (her fiction was execrable). I even wrote my undergrad thesis on it.

    The fact is, most people on the right simply are less benevolent, if by that you mean less motivated by a desire to help others less fortunate. There’s the quasi-fascist right that wants to impose medieval religious strictures, and then the libertarian right, with its “I’ll mind my business and you mind yours” attitude. Neither is motivated by benevolence. I know libertarianism can be interpreted as “moral,” what with the prohibition of violence against others, but that kind of morality is completely abstract, purely a logical construct. Benevolence and compassion — real feelings of being indebted to others — incline people toward the left. This may not be true strictly in terms of the logical structure of various ideologies, but it is certainly true in psychological and sociological terms.

    Basically, I was — and am — down with Rand’s “left-libertarian, feminist, anti-militarist, anti-corporatist, benevolent, experimental strand.” But her manifest lack of simple fellow-feeling made her seem like a sad, stunted person to me. And that is how her devoted followers (of whom I’ve met very many) always struck me. Again, this is not some logical derivation from Objectivism, but an empirical observation.

    In the end, where I’ve come down is this: Love is primary. I would rather love and be loved than be right, by whatever standards I judged such things. If your ideology or philosophy yields love, all the better for your philosophy. If it doesn’t, all the worse for it. Human reasoning is fallible, distorted in a thousand visible and invisible ways. Love is divine; it transcends reasoning. (And I say that metaphorically, as a dedicated atheist.)

    Such fru-fru talk will no doubt be savaged by such hard-headed, logic-lovin’ types as yourselves. That’s fine.

    My point about Rand is just this: By studying Objectivism pretty intensely, I came around to the point of view that what kind of person you are is ultimately more important than the veracity or logical coherence of your belief set. I’d like to be good. The rest is chaff.

  37. what kind of person you are is ultimately more important than the veracity or logical coherence of your belief set.

    Oftentimes when people say something is “important” I find myself wanting to ask: important to what? Importance is a meaningless concept by itself. Of course, often it’s obvious what something is “important” to, and thus not necessary to explain. But plenty of other times, it’s not so obvious. For me, this is one of the latter. Important to what, Realish? Important to being a nice person, liked and valued by one’s peers? I’d agree heartily that I’d probably prefer the company of a nice and decent person whom I considered wrong on matters of public policy than vice versa. But, the logical extension of your rant, culminated in your final phrases “I’d like to be good. The rest is chaff,” seems over the top and downright nihilistic. Is being logically correct meaningless and valueless? On the face of it, I’d have a hard time accepting that. But, sigh, perhaps in a certain way you’re right, it is after all all a game, all so much cosmic theater….

    As to your other point, well, it’s only natural to put great credence on one’s personal observations. Funny, though, how our own “empirical” observations often seem hopelessly biased to others. Ever hear of the liberal who loves humanity but hates people? I’ve seen good people and I’ve seen jerks from all points on the typical political spectrum, so I’m skeptical that such characteristics as lovingness and caring about those less fortunate and appreciation of others really follow political beliefs one way or the other. But then, I wouldn’t claim to have studied the matter in a controlled setting. You may be possibly be right, but I’ll reserve judgment, and preserve my skepticism. And I’ll remember that there are those who are every bit as sure as you are that the opposite is true. Based, of course, on their empirical observation.

  38. I’d agree heartily that I’d probably prefer the company of a nice and decent person whom I considered wrong on matters of public policy than vice versa.

    On second thought, I’d say there are too many pros and cons each way to make a categorically exclusive choice! Probably best to have some of both in one’s life!

  39. This is about making himself (personally) more agreeable to his professional peers — which is totally gonna work — not really about anything he actually believes (which evidently he’s been feeling guilty about lately).

    I have actually taken a few classes from Long, and follow his blog regularly (though I admit large portions of it are far over my head). I’m fairly ambivalent on his leftist take on libertarianism, and I can’t say I know him very well, but I my firm impression of him is that he wouldn’t take a position for the sake of his peers’ opinion or guilt. Guy’s fucking brilliant, and in the circles he travels in, someone would call him on his shit, in the parlance of our times.

  40. Anarcho-Asshole,

    “Philosophically, it’s unnecessary (none of us are the kind of rightist he’s bitching about), and his tone isn’t helping him make his case, unless his case is only “My feelings are morally superior to yours.”

    Well said. It’s certainly the latter, and frankly, I’m not interested in his anecdotal experience with ‘conservatives’. I like how ‘homophobic’ is an essential quality of a conservative. That and ‘glamorizing rape’, which I mentioned before and still can’t get over. Didn’t realize those were philosophical tenants of the right. About as accurate as saying ‘institutionalized racism’ and ‘low productivity’ define the left.

  41. The fact is, most people on the right simply are less benevolent, if by that you mean less motivated by a desire to help others less fortunate.

    Is there actually any data to support this stereotype? Personally, I’d love to see some kind of non-polemical summary of a survey that compares charitable giving, as a proportion of income, and also by amount of time donated to volunteerism as a percentage of time spent at a job, for persons self-identified as liberal, conservative, and libertarian.

    Unfortunately, all I can find is this, which contains many references to a study by the Catalogue of Philanthropy, whatever that is, which seems to show that the populations of “red states” are proportionately more charitable than populations of “blue states.”

    However, I’m not sure that such data aggregated state by state really shows us enough. For example, it could be that liberals living in red states are the most generous people of all, for some reason outshining liberals living in blue states as well as conservatives living anywhere. I can’t think of any reason to believe this, but you can’t tell otherwise from the study.

  42. By the way, I think it’s best to view libertarianism as a theory of the law, rather than a (complete) theory of morality.

    In other words, libertarian tells you what should or shouldn’t be legal. It is based on a moral principle — “Though shall not initiate coercion in the form of force, theft or fraud” — but it basically it uses this to decide what the law must allow you to do, not necessarily what you should do.

    As for what you might be somehow obligated to do that the law does not require, or what you should abstain from doing that the law does not prohibit, libertarianism is silent. By design. It says, “Those things are up to you do decide. (And then you must take the consequences.)”

  43. This is purely anecdotal, but the conservatives I’ve know gave much more to charity than the liberals. Why? The conservatives believed that they, not the government, should help the less fortunate. The liberals always thought that it was the government’s job.

    As far as glorifying rape goes, I’ve never know a single human being that glorified rape, regardless of their political affiliation. This guy may be brilliant, but even brilliant people say incredibly stupid things on occasion.

    (I must admit, Rand’s glorification of rape struck me as very odd, at the least!)

  44. I found this to be one of the more enlightening HnR threads ever. Realish’s comment was downright mindblowing. Fyodor’s musings keep things honest and deep. He is right about the need for logical a-holes — it is embarrassing to admit, but I certainly feel that need.

    As far as what the original post said, some of the regular readers might recall my proposals to shrink the military and the hard-fought resistance those proposals get here at HnR. None of this stuf about Rand’s paradoxes answers the military spending brew-ha-ha, but it is tough not to detect a benevolence deficit when one of the HnR regulars comes out and says *of course,* we agree with you, Dave, that Social Security be phased out, but we only begin to consider military after the social spending is all gone. The virtue of the right on this issue isn’t benevolence, it is respect for property rights — the property of the taxpayers who pay for SS and the property of people who don’t want their stuf blown up by enemy bombs. The reason that I wouldn’t characterize this respect for property as benevolence is that poor people end up paying to protect rich people’s stuff. In other words, the ppl who own 95% of the things in the US aren’t footing 95% of the military bill. It is something of a transfer payment from relatively poor to relatively rich people. Personally, I think it is too much respect for property rights coming at the expense of benevolence, but fortunately we have Phil to fill out my half dialectic.

  45. the ppl who own 95% of the things in the US aren’t footing 95% of the military bill.

    Are you sure of that? Since we have a progressive income tax, it could easily be the case that richer folks pay a higher proportion of their wealth for military security than do poorer folks. Now I know about loopholes and such, and once you get to a certain point the progressiveness stops pushing the tax percentage up, but still I’d be surprised if the net effect was enough to make your assertion true. So do you know that, or is it just something that seems to be the case? Of course, unless you have a perfectly distributed taxation scheme, someone’s always going to be subsidizing someone else. I’m certainly okay with the idea that we should lean in the direction of the rich subsidizing the poor rather than vice versa, but since you’re putting it in terms of one group unfairly subsidizing another, please realize that as long as there’s taxation, there will inevitably be that “subsidization” effect going on, because perfection is not a human option.

  46. Fyodor,
    Most of the wealth being protected never takes the form of income. That is the focus on progressive income tax rates is misplaced. Give us a progressive tax rate on capital gains and I think we could make the 95% owners of the wealth foot 95% of the protection bill.

    If that ever happened (it never will), you would probably see the military trimmed in about exactly the maner I keep suggesting here at HnR.

  47. As a matter of fact, in my fantasy scenario where capital gains tax pays for the military, I think at least some of the resident hawks here would do a complete flip-flop on the issue of military spending. It really tears me up that I will never get a chance to know these things.

  48. Huh … well here’s another take on the military spending idea. Let’s say we paid taxes to support the military strictly from a defensivist viewpoint. (I know, I know … then we would be paying so little we might not even bother debating the issue, but still.) Would we be paying taxes to protect our wealth, or our lives? Both, obviously.

    So perhaps a fair way to assess defense taxes on people would be a per-head tax, since everyone’s life is equally important to him or herself. Then on top of that you assess a tax based – not on income – but on accumulated property and wealth, since you have more at stake if your net worth is $1 billion than one dollar.

  49. Pirate Jo,

    Well that’s one valid way of looking at it — one of about a zillion! Like I say, taxing people in such a way that no one could be seen to be subsidizing someone else — or paying more than or less than their “fair” share — is essentially impossible. I mean, sure, we could do it in such a way that somewhat approximates one person’s view, but someone will of course always disagree. Such is politics and the impossibility of doing something “fair” through the political process, even though that’s always the goal.

    Dave W,

    I think there’s less of a felt connection between taxation and government spending than you presume. That’s a signficant reason why government spending is always spiraling out of control. (Totally aside from the issue of what is the “fair” way to tax capital gains. I tend to think it should be taxed no differently than wages, though I’m somewhat sympathetic to the notion that investment is more directly tied to wealth creation and thus taxing capital gains at the levels wages get taxed at would slow the whole economy and thus make everyone poorer, not just the folks making the capital gains, but…who knows.)

  50. Would we be paying taxes to protect our wealth, or our lives? Both, obviously

    The poor pay for protection of their lives by being vulnerable to the draft. In other words, the “life” as opposed to property protection is in-kind, rather than cash.

    Lanny Chiu and I were discussing this on a thread that is now dropping. He was citing the military budget as a percentage of GDP. Being kind of unsavvy about economics, I do not know whether the GDP is the appropriate yardstick. Is the value of the Twin Towers (back when it was standing) reflected, as such and directly, in the GDP or not?

    What I do know is this:

    when somebody says that America has such huge assets that require it to have a proportionately huge military, then I would argue that taxes should come proportionately from that asset pool, the whole of that asset pool, when it comes time to pay the piper. An income tax, even an astoundingly progressive income tax, will probably not do the trick on this.

  51. In fact, even a larger capital gains tax would probably not tap proportionately into the asset pool when it comes to funding defense. Just like much of the asset pool is never transferred a income, some of it is never transferred as a capital gain either.

    If what we are proportionately defending is wealth, then that is what the military taxes should be pulled from. When I said that Lanny wouldn’t like where I was headed, this is what I was talking about. This kind of wealth tax would turn RCD into a dove in a New York minute. I just know it.

  52. I have always wondered why leftist academics in English departments have not given Rand some prominence. She was an enormously successful woman writer and her book We the Living was a very feminist book. But alas, she believed in capitalism so the baby must go with the bathwater in their eyes…

  53. Dave W, you’ve opened a whole ‘nother can of worms with the wealth tax thing, and I’m not gonna bother to address that now.

  54. Sounds good, Fyodor, but b4 other people start tarring me with a wealth tax brush on other threads, let me be clear about what I am really advocating here. I am not neccessarily for a wealth tax, but what I am for is this:

    If the size of the military budget is proportional to the size of the assets being protected by the military, then that identical protected pool of assets should be proportionately taxed, across its entirety, to pay for that proportional military protection.

    Maybe a wealth tax proceeds logically from this statement and maybe it doesn’t. The wealth tax is not the thing. The thing is the statement I set off in bold text in this post.

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