Forget Negativity—Libertarians for Positive Liberty?

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My friend Jonah Goldberg, posting a blog item over at National Review, muses on what he sees as a momentous shift in libertarian thinking. Libertarians, he argues, have moved from primarily focusing on the struggle to keep the government out of our businesses and bedrooms to championing the maximization of our cultural and life choices. He points to economist Tyler Cowen's interesting observation that as wealth increases so too does government.

I can't help but note that it is not as though a lot of Jonah's conservative buddies have shown themselves to be overly concerned about the size and scope of government intrusion in our lives.

Anyway, are libertarians in danger of selling their liberty for the mess of pottage of mere material wealth and comfort? Discuss.

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  1. One is supposed to embrace “negative liberty” without thinking it leads to a better life? Why would anybody bother, if they didn’t expect some payoff in terms of positive outcomes>?

    What’s the point of supporting lower taxes and less regulation, except that they allow people to lead better lives?

  2. I don’t think there’s a disconnect there. There will tend to be more cultural and life choices in a free and open society. Government, of course, tends to stifle both freedom and openness.

  3. When the “but Clinton did it” game won’t work, try the new “but libertarians do it” game.

    I just see this as libertarians becoming more practical and accepting that no matter how much one rants, government will continue to spend. Is there something wrong with finding the most libertarian path given the tools currently available?

  4. Jonah Goldberg is an asshat, his conception of libertarianism is as retarded as any libertarian’s.

    At least he’s finally ‘getting it’. I can’t remember all the times he insisted libertarianism was strictly a political ideology with no broader philosophical applications to the culture. Or worse, that libertarians weren’t really sincere in their objections to using scripture as a source of law.

  5. I am going to be hearing “Get in the zone of positivity, not negativity, cuz we gotta strive for longevity” in my head all day.

  6. I sold mine on Ebay yesterday.

  7. I’m really not sure what Goldberg is going for here.

  8. Tyler Cowen’s observation (as described here) doesn’t sound very accurate, since countries like Cuba and North Korea have plenty of government and very little wealth.

  9. Peter Bagge: I have an observation. Libertarians used to be primarily tax hawks. The argument went that taxes affect everybody and they affect your everyday life. Social issues could be placed in a secondary category because they only affected special interest groups and the like. Now that our country is rich, we don’t worry about taxes as much as we used to. I’m not going broke anytime soon. While taxes affect everybody, they affect only a percentage of their income. When the government starts legislating morals, gets God to start banning stuff, then the affected parties are 100% precluded from what they want to do. We have money, so the tax issue is less important (but still important) than an expanding government that thinks it has a mandate from God.

  10. I’m using God-based moral legislation as an example, but it could be any restrictive legislation.

  11. I disagree – the suggestion that with greater wealth comes larger government doesn’t necessarily have a corollary that lesser wealth begets smaller government.

  12. The problem is that for most of humanity libertinism is pretty thin gruel. A world where “economic freedom’s virtue lies in its ability to provide everybody the custom-made lifestyle of his choice” with no rules for anyone works well for some, but I suspect not so well for most. I remember reading an magazine article about the spread of Islam in prisons. The author interviewed a Protestant Chaplin at one prison in the UK. She gave the typical Church of England, if it feels good and is write for you everyone needs to self actualize kind of message. In contrast the Muslim Imam at the prison taught a strict form of the religion and gave the prisoner’s answers and rules to live by. Needless to say the Imam got a lot more converts than the Anglican.

    I don’t think you can build a truly libertine society with no mores or traditions beyond if it works for you do it. Eventually someone is going to come along with a set of values of oppressive values that will appeal to enough people to allow that group to take over and squash everyone else. The question shouldn’t be how do we free ourselves from tradition and values, but instead how do we modify those values to the least oppressive form while still providing enough stability to keep the really oppressive traditions at bay.

  13. whoops, a few posts snuck in there – was responding to Peter Bagge’s comment above.

  14. One is supposed to embrace “negative liberty” without thinking it leads to a better life? Why would anybody bother, if they didn’t expect some payoff in terms of positive outcomes>?

    What’s the point of supporting lower taxes and less regulation, except that they allow people to lead better lives?

    Our economy might show better growth if we allowed a certain percentage of our population to be enslaved, right?

    I don’t mean to invoke reductio absurtum, or whatever it’s called. I’m not trying to convince you slam dunk style that libertarianism is the one true path, nor accuse statists of being akin to slave traders. I’m only trying to get you to see, if perhaps by going to an extreme, that there are other reasons for “negative liberty” than mere supposed utilitarianism*. And in fact, it’s not all that “extreme” to many of us. Having one’s liberty curtailed in lieu of having violated someone else’s surely is a form of slavery (if not the exact form of which we speak when most typically using the term).

    *I say “supposed” because I think the difference between moral principle and utilitarianism can disappear the more one examines any issue. And in fact, the fact that slavery would hardly be very utilitarian to the slaves is a good example of that.

  15. I think he meant Tyler Durden in lieu of Tyler Cowen…

  16. fyodor-

    One can conjure up all sorts of hypotheticals and posit that they might give “better” outcomes (by some measure of “better”). The question is, on the margin, what’s the advantage of more of this and less of that? People want to hear a convincing and honest consequentialist argument on that point.

  17. “Libertarianism was once primarily concerned with negative liberty – i.e. delineating a zone free of government intrusion.”

    Once? That remains my primary concern. I can’t speak for anyone else.

    As much as I love having choices, I’ve never felt that they should be legislated into existence.

  18. fyodor,

    A certain percentage of out population living in slavery is a negative outcome. The better lives enjoyed by liberated slaves is a positive outcome.

    Absent these positive outcomes, what’s the point of ending slavery? What, other than the freedom enjoyed by the formerly enslaved, makes it the right thing to do?

  19. I thought this was supposed to be a discussion of positive things? It is a bright, pretty crisp day today in the DC beltway. So nice that every irritant in the vicinity of Reagan National Airport stoppe by my sinuses to give me an unscheduled day off!

    Continuing with the positive, from participating in the weekend threads about DC gun control, I am POSITIVE that if DC becomes a federal tax-free zone because they don’t have a member in the House of Representatives AND keeps their gun ban, I will still not move there. Why? Because my freedom is more important than money!

    Ron, did not know you were buddies with Mr. Goldberg, I have been a fan of his for years! Especially his “Conservatives in the Mist” stories.

    Now, in true /. style, I will go back and read the source article after I post this 🙂

  20. People want to hear a convincing and honest consequentialist argument on that point.

    Well sure, people want to hear that, and I’m not suggesting that libertarians focus on “moral” arguments to the exclusion of consequesncentialist ones. I was merely responding to joe’s post that seemed to question how anyone could possibly support liberty in lieu of consequential advantages. And of course, even if I think that liberty for others by and large does lead to a better life for me, I would never claim that that’s absolute. I think to some degree one has to recognize and care about the liberty of others (for its own sake) for libertarianism to “work” as a personal philosophy. Slavery may be an extreme case that conjures up distracting thoughts and feelings, but to prove that point, it’s rather perfect.

  21. fyodor,

    But Goldbert didn’t claim that libertarians have become interested in positive liberty just for themselves, but for society as a whole.

    Not to mention, the alternative Goldberg hearkens back to – libertarians promotes traditional virtue – is an example of positive liberty as well.

  22. This is a good thing.

    I’m a libertarian, at basis, because I have confidence in people in the aggregate to figure things out and come to good results. Both liberals and conservatives seem to lack that confidence. Emphasis on the positive is good.

  23. A certain percentage of out population living in slavery is a negative outcome. The better lives enjoyed by liberated slaves is a positive outcome.

    Absent these positive outcomes, what’s the point of ending slavery? What, other than the freedom enjoyed by the formerly enslaved, makes it the right thing to do?

    Well, I addressed that in the latter part of my post. Put another, perhaps more concise way, just like elminating slavery, “less taxation” and “lower taxes” are good things in and of themselves because they allow people more freedom. Whether allowing this freedom somehow hurts others I’m consciously setting aside for the moment. My point is that freedom is a good thing in and of itself, period, and “less regulation” and “lower taxes” mean more freedom compared to “more regulation” and “higher taxation”. Therefore, one does not have to show their benefits to others (or to ourselves in other ways) to support them as a form of making life better. You don’t have to agree with me that those are forms of “liberty”; but to those of us to whom they are, isn’t it pretty simple why we would support them, just as we would oppose slavery, in lieu of proof they would make life better in other ways?

  24. fyodor,

    Forget “other ways,” let’s stick with the people enjoying lower taxes all by themselves.

    Isn’t it precisely the greater opportunities and choices those people enjoy that make cutting their taxes a good thing? If their lives and opportunities were precisely as they were before, what good would have been accomplished for them?

  25. I guess what I’m saying is that the positive liberty/negative liberty distinction is entirely conceptual, and doesn’t translate into differences on the ground. Every negative liberty – freedom from the government taking your money – is also a positive liberty – freedom to do more things that require money.

  26. So, what is supposed to be wrong with what Mr. Goldberg wrote that touched off all of the snotty e-mail to him?

    What makes Lindsey’s overture significant is that he comes from the branch of libertarianism that actually matters: economics. Economic libertarians, under the leadership of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, have been so successful in the conservative movement – and the conservative movement has been so successful because of them – that “economic conservative” and “libertarian” have long been synonyms. But here’s Lindsey, an economic libertarian par excellence, trying to convince liberals that free markets are “progressive.” He wants liberals to accept the fact that libertarian means achieve liberal cultural ends. Rich societies become more tolerant of sexual freedom and civil rights, and invest more in education and the environment – and societies become rich by following the advice of the Friedmans and Hayeks. Lindsey proposes finding common ground with liberals on issues from agriculture subsidies (which are bad for the environment) to tax reform. His policy proposals would warm the cockles of any NR editor’s heart, and we should wish him luck.

    Other topics, like getting government out of marriage, are difficult, I will admit, to explain to Libertarians, Liberals, Leftists and Conservatives.

    The biggest problem I have encountered there is that all but the most hard-core of the Libertarians of the mentioned set use the same tactic for getting their “lifestyle” (anything, not just marriage) recognized: more laws and more government.

    Social Conservatives want laws against behavior, Leftists want laws on damn near everything including the drugs they want, Liberals want laws against speech they do not approve of, the list goes on.

    Perhaps I am seeing this in an odd way, but Libertarians are the only positive ones in the political spectrum.

    I find the Leftist method to be quite negative: ‘He gets the drugs he wants at the drug store, so I want pot in a government drug store, the laws are unfair so we need more of them.’

    From the Conservatives we get: ‘We need more laws to prevent people from getting hooked on bad drugs.’ (as Penn Gillette would respond: ‘Maybe we just need those laws to keep YOU from getting hooked on bad drugs, but not me.’)

    The Libertarian position, as I understand it, is the quite positive: ‘Just make it all legal and don’t expect everybody to join you.’

    The same can be applied to economics, with both the “Left” and the “Right” wanting endless regulation, but they just have different talking points.

    Actually, I am not buying that Libertarianism can even be negative. Even the most militant “big L” thing I can think of is “Leave us alone and nobody gets hurt.” What is so negative about that?

  27. The use of ‘positive freedom’ is being confused in relation to libertarian understanding of rights.

    It is good that more people can do more things as we all get wealthier. It is a legitimate way to argue for libertarianism when you are talking to a utilitarian who does not agree that negative liberty is a first order good in itself.

    If more people at the end of the day being able to do more things is the outcome we call positive freedom, that is fine, but note that this has never been the point of dispute between liberals and libertarians. The dispute is that liberals believe in prescriptive measures to produce this outcome, and many of these measures are, from a libertarian perspective, doomed to create greater harm to liberty as a whole.

    Why can’t you replace a right of property with a benevolent resource allocation from the government? Well, one reason is that there is a right in property – it is immoral to take from a person the hours of their life spent producing by just confiscating their product.

    But there is another reason. The power of freely exchanged property produces better outcomes for everyone at the end of the day. If you trust a government to be benevolent, you are a fool. If you think a government is wiser or remotely as flexible than a market’s billions of transactions, you don’t appreciate what the market is really doing. If the government allocates in a way that a market would not, it must be understood that there is an up front cost to that decision – something is not being made that would have been made and something is being funded that would not have been funded. You are up front harming people to help them, so you’d better be sure what you are doing.

    I read Cowen’s argument to be something like, “Look, there are likely types of government action that can amplify positive outcomes without causing a death spiral of inefficiency. Regulation of pollutants, done right, is one of those areas. There is a real commons problem and we need a way to address it, so lets we as libertarians influence the debate to prevent people not sensitive to the harms interference causes from being the only ones to shape policy.”

  28. As an initial reaction, I’d say the apparent contradiction lies in two confusions. First, a confusion between correlation and causation and, second, a confusion between more government and more government oppression.

    Except for our anarcho-capitalist friends, most libertarians would agree that at least a minimal government is necessary not only for (minimally) ordered maximum liberty but also for the creation of wealth that such liberty enables. However, there is little evidence that more government, per se, causes greater wealth. Moreover, as others have noted, there are any number of contemporary and historical examples of societies with lots of government oppression and little wealth.

    Totalitarian states may have massive governments, but such governments are either indifferent to or abysmally incapable of providing services to their subjects. Contemporary Western governments are massive, too, at least by libertarian standards, but their growth has come not so much from the inherently oppressive potential of the state to coerce but from their ability, however inefficiently, to provide services to a sufficient number of citizens to gain their support.

    But, if anything, this has been made possible only because such citizens have been wealthy enough, at least by historical standards, to afford unnecessary government. That is, they are acting as consumers, albeit foolish consumers, in purchasing more and more government as luxury goods.

    The libertarian assertion that they are being foolish in that regard is grounded in three separate concerns. First, the inevitable effect of even democratic government is that it coerces those who do not consent to any or all of its (dubious) services. Second, the larger and more powerful government is, the more likely it is to become coercive even toward its supporters. Third, oppressive or not, it is also inherently wasteful and inefficient.

    Finally, to answer Mr. Bailey’s question at least a bit more directly, it should come as little surprise that people will too often gladly sell their liberty for at least the promise of material security and no surprise at all that people with the means to do so will spend their resources, including both liberty and wealth, foolishly.

  29. Imagine a man is in an irreversable coma. If the law is changed so that the money he cannot earned would be taxed at a lower rate, and the factor he cannot build would be subject to less regulation, has the passage of that law made the world a better place, even to the tiniest degree?

  30. I guess what I’m saying is that the positive liberty/negative liberty distinction is entirely conceptual, and doesn’t translate into differences on the ground. Every negative liberty – freedom from the government taking your money – is also a positive liberty – freedom to do more things that require money.

    That’s one way of looking at it. But one needn’t be able to quantify the “positive” benefits to justify the “negative” freedom. Otherwise, we’re in the territory of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where you may as well off some unlikeable little old lady because no one liked her anyway and she probably didn’t even enjoy life herself. Yes, “negative” freedom enables “positive” freedoms. No, in a broad sense that may be part of what justifies it (pursuit of happiness, for instance), but not in a specific sense, and therefore not in a strict sense. I confess I didn’t RTFA and I’m responding more to what you’ve said than the post. But the whole point of liberal values, in the classic sense, is to want for everyone the freedom that you’d want for yourself. And thus my analogy to slavery, which clearly applies to regulations as people generally want others to be regulated, not themselves. As for taxation, well if someone is willing to pay higher taxes themselves for the benefits they derive, and see those benefits as worth the cost to his or her own liberty, who am I to argue? Just like with any commercial transaction, it’s part of that person’s freedom to exchange something that was previously theirs for something else they prefer to have. Of course the problem with taxes is that they affect others and not just oneself. So my apologies for not RTFA notwithstanding, I don’t see how we can leave “others” out of it. That’s what liberal values are all about. Otherwise you’d be all for the government leaving you but not care what it did to others. (One may argue that keeping the government from fugging with others keeps it from doing the same to you, but again, I’m leaving that aside for the moment.)

  31. There is a real commons problem and we need a way to address it, so lets we as libertarians influence the debate to prevent people not sensitive to the harms interference causes from being the only ones to shape policy.

    That is a reasonable point of view, and I am all in favor of applying libertarian insights to help produce the least distortionary policy, or even applying libertarian insights to argue that it would be better to simply let people adapt to slowly-emerging problems rather than try to heavily regulate the use of a commons.

    But that only works if one is willing to acknowledge the existence of a problem, i.e. consider the possibility that what’s being done to a commons (e.g. air, water) will in fact produce problems. Which is something I’ve blogged about recently at Jim Henley’s place…

  32. We’re talking past each other, fyodor.

    YOU – not me, you – have been arguing to set aside the impacts of negative freedom on others, than the directs effects of the lack of intrusion (the government not taking people’s money, for example) are, by themselves, enough to justify libertariansm.

    Isn’t “the freedom not to have your money taken” (negative freedom) the same thing as “the freedom to spend your money as you see fit” (positive freedom)?

  33. I’m sorry, that should read, “…that the direct effects of the lack of intrusion…”

  34. Isn’t “the freedom not to have your money taken” (negative freedom) the same thing as “the freedom to spend your money as you see fit” (positive freedom)?

    Not necessarily. One could get to keep all of his money but be barred from buying (hypothetically, mind you) food made from a particular fat. Likewise, one could have to hand over a portion of his income but be able to spend the remainder on whatever he wants.

    Bottom line: They’ll take my donuts from my cold, dead hands.

  35. Another point I meant to make regarding positive freedoms vs. rights:

    A right is that element of negative liberty a libertarian seeks to secure for all people, by force if necessary.

    A positive freedom is a happy outcome but is of necessity a lower order creature. The positive nature of the positive freedom means it is of necessity something that can only opportunistically be capitalized upon. You can’t have the positive freedom to choose any job you can imagine unless any job you can imagine actually exists. Someone has to supply it to you.

  36. “However, there is little evidence that more government, per se, causes greater wealth.”

    I think there is a lot of evidence; like the entire developing world. The people in places like Africa and the Middle-east are not necessarily any less intelligent or hard working than we are. Why are we so much richer and more successful on average than they are? Because we have a government that respects property rights, enforces a uniform rule of law and creates an environment where we can pursue our lives relatively free of molestation. If you lived in a world where everything you own is subject to the whim of the corrupt local offical or the tribe next door who was strong enough to take it from you, you would be pretty poor to. I would suggest your Anarco Capitalist friends move to somewhere like Somalia or some other place without a functioning government and then perhaps reconsider their stance on how the government per se doesn’t create wealth.

  37. I think there is a lot of evidence; like the entire developing world. The people in places like Africa and the Middle-east are not necessarily any less intelligent or hard working than we are. Why are we so much richer and more successful on average than they are? Because we have a government that respects property rights, enforces a uniform rule of law and creates an environment where we can pursue our lives relatively free of molestation.

    We can see the difference on our southern border and I get to hear the craziest excuses for it right here in Arlington, VA.

    A Mexican immigrant (he is legal, joe) fellow I know, quite successful as a programmer, frequently says “look at all of the productivity in the west (USA), imagine if Mexico still owned that and how productive we (Mexico) would be!”

    Pointing out that Mexico would have inefficently squandered it under Nationalism, just like they did with the resources they still have is met with strange looks and laughter, followed by Socialistic nonsense.

    For some reason even good, bright, well-to-do folk can confuse geography with society in creative ways.

  38. Cowen may be right. Or it might be something more like, as wealth increases, so does government by the way. But that’s only because so many other things grow as well – opportunities for cultural expression etc.

    I’d prefer more opportunities even if it means more government, rather than less opportunities and less government, since the thing that matters most is government size relative to available opportunities.

    The key is for the market to outpace gov’t growth.

  39. Guy,

    That is one of the reasons the Mexicans hate us so much. The fact is Mexico is a great country endowed with a better climate and just as many or more natural resources than the U.S. The Mexicans will never forgive Americans for not fucking their country up the way they did. Give Texas and California to the Mexican government and the Mexicans would be jumping over the border into Nevada and Oklahoma and what are now clean, safe, modern cities like Dallas and San Diago would be crime infested slums surrounding a few very wealthy and well secured enclaves.

  40. maximization of our cultural and life choices. . .
    mess of pottage of mere material wealth and comfort

    Oftentimes government regulation increases cultural and life choices. For example, when the government’s antitrust suit smashed AT&T into pieces, the amount of choice for telephone service consumers went up, not down.

    As a further example, when the FDA required prominent labelling of transfats, it became much easier to get either transfat, or non-transfat, food in a typical supermarket. Once again, regulation increased consumer choice.

    It should be also pointed out that “maximization of our cultural and life choices” is not coterminous “mere material wealth and comfort” as this Bailey post seems to suggest.

    Finally, the Mess Of Pottage ep can be found here:

    ftp://www.farceswannamo.com/Mess_Of_Pottage_ZIP/

  41. Let’s get back to Goldberg’s thesis.

    Libertarians today support small government because it allows people to have more stuff and do more things.

    Whereas old-style libertarians supported small government because________________.

  42. Give Texas and California to the Mexican government and the Mexicans would be jumping over the border into Nevada and Oklahoma and what are now clean, safe, modern cities like Dallas and San Diago would be crime infested slums surrounding a few very wealthy and well secured enclaves.

    QFT. Brilliant observation, John. Like you also said earlier, it’s not that places like the Middle East and Africa are intrinsically poor, it’s the complete failure of the types of governments that exist there to allow people to live at the same level that citizens of western nations do. And yet there are some people who are actively rooting Hugo Chavez’ attempts to demonize the exact same type of liberal capitalist society that allows for people to create their own wealth. Because, ya know, his way has worked in so many places around the globe.

  43. Whereas old-style libertarians supported small government because________________.

    Not sure I can answer that because you’re defining the argument solely in terms of small government, which is more properly a tenet of minarchism, not libertarianism per se.

    If you’ve come up with a “gotcha” point, I see your point, but that’s just a symptom of Goldberg’s cluelessness regarding libertarianism.

  44. I always thought the difference between positive and negative liberty was where they are derived from. Negative liberty stemming from natural law, and positive liberty from social contract. Other then that I think the distinctions are a little hair splitting, or maybe I am just really confused by what Tyler Cowen said at Cato Unbound. Whatever.

  45. joe:

    You’ve nailed the weakness in Goldberg’s analysis. He’s acting as though no one used to be a consequentialist.

    The answer to the second question is supposed to be something like “negative liberty is in itself the highest good.”

  46. what are now clean, safe, modern cities like Dallas and San Diago would be crime infested slums surrounding a few very wealthy and well secured enclaves.

    So, when did we hand over DC and Detroit to the Mexicans?

  47. So, when did we hand over DC and Detroit to the Mexicans?

    I could name about a dozen more to support that claim, which doesn’t necessarily deny that John’s hypothesis is accurate.

  48. John,

    Perhaps you might read the sentence you excerpted again in context, especially including the immediately previous sentence? My point was that government beyond the level required for the protection of persons and property, etc. is of little if not outright negative value in terms of wealth creation.

  49. joe,

    I believe I misunderstood your first post. Apologies.

    Regarding Goldberg, I’m getting the feeling that this is one of those you-don’t-like-liberty-for-the-right-reasons type arguments.

    The whole point of liberty is that you get to use it how you see fit, regardless of whether I like it. Otherwise it ain’t liberty.

    Now, I may try to influence how you use your liberty. But first we gotta establish that you get to decide whether or not to listen to me.

  50. jf,

    Agreed, I’m pointing out Goldberg’s cluelessness. He even comes right out and says that old-fashioned libertarians supported small government because it lead to more “traditional virtue,” but then conflates that with negative liberty.

    If Jonah Goldberg’s mother was a lunch lady, he’d be a funnier-than-average shift manager at Burger King.

  51. So, when did we hand over DC and Detroit to the Mexicans?

    Well, Dallas has one of the highest crime rates in the country, and is about a third “Hispanic” . . . .

  52. RC Dean: But there are still other non-hispanic cities higher in crime? Which dreaded minority is responsible for all that crime?

  53. If Jonah Goldberg’s mother was a lunch lady, he’d be a funnier-than-average shift manager at Burger King.

    It’s hilarious and true. I’ve seen you diss his mom before, but I guess it took something like this thread for me to really get the joke.

  54. “If Jonah Goldberg’s mother was a lunch lady, he’d be a funnier-than-average shift manager at Burger King.”

    Great line…

  55. I always thought the difference between positive and negative liberty was where they are derived from. Negative liberty stemming from natural law, and positive liberty from social contract. Other then that I think the distinctions are a little hair splitting, or maybe I am just really confused by what Tyler Cowen said at Cato Unbound. Whatever.

    So, I have sprinted right into Student Union coffee chatter by Political Science majors jabbering about their latest doublethink buzzwords? I will go back to reviewing bond terminology.

  56. Maybe if we resume this thread tros won’t discover it.

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