From 9/11 to COVID, Every Emergency Means Bigger Government

We have to stop governing by emergency.


For two decades, Americans have been governed by emergency. These emergencies have become excuses for permanent political power grabs, for restrictions on individual liberties large and small, for mass bureaucratization and mass expansion of government spending, trillions of dollars' worth of non-solutions to deep-rooted problems. With every crisis, government grows. And now the crisis is government itself. 

You can see this tendency in the response to 9/11. In 2001, terrorists perpetrated the deadliest attack on America in our history. The terrorists were nimble, small, non-state actors whose deadliness stemmed in large part from their willingness to fight outside of traditional, government-run military paradigms. After the fact analyses concluded that the security failure stemmed at least partially from the profusion of security agencies, some of which underperformed individually, and few of which communicated effectively with each other. The terrorists had slipped through the cracks of America's security bureaucracy. 

What did Congress do in response to a threat that exploited America's bureaucratic obesity and dysfunction? It created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a super-bureaucracy charged with organizing a gaggle of other bureaucracies, many of which had little or nothing to do with each other. The solution Congress proposed to the problem of too much bureaucracy and too little bureaucratic coordination was even more bureaucracy, at a higher level. And of course, it hasn't worked; DHS has been plagued by serious management and morale problems, by coordination issues stemming from the large portfolio of unrelated subagencies it oversees, and by wasteful spending. Terrorism, meanwhile, remains a real threat. It didn't solve the problem. It became the problem. And government grew and grew along the way. 

The DHS was not the only federal byproduct of 9/11. Congress also created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which proceeded to spend years harassing flyers who pose no threat, installing invasive scanners that nonetheless miss bombs shaped like pancakes, molesting children while failing to catch guns and bombs, and demanding that grandmothers strip off belts and shoes in exchange for the privilege of going from one place to another. In response to a genuine threat, Americans were treated to a new federal agency dedicated to mass groping. The emergency justified it.

The emergency also justified two new wars, one of which we're still fighting today, and thousands upon thousands of casualties, not to mention more than a trillion dollars in spending to fund the war effort. 

No one is safer because of these wars; if anything, the opposite is true. But they have helped fuel a bigger, more powerful federal government, one that is more costly, more intrusive, more bureaucratized, operating on a permanent emergency footing, despite doing little or nothing to solve the underlying issue. 

The pattern set after 9/11 repeated itself, in a variant form, during the next great emergency, the 2008–2009 financial crisis. Again, the crisis was real—a mass collapse in the economy that put millions out of work and resulted in home values collapsing. People, especially ordinary middle-class people living on tight budgets, were suffering. So Congress, in its wisdom, used emergency powers to hastily set up a system—arguably unconstitutional—to bail out big banks.

After Barack Obama became president, there was a stimulus package too, designed to fund "shovel-ready" jobs that didn't exist. Instead, Obama's stimulus ended up paying make-work projects and boosts to state budgets and official counts of jobs created or saved that made no attempt to actually count the number of jobs created or saved. Republicans opposed it, for the usual Republican reasons, but behind the scenes, they'd also crafted an alternative of nearly equal size. The debate between the parties wasn't whether or not to govern by emergency; it was who would get to be in charge. Emergency government, and all the expansions of power and spending it entailed, was a given. 

Over the last year, of course, we have encountered a new emergency, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. As before, the threat is real and grave: Some 500,000 Americans have died of COVID-19; excess mortality statistics, which show the shocking spike in deaths in 2020 compared to previous years, tell the tale. As recently as a month ago, the United States was averaging more than 3,000 COVID-19 deaths a day. 

The virus was used to justify any number of emergency measures—stay-at-home orders, forced business closures and strict capacity limits, restrictions on gatherings and personal mobility—many of which are still in place, in various forms. 

COVID-19 was, and continues to be, mysterious in many ways. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about which precise measures were legitimate and effective, and for exactly how long they should have remained in place. Some of those measures were more defensible, or at least understandable, in the early days than others—especially because it was not initially clear how communicable the virus really was, and under what circumstances. 

In retrospect, however, it's clear that the broad-based lockdowns and shutdowns that went into effect in March and April of last year were costly, ineffective, and deeply damaging to the country's social and economic infrastructure. And the federal response, especially from agencies nominally charged with defending public health, was marked by a succession of delays and failures, ineptitude and inaction, that doubtless made the pandemic's toll worse. 

The good news is that the terrifying death, hospitalization, and infection, numbers that have defined the pandemic so far are dropping, and dropping fast. And they are likely to drop even further as summer approaches—not to zero, but to a much lower baseline. Vaccinations are proceeding, however haltingly, and vaccinated populations, like those in nursing homes, are seeing substantial reductions in mortality. The vaccines work. And within a few months, most American adults who want to be vaccinated are likely to have the opportunity to do so. The United States is projected to reach herd immunity as early as the end of April, and if not then, by later in the summer. 

Which means that the old justifications for emergency measures to fight the spread of the virus are rapidly disappearing. Yet politicians and policy makers do not seem especially ready to end emergency governing, or the general sense of alarm that has fueled so many emergency measures over the last year. As Ross Douthat argued in The New York Times this week, we are rapidly approaching something resembling normalcy, but our political and policy elites don't seem eager to embrace it. 

While some restrictions on businesses and gatherings have been inched back, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is cautioning that even with an array of highly effective vaccines approved, Americans might need to wear masks in public through 2022. President Joe Biden has committed only to the notion that Christmas 2021 will feel more normal than Christmas 2020, whatever that means. Movie theaters—a useful indicator for a city or state's zeal for reopening since they are widely viewed by policy makers as inessential—remain closed in most parts of California and many other major areas. (New York just announced that they could reopen at 25 percent capacity.)

Meanwhile, Biden is pursuing a massive stimulus package, framed as coronavirus relief, that has little to do with the coronavirus. Instead, much of the aid package is a wishlist of preexisting Democratic policy priorities, from bailing out pensions and padding Obamacare subsidies to raising the federal minimum wage to $15, that are either irrelevant to the crisis or would exacerbate it.

Will we emerge from this crisis safer because of these measures? More nimble? Better prepared for a novel threat? It doesn't matter. It's an emergency. 

To some extent this is just more of the same, a slow and steady expansion of the big, kludgy government we've always had. The petty authoritarianism of take-off-your-sneakers is not unlike the petty authoritarianism of you-can't-sit-at-the-bar. Taken as they come, these restrictions are irritations, not brutal new forms of tyranny. The zeal to spend ever more federal money on pet programs has long been part of American politics; the scale may be different now, but the impulse is not new.

But bit by bit, these minor irritations and expenditures add up—especially when combined with the sort of sweeping restrictions on business activity and private gatherings that were deployed last year, and remain on the table going forward. This ground may be well-trod. But we are approaching a new frontier. 

Something has changed in the relationship between the individual and the state. Something is changing. Little by little, day by day, with every new incursion on liberty, however minor, with every new support program for every business category and demographic group, always justified by extraordinary times and circumstances, the balance of power is shifting. The problem, of course, is that there is always something out of the ordinary, some crisis, some threat, that can be deployed in the name of expunging all risk and variability from daily life. Somehow, this always turns out to require an expansion of government control. 

We are witnessing this not only in the United States, but in much of the democratic world. In the United Kingdom, which is vaccinating faster than any other Western country, The Wall Street Journal reports that "advisers to the British government say that mask wearing or working from home may have to be reintroduced in winter time to curb outbreaks," and the U.K. Treasury is expected to propose continuing economic support throughout the coming year. The emergency never ends, because someone, somewhere, always needs the emergency to continue.  

Daniel Hannan, who served as a member of the European Parliament for two decades, worries that the pandemic, and the fearful political response it has engendered, will kill the liberal order. "Things won't get back to normal," he writes at the John Locke Institute. "The political and psychological impact of Covid-19 will last for decades. The world into which we emerge will be poorer, meaner, more pinched, more authoritarian." 

I hope not. I don't think it's necessarily too late. The liberal order has proven more resilient and more durable than even its supporters expect. But I am increasingly worried that COVID-19 has left the liberal order sick and wheezing, and government stronger and more powerful than ever. I would say that government by emergency cannot become normal, that we cannot let the state of exception become the normal state of affairs—but in too many ways, we already have. 

NEXT: Federal Suit Seeks Damages for Men Illegally Recorded at Florida Massage Parlors, Falsely Smeared as Sex Traffickers

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  1. But we Koch / Reason libertarians supported Biden because we knew he’d reduce government where billionaires most want it reduced — “border enforcement.”


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  2. We have to stop governing by emergency.
    It’s an emergency!

    1. We have to stop Suderman commenting by emergency.

      He got so damned freaked out by Trump’s mean tweets, it’s a wonder he can still put words together any more.

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  3. A bit late, isn’t it?

  4. First, we may need to focus on persuading people that mean tweets aren’t an emergency.

    1. Good luck with that.

      1. Especially such a long emergency, with such a long hangover.

  5. “Which means that the old justifications for emergency measures to fight the spread of the virus are rapidly disappearing.”

    And the new justifications are well on their way.

    “But I am increasingly worried that COVID-19 has left the liberal order sick and wheezing, and government stronger and more powerful than ever.”

    Probably should have talked to your colleagues about that before they voted for Biden.

    But who are you to complain? You didn’t vote at all.

    1. People who don’t vote have the most right to complain because they didn’t give their tacit approval to the people who presume to rule over us by voting.

      1. The high school anarchist club is that way ——–>

  6. Biden is pursuing a massive stimulus package, framed as coronavirus relief, that has little to do with the coronavirus.

    If Biden truly wants to unify the country, he could begin by announcing he will sign only focused one-topic legislation.

    1. He got elected; now it’s time to pay back those who voted for him. And they want their $15 minimum wage and pension bail outs.

      1. Don’t forget student loan forgiveness.

        1. Most importantly, WHERE”S MY CHECK????

        2. I’d support forgiveness.

          …if it were paid for by MASSIVE taxation of endowments. Like above 90% on total asset value at the moment.

          Seems like that’s the most fair place to get the money to deal with that “Crisis”

    2. I see gas jumped 50¢
      Thanks SleepyJoe!

      1. Might have something to do with a storm, massive power outage in a place where a lot of the stuff is extracted and refined, and some kind of infection going around.

        It is 85 degrees and sunny today in Cancun I hear.

        At the Ritz Carlton a reservation at Fantino would be nice.

        The menu includes

        – Grilled octopus salad
        – Forest mushroom ravioli artichokes, Italian truffle
        – Maine lobster risotto, asparagus, preserved lemon
        – Filet mignon, parmesan gnocchi, Kalamata olives

        I am thinking of trying the octopus salad followed by the lobster risotto.

        In reality country we are doing the regular routine. The family gets together to do our Shabbat with some excellent challah my daughter finds. Followed by pizza from the store. DiGiorno is actually very good.

  7. But even more important than 9/11 or Covid is the threat of right-wing terrorism, which justifies internet and media censorship, developing lists of suspected terrorists based on internet posts, and banning firearms.

  8. From 9/11 to COVID, Every “Emergency” Means Bigger Government


  9. I have been warning since last March that rule by emergency decree is habit forming.

    1. What do nuns have to do with it?

  10. Problem is, whether I am vaccinated, immune from exposure, the rates are dropping, etc., if I dare go out in a community unmasked my fellow citizens will shun, shame, and degrade me for not being with the program. They WANT someone to be in charge, and for everyone to go along. Government is indeed the problem, but those who support it and it’s excessive overreach, are the source.

    Bottom line is the average person really doesn’t want all that much freedom. They want to be directed, taken care of, and made to feel safe.

    1. People are willing to forego much in response to an emergency. It’s our responsibility to point out and hammer relentlessly:

      1. The emergency has passed (or will soon pass; thanks for the added insurance, eeeeeevuuulll corporations!)
      2. The measures taken in response didn’t accomplish their stated intent
      3. The downsides of those measures far outweighed their upside

      Yeah, people are far too apt to trade liberty for security, and always have been. But if all anyone does is complain about this sad state of affairs then the turn of the wrench is only going to accelerate.

      1. For item 2, lockdown harder.
        For item 3, more stimulus.

      2. People are willing to forego much in response to an emergency. It’s our responsibility to point out and hammer relentlessly

        People may be willing to forego much – but the reality is that that is NOT what is being called upon. We don’t forgo much – net net. After 9/11, we were told to go shopping. The terrorists would be dealt with via professional mercenaries and debt which wouldn’t even incur its full carrying costs without subsidy.

        And in response to not willing to forego anything – we are suppose to react with – words and exhortations to stop doing nothing much? This is bullshit.

    2. And the wool clipped at least once a year with a dip to relieve itching.

  11. Sorry, this one is on you folks in the media who cause the problem and are enabled by publications like Reason that are too concerned about not being invited to the cool kid parties to call it out.

    I’m tired of the public being blamed on this when all of our leaders and media personalities create this.

    If Ted Cruz goes to Cancun and is excoriated for not doing something for Texas even though there was nothing for him to do, that’s part of the problem, and it happens constantly. Sure, he could’ve virtue signaled and pretended to care by handing out food for like an hour like other politicians, but that really wouldn’t be doing anything.

    We have a media industry that demands politicians “do something” about everything and then excoriates them when they don’t properly pander and “do things.” This has to stop. We have got to have a media that knows how to actually inform as opposed to being the main antagonizer in all of this.

    It requires people like you, Reason, to start working to break this crap. It’s not the public. News media, advertisers, and high powered research and agencies have learned how to continually scare the crap out of the public on a daily basis and then turn around and demand people “do something.” This is on you, start fighting this battle and stop complaining about it.

    1. You create the “media”. Not the other way around.

      1. Just what I was thinking.
        Does anyone really think that it was “the media” that brainwashed people into becoming outraged over Ted Cruz’s trip?

        1. Does anybody really think that people were genuinely outraged over Ted Cruz’s trip? If it wasn’t for the media amplification, nobody would have even known. And, of those that did know, nobody would have cared.

          Nobody gave a fuck about Obama golfing. Nobody gave a fuck about Trump golfing. But the stories sold themselves. They were THAT good.

          1. If it wasn’t for the media amplification, nobody would have even known.

            How dare our media report on the trips that Senators take. It’s brainwashing!

            Nobody gave a fuck about Obama golfing. Nobody gave a fuck about Trump golfing.

            lol that’s a lot of gaslighting right there

            1. Wow, are you really this brainwashed?

              1. Dude reaaaallly needs to be lead. He’s pathetic.

            2. Back to his actual question, Wormtongue, do you really think that people were genuinely outraged over Ted Cruz’s trip?

              Were you outraged over Ted Cruz’s trip?

              1. He knows and admitted he messed up.

                Even among republicans his approval rating dropped.

                Cant blame the MSM for reporting it. This was a big scoop.

                I recall when Bush was slammed for a fishing trip when Katrina hit LA. He deserved it.

                Ted Cruz is very powerful. He is the elected senator from our second most productive state. This would have been the time to use that power.

          1. And in the rest of Barnes & Noble’s store, you will find Don Jr.’s book and probably Posobiec’s books too, along with a lot of other books from right-wing authors.

            That darn bookstore. Trying to cater to all of its customers!

            1. When you consume nothing but propaganda and have the reasoning skills of an adolescent child, even the most empty and pathetic displays of mindless partisan preening present themselves as genuine expressions of artistic and literary merit.

              I bet you collect stamps, don’t you?

            2. What is a bookstore?

        2. Are you kidding me with this? It was literally the media that fired up the outrage. It’s almost like you don’t have a grasp on reality.

      2. That’s an adorable sentiment you have there.

  12. You should have seen this coming when Congress stopped bothering to pass a budget. Just let the shit get to a crisis situation and then you can slam through whatever sort of shit you want. Why bother deliberating when last-minute panics work so much better?

  13. “We have to stop governing by emergency.”

    Aren’t you the guy screaming “insurrection” at some mostly peaceful protestors?

    1. I love it. The new media trope is to publish a thoughtful article about being reasonable, less judgmental, less hysteric and outrageous, and to have that article surrounded by articles titled: “Is this the End of Democracy,” “XYZ Senator Throws Outrageous Temper Tantrum,” “The Earth has only 15 Years until it is Destroyed,” “The New Constitutional Crisis,” and so on.

      It’s all so intellectually dishonest anymore.

      1. Start cutting throats or watch them continue this shit.

        1. How will we ever live in a world where people in the media say dumb shit? Obviously, mass summary executions are the only way to restore liberty and for sure won’t make thinks wayyyyyy fucking worse.

          1. Your life doesn’t matter, leftist simp

            1. But Nardz here is a freedom-loving patriot.
              And if you don’t agree that he is a freedom-loving patriot, he will make you pay with blood!

              1. But he’s right about you not mattering.

              2. Whatever one’s feelz about me personally may be, they have nothing to do with the observation that there’s only one effective way of dealing with The Party trying to forcibly take our property, liberty, and life.
                The left has in the last year denied Americans rightful use of the soapbox, ballot box, and jury box.
                That leaves only one box available.

                1. I’m all for “live and let live” but the left won’t allow that option.

                  1. The statists on here know and understand the fundamental point you are always making. They just won’t admit it because it destroys the narrative and wrecks their argument.

  14. But certainly restricting trade was a National Security “emergency”. And prohibiting the collection of rent by the CDC, was also a much needed response to the Covid-19 “emergency”.

  15. And the threshold of what constitutes a “crisis” keeps dropping.

    1. ^ This

  16. we shut the world down for a cold and we’re never getting any of it back but hey mean tweets!

    1. ^and this!

    2. When was the last time a “cold” killed 2.5 million people worldwide in one year?

      1. details on the type of virus are so March 2020, and details on who literally died from the virus will never be known.

        1. The details are very well known.

          The medicos have no hidden agenda here. You cannot fake a medical record or death certificate. It is all there in the record. Every consult, nurses note, lab result, radiology image and report, clinical signs and symptoms. It is all right there. It is discoverable and reviewed. There is a record of any time the chart is accessed and by whom. It cannot be altered.

          1. Sure, goebbels

          2. You’re a special kind of stupid.

      2. 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015…
        Colds have always killed millions of people a year worldwide with weakened immune systems, asthma, or respiratory conditions.
        I’m not comparing a common cold to Covid, but it does kill a lot of people annually.

        1. Ever see a cold do this?

          From a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal

          “Researchers determined that 69 of 1,724 analyzed ICD-10-CM diagnosis codes were significantly associated with COVID-19. According to the results, disorders indicating both strong association with COVID-19 and high absolute risk included:
          • Viral pneumonia (odds ratio [OR], 177.63; 95% confidence interval [CI] 147.19-214.37; absolute risk, 27.6%)
          • Respiratory failure (OR 11.36; 95% CI, 10.74-12.02; absolute risk 22.6%)
          • Acute kidney failure (OR 3.50; 95% CI, 3.34-3.68, absolute risk, 11.8%)
          • Sepsis (OR 4.23, 95% CI, 4.01-4.46, absolute risk, 10.4%)

          The authors note that disorders showing strong associations with COVID-19, but low absolute risk, included myocarditis (OR 8.17; 95% CI, 3.58-18.62; absolute risk, 0.1%); disseminated intravascular coagulation (OR 11.83; 95% CI, 5.26-26.62; absolute risk, 0.1%) and pneumothorax (OR 3.38; 95% CI, 2.68-4.26, absolute risk 0.4%).”

          We had Purim yesterday evening. The local Rabbi arranged a tailgate celebration in the city parking lot. It was a lot of fun. People showed up. Many dressed in costume. Lots of kiddos. Falafel and pizza. They had a fire dancer. They passed out the groggers, noisemakers. People mostly kept masks and distance. Life goes on.

          It is a story of insurrection and political intrigue actually. A honey trap. All Jewish holidays it is said have the same theme “they tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat”

  17. Yup we need to MAGA like the small tiny government which used slaves to build the White House and Capitol, and had a fugitive commissioner grabbing black people and selling them into slavery, with their testimony not accepted in court.

    1. You should be happy then that the democrats are back in power

    2. Haha. Party like it’s 1776 JMMJ, the rest of us will live in the present.

  18. But everyone who believes the Official Truth bullshit of 9/11 and Covid bear some guilt in these bullshit excuses for government/corporate seizures of power. Sadly, that list includes REASON.

  19. As long as people believe in political solutions, and expect politicians to deliver them, freedom will suffer. Government as a solution is a myth, but a myth that brings with it the empowerment of tyrants and the enfeeblement of much of the population.

    1. +1 great comment.

  20. “We” have to stop governing by emergency? Are you sure that you want that inclusion?


    China apologizes for forcing Biden’s staff to submit to anal Covid exams. Around 50 members of Biden’s team were subjected to anal penetration on one or more occasions from Chinese Communist Party doctors. China promises to stop.

    1. Wonder what China left behind in those behinds

    2. How is this different from what the CCP has been doing to top Democrats for years?
      The only difference I can see is that this time the Democrats weren’t paid for it.

      1. Kinda difficult to set up a drive up testing station for that.

        It sounds icky but the only published article I have found is in hospitalized patients prior to discharge. Very small numbers and not much use.

    3. The Biden team gave the doctors 4 years to stop or they would submit a complaint. They are all still amazed the doctors could do the anal penetration with both hands on their shoulders.


    Maaan terrorists be looking real scary nowadays

    “A number of people involved in the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 are still at large. Help the #FBI apprehend them. If you recognize this individual, submit a tip. When you leave a tip, reference photo 236.”

  23. Totes legitimate Daddy Gov…
    JUST IN – Acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Pittman says “militia groups want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible,” when Biden delivers his State of the Union address in Congress.

    1. And what will be there excuse for keeping troops there after that

      1. Would not surprise me if they would be there on a permanent basis.

        They could have it as a rotation of NG troops. Not that difficult to set up.

  24. I would say that government by emergency cannot become normal, that we cannot let the state of exception become the normal state of affairs—but in too many ways, we already have.

    We have been in a permanent state of emergency for 80 years minimum (1933 bank holiday justified via Trading with the Enemy Act) – and practically since the late 1830’s (the last time govt paid for its own operations via taxes/fees rather than newly incurred debt – which is just a way of normalizing the costs of emergency).

    Emergency IS the normal state of affairs and it is insane that someone can write a sentence like Suderman’s – in 2021 – and get away with such mealy mouthed crap.

    Emergencies DO happen. Quite frequently in fact even if the particulars are ‘exceptional’. War or any foreign ‘conflict’ with the potential to escalate to war, weather, disease, financial crisis, all the things that get called war for the purpose of mobilizing legitimate attention. There is no such thing as a legitimate philosophy of governance that doesn’t have the ability to imagine ‘how will we deal with an emergency’ and implement it.

    So stop fucking pretending that emergencies blindside us. They don’t. We HAD a governance philosophy that covered ‘possible emergencies’ before the 1830’s. That really dated back to the feudal system of mutual obligations to each other via actual obligatory service to each other. How do WE deal with emergencies? We become a WE (militia) and deal with it however we can figure out how to deal with it at the time.

    Like it or not, that system ended and has been replaced with – Someone creates a plan – and finances it by creating money – which turns into a debt that changes all future monetary obligations of everyone else (especially future generations who have no voice to object to the plan now) – in ways that no one really understands but some subset (usually the one that came up with the plan) enormously benefit from.

    IDK whether the previous feudal/militia type system can ever be restored. Seems better than the current system but who knows. But the current system is clearly shit and corrupt. And there is no governance philosophy right now that really addresses changing that.

  25. Government has lost its way and thus needs continuous emergencies to force its terrible terrorist policies upon us.

  26. Every sneeze or cough will not be a national health emergency needing shutdowns.

  27. We should learn from history. Unexpectedly, we won the Cold War by default. We largely won the Cold War due to the top-heavy and bloated bureaucracy of our enemy, from our enemy’s lack of a free market competition that promoted healthy competition to benefit consumers/workers and their system lacking property rights and individual rights.

    Seems like American voters and Libertarians should support “Constitutional Government” – smaller government in some areas but bigger government, only where needed, to uphold individual constitutional rights.

    For example: increasing constitutional-watchdog agencies (ie: DOJ’s Civil Rights Division) but vastly reducing unconstitutional warrantless domestic spying programs and reducing Cointelpro style blacklisting tactics (ie: state-operated Fusion Centers receiving federal tax dollars).

    Most voters (of all parties) want government to protect their individual rights and individual property rights, not a nanny-state making those choices for them.

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