How much should we fear the State?

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Austro-libertarian and other free market oriented economists focus their efforts on explaining the inefficient and destructive nature of the state – how this compulsory aegis of taxation and redistribution retards economic progress and the standard of living, siphoning off ever more productivity into vast bureaucracies that control and regulate every aspect of our lives with a fine toothcomb. The state represents an enormous concentration of wealth and power which could never be attained by a private individual (or even an institution) in a genuine free market, a degree of power and wealth that seeks to extend its destructive influence not only within the territory of the individual state itself, but also overseas with armies, navies and air forces and all of the fire power of destructive weaponry that they can carry.

To any one individual the state can seem like an awesome and overwhelming entity – in the UK, it provides your banking infrastructure, your healthcare, your transportation networks, educates your children and supposedly is the guardian of your health, safety and wellbeing from greedy, unscrupulous companies who might seek to defraud or injure you. Moreover, if you get on the wrong side of the state then its uniformed police force can arrest you, its judges in long black robes can imprison you or freeze your assets and, of course, it promises to do the same to all of the people who attempt to commit a crime against you. And who could not fail to be overwhelmed by the state’s vast and impressive buildings such as the Houses of Parliament or the US Capitol, and the patriotic, flag waving ceremonies such Presidential inaugurations which inspire a turnout of millions?

This essay will in no way dispute the fact that the state is something to be feared (and indisputably so when we consider that the world’s entire nuclear arsenal is sufficient to destroy it tens of times over). What we will explore here, however, is the fact that the monopolistic and overreaching nature of the state is both its source of power yet also its Achilles’ heel – that the state is far from a lean, mean fighting machine and is in fact bumbling, bloated and altogether rather stupid.

First, the state is severely handicapped by its very nature as a monopolistic force. Because it does not need to compete in any areas in which it decides to wade it has a natural tendency to languish in laziness and inefficiency to a degree which renders it extremely vulnerable. For example, the global cyber attacks on state owned and some private computer networks and infrastructure last year are a testament to this. These attacks were made possible by the fact that the operating facilities of the targeted organisations – which included Britain’s National Health Service were outdated and hence highly susceptible to such attacks. Most private consumers of information technology, on the other hand, had had the necessary patches and updates installed. This reliance on out of date technology seems endemic, spreading also to areas which are nominally private but which are heavily supported by the state such as banking. According to entrepreneur Simon Black (who started his own bank when he got so fed up with the service offered by established banks), the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunication or “SWIFT”, which is the premier global financial network, uses Windows Vista as its platform – an operating system which Microsoft no longer supports. Domestic infrastructure seems to be even worse. In the UK, most salary and business payments rely on the BACS network which dates from the 1960s and still, in our age of instant communication, takes three days to transfer funds between bank accounts. How is it possible that vast organisations such as Britain’s National Health Service and SWIFT are basically using technology that is more outdated than that available to any private individual who recently bought a laptop or smartphone? The answer, of course, is that these organisations are simply shorn of any competitive reason to innovate or to stay ahead of the game. Without the threat of losses as a result of the continual supply of tax dollars they are devoid of any reason to maintain the highest standards in order to ensure that they are efficient and up to date. Such lack of standards spreads also to the personnel in these organisations. Bureaucrats, who are more or less promised a job for life so long as the avoid making a major mistake, have little incentive to develop their knowledge and skills and so are unlikely to ever be as smart as private entrepreneurs who always need to keep a sharp eye on the game. This is one of the reasons why (in spite of all of the hullaballoo from politicians seeking election) tax and regulatory loopholes will always exist – because the people finding and exploiting them have both greater ability and incentive than those who are supposed to close them. This is not to imply, of course, that politics is not a competitive arena. However, the nature of competition in politics is very different from the nature of competition in the free market. In the latter, people are competing to create more wealth for the benefit of consumers and so it is a positive sum game – one person’s gain does not depend upon another’s loss. It is true, of course, that in a particular industry one company may prosper while others go bankrupt, and obviously there can only be one CEO of any particular company at a time. But even if a person is beaten to the position of CEO of one company the process of wealth creation itself will allow plenty more enterprises to be started in order to exploit opportunities which have not yet been explored. In the free market, one door closed is two more opened. Politics, however, is decidedly a zero sum game. The power possessed by one individual is necessarily taken from another, and money given to one set of beneficiaries has necessarily been taxed (i.e. confiscated) from another. There can only be one President of the United States or one Prime Minister of Great Britain – the process of politics will not create an unlimited number of great and powerful states in which the opportunities to become either President or Prime Minister are multiplied. Therefore, the budding politician must necessarily gain from what anyone else loses and he must make sure that no one else is able to beat him to the top job. Thus, there is seldom any genuine co-operation or betterment in the political sphere as, ultimately, everyone is the enemy of everyone else – and the only co-operation that does exist is in the form of favours, bribes and other “tit-for-tat” arrangements, with any relationships always susceptible to a sudden backstabbing by the more ruthlessly ambitious partner. With such a widespread lack of trust serving as the foundation for the state it becomes impossible for it to operate as a fast, efficient and unified whole. Indeed, private citizens can often be thankful for the fact that the little feuds and foibles between individual state departments and fiefdoms are a frequent distraction of the state from plundering the average Joe.

Second, as “Austrian” economists we know that statist intervention can never achieve anything that it is supposed to achieve – or at the very least it can only do so with significantly inflated cost. All of its publicly stated ambitions – conquering poverty, providing affordable healthcare, employment for all of those who want to work, safety and security in retirement, the vanquishing of crime and so on – will never be achieved simply because these things cannot be achieved through the means of wealth redistribution rather than through wealth creation. Indeed, because the state has no area where it can genuinely make a positive difference for the whole of society, its own natural incentive to sustain itself and to maximise its own power instils in it the desire to make problems worse rather than better – solely for the purpose of lending itself a perceived role. It is better for the state, for instance, to keep people poor so that they are dependent upon government handouts; it is better for the state to disarm its citizenry so that the latter present no threat to the state’s own armed guards, at the cost of increasing crime which the state can then step in to solve. Unfortunately this perverse incentive is fed by the fact that many people see the state’s failings as a reason for strengthening the state and giving it more power, rather than as a reason for getting rid of it. Most of the symptoms of these failings are far removed from the state itself and it requires the ability to follow a long chain of thought in order to identify the true culprit. When the government inflates the money supply, for instance, prices rise – yet it is businesses, i.e. all of those greedy, exploitative capitalists, who actually raise the prices directly and so it is them who get the blame. Similarly, when state mandated minimum wages result in unemployment the public view is that the fault lies with those same evil businessmen who are refusing to lower their profits and hire more workers. Most of this is due to the fact that the advent of democracy has severely weakened the distinction between the state and the people – the feeling of “us” and “them”. Rather, through our voting rights, all of us are the state and we are all doing what the state is doing. So, perversely, the state’s failings are perceived not its own but rather as our failings, as if it we ourselves who have failed in the particular endeavour. However, here also lies the state’s weakness. As recent secessionist movements and events within the European Union have indicated, the feeling of unity with and control of the state is severely weakened when the state becomes too big and bloated, swelling to a size where decisions are made by strange and unfamiliar figures in a city many thousands of miles away. Much of the motivation for the Brexit vote, for instance, was the desire to repatriate decision making authority from Brussels back to Britain. This suggests that the degree to which power can be removed from its proximity to the people is finite – a limit which has served as a severe frustration to the unifying, globalising and bureaucratising ambitions of political elites. Indeed, it is now unlikely that these ambitions will ever be fulfilled. Moreover, secession necessarily breaks up large states into smaller units which, as we explored in several previous essays, necessarily makes the state’s power vis-à-vis its citizens weaker rather than stronger.

This leads us onto our third point which is that the state, or rather the people who can be said to form it, are a minority of the citizenry. This is necessarily so because, as a parasitic entity, it is simply not possible for the state to be comprised of the majority. Contrary to popular belief no state has ever retained power as a result of force alone; rather, the state’s sustenance is dependent upon at least the tacit acceptance of the majority of the citizenry. Although the fear of force may constitute a reason for that tacit acceptance, generally the state has to ensure that its subjects are kept within the confines of a basic degree of contentment – that even if they may mumble and groan about the state’s inadequacy in this, that or the other, there is no pressing reason to upset the apple cart. The collapse of the Soviet communism, the Brexit vote and, we might suggest, the election of Donald Trump are instances of when such contentment with the status quo was exhausted in the minds of at least a significant proportion of the population. The end of the Soviet Union led to a markedly different political set up in Russia and Eastern Europe; we are yet to see the full consequences of the other two events. But when the people do decide to support a particular direction and to exert its independence with ferocity then the state has no choice but to yield.

This bumbling, bloated nature of the state is indicated by a joking phrase apparently made by the industrialist Charles F Kettering – “Thank God we don’t get as much government as we pay for”. Indeed, if all of the wealth and resources that the state commands were actually put to use effectively and efficiently then it would truly be a terrifying and formidable obstacle. Unfortunately, however, it is also summed up by what we might call, informally, the “cock up theory of history” – that, rather than great leaders and stewards shaping the world’s events in order to enhance humanity, anything significant that happens in the course of history is more attributable to a series of accidents and mishaps that just happen to have had widespread consequences. And it is here where the true danger of the state may perhaps lie.

One of the most infamous of these incidents occurred in 1983 at the height of the cold war when the Soviet nuclear early-warning system reported the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles from the United States. The Soviet officer monitoring the system at the time, Stanislav Petrov, believed the warnings to be the result of a system malfunction – a belief which was verified subsequently by inspection of the system. His refusal to act on the false warnings prevented a Soviet retaliatory attack which would have almost certainly elevated the cold war into a full scale nuclear holocaust. In other words, the complete annihilation of human existence was averted by the prudential actions of a single individual who refused to trust his government issued equipment. When the state today still handles so much and handles it so badly the possibility of a grave mistake going the other way is very serious indeed – and all the more so when belligerent tensions are again reaching new highs. Indeed, a not too dissimilar incident occurred in Hawaii this month when a missile attack alert was broadcast publicly, sending the citizenry into a panic for the best part of an hour – all because a state lackey “pressed the wrong button”. It is for this reason more than any other that the state should be regarded as dangerous. So much power in the hands of so few people is at risk of one them making a simple error, rather than at the risk of that same person acting with evil intentions. As awesome as the state may be we have more to fear from its stupidity than from its ingenuity.

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Libertarians Beware?

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An article concerning the libertarian attitude towards the black market by Robert Wenzel entitled “A Warning to Libertarians: Please Do Not End Up Like Ross Ulbricht” recently appeared on the libertarian site Lewrockwell.com. Wenzel’s basic premise is that libertarians in their capacity as libertarians should not celebrate the black market, let alone get involved in it as budding entrepreneurs:

The trial of Ross Ulbricht, admitted founder of Silk Road, is over. He has been convicted on all the charges brought by the government. It is a terrible tragedy.

[…]

Ubricht faces somewhere between 20 years to a life sentence. To be sure, from a libertarian perspective, there does not appear to be much that Ulbricht is guilty of. He simply provided a market for individuals willing to exchange, certainly not a violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle.

[…]

BUT, despite the libertarian perspective, he is going to spend a a [sic] very, very long time in prison.

This is part of the reason, [sic] I find it remarkable that some libertarians are cheering on further efforts in the murky dark internet.

[…]

The Ross Ulbricht trial marks a turning point for the darknet. Originally created to combat a problem, DNMs have now become a rallying point for the adherents of Libertarian [sic] ideology. Ulbricht himself described the Silk Road as an “economic experiment.” Many see him as a martyr and have supported him through it all, from patronizing the Silk Road via contraband purchases to donating over $339,000 via Bitcoin toward his legal defense fund. His downfall was an inspiration to push further, to continue the economic experiment, for the betterment of humanity (hopefully).

[…]

As long as a commodity needs physical delivery, there is no protection from the government, even if it is done via the dark net – and that supposes the government isn’t watching on the dark net in the first place, before physical delivery.

There are just so many things that can go wrong operating in the dark net, with very heavy downside, it makes no sense for a libertarian, qua libertarian, to get involved, especially by running such an operation.

Just becasue [sic] libertarians are in favor of free exchange, where does it say they have to run underground markets?

He then quotes Murray Rothbard’s discussion of Samuel Konkin’s agorism:

If the black market should develop, then the successful entrepreneurs are not going to be agoric theoreticians…but successful entrepreneurs period.

[…]

As much as I love the market, I refuse to believe that when I engage in a regular market transaction (e.g., buying a sandwich) or a black market activity (e.g., driving at 60 miles per hour) I advance one iota nearer the libertarian revolution.  The black market is not going to be the path to liberty, and libertarian theoreticians and activists have no function in that market.

[…]

Historically, classical liberal political parties have accomplished far more for human liberty than any black markets.

Returning to his own commentary, Wenzel continues:

Advancing liberty is not about selling hooch or weed, though there is no reason to condemn those who enter into these noble professions. If you want to advance liberty, you do so by writing, speaking and reading about liberty. This requires that very little be done beyond libertarian study and actual libertarian activities, even at the early stages of developing such a career.

[…]

Leave the drug dealing to drug dealers, There’s this thing called the division of labor and there is no path where drug dealers and libertarians have to pass, anymore [sic] than libertarians have to cross paths with fire eaters and sword swallowers, though I doubt many fire eaters and sword swallowers are paying much in terms of taxes, something that libertarians can appreciate, as much as they can appreciate the efforts of drug dealers, without getting into the business.

Indeed, just becasue [sic] street hookers must operate on the black market doesn’t mean we should be encouraging libertarian women to become hookers, even if they would only accept bitcoins.

One can agree that this appeal to libertarians to heed a bewaring of the black market makes several important points. First, a libertarian is certainly not necessarily a good entrepreneur and regardless of whether he is he would still need to devote a lot of time to reading, studying, absorbing, understanding and debating libertarianism. One cannot pursue a cause unless one has a thorough understanding of that cause. Second, simply because libertarian theory permits certain activities that are currently illegal (the vending and use of drugs being a pertinent example) does not mean that libertarians promote such activities as a good thing to be encouraged. Such a question concern’s one’s personal morality and not libertarianism as such. The libertarian movement itself seeks to neither promote nor disparage any substantive choice of action whatsoever and there is a genuine risk that libertarians will either be labelled as the “anything goes” crowd or, worse, may be identified with the active encouragement of acts which, while they do not breach the non-aggression principle, are otherwise odious, unpleasant and/or lacking in social acceptance.

However, where the present author parts company with Wenzel is the suggestion that a) operations such as the black market and entrepreneurship in general fundamentally do not matter very much in the fight for liberty and b) that painstaking education of the populace is likely to be far more productive in this regard. There is also the suggestion, exemplified by the Rothbard quotation, that traditional political parties that are organised to promote liberty are the way forward and have worked in the past. However, it is our contention here that these propositions are likely to be untrue and that, in fact, entrepreneurship will have a far more effective role to play in the practical matter of bringing about a world of liberty while education and political parties may, in fact, have a minimal effect.

Many libertarians probably have it in their head that a free world will one day be achieved through a giant revolution where the inspired masses rise up and force the transition from an imperialist-statist regime to one of liberty. But one has to wonder precisely how this is going to happen. Even if a majority of the world’s population became educated enough about the benefits of liberty, a transition to a world of liberty is one from a state of power to one of an absence of power. Revolutions, however, are fundamentally the replacement of the holders of power. In other words, the power vacuum left by the vanquished rulers is filled quickly by the revolutionary leaders – and we all know how potently power corrupts. It did not take altogether too long, for example, for the post-revolutionary United States to begin centralising power and even so ardent an advocate of liberty as Thomas Jefferson left a questionable record once he became President. A libertarian revolution, the end product of which is a fragmentation and scattering of power from central concentration in governments and states down to the individual, is therefore likely to be largely leaderless and lacking any concentration in terms of personalities, places and also times. Rather, different people, in different places at different times will carry out independent acts to move the world one step closer towards freedom. Libertarianism is, therefore, fundamentally about rejecting the world of political parties, political leaders and electioneering – not seeking to emulate them or join in their game.

Underestimated, therefore, is the possibility that rather than government being overthrown the likeliest route for the achievement of liberty is for government to simply dissolve through circumvention. Given this, the importance of black and regular markets starts to become apparent. For even if the population becomes educated enough to be inspired towards liberty, in order to truly achieve such a world through a de-homogenised process lacking in central control and leadership, small, local and independent circumventions of government authority – as exemplified by the black market where scattered, independent entrepreneurs attempt to meet the people’s needs that happen to be contrary to the proscriptions of the government – are likely to be a key route to in bringing this about. In other words, government simply drowns in a sea of non-compliance with its diktats. Indeed one of the reasons why, for example, the underground drugs industry is so difficult for government to even scratch the surface of, let alone conquer, is because there is not one giant overarching drugs lord sitting on his throne dispensing all of the world’s drugs, ready for the government to take out and thus win the war. Rather, it is because there are a multitude of relatively small, independent suppliers, with their own locations, their own partners and stakeholders, their own methods and techniques, and so on. Taking out any one of them does not necessarily stop the rest, and even if it did what is there to stop someone new from springing up and setting up shop? The seizure of a large drugs shipment, usually celebrated as a grand achievement, barely makes a dent in the ability of the black market entrepreneurs to continue to produce and supply these substances.

However, even this path – that of the black, underground and regular markets providing an outlet for an educated public – is probably not going to be the way in which a world of liberty will be achieved and we can suggest a far more likely, praxeologically supported scenario of what will happen. All governments require at least the tacit support of a majority of the population in order to retain their power. But it does not follow that the breaking of this tacit support necessarily requires the people to become educated about the ethics of private property and the moral odiousness of the state (although one can hardly deny that such an education would be a good thing). Whatever regime exists humans will always think and feel as individuals – they have ends as individuals, they act as individuals and they feel gain or loss as individuals. Their support, or tacit acceptance of government, relies not only on the fact that government is seen to be legitimate but also on the fact that it is perceived to accomplish certain ends for the individual. In particular, protection from crime, and the sustenance and stability of a peaceful order are seen by almost everybody to be the primary function of and justification for government. Like any other means to an end, government will cease to be supported when its costs, real or perceived, outweigh its benefits.

In the first place, as bankrupt governments unload increasing privations and annoyances upon the daily lives of their citizens, it is precisely the shrewd entrepreneurs who will find a market of people who seek to overcome these irritations. We can see this already with innovations such as Bitcoin and 3D printing seeking to overcome the government monopoly over the financial services and firearm restrictions respectively. But the march of technological progress does not even require entrepreneurs to be consciously aware that it is curbing government power. The internet, for example, has practically obliterated the government monopoly over information. The very pinnacle of market circumvention of government would be to shatter its very raison d’être – the monopoly of force and the dispensation of justice – without which it would simply not be able to impose its oppressive and parasitic existence upon the citizenry. What if there was some way of not overcoming or overthrowing government’s force but of simply circumventing it and making it a practical non-entity in people’s lives? As the present author stated in a previous piece, “Making Government Irrelevant,

What if […] an invention would enable any person, at extremely low cost, to protect his or her person and property from all forms of force? I have very little idea as to what this could be – an invisible force field around each object you own, perhaps? This is a matter for the genius of inventors. But imagine the result – in one swoop you would eliminate both the ability of government to tax, steal, imprison, kill, maim and live off the fat of everyone else and you would completely eradicate its reason for existence. For if people can now protect themselves from invasion of their person and property at very low cost, why bother with government? Why would anyone pay taxes for an army or police force when this new, cheap, method prevents the very reason for their existence? Of course, people may continue to pay “taxes” voluntarily for some service that the current administrative set up may be perceived to be providing. But there is nothing wrong with this if that is what people want to do with their own money. The bite of force, however, will be lost and government will be relegated (one might say promoted) to the same level of every other market player – having to offer people a valuable service in return for its voluntarily paid revenue.

Therefore, people do not necessarily need to overthrow government or come to understand how evil and immoral it is – it simply needs to made irrelevant in their lives. And it is entrepreneurs, either existing in the black or mainstream markets who are the most likely to be the path through which a world of liberty is achieved. It is submitted that, given the innovations in this regard that have been accomplished so far and the difficult government is having in coping with them, this route will be the most successful in building the road to liberty than any attempts to educate the populace towards revolution. Education will, of course, always be important and every libertarian has a duty to read, learn and debate libertarian theory. And certainly no libertarian has any business engaging in entrepreneurial ventures if he is completely lacking in the required talent. But so too should we be prepared to recognise the fact that entrepreneurial invention and ultimately the market, the very thing itself that we as libertarians champion – individual people seeking to peacefully and voluntarily meet their ends through means – is the most likely thing that will bring about the world that we believe is right.

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Exceptionalism

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The current crisis in the Ukraine, where a Western-prompted coup of the pro-Russian government has led to Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and “protection” for its naval interests in the Black Sea has highlighted the attitude of the West, and of the United States in particular, to what may be regarded as their “exceptionalism”. Whatever standards other countries and governments are held to, the US believes that it is permitted to deviate from (nay, obliterate) those standards, labelling their own actions with some other, innocuous term while utilising some half-baked moral justification in order to promote its acceptability. What is, for other countries, an illegal invasion of a sovereign state is, when the US does it, an act of “liberation”. When someone else organises a rebellion against a sovereign government it’s a violation of international law; but the US only “spreads democracy”. When other states commit horrendous acts of torture or indiscriminate murder they are “war crimes”; for the US, these are tactics that are necessary in the just and noble “war on terror”. Indeed Washington’s leaders have become so blinded by their sense of exceptionalism that they fail to realise that the case of the Ukraine, more than most others, has drawn stark attention to this unrelenting hypocrisy. Russia’s interests in the Ukraine are far more pressing than any interest that the US has either there or in any of its previous catastrophes such Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and wherever else into which it has poked its heavily armed nose. The Crimean population, according to a referendum held on March 16th, is overwhelmingly in favour of not only Russian intervention but of outright annexation of the region by Russia. Furthermore, Russia’s response, thus far at least, has not been to steam roller in, guns blazing, but has, rather, been more measured. So not only is the US protesting Russia’s actions, actions which the US happily takes everywhere around the world – it is doing so while Russia has stronger interests, is heavily supported by the indigenous population, and has taken weaker action than the US has in any of its self-invented skirmishes.

The concept of exceptionalism, however, is not something that is restricted to the US or is somehow born out of the US psyche. Rather, exceptionalism traces its roots to the very heart of how government operates domestically. If people steal from each other, it is called “theft” and is criminalised, yet when government steals it is permitted and is called “taxation”. If a company dominates an industry it is called a “monopoly” and must be broken up; if government does it, it is called “nationalisation” (probably with some other seductive sound bite such as the industry is being run “for the people”). If Bernie Madoff takes cash from customers to pay returns to previous investors, it is called a pyramid scheme and he is locked up; when government does precisely the same thing it is called Social Security. If the mafia forces you to pay tribute in return for security it is called a “protection racket”; when the government forces you to contribute to its armies, navies and air forces it is called “national defence”. Government necessarily conditions its operatives to believe that they are excepted from the common morality to which all other human beings must adhere. It is only because the US is the de facto most powerful government on Earth (although it is encouraging to see Obama’s belligerent efforts coming to nought in both the current crisis and the crisis in Syria) that this exceptionalism becomes magnified onto the international scene.  So in just the same way as government does not have to behave in the same way as its citizens, neither does the most powerful government have to behave like any other government. The US is not alone in this regard and has been preceded by other wealthy and heavily armed states – Ancient Rome, and the British for instance – who, coupled with a hubristic belief that they represent the pinnacle of “civilisation” in an otherwise barbarous world, have ploughed their way over everyone else whom they expect to be held to other standards. Indeed, when a pirate was brought before Alexander the Great and asked to explain his actions, the pirate is believed to have replied that what he, the pirate, was doing, was exactly the same as that which Alexander was doing. The only difference was that Alexander terrorised the seas with a “navy” and was styled an “emperor”, while the pirate did so with a “petty ship” and was thus brandished a “robber”1.

The conquest, therefore, of the exceptionalism of the most powerful nation can only be achieved by eradicating that exceptionalism at home – in domestic government and domestic policies. All human beings, whether they work for the government, the civil service, or are private citizens, must adhere to the same common morality and must be held to the same moral standards. Better, still eradicate government completely and the political caste – together with the divisions it creates between itself and those of us less exalted – will disappear entirely. Only then can we hope for a peaceful world in which all humans are equal before the law – both nationally and internationally.

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1See St Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4.