Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?

Excerpt from Money and Class in America, Lewis Lapham (1988).  Lapham talks about America’s decreasing willingness to bear the burden of self-government, a long-standing theme of this site (at the end you will see links to other posts on this subject).

The Precarious Eden (page 158-159)

Under a republican form of government the citizenry supposedly accepts the responsibility for managing its own affairs, but over the last quarter of a century the heirs to the American fortune have lost interest in the tiresome business of self-government. Rather than vote or read the Constitution, the heirs prefer to go to Acapulco or Aspen to practice macrobiotic breathing. They have better things to do with their lives than to be bothered with the details of preserving their freedom.

They spend their time making themselves beautiful, holding themselves in perpetual readiness for the incarnations promised by the dealers in cosmetics and religion. The country still flatters itself that it enjoys the self-government of a sovereign people, but for at least a generation the conduct of its business has been left in the hands of the servants, both public and domestic.

Much the same sort of languid fantasy seized the last generation of Southern aristocrats in the years preceding the Civil War. Within the sanctuaries of their plantations they could play with the toys of courtly romance.

… In 1987 the United States as a whole bears an unsettling resemblance to the antebellum South. We import luxurious manufactures and imperfectly redress our trade balance with the export of of agriculture and raw materials. The well-to-do gentry affect an aristocratic disdain for commerce and trade, and their gossip about politics betrays the infantile contradictions of people who want

  • lower taxes and better public services,
  • less child molesting and more pornography,
  • no military draft and stronger armies,
  • less crime and more profit.

The business magazines that publish worried articles about the decline of American productivity — the editorialist bemoaning the trade imbalances or the extent of consumer debt — also publish, often in an adjoining column, four-color advertisements for gold-headed golf clubs and matched pairs of Rolls-Royce cars.

By abdicating their authority and responsibility, the sovereign people also relinquish their courage. Like rich old women in Palm Beach or a committee of dithering lawyers, the American electorate listens to the wisdom of its public servants as if to voices of minor oracles. Politicians and Cabinet ministers appear in the role of of the omniscient butler who finds phrases of art with which to conceal the embarrassments of the young master’s profligacy and reduced circumstances.

About Social Hygiene (pages 114-115)

Transferred into the political arena, the doctrines of social sanitation oblige all candidates for public office to feign the clean-limbed idealism of college sophomores. Even the meanest of politicians has no choice but to present himself as one who would remove the stains from capitalism’s bloody clothes and wash the sheets of American conscience. The post of innocence is as mandatory as the ability to eat banquet food and endure the scourging of the press.

No candidate can say with Talleyrand, that he is int it for the money, or that it is the business of politicians to add to the wealth of their handlers. The system in place is always assumed to be corrupt, and the electorate expects its once and future Presidents to tell wholesome lies — to present themselves as honest and good-natured fellows who know little or nothing of murder, ambition, lust, selfishness, cowardice, or greed. The more daring members of the troupe might go so far as to admit having read about such awful things in the newspapers. but the incidents in question invariably have to do with a foreign country or with somebody belonging to the other political party.

Generations of reformers — whether liberal or neoliberal, conservative or neoconservative — come forward with plans to remove the politics from what hey prefer to describe as “the political process.” They campaign on the preposterous notion that if only all the smoke-filled rooms in the Washington could be aired and fumigated, then all the deals could be done on public televisions by civic-minded officials shuffling their papers with white gloves.

Some things don’t change

Letter from Nicholas Biddle to James S. Barbour, 16 April 1833 (source).  Barbour served as Secretary of War and Governor of Virgina (Wikipedia).  Nicholar Biddle was President of the Second Bank of the United States (Wikipedia)

I know this so well that I feel myself a much more profound Jurist than all the lawyers and all the statesmen of Virginia put together, for in half an hour, I can remove all the constitutional scruples in the District of Columbia. Half a dozen Presidencies — a dozen Cashierships — fifty Clerkships — a hundred Directorships — to worthy friends who have no character and no money. Why, there is more matter for deep reflection in such a sen- tence than in any twenty of Tacitus or Montesquieu. It would outweigh the best argument of your Madisons and Randolphs and Watkins Leigh’s.


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM site about America’s ability to govern ourselves:

  1. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  2. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  3. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  4. Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 July 2008
  5. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  6. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  7. Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  8. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  9. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  10.  The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
  11. America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008

More material from Lewis Lapham:

  1. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
  2. Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again), 20 February 2009
  3. Observations about America by Lewis Lapham, 8 March 2009
  4. A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009

16 thoughts on “Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?”

  1. fabius – such a wonderful book you are quoting. I vaguely remember something else by that author though that went on a amusing diatribe about how the clerks at the most exclusive shops being the frusterated judges of that upper echelon of society. Perhaps once, but not any more. I also think he tried to argue that the newport & palm beach yacht clubs served as the markers of the american society. Perhaps once, long ago in protestant america and at ‘white shoe’ investment banks they did, but that vision of America is long gone having been replaced by wealth politics & the come-uppance of the nouveaux – (very) riche. c.f. Goldman and its ilk. From my own direct observance in the circles their offspring ran in, that vision is long gone & receding more rapidly than ever – thank you BHO. Ah, to be a young dandy again (go watch Metropolitan – been there done that)!

    I digress. Fabius, when are you going to address the morass of our expanding legal system which is causing ossification of our OODA loop? I feel that we may be legislating ourselves into eurosclerosis. Is America to become the Ming Dynasty of its time where entrenched beaureucrats (lawyers, lobbyists, the courts & legislature) have such a vested interedt in maintaining the status quo that we turn inwards after retreating from the world & build a metaphorical chinese wall? You may wish to address in a future post.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I have 40+ articles in some form of draft, from idea to half done. And each week yields potentail for a dozen more. But the time to write is scarce, so only one or two of significance are possible.

  2. Publius Cornelius Scipio

    One problem is the scrutiny brought to bear on those seeking elective office. A candidate must expect to have every character flaw (real or invented), youthful mistake and past indiscretion exposed, analyzed and exploited. All this is fodder for a press which, in order to survive, must and will feed itself. Truth seems a secondary concern to speed.”

    Who could survive such scrutiny, and who would want to? The question has answered itself: hypocrites, the mediocre, and the power-obsessed. Please note these are not mutually exclusive categories.

    Another thing: government tends not to pay as well as the private sector. People with talent who want to make a lot of money go into the private sector. This has the effect of giving one with inherited wealth an advantage over a talented but poorer rival.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All good points!

  3. Yea, guilty as charged. But I’m paying attention now. I’ll wager I’m not alone.

    {That is,} I was a fat, happy, and stupid yuppie the past quarter century, preoccupied by career, family, and counting my pile. I periodically said something like,”Boy, these ever climbing house prices don’t make sense to me, but I guess the guys who run the economy have it really figured out.” I don’t say things like that anymore.

    I also stopped saying,”OK our political class looks like a bunch of idiots to me, but what do I know or care about politics?”. It’s clearly time to learn more, and care more about, well, everything, and of course, that may be too little too late for our generation. I suspect I’m not alone.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The first step to enlightenment is a terrible knowledge. The latter steps are more painful, and more expensive. It’s the principle of equivalent exchange.

  4. I would highly recommend running for office some time. It will give an idea of the counter trends that one fights with. In a comment some time ago, I stated that the people “feel” like they are not part of the process. I had made the post quickly and should of been clearer. Just because they “feel” does not make it so. But for some reason telling them it’s their fault does not win many votes! If we are to have good candidates for office and stop this slide, the people need to get involved with their perspective parties and change them from within. I and few associates have started the process but are finding plenty of people who simply claim not to have time. It’s pretty frustrating.

    Maybe the country has turned into a bunch of complainers and to lazy to do anything. I’m finding the latter more true than I’d like. Maybe it’s a maturity problem. Spoiled and throwing temper tantrums saying how things are not fair. If only life was fair! Once the people realize they have gotten what they have asked for it should be interesting.
    Fabius Maximus replies: For those of you new to this site, see the links at the end of the post “about America’s ability to govern ourselves.”

  5. This complaint is as old as the Republic itself.

    The notion that lawyers are the problem is belied by the fact that it is nearly all lawyers who established the Republic. (The farmers, it is true, complained just as they affected a disdain for the particulars of commerce. Yes, I mean Jefferson and the, erm, Democratic-Republican Party. I guess Madison did study law, but you’ll be pleased, I gather, to learn he didn’t get admitted to the bar.)
    Fabius Maximus replies: Where in this post do you see “{t}he notion that lawyers are the problem”? That’s almost the exact opposite of the message. Nor is the point of comment #1, which refers to our modern legal system (greatly mutated from anything the Founders imagined, outside their nightmares).

  6. Before the industrial revolution the basic system of ‘checks and balances’ mainly featured place-based peasantry and landlords – aka ‘nobles’ – and a Monarch, whose role was to provide checks and balances to the two former classes within a larger national context including multiple regions. Ideally this involved restraining the harmful and sustaining the favourable inter-class and inter-regional behaviours.

    With world wide urbanisation and population growth, power centralisation blended former check-and-balance streams into one broad river that has increasingly marginalized place-based power nexi, thereby increasing imbalance between elites and the ‘rest of us’ who remain geographically dispersed whilst numerically far smaller elites efficiently entrench themselves within principal organs of society such as money supply, government, military, media and so forth.

    Any return to ‘self-government’ surely must involve restructuring the elite power structures but can probably only arise following widespread hardship, initiatives for which will probably surface spontaneously only in discrete pockets (such as Chicago last fall) and therefore lack the widespread ‘unity’ needed to mandate systemic change.

    Perceiving this localised but inflammatory spark of potential general cohesion, elites can marginalize it through suppression along with control of the national media or, if things remain chronically dysfunctional, invoke unity through war by inventing/provoking monsters from abroad, as with the famous ‘Hitler’s Map’ fabrication decades ago.

    In short, it is easier for the elites to maintain initiative along with entrenched power centralisation, which process definition negates ‘self-government’. In some sense, therefore, national unity is maintained by ensuring there is not meaningful general cohesion.

    Unless the States rip up their Federal agreements – which they still have the power to do – and given the above context in which status quo political process negates any possibility, let alone likelihood, of substantive change, what would the ‘self-government’ you are calling for in the US look like exactly?

  7. Question: Would a good place to start corrective maintenance in the Republic be to counter the notion that words, referring as they do to specific concretes and abstractions, do not have exact meanings?
    Fabius Maximus replies: And what would we do with that insight? Instead I would recommend that general semantics be part of the grade school curriculum. “”The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined.”

  8. Erasmus: I love the way you wrap a really sharp observation (and revolutionary perspective) in a layer of philosophical language so that it slips past the censors and lodges right in the solar plexus.

    Scipio: I have to disagree with the following: “Who could survive such scrutiny, and who would want to? The question has answered itself: hypocrites, the mediocre, and the power-obsessed. Please note these are not mutually exclusive categories.”

    Take a look at major present and recent government officials — Rubin, Paulson, Bernanke, Greenspan, etc. These are not “power-obsessed” or mediocre, but influential self-made barons who have already made so much money they can afford (and are required to by their economic class) to take an occasional furlough in the pro-bono public sector.

    It’s true, your description applies to elected politicians, but they are merely the agents of the class which funded them. The major executive branch appointments — Defense, Treasury and State — tend to go to the power elite (not power-obsessed because they already have it) that directs the government.

    And there really is very little scrutiny of either group — appointed or elected — since the same elite also owns the media.

  9. In re “…I would recommend that general semantics be part of the grade school curriculum.

    I believe a key word in #7 is “referring.” Nonetheless, there you are “countering the notion.” Fast action on insight, that.

  10. Lewis Lapham is a gentle soul, admirable for spoofing his own class, but really, what does it matter how frivolous the rich are, or how empty and self-serving their politics? Who cares, or what does it mean to worry about, the rich losing their sense of “self-government”?

    FM, your real subject is whether the once rising and now sinking middle class ever had a sense of self-government, and what will it look like if they recover it? And where do the underpriviledged classes come in? What values will unite them, or divide them, and what understanding of our present system will lead them to make informed, not manipulated, decisions?
    Fabius Maximus replies: What’s this about the rich? These excerpts are about us. 21st century Americans. Almost every one of which would be considered rich by the average person living in 1776.

    No, that’s not my real subject. I’m speaking of Americans. When we have pride in that identity — and awareness of a collective identity — we will be back on the right road. Increased class consciousness advances us on the road to being a banana republic.

    As for solutions, I am still in the problem identification stage.

  11. Re #3 “It’s the principle of equivalent exchange.”

    Yes, 30 years after reading,”The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, I’m finally getting what TANSTAAFL
    really means. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch really are words to live by, not a cute slogan.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed. The above is the tagline from “The Full Metal Alchemist“.

  12. Publius Cornelius Scipio


    I find your statement self-contradictory. Anyone who sets out to become, and then becomes, an “influential self-made baron” is almost by definition obsessed with power. Why would anyone not desirous of power seek to become influential?

    Second, as I said, the qualities I listed are not mutually exclusive. That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily found together, either.

    Politicians are indeed agents of a class . . . or, more accurately, leaders of the faction from which they come. Additionally, the people you listed are in fact interested in wielding power. What, after all, is left when you have more money than you can spend in your lifetime? No, Rubin, Paulson, Bernanke, Greenspan are in it, among other things, for power. There is no Cincinnatus in our government.

    As far as scrutiny goes, I think you’re wrong. For example, the Edwards-Hunter story finally leaked through to the mainstream, despite the best efforts of the press — especially the LA Times — to ignore it (Mickey Kaus is invaluable on this topic, check his archives). If you doubt that various Dems tried to dig up all of the negatives they could on Palin when she was announced as McCain’s VP, I believe you’re being naive.

    Both parties do this type of thing, as does the press. A generally lower quality of individual is drawn into politics because this scrutiny becomes unbearable, even (and especially) to someone with an irreproachable background.

  13. FM note: due to its length I have inserted replies into the text.

    I think your arguing beside the point. The fact is there will be a government because, in whatever form it takes, humans automatically self-form governments. Governments are simply tools that are used by those who control them.

    FM reply: Talk about beside the point! The post discusses self-government, not a lack of government.

    The constitutional structure of a rough democratic-republic is messy but may be as good as it gets. This structure was created to allow the people to have a fair shot at controlling government.

    FM reply: And your point is?

    FM: “Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?

    Doesn’t directly address the issues or problem. A better question is: Why aren’t the citizens in control? Partly because of better than a hundred years of mythology, rhetoric and programming which says that government has little or no useful role. It is automatically the enemy of liberty, automatically less efficient than other organizations. That any action take to establish or protect common goals and goods is evil.

    FM reply: Nice to see that you know the mantra of 21st century America: it’s not our fault! Excuses R’ Us!

    It is useful to note that while the established wisdom is that government is to be condemed there are certain people who expend massive amounts of effort and wealth to make sure they are in perpetual intimate contact with this selfsame evil. These people also seem to do everything possible to make “the burden of self-government” as difficult as possible to handle:

    Important meetings are during normal working hours. Election day is a weekday. If you want to find out what a committee is doing you need to request copies of notes two weeks in advance and pay for copying. Laws and the tax code are structured so important subsections are buried in documents that are thousands of pages long and phrased in language that is as convoluted as possible. Even the experts often find the meanings indecipherable. Accounting is highly irregular with tables and dependent sections and references hidden and often scattered across multiple publications. If they are available at all.

    In effect a relative few have made “the burden of self-government”, to the extent that they can, a full-time job for specialists. By design no normal citizen that works a regular job and raises a family can begin to fathom the laws, the tax code, the proposed laws making their way through congress or the implications of these actions.

    FM reply: Poor babies! It’s just sooo difficult for us. Didn’t the Founders promise that self-government would be easy?

    With the average citizen out of the process we have grown an entire layer of pseudo-government that was not envisioned by the founders. An insulating and isolating layer between the citizen and their representatives, lobbyists. Who astroturf movements and coordinate ‘citizen action’ even as the citizens have little idea what their goals or motivations really are.

    Government is a powerful tool. There are groups who want to keep that tool for themselves. They do this by keeping the average citizen alienated from, if not deathly afraid of, their government. At the same time they do everything possible to make sure the average citizen can’t know what government does and can’t exert any control if they do. The brave few that break through have to communicate through professional staff who act as gatekeepers for representatives time and attention.

    FM: “Gosh! Who knew that groups would try to take control of the government from the people? Has this ever happened before? Why didn’t the Founder’s set up a system of *effortless and certain* self-government?

    FM: “Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?

    Yes, they are. But we have to overcome the forces keeping the citizenry alienated from government and return government to a form people can deal with and maintain normal life.

    FM reply: Sounds OK to me. Unfortunately your elaborate excuses might (just guessing) make the necessary effort less likely.

  14. electrophoresis

    Lewis Lapham remains an excellent writer and his insights often prove incisive, but in this case, alas, some of his claims are simply stupid — as well as clearly counterfactual.

    * lower taxes and better public services,
    * less child molesting and more pornography,
    * no military draft and stronger armies,
    * less crime and more profit.

    This sounds good and Lapham is making an insightful general point — namely, that the American people often clamor for a policy and then hysterically decry the direct consequences of that policy, even when any fool could have (and usually did) told them that the policy will clearly and self-evidently have those consequences. Examples include: Americans decrying the vulgarization of pop culture yet at the same time rushing to see crude vulgar trivial movies like Scooby Doo and Charlie’s Angels and trampling one another in their stampede to consume obvious swill like that magazine cover from a few years back showing the underage Britney Spears naked and wrapped in a snake. Or the case of the public clamoring to vote for stupid initiatives like California’s “3 strikes” law, then shrieking with outrage when the California state budget melts down into chronic defecits as far as the eye can see (due in part to the insane amount of money needed to pay for all the new prisons and prison guards for those non-violent 3 strikes offenders, some of whom got sentenced to 20 years in California prison for ridiculous “offenses” like stealing a 99 cent videotape — but it was a third strike!).

    To debunk Lapham’s points in order:

    “Lower taxes and better public services” sounds clever and sensible but it’s actually foolish and stupid. Three of the biggest sinkholes for tax dollars today, our 1.4 trillion dollar annual U.S. military budget + DHS and TSA + the federal prison system, are all in a state of complete collapse and represent a nearly complete waste of money. Well over 80% of the U.S. military budget could be sliced out without eliminating any actual ability to defend American soil from foreign attack, while the DHS and TSA should be zeroed out and eliminated entirely, and the federal prison system, which houses a disproportionate number of non-violent “offenders” like low-level mules who smuggled marijuana but didn’t have any higher-ups to rat out, could be slashed by at least 40% and probably more like 60% simply by reforming our crazy drug laws. Somewhere between 30% and 50% (depending on how yo parse the stats) of the inmates in federal pens are non-violent drug “offenders” who got stuck there because they’re the low-level guys with no one important to snitch on. Ironically, the high-level drug dealers tend to do little time because they can rat out their contacts in the Mexican government, or they can snitch on corrupt border patrol or DEA agents, and get huge reductions in their sentences. So the drug “offenders” who wind up doing the most time in federal prison are the lowest-level, most unimportant schmucks who basically carried some weed across the border in the trunk of their beat-up 67 Chevy Nova.

    “Less child molesting and more pornography” is just plain stupid. A mass of studies provide hard evidence to conclusively prove that there is no causal connection whatever between child molestation and porn. This is a complete myth. It’s a foolish myth. The evidence just debunks these kinds of “porn causes kiddy rape” myths. It’s very similar to the equally foolish myth that “porn causes violence against women.” Once again, utter nonsense, and the scientific studies prove it.

    Frankly, it’s shocking that someone as well educated as Lewis Lapham would fall for these kinds of long-debunked myths. It’s a good example of the way in which the American left can be as obtuse and foolish and blindly ideologically stupid as the American right. The absurd counterfactual myth “porn causes child molestation” (spouted by left-wing talking heads) is the equivalent of the ridiculous counterfactual myth “you can’t cure an economic downturn caused by debt by piling on more debt” spouted by right-wing talking heads. Both myths sound superficially credible, but fall apart under even the slightest scrutiny, and both myths have been conclusively debunked by an overwhelming mass of hard evidence from a wide variety of peer-reviewed studies.

    “No military draft and stronger armies” is a particularly galling example of stupidity because we’ve now entered the era of 4GW. This means that the more troops you flood into third-world hellholes like Somalia or Iraq or Afghanistan, the more casualties the superpower incurs and the weaker it gets militarily. In fact, once again I’m amazed that someone as smart and knowledgeable as Lewis Lapham would fall for a canard this foolish. Didn’t he live through Vietnam? Doesn’t he recall the endlessly escalating calls for hundreds of thousands of troops made by Gen. William Westmoreland? The draft expanded and expanded until half a million troops were mired in Vietnam swamps, and what did it ever accomplish? All those draftees just gave more targets for VC snipers and VC tiger traps and bouncing betty mines. More troops in Vietnam made us weaker, not stronger. The fact that Lewis Lapham doesn’t realize this proves saddening. The solution to improving America’s military strength is not to throw half a million troops into Iraq, or a million, or two million, or ten million — it’s to pick our fights carefully and sensibly. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have no meaningful connection with America’s security, and we should pull our troops the hell out of there pronto. Mexico, on the other hand, is a real issue — one which we are, incidentally, ignoring.

    “Less crime and more profit” doesn’t make sense to me. How are these two connected? Is Lapham really saying that all business profit comes from criminal activity in the boardrooms? If so, I really have to say that this is one of the most vulgar and contemptible left-wing myths, the old saw “all great fortunes were founded on a great crime.” That is provably false. Did Jobs & Wozniak murder someone in order to create the personal computer industry? No, of course not. Did Larry Page and Sergei Brin commit some huge crime in order to start Google? That’s stupid and clearly contrary to observed reality. Did Westinghouse hurt anyone when he invented the air brake that started his fortune? Obviously not. Whom did Otis steal from when he created the safety elevator? No one. What crimes did Eastman commit when he invented photographic film? None. This is one of the oldest and most pernicious canards on the left, namely, that nobody can really get rich without screwing over other people. But that’s just false. There are plenty of good solid businesses built on innovative products, and the Enrons of the world remain a rare exception. I really hope we can deep-six this foolish pernicious myth that making a lot of money somehow requires a violation of the law. It’s one of hte vulgar and brain-dead tropes of the American political left.

    As said, I think Lapham is insightful and largely correct in this general points, but, really, he chose 4 very poor talking points with which to illustrate ’em.

  15. Americans currently have a government that wants to do everything for the people and treat them as infants. At least half of Americans wish to be cared for, to be secured from above, to abdicate personal responsibility. You have a president who is willing to play the part of all powerful provider and caretaker. You have a legislature that is willing to pass any law, disburse any amount of hypothetical confiscated wealth, to buy yet another term in office.

    In short, Americans no longer have a government that is willing to let them govern themselves. There will be no peaceful path from this nanny government to any form of self-government. No bloodless path from here to there is possible for these Americans. Half of them are willing, and half of them are not. This deep division plus a government willing to play caretaker, suggests a rocky road ahead.

  16. Example – from Canada – of an individual standing up for his rights. This particular case involves the production and distribution of raw milk, so could also go in the recent Green thread, but really it is about self-government. {snip, totally unrelated to the post; folks can click on the link if they wish to read about the right to raw milk}

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