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June 02, 2010


Joyless Moralist

I'm someone who always tends to cringe when I hear the term "Catholic social teaching", but this article is worse than usual in its almost complete lack of argument for how the claims being made are supported by the Catholic tradition.

Nathan Smith

You know more about it than me. But "the word, spoken quietly but insistently by the pope, is rights..." Sounds like it's at least an allusion to the highest authority. At any rate, it suffices to show that I'm not the only thinking along these lines.


The atheists (Tom and Nato) also agree with you, FYI, for perfectly rational non-biblical reasons.

Nathan Smith

I'd be interested to know more about the epistemology Tom is summarizing with the phrase "rational non-biblical reasons." I take it he does not mean that biblical reasons are necessarily irrational? If the Bible attests a fact with is intrinsically probable and consistent with other things that we know, one could rationally rely on it, no? Or, if the Bible makes a moral claim which other arguments or experience tend to confirm, one could use a Biblical quotation to summarize the results of that experience, no? It seems like that's what Yuengert's doing.


I just mean to say that you don't need to reference the bible at all to support your argument.

Joyless Moralist

Unfortunately, "Catholic social teaching" tends often to be a signpost for "squishy half-baked rhetoric, together with bold assertions that the whole weight of the Magisterium is behind my own personal views." Not, obviously, that I disagree with everything said in the name of "Catholic social teaching" but it suffers from being 1) a field of thought with a relatively little grounding in tradition, and 2) a field heavily dependent on prudential considerations. Catholic thought is strongest and most penetrating in areas where particular teachings of the higher law have been identified and then developed so that we can see their various ramifications for the lives of the faithful. It is weakest when it tries to penetrate the workings of fallen, imperfect societies that obviously do not answer to that higher law. Here prudential considerations become critically important, and top Vatical officials generally aren't trained in economics, or military science, or agriculture.

I don't know of any instances in which a top Vatical official has declared a "right to migrate" and I would expect this guy to mention it if there were one. But even if there were, I would only regard it as mildly interesting at best. Frankly, a lot of stuff the Vatican puts out under the heading of "social teaching" is pretty unhelpfully pie-in-the-sky, not linked to any analysis of prudential realities and not even philosophically grounded with anything like the rigor one would expect to see in connection with some other topics. Like when they start going on about the need for peaceful world government (efficient, yet appropriately sensitive to the needs of local communities.) Sounds pretty swell, but is there any reason to think that such a thing is remotely likely to be realized? So what's the point, then?

The Church claims unique access to certain kinds of truths, and a unique authority to proclaim them (and compel it's members to believe.) "Social teachings" delve into areas where they are, at best, drawing on those truths in an effort to penetrate complicated issues into which they do not have unique insight. Members are asked to give a respectful hearing to what their leaders say on such matters, but on these sorts of questions I think Catholics are mostly just a mirror of society at large -- divided, and trying to make sense of things as best they can. I think that's fine in itself, but a lot of people (mostly people who think that social issues are a lot more important than pedantic things like theology, liturgy, or sexual morality) want the Church to have more to say about social and political things. So they tend to overstate the case a little, acting as though the weight of Catholic tradition and Magisterial authority all falls behind some particular position (generally a pet issue of their own, of course) when in reality the situation is generally much more complicated. This seems to me like that sort of article exactly.

However, you may take pleasure in the fact that at least one Catholic evidently does agree with you.

Nathan Smith

"top Vatical officials generally aren't trained in economics..."

True. So they can declare the moral principles to be realized and I can help them out with the implementation side. Then again, half the economics profession would be able and willing to do that part of the job.

Joyless Moralist

It'd be hard to hold a "right to migrate" as a fundamental Catholic moral principle. In two millennia, I don't know of any saint or Doctor who's taken a stand on that issue.

Joyless Moralist

The "it's" error was NOT mine, btw. I hate that mistake! But it was my iPad word replacement program getting overzealous.

Nathan Smith

You wouldn't expect them to. The right to migrate was never violated so systematically before the advent of 20th-century totalitarianism.

Joyless Moralist

Border patrols are obviously a feature of the modern state, but they weren't invented in the last decade. And meanwhile, the Catholics have produced plenty of critics of modernity who have scrutinized many of the features of modern life. We have famous critics of the abuses of socialism and communism on the one hand, and of capitalism on the other. We have critics of secularism and materialism, and of modern warfare. We've spilled gallon upon gallon of ink scrutinizing the endless tide of medical innovations that have appeared in the last century or two. But if there are any significant Catholics criticizing border control, or even just discussing its ethical ramifications, I don't know who they are. Even this person, sympathetic as he is to your point of view, can't produce any authority in his favor beyond a vague reference to the pope being interested in rights (in general.)

Beyond that, I know, roughly, your justification for there being a "right to migrate", and I've explained to you in the past why it is not harmonious with Catholic moral philosophy. It's unsurprising that your real allies are mostly atheist libertarians, because, on this issue at least, they are your nearest intellectual cousins.

Nathan Smith

For me, though, the main takeaway is this:

"The purpose of rights-language in the Catholic tradition is not to end public policy debates and disagreements, but to orient those discussions toward the common good of all persons, natives of the host country and immigrants alike. Catholic rights language challenges policymakers to factor the interests of immigrants into their calculations."

Gain that point, and the battle is won. It is untenable that our border regime is consistent with taking the interests of immigrants and potential immigrants into account. Once you've established that it's unacceptable to say, "It's our country, we don't have to let 'em in if we don't want to," you're on your way to the right to migrate and a regime of relatively open borders. I agree with JM that Catholic thinkers don't seem to have given this the emphasis it deserves, but they seem to get the right answers when they do think about it.

I recall that JM's explanation of "why [open borders] is not harmonious with Catholic moral philosophy" took place in the context of a very interesting and lengthy debate, in which, however, JM's whole argument depended, it seems to me, on the claim that we need to preserve social solidarity and community by making sure everyone knows their neighbors. To this end, we can't allow too much mobility. I was struck at the time by what a noble ideal this seemed to be. Noble, but totally impractical. Moreover, I recall JM making a variation of the "it's our country" argument, so I think she would need to revisit some things if she wants her views on immigration to be "harmonious with Catholic moral philosophy." Though perhaps she was writing in haste and didn't mean it.

No state before the 1920s attempted to control its borders as comprehensively as modern states do, and more importantly, the *motives* for such control were so different that the border regimes developed in WWI and the age of fascism and inherited by the modern democracies are essentially an institutional novelty, the critique and defense of which call for different kinds of moral reasoning than what would have been applicable to this problem in 1900, or 1800. Also, it was always possible to emigrate *somewhere* before recent times when the modern state system defined the entire face of the globe as someone's "sovereign" territory.

When JM says that she knows my justification for there being a right to migrate, what she fails to understand is that I don't have one, I have many. You name the meta-ethics-- communitarianism, Aristotelianism and virtue ethics, utilitarianism, natural rights, whatever-- I'll show you how it points to open borders and the right to migrate. As Chesterton says, you're not really convinced of something until *everything* proves it. Just because I may have made other arguments that might sound more like something from the Cato Institute doesn't mean that I don't agree with Yuengert, too.


"It's unsurprising that your real allies are mostly atheist libertarians..."

Actually, his real allies are mostly the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breath free, and I imagine barely any of them even know anything about atheism or libertarianism.

Joyless Moralist

Umm... yes.

How does one respond to such absurdity? It's really almost beyond rational discussion, but maybe at least it would be worth observing that you obviously can't justify a right to migrate with ALL ethical theories. Not all ethical theories even make use of a concept of rights! Particularly not the universal, pre-institutional sort of rights that you would need to justify a right to cross borders at will. It's just a ridiculous thing to say, reeking of pompous, self-righteous preening.

And, for all your claims to philosophical sophistication, I really don't think your justification of the "right to migrate" is actually very complicated at all. What it boils down to is that you believe people have the right to go (more or less) where they want because you don't think anyone has the authority to prevent them. And you're very impressed with the fact that actually preventing people from crossing borders involves the use of force ("men with guns" as you like to say); here the argument moves into your peculiar brand of defeasible pacifism (which is also, as you know, a longstanding source of disagreement between us.) Basically the idea has libertarian underpinnings with a sprinkling of Scripture over the top.

But your presumption to tell me that my ideas are "not in harmony with Catholic moral philosophy", on the basis of a tendentious reading of a half-baked article by a journalist neither of us had previously heard of, does not deserve to be dignified with an answer.

Nathan Smith

Calm down, JM. Yes, of course if I was given the task of arguing for the right to migrate from a meta-ethical starting point that didn't make use of the concept of pre-institutional rights, e.g., utilitarianism, I would argue for the desirability of establishing such a right, as a positive legal institution.

JM's rejection of my charge that her viwes are not in harmony with Catholic moral philosophy might consist in one of the following two claims:
(1) The argument that "it's our country and we don't have to let them in if we don't want to" is in harmony with Catholic moral philosophy; or
(2) JM never made the argument that "it's our country and we don't have to let them in if we don't want to."

It would be interesting to know whether JM is making defense (1) or (2).

My argument for open borders cannot be characterized as pacifist. It is not inconsistent with self-defensive wars, in a proper sense of that phrase, nor is it inconsistent with wars that might be characterized as offensive, wars of liberation for example. What I reject is unprovoked violence against the innocent, not violence *per se.*


The pope on immigration


Joyless Moralist

I called it "defeasible pacifism." I think that's a fair way of describing your view as you've explained it to me.

A large part of your problem here is that you have much more of pompery than of clarity. Like some kind of circus performer, you set yourself up with a promise to defend your view from any meta-ethical stance... but you haven't even stated what you're defending in a way that's intelligible from any (or even most!) meta-ethical stance. This is not a trivial mistake. There's a world of difference between, say, the claim that it is unjust to prevent a person from entering a country at their wish, and the claim that people overall would benefit from the loosening or abolishment of border controls.

Similarly, I cannot pick one of your two alternatives, because I don't know what the argument in question is supposed to be. Obviously you've given it a nasty-sounding name, but that doesn't clarify what it is. What I actually think, however, is that the citizens of a particular country (this one or any other) have a legitimate interest in protecting a variety of goods, some of which can indeed be threatened by immigration. When immigration does pose a significant threat to those goods (and of course I realize that immigration can also offer multiple benefits to all concerned), a country can be justified in restricting it. But it would be selfish and indeed unjust to behave as though the interests of non-citizens were of no importance at all. When the needs of others are sufficiently great, we are sometimes called to make sacrifices on their behalf. Sometimes, but not always. As so often happens in life, this is a case in which there are a variety of overlapping and sometimes conflicting goods, and prudence is required to sort them out, and to determine the best policy.

I do also believe in special obligations – that is, that people with whom we have some particular connection or tie can make greater demands on us than those to whom we have no special tie (beyond a shared humanity, though that also is a non-trivial connection.) This can justify giving attention to the lesser needs of one's (family, community, society, nation) even while realizing that there are other people in the world with greater needs. And I do think that shared citizenship can count as one such connection, as can shared membership in a society (which is a more complicated thing to define, but still, I think, a meaningful concept.) But there is no easy, neat calculus to determine how our various obligations should be balanced, and the "special obligations" that I mention don't function like a trump card in bridge; that is to say, the fact that I have special obligations to my neighbors doesn't dictate that I must care more about a neighbor child's nosebleed than about a foreign child's life. Once again, a complicated array of goods are on the table here, and prudence is needed to determine how best to balance them.

Do I think that position harmonious with Catholic moral philosophy? Yes. And, having read through John Paul II's speech, as posted by Tom, I find nothing in it that I would regard as problematic, or contrary to my position.

Nathan Smith

It is not always "unjust to prevent a person from entering a country at their wish." We may justly do so, for example, if the person in question is a known terrorist. I would agree that "citizens of a particular country [can] have a legitimate interest in protecting a variety of goods... and when immigration does pose a significant threat to those goods... a country can be justified in restricting it." For example, in the case of the terrorist, the citizens' legitimate interest in their own survival justifies them in restricting immigration.

JM says that she "cannot pick one of your two alternatives," but I think she did pick one: she rejected the idea that it's our country and we don't have to let them in if we don't want to. She writes: "it would be selfish and indeed unjust to behave as though the interests of non-citizens were of no importance at all." So far, so good... but *how much* importance are we to give them? JM writes that "I... believe in special obligations... people with... some particular connection or tie can make greater demands on us than those to whom we have no special tie." Sure, so do I, and one of the problems with immigration restrictions is that they routinely and inevitably prevents people from fulfilling such special obligations, by forcibly separating families, friends, colleagues, fellow members of churches, etc. Presumably JM thinks, though she offers no argument for the idea and I don't think there are valid arguments for it, that there is some link between fulfilling one's special obligations and excluding foreigners from the national territory, as if I can't look after my aging mother with all these Mexicans around.

The reason she mentions special obligations, though, seems to be that she thinks it's OK to take the interests of the foreign-born into account, but to discount them somewhat because they're foreigners. Now, I could easily accept this and make the argument for open borders from this standpoint. However, I don't really think this is right. I think the right way to think of special obligations is as a sort of specialization and division of labor in serving our fellow men. You look after your kids, I'll look after mine, and all the kids will be looked after. And I'll get to know my kids and do a better job looking after them than a stranger would. But ultimately, I don't think it's right to set one's own interests ahead of those of others, and by the same token I don't think it's right *ultimately* to set the interests of one's nearest and dearest ahead of those of strangers, and I don't think it's good for them, either. If you devote a lot of money to educating your children, I think you should impress on them that the purpose of it is not their own enjoyment, but that they can be of service to their fellow man and to God. By the same token, I don't think it's good to secure a comfortable living standard for one's less-skilled fellow citizens by means of excluding much needier people from opportunities. That's corrupting them, indulging their greed.

When JM writes this-- "when the needs of others are sufficiently great, we are sometimes called to make sacrifices on their behalf"-- she's right of course, but this kind of of misses the point, because it seems to assume that letting people in is a sacrifice. To speak of sacrifice is to speak of rights-claims relinquished, which in this case is to beg the question of where rights-claims lie. On what grounds does JM think we have a right to exclude people by coercion, such that it would be a sacrifice to let them in. There are other problems too. Suppose I want to do business with illegal immigrants; for me, it would be a sacrifice to obey the law and not to do business with them. Without meaning to, JM is using the word "sacrifice" in an incoherent and tendentious way, because she hasn't dealt seriously with the question of rights. She assimilates the problem of immigration to the problem of whether to give money to a beggar, but that is a false analogy.

Overall, I think it would be quite possible, even straightforward, to defend open borders and freedom of migration in terms of the meta-ethics JM has outlined. But it would be sort of hard to clinch the argument because the meta-ethic she describes is rather vague and complex. That's one reason I kind of like some of these modern meta-ethics like utilitarianism or Locke's natural law theory or Rawls' veil of ignorance: they're simple enough that they can cut through a lot of rationalization and humbug. JM's meta-ethics might be truer, though.

JPII doesn't mention rights in the speech Tom links to, so I'm guessing Yuengert is referring to something else. However, I think there are a couple of points that should worry JM. First, the call to "reflect on the duties of Catholics towards... the most vulnerable of foreigners: undocumented migrants" seems to point towards not deporting them or forcibly separating their families, but if we refrained from donig that our immigration laws would be even less enforceable than they are now. Second, JPII calls for "liberation from all forms of discrimination, rejection, and marginalization." Surely someone who is not granted citizenship and is subject to the threat of deportation is discriminated against, rejected, marginalized, no? I suppose JM will at least concede that there is nothing problematic or contrary to MY position in JPII's speech, either?


FYI, JPII's position on immigration was roundly criticized by the "control the borders" crowd in America, many of whom said it was tantamount to advocating an open borders regime. I can give you the links to a few of the criticisms if you like, or you could just do a google search for "pope immigration" and read the first three links or so.

Joyless Moralist

Oh, people always get in a dither about things the pope says. Like most things top Vatican officials say on "social issues", it's best read for its spirit, as a reflection, not as a policy manual. See my above remarks on this general topic.

As far as Nathan's comment goes, I don't want to be rude, but it gets kind of wearisome going back and back through these issues. After all the conversations we've had about this, you should grasp my position well enough not to have to ask these fairly elementary questions, and on most issues I think you would. For example, you know that I reject your basic premise that people have a right to migrate. I just don't think other people in the world are entitled to come here; neither am I entitled to go to there countries just because I want to. That being the case, what's so hard about justifying "coercive" measures to keep people out? By sneaking over the border they're knowingly breaking our laws and posing a genuine threat to societal order. They're not "innocent" in the relevant sense if they're willful lawbreakers. Now, you see illegal immigration as a kind of justified civil disobedience because you think it was unjust of us to deny them legal entry in the first place. But I've already rejected that premise; it isn't prima facie unjust to deny people entry. Obviously a lot of people have sympathetic reasons for wanting to be here, so I don't think they're evil and don't wish to use harsher measures than necessary to stop them, but I don't find the notion of "coercive" border patrols inherently problematic. How can you read so much literature on immigration without grasping this basic point?

But your biggest error, really, is your facile grasp of human relationships and obligation. You grant the existence of special obligations, but see them as essentially just a kind of "division of labor." Special relationships go much deeper than that; they cut to the heart of what makes human life valuable. And until you can understand that, I don't think it's possible for you to really grasp the dimensions of this issue. But I don't think I can realistically clear that up for you in a forum like this, especially given your less-than-receptive state of mind. That being the case, I don't know that there's much else worth saying on this topic.

Perhaps this might at least give you another angle from which to reflect on this point. You hate the argument that "it's our country and we don't have to let people in." But you love the Scripture about "I was a stranger and you took me in." So, your own favored passage (assuming it does apply to this issue) would cast immigrants as strangers knocking at our doors. OUR doors.

What do we, realistically, do when strangers knock at our doors? Would it be reasonable to have an "open door policy" where we don't even lock them and let anyone wander in at any time? Or, to more closely mimic Nathan's proposed immigration policy, do we have a policy of letting anyone in as long as they're not obviously armed and dangerous? No, pretty much nobody I know does that. What we actually do is make decisions based on circumstances. What kind of person is knocking, and why do they want to come in? What further demands will they make on us once we open the door to them? What risks and impositions will their presence create? If a desperate mother comes to you in a snowstorm looking for shelter before her child freezes to death, you would do real wrong to refuse her. On the other hand, if a group of teenagers come poking round wanting to invade your living room because your furniture is more comfortable than theirs, you do them no injustice by telling them to take a hike. And if you DID have to open your doors to everyone, you really wouldn't be able to secure a livable home for your family. The impositions could become utterly crippling.

In our country likewise, a variety of people "come knocking." They have different things to offer, and they want different things. Overall it's obviously good to be generous and accepting of others, but a fair amount of discernment is necessary in deciding who it is wise/prudent/morally obligatory to accept.

Joyless Moralist

Sorry. To go to THEIR countries.

Nathan Smith

The sinister thing about JM's writing, which makes it very different from what the pope writes, is phrases like this:

"Obviously a lot of people have sympathetic reasons for wanting to be here, so I don't think they're evil and don't wish to use harsher measures *than necessary* to stop them..."

JM doesn't want to use harsher measures *than necessary.* Well, sure, who would? But the flip side of this seems to be that JM would support whatever measures are necesary. The forcible separation of families is already being practiced on a large scale, and she will never say it needs to stop. And illegal immigration continues. So apparently even more "measures" are "necessary," no? What if, as I think is probably the case, nothing less than pogroms would "stop them?" Is there some place she would draw the line and say (with me) "OK, there are no acceptable means of keeping them out, so we have to recognize the right to migrate?" We disagree on whether (or at least, when) the *end* of preventing immigration is just, but will she at least accept some sort of limitation on the *means?* It would be some comfort if she would say "no forcible separation of families." Or even "no killing." But she won't.

JM writes:

"You grant the existence of special obligations, but see them as essentially just a kind of 'division of labor.' Special relationships go much deeper than that; they cut to the heart of what makes human life valuable."

Very odd. As if something based on the division of labor can't make human life valuable. It is through the division of labor that some people can be professors, some artists, some musicians. Aren't teaching, art, and music among the things that make life valuable? There's no argument here. I can concede JM's point without the slightest retreat from my own. And I still

JM writes:

"Perhaps this might at least give you another angle from which to reflect on this point. You hate the argument that 'it's our country and we don't have to let people in.' But you love the Scripture about 'I was a stranger and you took me in.' So, your own favored passage (assuming it does apply to this issue) would cast immigrants as strangers knocking at our doors. OUR doors."

Clever. But not valid. The point of Jesus's teaching is that even if you do have a right to exclude someone from a space, you should relinquish it, you should welcome the stranger. It does no harm to follow the same advice of welcoming the stranger to a place when one's right to exclude someone from the place is attenuated or disputed or non-existent. The analogy that JM makes between sovereignty and property is one of the most sinister parts of this debate. For one thing, if the territory of the United States is OURS, that is (since the "we" of the nation can only make decisions through some agency) the government's, that seems to have disturbing implications for the degree of power the government is entitled to have over our lives. But also, if the territory of the United States is OURS in the same sense that my house is mine, the implications for what we can justly do to illegal immigrants are really frightening. If someone breaks into my house at night, I may be entitled to shoot them in self-defense. If I call the cops they may use violent, even lethal force to expel the intruder. May we do the same to immigrants? Will we?

And where, anyway, did we get such collective-property-rights-over-the-national-territory? Don't we need to account for their origin somehow?

Joyless Moralist

A lot of things forcibly separate families, and this is something to be eagerly avoided, but not *at any cost*. Incarceration separates families. War separates families (not just on the war front – which might reasonably be cast as an unintended consequence of necessary action – but also on the home front when soldiers are called to duty.) Economic prosperity breaks up families as people are more frequently transferred to far-away jobs. And of course, immigration itself is one of the great forces that breaks up families. Admittedly it's a *voluntary* separation – not that that's not still plenty sad – but I think it's worth remembering that families that are separated through deportation have (or at least some members have) made the choice to come to a place where they know they're not allowed to be, realizing that deportation is always a risk.

Again, minimizing the fragmentation of families is certainly desirable, but I don't think this can reasonably lead us to the conclusion that we simply have to open all our borders to anyone who wishes to come.

As far as enforcement measures go, it's true that you'd have to get pretty Draconian to reduce illegal immigration to ZERO (or very close.) I'm not in favor of that. But unlike you, I think there are some much less horrific measures we could take that, without eliminating illegal immigration entirely, would considerably stem the tide. Anyway, this isn't very different from a wide variety of other problems, such as crime prevention; to eliminate certain crimes entirely, you have to enact some pretty harsh measures, but lesser measures are usually sufficient to get the problem in hand even without eliminating it. I know you don't think this is possible in the case of immigration. I do. Not very interested in discussing the practicalities of it once again.

Anyway, silly boy, of course I'm not willing to endorse ANY MEANS NECESSARY for curbing illegal immigration. What kind of Catholic would say *that*?

Division of labor is instrumentally useful for enabling other practices that make human life more valuable. What I'm saying is that the formation of special obligations is *itself* one of the things that makes us human. It's part of love, our most fundamental human activity. Even if we could show that this was a singularly inefficient way of meeting people's needs (material needs anyway, because of course I think that people need love, together with all that goes with it), I would still be in favor of the development of special obligations. The fact that some people's needs thereby become deprioritized is just a natural consequence of that process, which has some unfortunate effects, but I'm not willing to sacrifice loving relationships in the interests of getting more people fed and sheltered.

Would say something about the Scripture passage, but I have to go now. Maybe later.

Nathan Smith

JM writes: "families that are separated through deportation have (or at least some members have) made the choice to come to a place where they know they're not allowed to be, realizing that deportation is always a risk."

I do not, of course, recognize the validity of this argument (the phrase "not allowed to be" confers powers on the US government over the movements of foreign-born to which the foreign-born have never consented and would not rationally consent) but the argument is in any case completely eviscerated by JM's parenthetical concession. Some members of such families-- I'm not sure how many altogether, probably hundreds of thousands if not millions-- have *not* made that choice. They were brought here as infants or young children, before they understood what a border is. Yet they are subject to deportation to countries they hardly remember. But maybe this is one of the "practicalities" JM doesn't wish to discuss. There are a lot of practicalities of which one has to remain wilfully ignorant if one wants to maintain the comforting belief that moral decency is compatible with modern migration control.

Joyless Moralist

Children are constantly suffering for the poor decisions of their parents. That's one of the harsh realities of this world. Again, I'm fairly sympathetic to amnesty programs particularly for those who have more or less already grown up here. But if you want to protect children from suffering for their parents' indiscretions, that's a losing battle. You'd have to stop foreclosing on houses of parents who can't afford their house payments, stop firing incompetent employees who have children, stop incarcerating people with kids at home. You wouldn't be able to hold people accountable for anything, at least not while they were raising kids.

I'm not blind to the realities of immigration control. But I also realize that most of the harms you cite with horror are pretty non-unique to this issue.

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