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Objectivism and...Democracy?

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Old Soul
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This is my first post and will start my introducing myself. I am a 19 year old male freshman undergrad at Stanford University and became involved with Objectivism two years ago during my junior year in high school. I spent the summer before that year in China studying Buddhism and experiencing Beijing culture, coming back to a life I spent mainly at the Milwaukee (Soto) Zen Center. Given that background, the transition from Buddhism to Objectivism after reading Atlas that spring has been the most rewarding of my life. I have always been deeply philosophical, and for the past two years that has meant understanding as thoroughly as possible the philosophy I now so completely embrace and embody.However, there are still many questions I have yet to answer for myself, the following being one of them.

I have always had a problem with democracy being the natural political framework for the objectivist philosophy. I have always thought of Rand as a proponent for liberty, but a proponent for "equality" only in the sense of the basic rights of man at birth. From that point on, however, man chooses his path and reaps the natural consequences of his actions. "Rule by the people," however, seems to forget this logical sequence of man's life and instead deems equality to mean that all men deserve certain benefits because they are all human, not because of their actions.

I do understand that man's destiny and fate are to be ruled by nothing but his own choices, and therefore a law ruling over all men should be decided by all those men, but the cruel reality is that the "rule of the majority" has proved overwhelmingly irrational and immoral throughout the ages. Reality and reason are not the standards of the democratic political system. Truth, in the democratic sense, is discovered by the number of men in support, and when has Rand ever believed morality to be something as subjective as that?

Following the democratic train of logic, why don't all citizens vote on all court cases? Forget an intelligent, rational judge needed to interpret and decide justice. Rule of the people! Why are the leaders of a country in charge of executing these laws subjected to the whims and demands of the majority? Is that objective? Is that rational? Is that right? How can a subjective "rule by the people" political framework be the result of a philosophy exalting man's independent, individual, rational mind acting in accordance to an objective reality?

The only plausible explanation is that if the majority of a society is irrational, an irrational leader is what they deserve. But then the rational are ruled by the irrational. Also, that power placed in the hands of an immoral elected official often results in a rule by force and death as we have seen happen in numerous countries where democracy equals the election of a religious fundamentalist (the current situation of the USA) or a dictator. True, democracy gives a society exactly what it deserves, but that often leads to only more corruption and evil enveloping a world I can't bear to watch crumble to the ground.

Therefore, wouldn't an objective, rational system of government be one like Socrates "rule by the philosophers"? One ruled by people like John Galt, Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, Francisco D'Anconia, Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, and Steve Mallory, not one ruled by the masses' support of Ellsworth Toohey, which would be the natural democratic result in The Fountainhead society. So what structure of government would result in laws and leaders that embody the rights and virtues of the objective man? That I have yet to answer, but for now I see democracy as a completely subjective system inappropriately attached to an objective philosophy.

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As long as there is a constitutional protection of men's rights (and those constitutional rights aren't infringed upon/"amended" by government), I suppose it wouldn't matter how the governmental structure was implemented (democracy, meritocracy, aristocracy, plutocracy, etc.)

There was a similar topic about who should be allowed to vote (can't remember the topic's title.)

I think the main problem with the rule by philosophers that you mention is that it almost certainly means that the less-than-philosophers would have to voluntarily give up their governmental influence.

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First, we need to draw a distinction between democracy (unlimited majority rule) and republics (limited government run by elected representatives). Objectivism is opposed to democracy for the obvious reason that it provides no protection for individual rights. Objectivists typically defend some form of republic as the appropriate system of government.

Robert Tracinski has made an interesting observation about elections that may be relevant here. He notes that in an election-based system when the elected leadership wants to implement some policy, the system requires them to explain and justify it to the voting public at election time. This means that election-based systems, unlike other types of government, contain a structural requirement for dialogue as part of the policy-making process -- and dialogue is a necessary condition for reason to have its say.

Remember also that men have free will, and are therefore fallible. Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, for example, both held serious philosophical errors at various points in Atlas Shrugged. If they were capable of doing so in the past, they are capable of doing so again in the future. What mechanism could one have in a 'rule by philosopher kings' system for dealing with that possibility of error in the rulers?

This leads to a broader observation about governmental stability that is also relevant. One major reason why governments go bad is when the people who set its policies decide they can use government force to pursue their own chosen ends, instead of simply protecting individual rights. This will always be a temptation to people. The best barrier we have found against this is a system of checks and balances, in which government power is distributed among a number of different power centers with different interests. Then, should one power center start to behave badly, the others can act to push it back into line. For this to work, though, power must be distributed. That suggests that a system which vests ultimate political authority in as wide a base as possible will be more stable.

Is that a guarantee that such a government will never go bad? Of course not. There is no way to design a system of government that is guaranteed to protect freedom for a population that does not value and desire it. That is why the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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This is my first post and will start my introducing myself. I am a 19 year old male fresh...

...

So what structure of government would result in laws and leaders that embody the rights and virtues of the objective man? That I have yet to answer, but for now I see democracy as a completely subjective system inappropriately attached to an objective philosophy.

First off...welcome and thank you for the intelligent and well worded question.

This problem of avoiding a "tyranny of the masses" without creating a more traditional tyranny, goes way back. In fact it was a major concern of the founders of the US, which is why they attempted to create a republic(not a democracy) with representative rather then direct democracy. The hope was that the masses would keep the holders of power from going to far astray, since they required their reaffirmation every 2,4, or 6 years. Meanwhile, the power concentrated in the hands of the few (theoretically) excellent people would insure that decisions were not made on the whim of a mob, but rather, by way of rational discourse. A system of checks and balances, in other words. I highly recommend "the federalist paper" for more on the subject.

Without recounting the entire history of America's 230 year fall from grace, I would suggest that a major cause has been a change in the charactor and views of the people, for the worse. Essentially from individualism to paternalism. This change, I believe could have been avoided if property rights had been protected as an absolute and unamendable section in the constitution.

This was the little crack that eventually gave way to the burst of the socialist dam. A concrete example would be the way insiduous laws such as the income tax amendment get passed, become recipricol, and then grow. Briefly, it was presented as a 1% tax on income in excess of $5000, affecting less then 5% of the population at the time. When it was passed a senator proposed a cap of 10% and was laughed down on the premise that it would never get that high. Of course now federal income tax is as high as 33% and affects 95% of the population. Once granted the power to tax income, income stopped belonging to the earners by right. You don't have the right to 67% of your income instead of 100%. They just happen to let you keep 67% for right now(not counting social security-13%,medicare-2%, state income tax +/- 5%, property tax(varies), sales tax, gas tax, phone tax,etc,etc). Their is a moral difference between 0% and 1%. The difference between 1% and 98% is just a political decision.

Now with this redistribution of buying power from the producers to these thugs who steal it, comes a shift in expectations of the populace, since they always steal the money while offering to provide some additional service. Social security is an excellent example of this. Since the government "guarantees" you retirement, you no longer must think ahead and plan for your own. Also, because they steal your discretionary income, which could otherwise be saved and invested, most are not able to save significantly for retirement. So now a vote comes to change a bankrupt social security. We must either raise taxes or lower benefits. How will most of the masses 55 and up vote? So by providing this garbage and stealing the money, the predominent outlook shifts from right to entitlement. Motivations change from productive to consumptive.

I don't believe Ayn Rand or any other objectivist advocates democracy. Probably more along the lines of a republic with an objective constitution. That being said, the commonly held belief is that the philosophy of the masses must change before the government realistically can, so interest in political science discussions at this point is fairly low.

Edited by softwareNerd
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Hey Robert,

First off welcome to the board. It's always great to have a new face in the neighborhood.

You jumped a significant gap in philosophy going from Buddhism to Objectivism. I went from Christianity through a sort of weird agnostic humanist phase finally to Objectivism, but that was a long time ago. It took me a while to find all of the places I was hiding ideas that weren't consitent with Objectivism.

It might be helpful if you help us understand how much of Rand you've read, just so we can get a sense of what concepts you have and have not reached yet.

I think the struggle you may be having is one of fundamentals. Rand did not argue that the proper government was a democracy, in its essentials. The fact that there is representational aspects to parts of our government is important, but not the essential.

Her essential was a "constitutionally limited republic based upon individual rights." That is, "individual rights as the proper principle of human coexistence."

All of the problematic issues you see with democracy she also saw. If you take democracy to mean unlimited majority rule. A governement must be fundamentally structure to preserve individual rights first. That is, the majority cannot vote away your fundamental rights.

The fundamental proper government should be one based upon objective law, not men. Where individual rights are clearly spelled out and next to impossible to overturn. Where growth of govt power is checked and govt derives its power from the people (i.e. is constituted).

Philosopher kings, and democracies, tend to tyranny, i.e. to dictators and whim ridden mobs. They may work for a time but their preservation mechanisms are poor.

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It might be helpful if you help us understand how much of Rand you've read, just so we can get a sense of what concepts you have and have not reached yet.

I have read Atlas Shrugged twice and really made the pages of that book into my own novel I've written in it so much. I'm at about page 400 in The Fountainhead which I have been debating reading for a year now as I thought Atlas was believed to be her greater accomplishment and I have so much else I need to read, but I've read it during some study breaks over the quarter and now have time over xmas to finish it. I've read about half the essays in The Virtue of Selfishness and half in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

khaight, your reminder to distinguish between a democracy and a republic, pointing out the fallacies of Hank and Dagny, and your insightful observation that democracy might be the most effective embodiment of the checks and balances system were all very helpful.

KendallJ, I didn't know Rand approached almost this same question with similar answers. And the numbers on the evolution of the income tax were really interesting aequalsa; that answer also helped me piece together some other questions I had about the theory of and imposition of taxes in our American society. And I'm always looking for more dirt on the income tax -- sick.

I hope to hear more feedback

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It is important not to expect the structure of any government to preserve rights of itself because that's impossible. The best it can do is to work at the margins of popular will as a buffer, putting the brakes on irrational public whims temporarily. No system can overcome a widespread enough public consensus, so it is vital that the populace embrace rational principles so that the system will follow. No single constitutional principle alone is sufficient; imperfect mechanisms such as majoritarianism, federalism, executive and judicial independence, a written constitution of defined and limited powers, and so forth must be appropriately mixed to create a balanced structure. The same human vices that make government necessary, demand such a structure; if human beings were perfect, no checks and balances would be necessary, but no government would be necessary then either.

The best I can say for democracy is that it is one way for the public to make corrections when the rest of the system has gone entirely corrupt. The case I have in mind is the recent passage of Michigan's Proposal 2 which outlawed race preferences in university admissions and other contexts. Every other governmental mechanism, from the elected boards of regents of the universities, to the state legislature, to the U.S. Supreme Court, had failed to secure basic rights. Finally the people themselves were able to use the democratic mechanism to correct the intellectual elites gone awry by amending the state constitution. So in the final analysis I do see a value for democracy, as the ultimate way for the people to secure their rights.

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Note that it is the dominant ideas of a culture which is the ultimate determinant of a country's direction and the operation of its government. No form of government, however good, is sufficient to protect individual rights absent their sacrosanctity in the culture; and no form of government, however bad, is sufficient to crush individual rights when the culture holds them sacrosanct. In either case, the old government will fall (it will inevitably be felled), and a new one will be imposed consistent with the culture's dominant ideas.

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It is important not to expect the structure of any government to preserve rights of itself because that's impossible. The best it can do is to work at the margins of popular will as a buffer, putting the brakes on irrational public whims temporarily. No system can overcome a widespread enough public consensus, so it is vital that the populace embrace rational principles so that the system will follow. No single constitutional principle alone is sufficient; imperfect mechanisms such as majoritarianism, federalism, executive and judicial independence, a written constitution of defined and limited powers, and so forth must be appropriately mixed to create a balanced structure. The same human vices that make government necessary, demand such a structure; if human beings were perfect, no checks and balances would be necessary, but no government would be necessary then either.

Oddly enough, these remarks resonate with a book I've been reading recently -- John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty by Objectivist C. Bradley Thompson. It's basically an intellectual biography of John Adams, and spends a lot of time elucidating Adams' theories about proper governmental and constitutional design. I think anyone who is interested in these issues would find it a fascinating read.

(I have to say, parenthetically, how cool it is to be able to find books by Objectivists on these sorts of detailed topics in specialized fields. More please, and faster.)

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Old Soul... can you point where exaclty Ayn Rand talks about "democracy being the natural political framework for the objectivist philosophy." I have read Atlas Shrugged once and I am really sure that Ayn Rand made it clear that she wants "government of laws and not of men."

And if you have read VOS, in "The Objectivist Ethics" AR makes it clear that she advocates "full, pure, uncontrolled, unregualted laissez-faire capitalism." you should also read "Man's Rights" and "The Nature of Government" in VOS. have you read "What is Capitalism?" in CUI?

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Old Soul, can you point where exaclty Ayn Rand talks about "democracy being the natural political framework for the objectivist philosophy." I have read Atlas Shrugged once and I am really sure that Ayn Rand made it clear that she wants "government of laws and not of men."

And if you have read VOS, in "The Objectivist Ethics" AR makes it clear that she advocates "full, pure, uncontrolled, unregualted laissez-faire capitalism." you should also read "Man's Rights" and "The Nature of Government" in VOS. have you read "What is Capitalism?" in CUI?

I have read the first few pages of "What is Capitalism" but not the entire article. After khaight's comment, I see that Ayn Rand argued against democracy just as I have, so you are right, she didn't establish democracy as the natural political framework for objectivism. Missed your transition to capitalism though -- capitalism is an economic system, not a political structure. And Rand most definitely advocated for a political structure to enforce justice; I was just confused as to her stance on the correct political form to accompany objectivism. And I think Seeker and y_feldbum both brought up the idea that the structure isn't what will protect human rights, but the dominant ideas of the culture passing through the buffer of our representatives.

My problem, still, is that even a constitutionally limited republic based on objective law, not men, must at some point come from men! And what men does a republic place this responsibility? Representatives elected by the masses, so indirectly, the masses. I am still bothered by the idea that the creation and execution of these objective laws come from the demands of the public whose essence and value system Rand so thoroughly despised. True khaight, a limited republic can combat human error effectively, but stopping "not A" is not creating "A." Is this the best system we can come up with to not just combat human error but actually expedite the rise of objective morality?

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capitalism is an economic system, not a political structure.
Her essay "What is Capitalism" (CUI ch. 1) addresses the question of defining capitalism, a concept which she defines as follows: "Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned". The antithesis of capitalism then is collectivism, the social system based on the denial of individual rights and recognizing only tribal rights, where property is owned by the tribe and may be temporarily used, with permission, by the tribe. I also recall having had the reaction of confusion, when I first read her view that capitalism is a political system. This stems from the way the concept is typically taught and represented in modern culture, as meaning "maximizing profit, no matter what". But that simply isn't an accurate view of capitalism.
My problem, still, is that even a constitutionally limited republic based on objective law, not men, must at some point come from men!
Ultimately, a proper governmental system "comes from" reality. Let's take a proposed law -- to be concrete, that it is a crime to use a wireless network without explicit permission from the owner of the network. Such a law must be composed and enacted by men, but they would do so because that law expresses a particular principle (about private property and man's rights). In a "society of men", that is, a government operating only on the whim of the moment, vote of the majority and following no principles, such a law could be enacted at random, but so could any number of completely arbitrary laws on the subject, even including the negation of the above law. The role of men in making such a law is, then, to recognize fundamental principles (man has rights, the purpose of government is to protect those rights), to recognize the need to codify a distinction between certain rights-respecting and rights-violating acts, and then to correctly express that distinction in language.
And what men does a republic place this responsibility? Representatives elected by the masses, so indirectly, the masses.
That's a detail of implementation. The principle is that laws have a purpose, but minds are required in order to state the higher purpose in terms of a more specific principle (pertaining to wireless networks, for example). There is and never has been a place with universal suffrage (which is good). Even in our society, voting is only available to citizens, adults, and non-criminals (of certain kinds, dependent on local law).
I am still bothered by the idea that the creation and execution of these objective laws come from the demands of the public whose essence and value system Rand so thoroughly despised.
I don't see any evidence that this is true. Rand despised the brainless concept of "The Public", since there is no such thing as "The Public" (there are hundreds of millions of individuals living in the US, but they aren't "The Public"). And "The Public" doe not ever elect, select or vote on government officials. All elections in the US are conducted on the basis of votes cast by individuals. Edited by softwareNerd
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Missed your transition to capitalism though -- capitalism is an economic system, not a political structure.

You can't draw a sharp distinction between economic and political systems; they're interconnected. For example, how could you have freedom of speech (a political concept) in an economic system where the government owned all the printing presses? "Capitalism", as Objectivism uses the term, refers to a social system in which individual rights are fully protected. Since individual rights include the right to own and dispose of property, the free market is the kind of economic organization that results. In the political sphere, freedom is what results. But both aspects flow from a common root.

My problem, still, is that even a constitutionally limited republic based on objective law, not men, must at some point come from men! And what men does a republic place this responsibility? Representatives elected by the masses, so indirectly, the masses. I am still bothered by the idea that the creation and execution of these objective laws come from the demands of the public whose essence and value system Rand so thoroughly despised.
Government's authority is nothing more than the individual right of self-defense delegated to an agent for the purposes of objective implementation. That being the case, ultimate political sovereignty must be rooted in 'the masses', because the 'masses' are nothing more nor less than the individual men whose rights of self-defense are being delegated.

Steven Den Beste wrote an interesting article describing the way in which elections serve as a mechanism for sorting signal from noise with regard to the voting public's policy preferences. It's worth reading and thinking about. (It starts off talking about CDMA cell-phone technology, but trust me that the ultimate point is about elections.)

True khaight, a limited republic can combat human error effectively, but stopping "not A" is not creating "A." Is this the best system we can come up with to not just combat human error but actually expedite the rise of objective morality?

Objective morality 'rises' to the extent that larger numbers of individual men accept it. It is not the government's job to pick sides in intellectual disputes; the only role the government should play in such cases is preserving the freedom of the individuals doing the debating -- i.e. it should protect their individual right to free speech.

Edited by softwareNerd
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  • 14 years later...

"I do understand that man's destiny and fate are to be ruled by nothing but his own choices"

The difficulty with this brand of thinking is that there is a lot in a person's life that is not chosen.

"the cruel reality is that the "rule of the majority" has proved overwhelmingly irrational and immoral throughout the ages. Reality and reason are not the standards of the democratic political system."

There seems to be a relationship between education and reason - and the downstream effect on democracy. People need to become better educated in order for democratic outcomes to improve. Access to education, thus, is is key.

 "Truth, in the democratic sense, is discovered by the number of men in support, and when has Rand ever believed morality to be something as subjective as that?"

Democracy doesn't presume to invariably deliver upon cast-iron truths. Rather, within the sovereign framework that must persist, it delivers the outcome that best approximates the collective (summated) wills of individuals. Hence, they need for citizens to be highly educated and no all the 'on this hand but on the other hand' aspects of every issue as they cast their ballot.

"Following the democratic train of logic, why don't all citizens vote on all court cases? Forget an intelligent, rational judge needed to interpret and decide justice."

So long as the democracy is at the very top of the chain, the framework of every level of decision-making all the way down from there at any number of points (or indeed all) do not need to be democratic, but does need to be justifiable. A qualified judge being given the responsibility to discover truth is justifiable.

"Why are the leaders of a country in charge of executing these laws subjected to the whims and demands of the majority? Is that objective? Is that rational? Is that right?"

It isn't perfect but it is the least undesirable. The electoral system has a large part to play. A parliamentary majority is required to install a government and un-install one. From election to election the majority coalition will change and shift. Better the whims of an (educated) majority than a self-appointed clique of people who think they know best. As Joe Stalin might know now, this only invites dissent. 

You might guess, I'm no fan of Ayn Rand.

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Com,

Rand's views (post-1957) aside and the views of "Old Soul" (14 years ago) aside, what do you have in mind by "in order for democratic outcomes to improve"? I mean what would you mean somewhat specifically for outcomes to count as improvements? Democratic and Republican persons elected to Congress seem overwhelmingly highly educated, and I'm not sure of what the two sides can agree to as being better outcomes. The voters to either Party whom I've known, my age (70s) or younger, all have at least a high school diploma, and pairwise we can agree on much that would be a better outcome. But what can be agreed on as a better outcome changes as we pair up an individual of one Party with each of fifteen members of the other Party. So although we are all pretty educated, it seems that in the end there is little a member of one Party can agree with the other Party collectively (and really only somewhat more in one's own Party) concerning what is a better outcome.

As a gay person watching the social and legal changes concerning gays and lesbians across my decades, I really don't see the improvements (improvements by my lights) as resulting from higher levels of general education in the population, but resulting from a collective action in which more and more persons came out and showed more and more of the population who we were in day-to-day real life, working right next to them.

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17 hours ago, Com said:

Better the whims of an (educated) majority than a self-appointed clique of people who think they know best.

Agreed.

The crucial need is for enough people to understand and accept the relevant principles, which Ayn Rand has defined.  As long as this is not case, any system will give at best mixed results, and the bad will eventually overwhelm the good if it has enough time.  Once enough people to understand and accept the relevant principles, democracy will give good results, although it will take time for this to be fully effective.

 

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"I mean what would you mean somewhat specifically for outcomes to count as improvements?"

I think that the more politically aware and engaged folk are the better it is for democracy. Irrespective of their political views - and how they might transform. I also think that the interplay between education and democracy across the centuries (particularly in Europe) seems to show that. With reference to more recent events, when people's noses are kept pushed into the grindstone, they barely have time for anything else, including the deeper reflection (education by any other name) needed to be politically engaged in a meaningful way (and instead bringing about manipulative and unsavory characters like Trump and Boris Johnson).

I'm pretty much centre-left in my views, and would want neither the hard right or the hard left in either extreme manifestation to be in power. However I am a democrat way before I am a socialist. I also think multi-party electoral systems are preferable (such as New Zealand or Germany). 

I don't think of an improvement as being an approach toward the pure right (or necessarily, for that matter, toward the pure left). I think of an improvement as when people have a better picture of what they are voting for or against, and the electoral outcome is a reflection of this.

Part of the problem is that (with the loss of jobs - due to AI among other factors) the political centre is moving leftward, and classic right-wing parties (Republicans in the US and Conservatives in the UK) are resisting the leftward shuffle by manipulating those who Hilary Clinton might have referred to as 'the deplorables', and manufacturing a distorted world view for them to buy into.  

Just my take on things.

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I'm sure they are relatively vague and indefinable, but hard-core neoliberalism would be one aspect Neoliberalism - Wikipedia

Not logically connected (though you might understand how they evolved a hand-in-hand 'pairing-off') is social conservatism. I'm pretty sure we would agree that certain baggage often (though not exclusively) associated with right wing parties, such as conservatism on social issues (religion, sexuality, etc), is not desirable. Education and awareness tends to exorcise that kind of busy-bodying from the wider community, and indeed from people who are otherwise bent on 'freedoms' - as it takes their fancy to be.

One issue that I think is rather ridiculous but seems to emanate from one element of the political right wing is on gender - that science (suddenly!) dictates how we must present ourselves socially. Now, suddenly, if I have male genitalia or even if I'm chromosomally male, I cannot put on make up or wear a dress and be a woman, if I chose to. Not that I have an inclination to do this, but I just cannot understand why anyone would be so hung up on anyone else's freedom to do so - unless, of course, they had an agenda to push.  Personally, I find it kind of sexy when people enjoy being who they truly feel they are on the inside - which would be the nearest thing to an agenda I would have on this issue.

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