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Thread: What's the Purpose/Intent/Function of Government?

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    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    What's the Purpose/Intent/Function of Government?

    Perhaps this thread will descend into hopeless partisan bickering, but it is my sincere hope that we may examine and approach this basic question from a philisophical standpoint (and not from a 'right or wrong' standpoint) and to whatever extent possible use the discussion to identify commonalities or differences in our perspectives.
    The very generally stated issue in the thread's title can be approached from any number of angles so to get things started out I'll just throw out a couple of questions

    What IS government (and is it really synonymous with any set of social rules/laws/codes/folkways/customs/conventions?)?

    Can humans coexist without government on ANY scale (i.e. will enlightened Utopian anarchy ever exist for humanity?)?
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

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    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Government is about the allocation of scarce resources for the common good.

  3. #3
    Government is a territorial monopoly on ultimate jurisdiction and the use of force.

    I don't believe that a society without government is an "anarchistic" society. It will have many free, competing services of jurisdiction and use of force. Think of it as a society with unlimited secession.

    Quote Originally posted by mike gurnee
    Government is about the allocation of scarce resources for the common good.
    Hello ghost of Lenin.

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    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister
    What IS government (and is it really synonymous with any set of social rules/laws/codes/folkways/customs/conventions?)?

    Can humans coexist without government on ANY scale (i.e. will enlightened Utopian anarchy ever exist for humanity?)?
    I think "government" is the attempt to coordinate group activities which, for practical reasons, MUST be formalized when a group exceeds a certain size and/or needs to interact effectively with other formally organized groups. I think, for example, we could argue that part of the reason that native americans were so screwed over is because they had more informal forms of governing their groups and were, thus, ill prepared for coping with contract law, etc. These days, tribes in south america who can neither read nor write have been known to use videotape to enforce contracts by videotaping the discussions of agreements they made. They learned to deal in a more formal manner with these "larger" groups (or members of the larger, more formally organized group) and meet the more formalized burden of proof generally required for enforcing anything in such a climate.

    Can humans exist without government on ANY scale: No. Even in the family unit, someone has to be in charge, agreements and "historical precedent" and so forth are required for orderly management of day-to-day needs, etc. Any time you have multiple entities trying to get their own needs met via limited resources (say, the resources of planet earth), you have inherent conflict of interests ("tragedy of the commons" for example).

  5. #5
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jaws
    Government is a territorial monopoly on ultimate jurisdiction and the use of force.
    Knew we could count on jaws for this kind of "no government is good government" type of post.
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

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    Cyburbian Plus Whose Yur Planner's avatar
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    As I recall from college days, government provides public goods and services that the private sector cannot or will not provide, example national defense, police protection and clean air. Basically, it's hard to put a price tag on these goods and services. Further government supposedly insures a equitiable distribution of these goods and services.

    On a personal level, we are here to protect the rights of all the citizens in our jurisdiction, example building inspections. Further, we provide a means for people to comment on decisions that impact their daily lives, example public hearings.

    Can humans exist without government on ANY scale: No. Even in the family unit, someone has to be in charge, agreements and "historical precedent" and so forth are required for orderly management of day-to-day needs, etc.My dad, a now retired cop, used to say that if there were 3 people left on the earth, 1 would have to be a cop. People simply cannot live peacefully together for the long term.
    Last edited by Whose Yur Planner; 26 Jan 2006 at 12:53 PM.
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  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    The government is the entity that binds and regulates people in a nation that conformes a state. The government is there to guard our freedoms, and to protect us from foreign agressions. Although for me (and quite a lot of people) the government is not Economy, like mike gurnee said, it has practically no functions there, beyond some minor regulations here and there (like regulating natural monopolies)

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    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    MZ's description is the best, so far. Human existence, beyond populations of one, need some form of governing heirarchy.

    Human civilization has used umbrella governing institutions since the beginning.

    Also, any form of reliable market (trading of goods) require a governing set of rules and a governing body to enforce the rules, unless everyone participating folllows the rules, which is impossible in reality.

    But, obviously, a government can become bloated and be no longer useful due to size. But once a government (created by the majority of the populous) has certain levels of authority/rules, it is often very difficult to cede the no longer necessary rules, so the whole thing gets bloated very quickly.

    Maybe the western tradition of governing in each soveriegn nation should be completely reconstructed every 75 years or so, in order to cut the waste and re-evaluate the purpose of the entity.
    Last edited by mendelman; 26 Jan 2006 at 3:34 PM.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

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    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jaws
    Government is a territorial monopoly on ultimate jurisdiction and the use of force.

    I don't believe that a society without government is an "anarchistic" society. It will have many free, competing services of jurisdiction and use of force. Think of it as a society with unlimited secession.
    The word "anarchy" brings a lot of associations with it. The term simply means 'no government' but the conditions we associate with this state of affairs varies. There is the anarchy that results from war/civil disorder - in this context the word is synonymous with 'chaos', but there is also the anarchy (at least in theory) that can result from a group of people who so thoroughly and uniformly subscribe to a particular philosophy/creed that no external authority is required to impose will or order on the group's actions. Such a condition can only exist with universal accordance (this was the condition I was referring to when I mentioned "enlightened utopian anarchy").

    I think you may have identified a couple of important elements of government with the phrase "territorial monopoly on jurisdiction and use of force". Can government exist without territory? (would the UN constitute a 'government' by this definition?) Can "authority" exist without force?
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

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    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    The purposes of government include:
    1) To provide needed services that the ordinary citizen cannot (roads, defense, public order, emergency services, etc.)
    2) To provide needed services that are not available to every person and will not be provided by the private sector (public assistance, food stamps, public housing, medical services),
    3) Preserve and protect public resources (national parks, recreation areas, national forests and grasslands, waterways, etc.),
    4) Protect the public health, safety and welfare of the people, and
    5) Establish regulatory practices and enforcement to protect people from unscrupulous private interests (food and drug laws, SEC, environmental laws, building and fire regulations, etc.)

    Some people hate government. I work in government. I find most of the people I work with are good, reasonable and conscientious people who take their jobs and their responsibilities seriously. We are not the problem. We are part of the solution.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

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  11. #11
    Quote Originally posted by otterpop
    <snip>
    Some people hate government. I work in government. I find most of the people I work with are good, reasonable and conscientious people who take their jobs and their responsibilities seriously. We are not the problem. We are part of the solution.
    I agree. I would only add that we are also one heck of a bargain.
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    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker
    I agree. I would only add that we are also one heck of a bargain.
    And I definitely agree with you on that point.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

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    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    I think that most of them have been covered, but there comes a point where a person can be wealthy enough that they have privatized services and don't use government all that much. Just think about real gated communities.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

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    Member Wulf9's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by otterpop
    The purposes of government include:
    1) To provide needed services that the ordinary citizen cannot (roads, defense, public order, emergency services, etc.)
    2) To provide needed services that are not available to every person and will not be provided by the private sector (public assistance, food stamps, public housing, medical services),
    3) Preserve and protect public resources (national parks, recreation areas, national forests and grasslands, waterways, etc.),
    4) Protect the public health, safety and welfare of the people, and
    5) Establish regulatory practices and enforcement to protect people from unscrupulous private interests (food and drug laws, SEC, environmental laws, building and fire regulations, etc.)
    Very good. To that I would add.

    6) After taking care of the defined public good, allowing personal decisions and the free market to flourish without government intervention.

  15. #15
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis
    I think that most of them have been covered, but there comes a point where a person can be wealthy enough that they have privatized services and don't use government all that much. Just think about real gated communities.
    True to a point. However, I think it is more a matter of the nature of how they rely on government that differs. I can think of no nation on earth where the elite do not "use" government to impose their will and maintain their status at the expense of others. Here in the US, the wealthy use/rely on government to 'buy justice' through hiring high power attorneys, or influencing legislators to change/interpret the laws themselves to their advantage.
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

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    Cyburbian Plan-it's avatar
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    I am going to be the devils advocate here for a moment. Many people have claimed on this thread that government is supposed to provide services that the private sector cannot or will not supply and then claim items like transportation, defense, etc. If this is the case why do we have a substantially privatized military in the support functions in Iraq/Afghanistan and why is it that many states are starting to allow the private construction/improvement (and tolling) of interstate highway systems. If there is money to be made anywhere in the system, there will be individuals trying to get a share. How do we justify government’s role when the private sector is showing an ability to leverage greater capital resources to make these projects happen in a more cost effective manner? (I am saying nothing in this statement about quality or prevalence of graft...just cost).
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    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Plan-it
    I am going to be the devils advocate here for a moment. Many people have claimed on this thread that government is supposed to provide services that the private sector cannot or will not supply and then claim items like transportation, defense, etc. If this is the case why do we have a substantially privatized military in the support functions in Iraq/Afghanistan and why is it that many states are starting to allow the private construction/improvement (and tolling) of interstate highway systems. If there is money to be made anywhere in the system, there will be individuals trying to get a share. How do we justify government’s role when the private sector is showing an ability to leverage greater capital resources to make these projects happen in a more cost effective manner? (I am saying nothing in this statement about quality or prevalence of graft...just cost).
    There isn't anything particularly new in the idea of having a 'privatized military'. Historically, kings, earls, barons, warlords, etc. often hired mercenaries to fight their battles. I think one of the reasons that we find the private sector having an increased ability to leverage resources necessary for larger projects is because corporations themselves have become vastly more powerful and influential over time. They may at times be able to make things happen in a more cost effective manner but one potential problem with corporations is that their purpose and intent are not the same as governments'. A corporation's first and foremost (dare I say only) responsibility is a fiduciary one. They are there to make money and are under no obligation to advance any interest or cause but that of their owners.
    People will miss that it once meant something to be Southern or Midwestern. It doesn't mean much now, except for the climate. The question, “Where are you from?” doesn't lead to anything odd or interesting. They live somewhere near a Gap store, and what else do you need to know? - Garrison Keillor

  18. #18

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    How about a completely different formulation?

    Government is what happens when shared ethics are insufficient to maintain a society.

  19. #19
    Quote Originally posted by Maister
    I think you may have identified a couple of important elements of government with the phrase "territorial monopoly on jurisdiction and use of force". Can government exist without territory? (would the UN constitute a 'government' by this definition?) Can "authority" exist without force?
    The European Union is an extraterritorial government. It's fairly new however.

    The territory of an extraterritorial government is the property of its members. That's where its jurisdiction applies. If a member leaves, the jurisdiction disappears.

    Under current monopolistic governments, the government maintains jurisdiction over a territory no matter who owns the property inside it.
    Quote Originally posted by otterpop
    The purposes of government include:
    1) To provide needed services that the ordinary citizen cannot (roads, defense, public order, emergency services, etc.)
    2) To provide needed services that are not available to every person and will not be provided by the private sector (public assistance, food stamps, public housing, medical services),
    3) Preserve and protect public resources (national parks, recreation areas, national forests and grasslands, waterways, etc.),
    4) Protect the public health, safety and welfare of the people, and
    5) Establish regulatory practices and enforcement to protect people from unscrupulous private interests (food and drug laws, SEC, environmental laws, building and fire regulations, etc.)

    Some people hate government. I work in government. I find most of the people I work with are good, reasonable and conscientious people who take their jobs and their responsibilities seriously. We are not the problem. We are part of the solution.
    The vast majority of people are good, charitable and law-abiding folks. The problem with monopolistic governments is that the people at the top are the worst kind of scum you will ever meet, and the reason they are that is because that is the kind of talents you need to get to the top through politics. And that's where your list of purposes of government becomes moot. You can't expect the kind of evil people that rise to power to deliver on any of this with success. That's just not their line of expertise.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian Plus Whose Yur Planner's avatar
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    The vast majority of people are good, charitable and law-abiding folks.

    I beg to differ. Most people are greedy, self-interested and self-asorbed. The reason most people are law abiding is that someone taught them the consequences of not being that way. I've been involved in the public sector most of my life and the true nature of people has been driven home to me many times.
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  21. #21
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister
    True to a point. However, I think it is more a matter of the nature of how they rely on government that differs. I can think of no nation on earth where the elite do not "use" government to impose their will and maintain their status at the expense of others. Here in the US, the wealthy use/rely on government to 'buy justice' through hiring high power attorneys, or influencing legislators to change/interpret the laws themselves to their advantage.
    I agree that there is still some expectation of the government regardless of income.

    In many places, the extreme wealthy team up for their own gated community where everyone has septic fields and wells, utilities from private companies, privatized security and fire protection, they send their kids to private schools. They also drive in their gated communities on private roads with private contractors to maintain them, to private country clubs. Some even have shopping plazas so they don’t have to go into town! Additionally, they tend to handle things behind the gates instead of bringing outsiders into their world. Most things can be handled by the private government known as the community council.

    Ironically, they pay a higher percentage and more overall taxes to supply a government where they use the least amount of services.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

  22. #22
    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jaws
    The vast majority of people are good, charitable and law-abiding folks. The problem with monopolistic governments is that the people at the top are the worst kind of scum you will ever meet, and the reason they are that is because that is the kind of talents you need to get to the top through politics. And that's where your list of purposes of government becomes moot. You can't expect the kind of evil people that rise to power to deliver on any of this with success. That's just not their line of expertise.
    That sort of generalization never shakes out in the real world. As for the people at the top, I have to say my county commissioners are good people. The city commisisoners are good people who serve the people. My governor is a good person. One of my senator is a good person. The other is kind of a scum bucket, but there you go. President Carter rose to the top and if there is a better man other than the Dalia Lama I would be surprised. Senator McClain from all I know of him seems like a brave and conscientious man, whose character and courage is an inspiration.

    We sometimes forget that the federal government, which is so much in the limelight, is only part of our government. There are state, county and local governments, who serve the people much more personally and are not as much "in the pockets" of power brokers and lobbyists.

    A safety valve built in to the systems to prevent or at least mitgate corruption in government are the civil servants. We are not elected, so we don't have to curry favor. The system is structured so that it is hard to fire a civil servant just because you don't like the way he or she treats your friends (it is not always the case of course, but usually they can't). People get a fair shake when they come into our office because we have an established set of procedures and rules that applies to everyone. My department is fortunate in that the commissioners buy into that and exert no undue pressure on us.

    I certainly would not characterize our various governments as monopolistic. By and large I would call them democratic. I don't like Dubya and much of what he is doing, BUT he was elected THIS time! I would not characterize most of them as scum. Some are. Most aren't. Are they unduly influenced by the powers-that-be? Certainly more than they should be. But in my heart, I believe most of them, even those I disagree with, are trying to do the best they can for their constituents.

    I am no Pollyanna. I've worked with or in government for most of my adult life. I know the kind of people they are. People who work in government are no better or worse than the people in other lines of work. The CEOs aren't angels either. If the politicians are being bribed or influenced, it is the private sector who are working the strings.

    Our country has wonderful laws protecting our people and our resources. Those were not created by the worst scum you will ever meet.

    So I reject your contention that my comments on the purpose of government are moot.
    Last edited by otterpop; 27 Jan 2006 at 12:02 PM.
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  23. #23
    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis
    <big snip>
    Ironically, they pay a higher percentage and more overall taxes to supply a government where they use the least amount of services.
    Can't quite agree here, mskis. These folks have the most to lose and therefore the greastest dependence on a system of national defense. Proportionately, I pay way more toward that defense than they do.
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  24. #24
    Quote Originally posted by otterpop
    That sort of generalization never shakes out in the real world. As for the people at the top, I have to say my county commissioners are good people. The city commisisoners are good people who serve the people. My governor is a good person. One of my senator is a good person. The other is kind of a scum bucket, but there you go. President Carter rose to the top and if there is a better man other than the Dalia Lama I would be surprised. Senator McClain from all I know of him seems like a brave and conscientious man, whose character and courage is an inspiration.
    President Carter was fed to the dogs by the electorate for telling them the truth. That served a nice warning to the generation of politicians that followed him, and shaped the republican strategy for victory that made them so succesful today.
    We sometimes forget that the federal government, which is so much in the limelight, is only part of our government. There are state, county and local governments, who serve the people much more personally and are not as much "in the pockets" of power brokers and lobbyists.
    That's not true. Local governments are even more likely to be corrupt than government in the spotlight because nobody knows what it is they're doing. Just look at the Mississippi DOT.
    A safety valve built in to the systems to prevent or at least mitgate corruption in government are the civil servants. We are not elected, so we don't have to curry favor. The system is structured so that it is hard to fire a civil servant just because you don't like the way he or she treats your friends (it is not always the case of course, but usually they can't). People get a fair shake when they come into our office because we have an established set of procedures and rules that applies to everyone. My department is fortunate in that the commissioners buy into that and exert no undue pressure on us.
    That is called bureaucracy and it is the most parasitic form of economic organization we have. Bureaucracies are immobilist, defensive and always increase the resources they consume. You say it's impossible to fire a civil servant like it's a good thing! That's the kind of logic that makes it impossible for school districts to fire bad teachers, and makes sures 'administration' gets the biggest piece of the pie whenever someone decides the solution to government problems is more money.
    I certainly would not characterize our various governments as monopolistic. By and large I would call them democratic. I don't like Dubya and much of what he is doing, BUT he was elected THIS time!
    A democratic monopoly is still a monopoly. You are still imposing the will of the majority upon innocent minorities against their will. Civil wars get started over this. Just recently the wars in West Africa and Post-Yugoslavia were caused exactly by democratic government oppressing minorities.
    I am no Pollyanna. I've worked with or in government for most of my adult life. I know the kind of people they are. People who work in government are no better or worse than the people in other lines of work. The CEOs aren't angels either. If the politicians are being bribed or influenced, it is the private sector who are working the strings.
    You have to recognize the difference between the private sector and the public. The private sector cannot be bribed. It is already pursuing its own self-interest. Someone who works for a private enterprise and takes a bribe is lining up for a firing. Corruption is only possible when a third party is placed in charge of property they do not own. They then try to use their position to increase their wealth. Of course the private individuals are doing the bribing. They are just pursuing their self-interest as always. And the politicians and bureaucrats take the bribes because they are pursuing their self-interest too. The only way to stop it is to make sure that in the pursuit of their self-interest people also create a good for society. The only system of social organization that succeeds at it is the free market.
    Our country has wonderful laws protecting our people and our resources. Those were not created by the worst scum you will ever meet.
    Wonderful laws? Do you not realize how the laws are made? Have you been blind to the whole Abramoff scandal? The laws aren't protecting people and resources. They are bought outright by special interests! Politicians help themselves to tax money like it belongs to them, and they throw a fit when someone tries to axe their bridge-to-nowhere. How can you defend this?

  25. #25
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker
    Can't quite agree here, mskis. These folks have the most to lose and therefore the greastest dependence on a system of national defense. Proportionately, I pay way more toward that defense than they do.
    I can't agree with you on this point. While yes, they have the most to loose, they also have the recourses to react much better than a lower income person. Many extremely wealthy people think and operate on a global scale instead of just a national scale. Furthermore, they have the resources to better protect their investments.

    One great example of this is Larry Silverstein who owns the World Trade Center. While his buildings are attacked and destroyed, he is still phenomenally wealthy, and once the insurance money kicks in and he can rebuild, the prestige of being in that location will help him profit greatly.

    When it comes down to it, income tax is backwards. The poorest who pay the lowest percentage use government services the most, while the wealthiest use government services the least.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

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