Rights Theory, Libertarianism

Four Questions for Amia Srinivasan

Amia Srinivasan has four questions for free-market moralists, specifically those who accept something like a Nozickian account of individual rights. My own take is more Rothbardian than Nozickian, but that still seems close enough to give her four answers, and to ask four questions in return about the assumptions that underlie her essay.

Amia begins by asking:

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

This largely depends on how we’re defining “free.” There certainly can be (and are) large discrepancies in social power that might not necessarily involve the direct use of force or fraud. Those discrepancies are  often very socially destructive, and it is legitimate to say that people on the wrong end of that kind of situation aren’t “free” in some broad (but important) sense of the word.

However, it’s not clear why acknowledging this would pose a threat to libertarianism. Libertarians can believe that people should always work to maximize “freedom” in its broad sense while also believing that it is always wrong to violate it in its strict sense. And, indeed, plenty of radical libertarians and free marketeers have explicitly tied their defense of freedom in the strict sense to the importance of freedom in the broad sense.

So here’s the first counter-question:

1. Do government interventions typically shrink or expand existing inequalities of social power?

Toward the beginning of her column, Srinivasan notes a couple examples of moral defenses of social inequality on free-market grounds. Yet despite the assumptions of both Srinivasan and the defenders of inequality she cites, a moral defense of voluntary exchange can’t be used to defend many of the inequalities we see in the world today.

As Srinivasan herself has noted elsewhere, the wealthy are considerably more dependent on government than the rest of us. This makes sense, given that they’re the ones most likely to have significant influence over public policy.

Even those laws and programs ostensibly designed to help the poor typically work to entrench the social position of the already wealthy. Sometimes this is through less obvious benefits, and sometimes this is by making the exploited complacent enough to not revolt.

If Srinivasan agrees with what seems like the logical conclusion of her earlier column about the rich and government dependency, it seems like the logical conclusion is that government usually works to strengthen existing inequalities. If that’s true, the drive toward freedom in that broader sense is an argument for free markets, not against them.

It’s hard to see how social inequality could be made worse by taking power away from an institution that’s engaged in massive land theft, killed serious attempts at labor organizing, regulated away alternatives to the life-draining workplace of the modern world, and just generally worked to keep the poor poor and the rich rich.

Considering the amount of violence it took to build existing relations of social power, rights-based libertarians (including Nozickians) are in an especially good place to tackle these problems. This is because they can remind us that property that’s been verifiably stolen is ripe for expropriation by anyone else willing to put it into productive use.

Next, Srinivasan asks:

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

No, definitely not. I don’t know who Srinivasan thinks disagrees with this, though. The idea that libertarians believe non-aggression is the only important moral principle is a common strawman, but it’s almost never something any libertarian actually advocates. So the only way this is a mark against libertarianism is if you assume a 1:1 correlation between what’s morally impermissible and what ought to be legally impermissible. So, to Srinivasan I ask:

2. Should everything morally impermissible also be legally impermissible?

Srinivasan and other anti-libertarians will probably agree that the answer is no. If that’s the case, there needs to be some standard for how we do determine what should or shouldn’t be illegal.

One natural inclination might be to fall back on a libertarian standard, that invasions against people’s rights are what ought to be illegal. An alternative might be to say that the law’s violence should be used or not used according to the seriousness of a moral wrong.

This alternative test would go sharply against common sense morality, though. For example, most of us would probably agree that under normal circumstances, adultery is worse than petty theft or minor vandalism. And yet most of us would also probably agree that adultery should stay completely legal, and that petty theft and minor vandalism should remain illegal.

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

No. Following what I said after the second question, that’s not a mark against libertarianism. Following what I said after the first question, allowing government intervention is more likely to allocate resources according to what keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, not according to who deserves what.

There’s another problem here, though:

3. Is there a good way of using government to dependably discover and enforce desert?

Governments are made up of human beings, no wiser, no more omniscient, and with no more well-tuned of a moral sense than their citizens. Given how removed they are from people living under their supervision, governments do a poor job of actually doling out the right kind of help at the right time.

One useful way of at least getting people what they want while also taking everyone else’s wants into consideration is letting them interact freely through markets. This is because prices carry much more information than any particular participant will (or can) ever actually know, and often important information about people’s needs that can only be discovered through actual market exchange.

If we want to talk about resolving people’s needs beyond just what they can get through commerce, libertarians also have a better answer to that than government activity.

I don’t think anyone has to be reminded how much better that private charities performed than governments after Hurricane Katrina. What they might be interested to know is that even more effective than top-down private charities were efforts based around grassroots mutual aid.

These came both from local churches and loose-knit organizations like the Common Ground Collective, who took the time to actually find out what people needed, rather than just assuming.

Similarly, we can remember the fraternal societies of the past, which knew their members closely enough to actually get them real help in an efficient way, without subjecting them to the dehumanizing paternalism that many recipients of government aid feel today. Any feasible social safety net will need to be genuinely social, by which I mean completely disconnected from government.

So if you prefer that people get more of what they need or deserve, the right response is to have government step away to let the people operate on the knowledge they actually have. If you prefer that people don’t get what they don’t deserve, you should make sure they can’t use government to get it.

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

Of course not. However, as we’ve discussed, that doesn’t mean that there should be any legal obligations outside of respecting individual rights. Even if there were, government wouldn’t be an effective way to discover or enforce those obligations. Rather than enforcing those sorts of obligations, interventions would likely work to help already socially powerful people avoid their own obligations.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s ignore everything else I’ve said here. There’s still one more question worth asking:

4. Are people morally equal?

Srinivasan surely agrees that they are. If she does, though, her assumptions about the ability to violently enforce people’s moral obligations don’t get her where she wants.

If she’s right about everything else but agrees that people are morally equal, this just gives everyone a right to violently enforce everyone else’s moral duties. It doesn’t give one group of a people a right to hoard that privilege for themselves.

In order to even establish a government, she has to show us how the group of people who operate the government win their preferential moral status. Here I step away from her intended target, Robert Nozick, but at least he acknowledged the prima facie problem of political authority, and bent over backwards trying to solve it.

Srinivasan claims that someone can’t make a hardline moral defense of the free market (or of an absolutist position in favor of libertarian rights) without taking some very counter-intuitive positions on all four of her questions. But this is only true, I’ve tried to show, if you assume some other, even more counter-intuitive answers to the questions I’ve raised.

  • Nolan Gray

    Really enjoyed this response, great work Jason!

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  • Randy Hares

    Excellent response!

  • ChristianB

    Ever keep track of how many blue hyperlinks per post?

  • adrianratnapala

    This is a very nice post. A mark of how much is in it is that I have lots unrelated nitpicks. They are as follows:

    1. Do government interventions typically shrink or expand existing inequalities of social power?

    I would be bolder and ask “Is there any a priori reason to believe government interventions typically shrink inequalities”.

    Having gone further than BvdV, I am open to a retort that he safe from: In a democracy, few voters are very rich and so most vote for egalitarian policy. This is a real and very powerful phenomenon. But it is an argument for populism, not progressivism; it supports Jefferson, Jackson and even the Tea Party and not nice, modern sophisticates.

    This is because they can remind us that property that’s been verifiably stolen
    is ripe for expropriation by anyone else willing to put it into productive use.

    Rothbard says this, but he needs toning down. If we believe it strictly, then every non-native in Australia or the US had better give up her land. At some point the sins of past governments just have to be accepted as law.

    … adultery is worse than petty theft or minor vandalism. And yet most of us would also probably agree that adultery should stay completely legal,

    Adultery should (though it often isn’t) be taken account of in the divorce courts. This makes it like any other breach of contract — a civil rather than criminal matter. Many torts are worse than many crimes, but the crimes are the ones that prosecutors deal with.

    #3 has a similar outline to the #1, and brings up the same populist argument. Basically we do have progressive taxation and the dole. While many people disagree on their extent, nearly everyone agrees they should at least exist. I suspect that includes most readers of this blog.

    #4. In order to even establish a government, she has to show us how the
    group of people who operate the government win their preferential moral

    Ms. Srinivasan can say “they win it at the ballot box”. Now we can argue about how well democracy really works — I think it works pretty well. But the real argument is that the machinery of democracy was always about delivering *limited* authority through the ballot box. Those limits are very explicit in American founding documents and exist in every other successful democracy.

  • Nicholas Ford

    Very well done!

  • Your counter-question one (does government help or hurt inequality in social positions) seems weak, for 2 reasons:

    1. Someone who opposes libertarianism doesn’t have to defend every government that isn’t libertarian. Maybe Srinivasan’s model government is Denmark. In that case she doesn’t care about the answer to the question “does government normally reduce or enhance inequality,” the question is wether Danish government does.

    2. It is perfectly rational to say “the government has disproportionately benefited the wealthy but also decreased inequality.” For example, government could have doubled the wealth of the rich and tripled the wealth of everyone else. If at the start the rich had 3 wealth units and everyone else one, the rich have benefited the most in absolute terms (they got 3, everyone else got 2) even while the income inequality ratio improved (the rich used to have 3 times more, now they only have twice as much as everyone else). You can rerun that analysis substituting units of wealth with units of freedom, liberty, utility, happiness, whatever.

    • Sean II

      “Maybe Srinivasan’s model government is Denmark. In that case she doesn’t care about the answer to the question “does government normally reduce or enhance inequality,” the question is wether Danish government does.”

      Imagine a drug company tries out a new elixir called “Mixed Economy” on 196 patients. 193 of them get worse, and only 3 get better…in terms of some particular disequilibrium the elixir promises to cure.

      On this grounds you refuse to take the medicine.

      The drug company protests: “No fair. You just don’t understand that our model happens to be the 3 patients who got better. The only question we have to face is did they get better, and the answer is yes. So drink up, Bob.”

      How do you respond?

      • This is what the FDA is for.

        Seriously, though, the lack of a control group makes it impossible to judge how effective the medicine is. I have no idea whether I should take it or not.

        • Sean II

          Wrong. Clinical trials in medicine also lack perfect controls, and yet that doesn’t stop us from learning which drugs typically work for which conditions, with which common side effects, etc.

          The fact remains: even without a flawless experiment, we still must choose.

          Somehow I suspect you already know this. If you’re clutching your chest in an emergency room, and the doctor offers you a new thrombolytic, I don’t see you saying: “No thanks, doc. Based on theoretical problems with the methods in medical research, we really can’t know whether that drug works any better than silent prayer.”

          • The point is, you need SOME way to establish the typical course of the disease absent treatment, and you have given me none. What if everyone who has ever gotten the disease has died within hours, over thousands and thousands of cases? In that case the drug company’s results are fantastic.

            Obviously you are never going to get a PERFECT control group, and sometimes you have to make this analysis absent any sort of clinical control. But you need *something*, some baseline to judge the drug against. You’ve given me nothing.

            It’s the same when looking at governments. If terrible societies are the norm, the fact that some form of government often produces terrible societies isn’t dispositive. You need a comparison point. It’s less meaningful to say “Athens is a mark against democracy, since it had slaves, was belligerent, and was ultimately defeated militarily.” It’s more meaningful to say “all Greek city states had slaves, were belligerent, and were defeated militarily. Of them Athens had arguably the best economy, best treatment of its slave class, and best culture for nearly a century, and that century coincided with its most democratic period. That’s a mark for democracy.”

            In the case of government, my baseline is that the “natural” state for human society is to oscillate between vengeance-fueled tribalism in which inter-group cooperation is impossible and extractive despotism in which human rights can’t be effectively defended and entrepreneurialism can’t be effectively rewarded. Against *that* baseline, the record for modern, democratic, mixed economies looks great. That doesn’t answer the questions “what is the right mix for mixed economies,” “can we do even better than mixed economies,” and “is there a more sustainable form of government.” My answers to all those questions make me lean libertarian. But I can’t pretend like the record for democratic mixed economies is so terrible as to make that form of government crazy. The results sometimes *are* terrible, just not often enough to make it look bad against the baseline.

            In other words, if you want to hold up India or Venezuela as bad mixed economies and say that is the norm, I’ll point out that Venezuela and India currently have their best economies ever, after millennia of human habitation and countless attempts at governing those regions, either as wholes or in parts. You and I have plenty of evidence and firmly believe that less interventionist government could do better, but we can’t just point to those countries and say “the results here are so bad that they speak for themselves.” Compared to the typical society , the results are great. And to the extent there are better results, as a rule they too are the product of mixed economies, albeit often with less interventionist government .

            You say, “Mixed economies look great if you think you are going to get a Denmark, but you might get an India,” I say “Actually, India looks pretty good too, compared to what people normally get.”

          • Sean II

            “…Compared to the typical society , the results are great…”

            No offense, but what kind of misdirection was that, and why do you think I’m fool enough to fall for it?

            The question on the table (raised by you if we must be reminded) is: Does Srinivasan need to answer for the performance of equality-seeking states in general, or does she just get to cherry-pick an example that suits her, like Denmark, while disowning the margin, the mean, and everything in between.

            You say: “Yep, no problem. She absolutely can do that.”

            I say: “Hell no. Cherry picking is rightly considered a very bad way to gather evidence.”

            You say: “Oh but it’s okay since we can’t really do a controlled experiment with human beings…”

            I say: “That doesn’t stop you when the chips are down, as for example when your health is on the line.”

            Your last 500 words were irrelevant to these issues, so I won’t trouble to summarize them. Except I will…since they boil down to the utterly banal observation that any modern state seems enviable from the perspective of Tollund bog man.

            So what. Who cares? What has any of that to do with the validity of cherry-picking and the use of empirical evidence in politics and economics?

          • Every modern state is not enviable from a pre-modern perspective. North Korea, China under Mao, Somalia, the Pre-Bellum South Carolina, the Spanish Empire, etc. were or are worse than quite a few pre-modern states I could name.

            Anyways, My paragraphs were attacking the notion that cherry-picking is needed to demonstrate the success of democratic, mixed economies. Your weird “medicine” hypothetical was ignoring the fact that medicine is judged effective not based on what happens to the patient, but on what happens to the patient compared to what would happen absent the medicine or with an alternative treatment. I wanted to make sure you weren’t looking at the results of interventionist democracy, but the results compared to other “treatments.” To that end I would point out that, even if you include all democratic mixed economies, even if you only compare them to other governments from the same era, it looks better than the alternatives.

            Now to the extent you want to say “no, that’s cherry picking. People can’t just advocate for democratic, mixed economies. They have to advocate for all governments everywhere or I win the argument” then I don’t know what to say. That just seems like a stunningly weird burden to put on your opponent.

            That raises the question of how far you can go before you are “cherry picking.” I agree that just picking a successful country and saying “I want that” is a bit much. But if you can say, “Denmark has policies and government structures x, y, and z. Others don’t. I think those policies make Denmark successful and can be replicated elsewhere” then that is not cherry picking, it’s advocating a specific system of government. More specifically, a lot of free market minded progressives say “the Nordic countries are surprisingly free market when it comes to regulating business, but then they tax the shit out everyone with relatively efficient taxes, like VAT or pigouvian taxes, and use it to fund lots of edecutational, quality of life, and anti-poverty subsidies. That is what we want.” You can tell those people “that model isn’t sustainable” or “that model isn’t repeatable” or “you misunderstand scandaniva’s success,” but it can’t be dismissed as cherry picking. That is what I was thinking of when I said she might support Denmark as her ideal government.

            I think the miscommunication here might be that I meant “she might be advocating for denmark’s unique system of governance” and you heard “she might be advocating for a general system of government, of which Denmark is an example.” Sorry for not being clear.

            So to summarize 1. Someone defending interventionist government need only show that there is a generally achievable system of interventionist government better than libertarianism, not that all are, 2. The efficacy of real world governments should be measured against what alternatives can and have achieved, not against what we would like government to achieve, 3. By that standard, even if you lump Denmark into so broad a category a category as “democratic, interventionist government, ” that category has done well. You don’t need to cherry pick only top performers like Denmark to argue for denmark’s system of government.

    • adrianratnapala

      1. Someone who opposes libertarianism doesn’t have to defend every
      government that isn’t libertarian. Maybe Srinivasan’s model government
      is Denmark

      Her article, and Jason’s response are about general political philosophy. If you want to endorse activist government, you can’t single out Denmark any more than you can single out India. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, Denmark isn’t even all that interventionist.

      Faced with some market result, progressives continually start in the passive voice “it ought not be so”. And then jump straight to “the government ought fix it. The government ought to have more power to fix stuff”. These same people look at real governments and note — suprise! — they do bad stuff. They should spend more time figuring out why Denmark works better than India, and why India works better than Zimbabwe.

      • That’s all fair, but my point remains: the argument “government has done bad things with its power, I want it to have less power than you, I win” is an argument an anarchist could make to a libertarian just as well as a libertarian could make it to a liberal. Just like the libertarian should get to say “that’s unfair, I don’t support “government” I support a certain KIND of government,” a liberal should get to make the same argument. For example, Srinava probably favors rights-based limits on the power of government to kill people without due process, just like libertarians do, and probably doesn’t want to take the wrap for when governments have ignored that right, just like libertarians don’t

        You can have a big argument about who has the better or more realistic form of government, that’s fine. My only objection is that the bit of the post regarding counter question one seems to straw man Srinivasan by making her a supporter not of her kind of government, but all government. It is attacking the position “big government is great and automatically reaches better outcomes than smaller government,” when she is actually only defending a subset of bigger governments.

  • SimpleMachine88

    As a response to her first question, I’d also like to ask “does preventing two people from making an exchange make either one more free?”

  • stevenjohnson2

    The counter-questions do seem to achieve their purpose in addressing deeper issues. As such I think they illuminate some libertarian errors.

    1. Do government interventions typically shrink or expand existing inequalities of social power? All states fundamentally defend property, even (or perhaps most) when they try to pacify unruly masses. There will be no property without a state. Since the forms of property are varied, and the concrete nature of the property in question is even more varied, the notion of “typical” doesn’t even apply in the sense implied. The question is whether the forms of property are just. Asking whether a state can be perfectly even in its consequences amongst individuals in its jurisdiction is a diversion. I find this ruse very common in libertarian arguments.

    2. Should everything morally impermissible also be legally impermissible?

    Yes. The adultery example actually supports this. The notion that adultery should not be grounds for divorce, which is what “legally impermissible” means, is manifestly foolish as well as inhumane. The phrase “law’s violence” is symptomatic of the tacit assumption that the action of the law is in itself somehow wrong. This is called assuming the conclusion and I think libertarians almost always use this.

    3. Is there a good way of using government to dependably discover and enforce desert? The empirical-sounding arguments advanced here are nonsense. But let’s skip over the false facts and focus on the extraordinary notion that a government should only give benefits to those who deserve them. I think this kind of dehumanizing paternalism is peculiarly noxious in someone eager for governements to, say, increase unemployment. If the State is able to play the Scourge of God, smiting the unworthy, it can play the beneficent God as well.

    4. Are people morally equal? The question is itself confused. My guess is that the distaste for rewarding the unworthy revealed in question #3 reflects a fundamental belief that people are not equal, period. But this doesn’t sound good so it would probably be denied. So the question is distorted into a claim that the state is individuals seizing the right to enforce moral obligations. But libertarians of course insists that the state is only justified by the its right to enforce property rights, which is a species of moral rights. Indeed libertarians often claim they are the only moral rights. (Just to be clear, the other common meaning of morals, purity before God and obedience to God, is not at issue here. At least not consciously.)

    • adrianratnapala

      We are drifting away from the root of this thread, so I’ll start with some context. Ms. Srinivasan first questions whether voluntary exchanges are free. OK – even but if the answer is “not perfectly free” – we still have no actual justification for governments regulating whatever they like. For that, we must at least be confident that the results of those regulations are more just those of voluntary exchange.

      The question is whether the forms of property are just. Asking whether a
      state can be perfectly even in its consequences amongst individuals in
      its jurisdiction is a diversion.

      In practice, most people agree that society needs some things to be private property and other things not. The real disagreements are about security of those rights that are already recognised. Libertarians are upset that governments can ( force small farmers not to grow crops for their own consumption , and seize houses on behalf of property developers.

      Now many progressives get upset by particular cases too, but they defend — and often want to expand — the powers that let governments do those things. And now you cry foul about libertarians pointing out that governments in fact do those things.

      • stevenjohnson2

        Perhaps ignoring the context with Srinivasan didn’t lead in a more informative direction, but I still disagree. I still think that focusing on differences in outcomes of state actions is misleading. All states at their core defend property, and in the end the important issue is whether the forms of property are defensible, not that there is an inevitable imperfection in the way this function is carried out. The hazard of state power being abused may be likened to the danger of cancer, both in its reality and lethality. Libertarians are like people who want to halve the chance of kidney cancer by removing one kidney.

        The antebellum South had state governments highly limited in precisely the libertarian sense. The private property owners themselves enforced their property rights, without benefit of the evil state, even to the point of exercising a private, if cooperative, exercise of military power (slave patrols, militia to defend against slave uprisings.) The root of oppression was not to be found in the preferential treatment of large plantation owners. (As in, internal improvements in ports, canals etc. would benefit the commercial agriculture more, something very important to the southern Whig party.)

        For those libertarians who have retroactively discovered that there can be no property in humans, I must point out that poor men fought in higher numbers (and therefore died in higher numbers,) all to benefit the wealthy who got rich off war contracts, (and supposedly from the discriminatory import taxes exploiting the South,) and to benefit the slaves who reacquired their property in themselves. The objection that this inequality is inevitable in state actions by mere men is quite correct. Yet I insist that it is pretty much beside the point in this example. Which is, again, why I say the question is in effect a diversion.

        And if slavery in the US seems to loaded, try thinking about the limited states in feudal societies. Libertarians do not have any generally agreed set of ideas, but one that does seem widely held and agreed essential is that the state is defined to be the root of violence. I think the history of feudalism disproves this.

        • j r

          Libertarians are like people who want to halve the chance of kidney cancer by removing one kidney.

          That is a terrible analogy. Government is not like a kidney.

          • stevenjohnson2

            The libertarian analogy of the state to cancer is a counterfactual. The stateless societies known to us have an extremely low population density, making any relevance of their example quite indirect, if there is any. Further, many of them also suffer other forms of injustice and oppression. The prima facie case is that government is analogous to a vital organ for highly populous societies. Insistence to the contrary is a huge imposition which begs the argument.

          • adrianratnapala

            Criminy! This has turned into a discussion about anarchism. When did that happen?

            Steve, I agree with you — governments are probably necessary.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          Feudal Europe (and Japan) were NOT limited states. They more closely resembled totalitarian states. People were not free to move about, nor to think freely. The Church exercised complete control in that area, while the local landlord exercised control of the body. All manner of controls were placed upon commerce and finance as well.

  • Will McLean

    I would argue that for democracies the record for pro-egalitarian government intervention is pretty good, Since 1775 the U.S. government abolished hereditary rule, coverture, and slavery.

    • Libertymike

      How about the tens of millions slaughtered by the democracies since 1860? Much of the interventionist slaughter was justified upon egalitarian / humanitarian grounds.

      • Will McLean

        Have democracies killed as many as ten million people since 1860? That seems unlikely, but if I’m wrong, educate me. And it seem to me that most of the people killed by democracies in that period died in wars started by dictatorships, hereditary or otherwise, or by people who’s love of democracy only extended to election results that gave them what they wanted.

    • adrianratnapala

      It’s difficult to see how *any* of your three examples counts as a government “intervention” beyond the fact that governments were changing their own laws. If anything, they are cases of the government ceasing to intervene.

      • Will McLean

        When my country abolished hereditary rule, we had to defeat the king’s soldiers to make it stick. When we abolished slavery, we had to defeat the army controlled by slave owners. It was kind of a big deal both times.

        • adrianratnapala

          So now you add a case where the government wasn’t changing its own laws and so got overthrown by the people who _wrote most of the books_ on how and why to reduce the scope of government. You case for government intervention gets better and and better.

          Of course, and without sarcasm, you are right that democracy is very good thing.

          • Will McLean

            The people who won independence from the monarchy in 1783 then went on in 1787 to greatly *increase* the power of government relative to the current status quo. Because a government that’s too weak can be as bad as one that’s too strong.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            I agree, the strength of the government is not the problem, the limits on the government is what is crucial.

  • I’m really surprised at your answers because the article only hurts socialist Libertarians. I thought this site would ignore the article. I don’t think it really helps your case in anyway though.

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