|Originally published: 1850|
Frederic Bastiat was a pragmatist:
See if the law takes from some person what belongs to them, and gives
it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits
one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself
cannot do without committing a crime . . . .
Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws.
On the contrary, it is because life, liberty, and property existed
beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.
The Law is the forerunner to Henry
Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson
(Chapter 24) written nearly one hundred years later. These two books
intersect on a broad and practical plane. The Law was written at a
time of great upheaval in France when economic and societal paradigms were
discarded wholesale without a concrete mechanism to replace what was being
removed. Economics in One Lesson faced a similar situation, but the
change was being accomplished by means of politics and legislation rather
than revolution. Both authors saw the same effects from their respective
observation points-negative effects that were far broader than mere economic
considerations-and each tried to bring his readers back to square one so
that a rational analysis could be made of what was happening.
As seen in the quote opening this synopsis, Bastiat
was unhesitant to dissect "acquired rights." He anticipated by
more than a century the launching of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's Great
Society-a massive, mid-twentieth-century welfare program born of these
"rights." This program was a logical extension of President
Franklin Roosevelt's largely ineffective New Deal, an economically
destructive social engineering effort in response to the devastation of the
Great Depression of the 1930s. Today, the media and Congressional liberals
call these acquired rights "entitlements," an effective political
disguise for what Bastiat and others saw as much less benevolent or benign.
“entitlement” has become entrenched in modern vocabulary and its effects
are the root elements of the
’s fiscal morass. The word and
concept merit a pause from our consideration of The
the liberal view that citizens are entitled to “happiness,” rather than
that we are free to pursue
happiness on our own terms, comes political “entitlement.”
The companion proposition regarding duties is missing in the
“entitlements” are politically piled one on the other the cost, social
and economic, simply gets too high to be sustainable.
“Entitlement” becomes so attenuated from true individual rights
and duties we arrive at the conclusion, offered in a politically-correct
vacuum, we are “entitled” to pretty much everything—and obligated for
pretty much nothing. More to the
point, there is no discussion regarding those who pay for what is given to
those who are “entitled.” The
right to take and the extent of taking from those who earn is the lost issue
in public conversation. This is
obviously Bastiat’s point.
The conundrum surrounding
“entitlements” is created by politics and the principal/agent equation.
The group benefits that are distributed to factions that either
organize themselves and then exert political force, or that are organized
for political purposes who are then boosted as worthy of “entitlements,”
achieve a standing that has become outsized to the needs of these
constituencies or real-world economics.
The citizen’s political incentive to keep the costs of these
manufactured “entitlements” within reason is low because the costs are
spread out among a large, and largely apathetic public base (the principals,
the taxpayers), thus the individual pays a small portion of the expense.
When widely dispersed cost is small as applied to the individual, and
when individual effort to control these programs is large, the political
class (the agents) can do what best suits its own purposes (getting
reelected or controlling the bureaucracy) without regard to real long-term
economic burdens or actual public belief or benefit.
frosting on the agent’s cake that further quells wide-spread corrective
action is the overt moral indictment of the public (by the political and
media agents) should it question the claims of good, or even just good
intentions in offering “entitlements.”
As well, the specter of actual and moral devastation if benefits are
not secure is always at hand. That
these claims are specious, and almost solely politically motivated, that
they defy fiscal reality both to the nation and those who receive these
transfer payments, is the third rail of modern political action.
founded in a claim of public morality, no matter that there is more than one
moral issue present, and discerning that what is offered may not necessarily
represent a good answer to the perceived ill, grow because there isn’t any
organized reason for them not to, and plenty of organized reasons to
continue them. Until, of course,
one runs out of real money. Rights
and duties are not discussed when considering the “entitlement”
equation, only a supposed harm or inequality is.
The political cost in appearing to oppose equal outcome where the
real issue is equal opportunity nullifies at the start any public effort to
fight entitlements. Politicians
concentrate their efforts on highly visible benefits for organized groups
who then shower the politician with political support while he or she
garners media attention in the bargain.
are also emotional benefits for those who do not receive but strongly
support such payments. The
brigade that casts itself as caring more than less expressive voters has an
overt emotional, and often holier-than-thou stake in supporting taxpayer
funded entitlements. This group
invariably refuses to recognize the economics of entitlements or the rights
and incentives of those who pay the tab.
example of the principal-agent relationship is the benefits offered through
Social Security and Medicare. The
principals, largely future generations who will foot the bill, are
unrepresented (a large percentage not yet even born) in the process.
The agents, the political class, like to bask in the glow of their
care for seniors. The parents
and grandparents of those who will pay most of the bill, anonymously, like
the current benefits and do not think about, or even do not believe the
economic and fiscal claims of the cost to their heirs.
How to solve the devastation of these asymmetrical forces is
the principal/agent problem.
choice theory, an adjunct to principal/agent politics (meaning
representative democracy) developed during the last half of the twentieth
century. In a very general way
what public choice refers to is the
choices made by government
agents (elected or bureaucratic) for
us, the public, as principals. Public
choice theory analyzes the democratic majority (its make-up and its goals)
that eventually overwhelms the productive minority.
From this springs confrontational politics—but the tools each group
uses are of uneven strength. The
majority feel entitled to an ever-larger portion of the profits of the
productive class, but that group can only be exploited so far.
When a systemic impasse occurs the fuel that supplies the resources
for the majority’s self-interest begins to dry up.
As that happens the downward spiral of increased deficits (yearly
budgetary shortfalls) creates debt (long-term borrowing) that takes an ever
bigger part of the nation’s income in interest payments until the point is
reached where bankruptcy and then complete national restructuring become the
only options. This is what
in 2010-2012. Civil strife is an almost inevitable result—not the
“entitled” citizens against the wealthy but against necessary government
analyzing the public choices that cause the majority to attempt more and
more resource redistribution from the productive minority, deconstruction of
the liberal paradigm necessarily comes forward.
The idea that market or individual failures demand that government
can and should step in because governments are both omniscient and
benevolent (and fiscal magicians in the bargain) is the liberal response.
That this is not true because self-interest is no less a vice of the
majority than the minority is the smaller point.
More importantly, government’s inability to continue to make
lemonade out of lemons (i.e., to supply public benefits that tax revenues do
not support) results not from ineptitude (it is actually fairly easy for the
majority to take money from one pocket and put it into another) but from a
dearth of lemons in anyone’s pockets.
As social welfarism costs more, finds more people who must be served,
yet produces fewer results, rational assessment brings some necessary
answers. The problem then
becomes implementing those answers, and that’s where the majority
balks—until the empty coffers answer all the remaining questions.
choice theory investigates how human incentive and the human condition got
so politically lost in the ideological surety of economic and social
idealists who created the welfare state in the first place.
This tool is not a different principle it is a method of assessing
human reaction to long-term political overreach.
It seeks to solve fiscal and social issues simultaneously and
soundly. The emotional public
choice is to take care of everyone with a perceived (or politically
ful) need; the realistic public
obligation is that in the process we not harm either the recipients or those
who supply the means.
has shown the only way to control government and political efforts run amok
is to consider more thoroughly the recurring observations of the authors
reviewed in this book—that smaller, less intrusive government, government
that can be at least exposed in its fiscal fantasies, is the only
reality-based avenue for change and success.
Examples of such changes are the self-funding/privatizing of many
government programs. The change
in individual incentive and behavior when the proprietary use of one’s own
funds is required, versus easy access to someone else’s money, will make
or break a nation.
truly needy are always excepted in this formulation.
Those who cannot help themselves and who cannot create their own
safety net are not the overt focus of these discussions because they are
always included as the base population from which all of these conversations
spring. As their capabilities
are different and their needs apparent, they must be part of a different
solution than the one offered for society’s other members.
Although there are those who would claim otherwise, the truly needy
are considered as ceaselessly in real government equations as the liberal
set insists they are not. The
politically opportunistic claims of uncaring, of selfishness that are hurled
at those who address rational solutions to real economic issues, are simply
a cynical ruse to take the discussion away from the fiscal reality that will
help all levels of society simultaneously, and place it dishonestly at
center stage for distorted political finger-wagging.
foregoing digression time-travels far from Bastiat,
yet it is clear he discusses the birthing
of these issues from his nineteenth century perch:
how well-intentioned but not necessarily well-thought-out economic
programs create vested interests in a few to the detriment of
all—including those whom the programs are specifically designed to help.
He writes of false philanthropy as the often-harmful act of giving something
of value to someone who has not earned it in any meaningful sense. Yet, like
all political philosophers who consider the totality of society Bastiat was
also never averse to aiding the truly needy, those who cannot help
themselves. He was opposed to the same narcotic we so often see dispensed by
Congress and the states in modern times, namely, give-away programs that
bear no relation to need, capability, or self-esteem. Such programs do,
however, tend to have a strong correlation to political expediency and
electoral success. Bastiat
talks about these things as being “legal plunder.”
politicians claim they are committed to the poor, the down-trodden and the
invisible, but they refuse to define the principles on which they base their
commitment or their efforts. When
offered, their principles often do not stand up to the test of common sense,
or support the taking of rights from some to buy the loyalty of those who
are politically useful. Often
politically-inspired economic programs don’t pass the rational scrutiny
test. They harm not just the
recipients by denying self-reliance that will benefit them and society at
large but the economic and philosophic foundations of the nation.
Thus, while modern social welfare programs (often based in the
politics of governance by emotion) in theory aim principally to eliminate
significant differences in individual circumstances, at base they are
philosophically little more than the purchase of political fealty.
Similar programs in Bastiat's day were the bane
of his very existence. He saw them as a primary source of governmental and
even societal corruption. Taking from some and giving to others (as has
become obvious over the course of the ascendance of the welfare state) is
more than just destructive of economic and political truths known for
centuries; it is a political and social trivialization of foundational
natural rights-and duties. Bastiat argues that as legislated rights, guised
as "entitlements," come into being a public devaluing of natural
rights and obligations will be as inevitable as night following day. Bastiat
finds the basis of these alterations in the creation of the state:
The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live
at the expense of everyone else.
It is worthwhile to observe that Bastiat was hardly the first in his
strong reaction to the long-term consequences of creating immoderate rights
in whole classes of people. In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville published a short
essay titled Memoir on Pauperism. His pessimism regarding the
charitable impulse that devolved into political entitlement was conspicuous:
Any measure that establishes legal charity on a permanent basis and
gives it administrative form thereby creates an idle and lazy class,
living at the expense of the industrial and working class. . . .
Tocqueville recognizes the need for charity, but he believes it can take
only one form:
[b]eneficence must be a…reasoned virtue, not a weak and unreflecting
inclination. It is necessary to do what is most useful to the receiver, to
do what best serves the welfare of the majority, not what rescues the few.
In practice this means that charity should never be made a right, to which
the "needy" are entitled, but should instead always be considered
a gracious gesture on the part of society. This is necessary because rights
must be based on the idea of equality of individuals, while a "right to
would be based on the inferiority of certain individuals. When I assert a
right to speak, or to own property, or to worship my God, I am stating
that I am the equal of any man and so am entitled to be treated equally
under the law. But to assert a claim upon my fellow men for assistance is
to assert my own inferiority and my dependence upon them. This would
degrade, rather than uplift, the supplicant.
I am deeply convinced that any permanent, regular administrative system
whose aim will be to provide for the needs of the poor will breed more
miseries than it can cure, will deprave the population that it wants to help
and comfort, will in time reduce the rich to being no more than the tenant-
farmers of the poor, will dry up the sources of savings, will stop the
accumulation of capital, will retard the development of trade, will benumb
human industry and activity, and will culminate by bringing about a violent
revolution in the State.
Tocqueville goes a step further as well; he
presents an equally bright alternative to the gloom he sees in forced
charity, known today as the welfare state. While raising a consciousness of
the nineteenth-century's alms giving he defines the relationship not just
between the giver and the recipient of such charity, but between each person
and his own comprehension of ethical and interpersonal verities:
Individual alms-giving established valuable ties between the rich and
the poor. The deed itself involves the giver in the fate of the one whose
poverty he has undertaken to alleviate. The latter, supported by aid
which he had no right to
demand and which he had no hope to getting, feels inspired by gratitude
[and some desire to then earn the generosity he has received]. A moral
tie is established between those two classes whose interests and passions
so often conspire to separate them from each other, and although divided
by circumstance they are willingly reconciled. This is not the case with
legal charity. The latter allows the alms to persist but removes its morality.
The law strips the man of wealth of a part of his surplus without consulting
him, and he sees the poor man only as a greedy stranger invited by the
legislator to share his wealth. The poor man, on the other hand, feels no
gratitude for a benefit that no one can refuse him and that could not satisfy
him in any case.
The human element in all of these relationships
is far more important than the economic. This will be further explored in
the synopsis of Reclaiming
the American Dream (Chapter 30) where Richard Cornuelle dissects how
government drives private charitable efforts out of social intercourse.
The long-term effect of improperly judging human
dignity is what underlies so many failed "intellectual"
efforts-efforts that address conditions but not people and thus fail in both
their design and execution. The imponderables of human pride and capability
are the real subjects of the observations made by these authors. These are
not things well-crafted in committee hearings or pontifical speeches, but in
unfeigned activity in neighborhoods. In other words, people on one side are
not so needy and those on the other not so aloof as demagogues would have us
believe. Government intervening between the two becomes a false moral
imperative and an economic disaster. The well-intentioned contend they are
giving hope but in reality they are suffocating it.
Bastiat states that the first purpose of government
is to ensure our individual ability, by means of the rule of law, to defend
our person, liberty, and property. These are the essentials of life. The
signal point of government is to prevent anarchy and chaos in the population
and thus to foster justice. Bastiat does not see government functioning
primarily as an active purveyor of equity; he sees government operating in a
negative fashion, that is, government's function is to stop injustice so
justice itself remains. In a reciprocal way, in order to be secure from
government, laws exist to protect the public from perfidy and corruption
emanating from the governors or a tyrannical popular majority. We see in
Bastiat an echo of Thomas Jefferson's declaration: "In questions of
power, then, let no more be heard about confidence in man, but bind him down from
mischief with the chains of the Constitution."
For Bastiat the law created by men was merely, and
only, an extension of a natural right:
The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is
the substitution of common force for individual forces. And this common
force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful
right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties.
Bastiat is a mid-nineteenth-century Frenchman
who deals with both the demise of the monarchy and the reality of
socialism's growing popularity subsequent to the French Revolutions of 1789
and 1848. He addresses issues that became a constant source of conflict in
the following century. He rails against socialism because its proponents
found it necessary to use force not only to institute its equalitarian
goals, but also to perpetuate them. Socialism goes against the basic
instincts of humanity; it destroys incentive and ingenuity and its victims
must be compelled to accept it. Moreover, because socialism is economically
inefficient it robs the community of what it could achieve were it not being
victimized by ignorant officials or artificial governmental controls.
Unfortunately, collectivist impulses are still
present in the twenty-first century albeit in a more oblique and beguiling
fashion. Foreseeing the growth of state welfarism, effected by shrewd
political maneuvers, Bastiat warns that such welfarism is simply a more
insidious form of socialistic thinking, created and enforced by means of
demagoguery and legislation rather than tyranny and despotism.
Bastiat's concern is two-fold: First, the governmental act of taking
property from one group and giving it to another is an inappropriate denial
of the first group's natural right to the fruits of its labor. Second (and
probably more important to Bastiat), there is a negative effect on society
and the individual recipients as a result of such a coerced transfer of
wealth. Although he doesn't use a phrase such as "the culture of
dependency," that is what he foresees. He also foresees to where such
distortions of the social fabric will lead-to the wholesale destruction of
the culture of those to whom benefits are given.
Bastiat sees the potential for degrading social
conflict if redistribution of wealth grows out of proportion to its
justifications. He sees the cultural destruction of human dignity and the
devaluation of human incentive when there is wholesale government
intervention in the marketplace. The notion that dependency changes people
has long been comprehended, even by those supplying the means through which
dependency is supported.
When George Washington became convinced that
slavery could not be countenanced in view of the premises underlying the
American experiment, he made plans to free his slaves-and pay them at least
some of what they were owed for the work they had given. Washington felt
that sudden freedom for his slaves was not tenable-politically, socially,
economically, and particularly individually-so he devised a plan for gradual
emancipation. As Benjamin Hart observes in Faith and Freedom (2004),
the execution of Washington's design took several decades. As late as 1833
(Washington died in 1799) his estate was still forwarding wage and pension
payments to former slave families. Washington himself understood the culture
of dependency he had created, and that his soon-to-be-former slaves needed
some protection prior to emancipation. He felt, as Hart
comments, that "a slave had no need to learn skills of self-reliance,
entrepreneurship, and no means of cultivating the competitive instinct so
vital for survival."
The modern victims of our largesse-the recipients
of state welfarism-are in the same unenviable position. We insist that the
less well-off be continually treated as children, and when they do not
embrace the tools of responsibility, we blame them rather than our own
excessive pride or intellectual inconsistencies.
On the "taking" side of the public
experiment, it is clear from his text that Bastiat's concerns are not about
taxation, per se. Simply presented, his anxiety is about the uses of power
to achieve something legislatively that would be otherwise illegal-taking
from one to give to another. While this form of stealing is immoral
philosophically, it is often advantageous politically. In order to fully
comprehend Bastiat's use of forceful language, we have to remember his
proximity to violent and deadly revolution. In his era, if groups of
citizens did not appreciate what was happening, they were as likely to take
up a gun as a pencil, as likely to build barricades as ballot boxes. Thus
Bastiat wants to be clear so there is no mistaking the perilous course on
which he sees his contemporaries embarking.
Bastiat, as might be expected, was an activist in
addition to being
a theorist. He was outspoken in defense of his views and
was politically involved in continued efforts to define, debunk, and destroy
the dangers he saw; collectivism and its corollary, coerced conformity by
government fiat. Bastiat remains important as a reminder to recognize and
then expose the often demeaning and invariably disguised collectivist
compulsions of modern "progressives." This group attempts to
expand social welfarism through ignorance, naiveté, or even political
deceit, to the detriment of the economy and the citizenry. Today, the
welfare state is nothing but the repackaging and refining of socialistic
goals. Bastiat contends that the alleged altruistic impetus behind such
thinking seems benign until its full effects are observed. Opposing the
false goal of equality of result is Bastiat's stark declaration of how the
equalitarians succeeded politically where force failed:
The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely different
causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy.
Bastiat views the popular law of his time (law
also currently present in a slightly different form) as politically,
intellectually, and economically corrupt. Its perverse results are an
embodiment of the general will supposedly being divined by a legislative
majority acting on its own, not with the intellectual or voting consent of
the electorate. In writing this slim volume he seeks to define why this is
so. In large part the political success of equalitarians lies in nascent
political correctness where a cowed populace is condemned for suggesting
thoughtful investigation of government programs that are aimed at helping
the less fortunate. Those who should ask for demonstrated positive results
of such programs don't out of fear of being labeled insensitive, uncaring,
self-absorbed, or even bigots or racists. They are silenced by the glare of
the politically correct and the fear of public excoriation in the media
while the construction of new "rights" for the less fortunate
By returning to the era in which Bastiat wrote it
may be easier to understand why he saw so clearly what he did. The politics
in France subsequent to the revolution of 1848 were the antithesis of the
then-ongoing American experience. In Bastiat's observations we see the first
overt development of the battle between freedom (as expressed in the free
market in the United States) and economic slavery (founded in the socialism
of Europe). Because the differences were both
unmistakable and simple, Bastiat's celebrated explication of this war of
is the most helpful from this era. Although it became clear during the
second half of the nineteenth century that American capitalism needed
controls, it was the series of adjustments that were effected in response to
capitalism's excesses that made the system in the U.S. work. Abandonment of
American capitalism in the face of its faults was never more than a
proposition-and then only from a few radicals. But France was full of
radicals. Many U.S. and European economic theorists and political figures of
that period, including Bastiat, understood capitalism's imperfections and
acted to correct them. The European political community was not so fortunate
in its response to the intemperances of capitalism. As a result, they have
struggled with socialistic intentions ever since-to their geopolitical and
Politics is the art of the possible. Unfortunately,
in Bastiat's time (as now), many more things were seen as possible than
actually are. This was especially true in those whose intellectual or
emotional musings conjured utopia. Fueled by the Enlightenment's
rationalism, they did not realize that what could be thought of by human
ingenuity could not necessarily be achieved by human striving. Their
speculations devolved into legislated rights that required state
confiscation of private property to be given to others. Both the proposition
and the means resulted in a social battle that yet endures. Bastiat's
solution for the ongoing "civil" war is simple:
The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable.
When the law and morality contradict each other the citizen has the
cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect
for the law. . . . There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe
anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that
many persons have erroneously held that things are "just" because
law makes them so.
Bastiat was not one to simply criticize; he also
offers solutions. By way of example, he denounces the philosophy of Thomas
Hobbes who writes in Leviathan in 1651 that men submit to government
because they fear one another more than they fear a central authority.
Hobbes thus is contending that man craves security more than freedom;
accordingly oppressive government control is necessary, even welcomed.
Bastiat sees mankind in an entirely different light. He holds that
a naturally harmonious order to the social world, an order that emanates
from the free exchange of goods, services, and ideas between human beings
driven to satisfy unlimited wants with limited resources. This exchange is
essentially self-regulating as a result of the enlightened self-interest
described in Adam Smith's Wealth of
Nations (Chapter 12). The outcome is a steady progress in the
material well being of all. Bastiat explains that interference with this
freedom (and its corollaries of unfettered competition and secure property
rights) leaves people poorer and ultimately oppressed as further government
action is imposed in an attempt to remedy what the last program distorted.
Citizens are driven away from the creative actions in which they would
otherwise engage. The fruits of this unused creativity remain unripe because
of government intervention.
The illusory collectivist (or welfarist) goal of
economic equality is a corollary to Hobbes's centralized government. Bastiat
fought against this not solely because it was undesirable from many points
of view, but because it was (and is) unachievable. It is unachievable
because the human spirit is not rooted in equality (or subservience) but
rather in unlimited imagination and striving. The
self-ordering success of these characteristics is evident in the
free-market's almost fabled raising of the standard of living around the
world across the centuries. Actions speak louder than words. And in this
case, they simply overwhelm political rhetoric.
Bastiat emphasizes that the illusion of equality
conferred by fiat isn't just destructive of what has been achieved. It
ultimately destroys the very system that allows government largesse to exist
in the first place. If there is no incentive to create, to imagine, to
produce, because the fruits of one's labor are taken through taxation and
regulation, then eventually there will be no production, no creation, and
nothing to tax.
Interestingly, Bastiat saves some of his sharpest
barbs for the political writers and social philosophers of his own day. His
descriptions of their arrogance and condescension (applauding the imagined
possibilities of Enlightenment thinking while ignoring the obvious potential
of humanity's enlightened self-interest) could be reprinted in the present
with equal effect and accuracy. But he does not just rail against this
arrogance itself; he also denounces its evil fruits as the media of his era
refused to present any views containing rational assessment. Here, too,
Bastiat and Hazlitt were partners.
Bastiat laughs at the foibles and riddles of the
self-appointed, those who look on the masses of society as inept, incapable,
of what is best for them. He notes that these self-same
pontificators nevertheless defend (through equally uninformed circular
reasoning) the inalienable right of the "ignorant masses" to elect
those who will tell them how to live their lives.
We detect no hesitancy in Bastiat's writings to
pronounce the emperor without any clothes. For Bastiat, the collectivist
parade was not just flawed; it was sinister. In his view our obligation is
to point this out in plain words and then to give our words force through
About the Author
Frederic Bastiat was born in 1801 in Paris and lived only to the age of 49.
He died of tuberculosis in 1850, the same year The Law was published.
Orphaned at age nine, he studied economics by choice and was fluent in
several languages. The depth of his reading, especially in foreign
languages, made his knowledge more extensive than that of most of his
contemporaries. The great impetus for much of his writing was the revolution
of 1848 when France turned wholly to socialism, an event from which it has
yet to recover. Bastiat was a deputy in the French legislature and also an
economist who understood both humanity and the implications of Adam Smith.
The force of his logic is inescapable although to many in
mid-nineteenth-century France it was inexcusable. Time has proven Bastiat
correct much to the pleasure of those who today benefit from his clear
thinking and profound understanding of human nature and the value and
strength of free markets.
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