Libertarian Moral Standards Apply to Everybody

How much easier it would be to bring others to the libertarian position if we realized that they already agree with us in substantial ways?


Libertarians make a self-defeating mistake in assuming that their fundamental principles differ radically from most other people's principles. Think how much easier it would be to bring others to the libertarian position if we realized that they already agree with us in substantial ways.

What am I talking about? It's quite simple. Libertarians believe that the initiation of force is wrong. So do the overwhelming majority of nonlibertarians. They, too, think it is wrong to commit offenses against person and property. I don't believe they abstain merely because they fear the consequences (retaliation, prosecution, fines, jail, lack of economic growth). They abstain because they sense deep down that it is wrong, unjust, improper. In other words, even if they never articulate it, they believe that other individuals are ends in themselves and not merely means to other people's the ends. They believe in the dignity of individuals. As a result, they perceive and respect the moral space around others. (This doesn't mean they are consistent, but when they are not, at least they feel compelled to rationalize.)

That's the starting point of the libertarian philosophy, at least as I see it. (I am not a calculating consequentialist, or utilitarian, but neither am I a rule-worshiping deontologist. Rather, I am comfortable with the Greek approach to morality, eudaimonism, which, as Roderick Long writes, "means that virtues like prudence and benevolence play a role in determining the content of justice, but also — via a process of mutual adjustment — that justice plays a role in determining the content of virtues like prudence and benevolence." In this view, justice, or respect for rights, like the other virtues, is a constitutive, or internal, means (rather than an instrumental means) to the ultimate end of all action, flourishing, or the good life.)

Libertarians differ from others in that they apply the same moral standard to all people's conduct. Others have a double standard, the live-and-let-live standard for "private" individuals and another, conflicting one for government personnel. All we have to do is get people to see this and all will be well.

Okay, I'm oversimplifying a bit. But if I'm close to right, you'll have to admit that the libertarian's job now looks much more manageable. Socrates would walk through the agora in Athens pointing out to people that they unwittingly held contradictory moral positions. By asking them probing questions, he nudged them into adjusting their views until they were brought into harmony, with the nobler of their views holding sway. (Does this mean that agoraphobia began as a fear of being accosted by a Greek philosopher in a public place?) This harmonization is known as reflective equilibrium, though Long emphasizes the activity, reflective equilibration, rather than the end state.

So it remains only for libertarians to engage in a series of thought experiments to win others over to their position. For example, if I would properly be recognized as an armed robber were I to threaten my neighbors into giving me a percentage of their incomes so that I might feed the hungry, house the homeless, and provide pensions for the retired, why aren't government officials similarly recognized? If I can't legally impose mandates on people, as the Affordable Care Act does, why can Barack Obama and members of Congress do so? If I can't forcibly forbid you to use marijuana or heroin or cocaine, why can DEA agents do it?

Those officials are human beings. You are a human being. I am a human being. So we must have the same basic rights. Therefore, what you and I may not do, they may not do. The burden of rebuttal is now on those who reject the libertarian position.

Undoubtedly the nonlibertarian will respond that government officials were duly elected by the people according to the Constitution, or hired by those so elected. Thus they may do what is prohibited to you and me. This reply is inadequate. If you and I admittedly have no right to tax and regulate others, how could we delegate a nonexistent right to someone else through an election? Obviously, we can't. (Frédéric Bastiat pointed this out in The Law.)

That's the nub of the libertarian philosophy right there. No one has the right to treat people merely as means — no matter how noble the end. No one. The implication is that if you want someone's cooperation, you must use persuasion (such as offering to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange), not force. That principle must be applicable to all human beings on pain of contradiction.

This argument should have particular appeal for advocates of equality — for what better embodies their ideal than the libertarian principle, which establishes the most fundamental equality of all persons? I don't mean equality of outcome, equality of income, equality of opportunity, equality under the law, or equality of freedom. I mean something more basic: what Long calls equality of authority. You can find it in John Locke (Second Treatise of Government, chapter 2, §6):

Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.… And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses.

"Unless it be to do justice on an offender," Locke continued, no one may "take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another."

Long traces out a key implication of this idea: "Lockean equality involves not merely equalitybefore legislators, judges, and police, but, far more crucially, equality with legislators, judges, and police."

One moral standard for all, no exceptions, no privileges. That's a fitting summation of the libertarian philosophy. The good news is that most people are more than halfway there.

This article previously appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. Good article. Interesting angle for spreading the libertarian word. Unfortunately, most people I know want liberty for themselves. Your liberty, my liberty? Well, that’s negotiable.

    1. Yes, sadly, the ability of people to rationalize is impressive. And I include myself in this.

      Also, you’re up early for a Sunday.

      1. I know it’s early. A kookie friend just sent me a bunch of texts regarding his fantasy football lineup. They woke me up, and I haven’t been able to fall back asleep.

        1. Hmmm. You might want to remind him of the existence of email, and the fact that you live on the West Coast.

          Sadly, I think the idea that we should be equal to cops, legislators, and judges would be found laughable by a sadly sizable percentage of the population.

          1. Also, those two lines in my last post were completely separate thoughts and should not be construed as having anything to do with each other.

            It still early for me, too, and I’m on the East Coast.

        2. Our phone rang at 5:30 a.m.
          “Thank you for using our phone verification system. Your code is: 404……”
          The call was repeated maybe half an hour later.

    2. I don’t think most people have that double standard in that way. But while they agree that coercion is immoral except in self-defense, they expand the definition of harm without thinking.

      If someone were to build a molasses tank on a hill in a residential neighborhood, everyone nearby would have a strong interest in knowing it was solidly built with safety berms and so on. It’s easy to reflexively extend that to coercively regulating molasses storage tanks, and to keep reflexively extending that collective corcion to all aspects of life. Each is just a small common sense extension of collective self-defense against fracking, against parents who would buy cars without airbags, against health plans which don’t provide contraception to poor people who are too ignorant and keep having children which society must protect in the form of free education and subsidized food.

      Knee jerk reactions are nothing new. We have all had nasty thoughts about other drivers which we would never carry out. The problem is allowing politicians to carry out their momentary fantasies, and actually rewarding them for doing so.

      1. This is a good point.

    3. “Interesting angle for spreading the libertarian word.”

      Interesting exposition on libertarian philosophy. It’s the psychology that needs some work, however. Legislators, judges and police seeing themselves as equal to those whom they legislate, judge and police? For all its philosophical sophistication, I find this psychologically naive.

      1. It doesn’t matter if they see themselves as superior if their powers are limited.

        1. Of course their powers are limited. Nobody is claiming they have unlimited powers. Problem is my powers are also limited, fantastically more limited than theirs.

          1. Of course their powers are limited. Nobody is claiming they have unlimited powers. Problem is my powers are also limited, fantastically more limited than theirs.


            What are you suggesting be done about that fuckhead?

      2. Well you’re an idiot so that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

  2. Libertarians differ from others in that they apply the same moral standard to all people’s conduct. (Richman)

    Yet libertarians have markedly different moral standards, at least according to this writer over at Bratfart.

    The Two Kinds of Libertarianism: Calhounian and Heinleinian

    In May 2013, Google’s Larry Page was quoted in The Verge, a tech publication, saying that while “the pace of change is increasing,” legal and regulatory systems haven’t kept up. And so, he said, we need “mechanisms to allow experimentation.” Sounds like another enterprise zone, eh?

    Page continued: “There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation. And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.” According to The Verge report, Page likened this potential free-experimentation zone to the wide-openness of the Burning Man hippie-fest, adding that the world needs “some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.”…..einleinian

    I am Google/Heinlein where the Peanut Gallery is Calhoun/traditional.

    That explains all.

    1. Since when is the “Peanut Gallery” Calhounist? I’m not even sure that it’s honest to call Calhoun a Libertarian. Just because most of us think the federal government is too big doesn’t mean that we want state governments to have unlimited powers.

    2. I see the Page argument as, essentially, begging.

      It’s a marketing ploy to try to beg people for a “liberty zone”. It’s designed to convince people that they can keep their statism and their control, and let people be free in little ghettos where they’ll never even notice them.

      Ghetto is actually a good word for it. Because the Page argument essentially is a modern version of some medieval king saying, “Well, naturally we can’t let Jews just traipse around anywhere, outraging the faithful. But if they’ll keep to themselves in that little cluster of buildings over there, we’ll refrain from burning them. Who knows, they might come up with something useful. And you never know when I might need a loan, right?”

      Personally, I believe that I am owed liberty and my rights wherever I am standing. The laws wherever I’m standing will either be moral, just, and legitimate, or they won’t be. And if they aren’t, saying “Well, you know, if you’ll just walk over to that little cluster of buildings over there, we’ll leave you alone,” doesn’t cut it as a counterargument.

      1. Personally, I believe that I am owed own liberty and my rights wherever I am standing.


      2. Do you think it is an attempt to recognize that irrespective of the correctness of our philosophy, that the world doesn’t necessarily care, and that if we would like to live the lives we have, with some liberty, perhaps we will need to settle for a defined area?

        We can spend our lives arguing, without liberty, or be practical, and have our libertarian lives on an island, so to speak. That is what I think the suggestion must be.

    3. Why is changing the world bad?

    4. That explains all.

      No, your self-assessment of being 94% libertarian explains all.

      Don’t ever change, Shrike.

      Palin’s Buttplug| 9.2.13 @ 5:57PM |#

      If everyone agreed with me I would quit posting.

    5. That explains all.

      No, your self-assessment of being 94% libertarian explains all.

      Don’t ever change, Shrike.

      Palin’s Buttplug| 9.2.13 @ 5:57PM |#

      If everyone agreed with me I would quit posting.

      1. You inspire me to post more, whoever you are.

        New ingenue singer with single name (goes by Lorde) signs $2.5 million contract at 17. Of course she is gorgeous and apparently talented.

        1. Come on, Shrike, let your inner pedophilia out. It will go nicely with your lying and homophobia.

          Palin’s Buttplug| 9.2.13 @ 5:57PM |#

          If everyone agreed with me I would quit posting.

        2. I hope I do too! Now…tell me more about that great Affordable Care Act again.

    6. I am Google/Heinlein State Fellating Crony Capitalist Coercion Monkey Style where the Peanut Gallery is Calhoun/traditional.

      Fixed that for you shreeky.


    7. What a crock of shit.

      “Yes, maybe Obama is in favor of raising the taxes of the rich, at least in theory. But in practice, it’s only a theory, and nothing more. As we know, Obama doesn’t mean much of what he says, and he doesn’t seem to follow through on anything.”

      Really? Does that mean that I don’t have to pay the higher Medicare and Income tax rates next April 15th? Right, didn’t think so.

      So much mental masturbation which must be why PB loves it so. He actually thinks it’s real.

    8. When was the last time you went to Burning Man?

      There are all sorts of rules. No firearms. No open fires. Sex camps most be screened from public view. No food sharing without a public health permit. Cops are everywhere busting people for drugs. Undercover cops bust people for serving alcohol to minors, so people get carded at the doors to bars. You have to carry your fucking ID around to get a drink.

      1. Page used it because people think it’s anarchy over there. Not because it actually is.

        I don’t think it’s a bad argument: Look, burning man didn’t destroy the US, therefore a libertarian country wouldn’t either.

        1. Ironically, that argument seems to lead the powers that be to the conclusion is to crack down harder on Burning Man – lest that freedom really contaminate society.

    9. Can Idaho have its own Internet? Can any state really leave the World Wide Web?

      Does China have its own World Wide Web? Does Luxembourg?

      1. From the article…Brazil and Germany, to name just two, are moving in the direction of digital independence from the US.

        Does that mean that Brazil and Germany are trying to leave the World Wide Web, and have their own Internets?

        If so, can Idaho have its own Internet?

    10. Hey, PB; are you “jen” in the comments section?

    11. Meh. The guy’s just put a new label on the “Yokeltarian/Cosmotarian” debate.

  3. If I can’t legally impose mandates on people, as the Affordable Care Act does, why can Barack Obama and members of Congress do so? If I can’t forcibly forbid you to use marijuana or heroin or cocaine, why can DEA agents do it?

    Government is simply the name for the things we choose to do together. I’m just happy I don’t have to strap on some body armor and kick in the door of a drug house where everyone’s in bed myself. (I like to sleep in.) I’m glad I don’t have to write a ton of regulations to get other people to pay for my insurance.

    Club of government, baby. Pick it up and you’ll never want to put it back down.

    1. “Club of government, baby. Pick it up and you’ll never want to put it back down.”

      I did….but it took a while, and featured a slowly dawning realization that dominion over my fellow man was…not good. For me, or them.

      1. Amen to that.

        1. Yeah, me too? I was once a “whore for the State”, serving Government Almighty with my body, and my sword, like a beast of burden serves the farmer? With yer body? They wanted to give me ribbons to put upon my chest for getting shot at, in defense of the Sacred Constitution, and all, and NOW, when I am a prospective juror, if I want to take my copy of the Sacred Constitution into the jury deliberation room, they say all sorts of vaguely nice high-sounding words, but it boils down to, “The US Constitution is for us High Priests, not fer ignernt morons like YOU, you scum-bag, you!” (Future soldiers and whores-for-the-Sacred-State, please take heed, don’t be stupid like I was). If I were not so toasted, I would go look up some quotes from Henry David Thoreau that said the same thing, but there you go, just my top-of-the-head translation fer YOU? Serve yer fellow humanoid with yer CONSCIENCE and not your whore-for-the-State body, which mostly means OPPOSE Government Almighty, and we’ll all be better off in the long run!

  4. Libertarians believe that the initiation of force is wrong. So do the overwhelming majority of nonlibertarians. They, too, think it is wrong to commit offenses against person and property.

    Unless, of course, that property belongs to a member of another Tribe. In which case, its time to loot.

  5. Um, citing Socrates in an article about how to persuade others? How did that work out for ol’ Socrates?

    1. Well, if Plato is to be believed, he wasn’t trying very hard.

      1. Isn’t the latter in the dative case?

    2. I was wondering when someone was going to get around to pointing this out.

  6. “…. libertarians would have an easier time if they realized everyone else is not so different from them.”

    Not so different in what they say? Or what they do?

    1. “…everyone else is not so different from them.”

      Isn’t that the line that Bond villains use?

      1. All Bond villains are libertarians.

        1. Of course

          *adjusts monocle, returns to hidden volcano lair*

          1. Volcano fortress? How do you deal with the stench? Obviously, you didn’t get the memo about upgrading to either an orbital space station or a deep-sea hemisphere.

  7. Socrates would walk through the agora in Athens pointing out to people that they unwittingly held contradictory moral positions…he nudged them into adjusting their views until they were brought into harmony, with the nobler of their views holding sway.

    Ummm…no…he got forced to drink hemlock.

    1. He did win “converts,” however, and as I said above, he wasn’t trying very hard to pass that glass (if Plato’s account is accurate).

      1. The trial had two phases:
        1. Ascertain guilt.
        2. Pick Exile or Death.

        More people picked Death than picked guilty. He actually managed to piss off people who thought he was innocent so much so that they voted for him to die.

        What an epic troll.

    2. Uh, the early dialogues do not end with any sort of moral realization. It’s just aporia. And those are the ones considered closer to the historical Socrates.

  8. Interesting article. I just think it underestimates the tremendous power of rationalization. Sure everybody agrees with libertarians when it comes to them making their choices. It’s just that other asshole down the street who’s beyond the pale and needs a little bullying (or I’ll follow the current fashionable euphamism and call it “nudging”). Of course most people have no problem whatsoever seeing themselves as ends in and of themselves. They just have a little more difficulty seeing others as ends in and of themselves.

  9. I’ve been saying this for years. Unfortunately it works only in an all-or-nothing manner, and is not likely to get you those little wins that constitute (real) propaganda by deed.

  10. “Others have a double standard, the live-and-let-live standard for “private” individuals and another, conflicting one for government personnel. All we have to do is get people to see this and all will be well.”

    Yeah, you are oversimplifying it a great deal. War on Drugs. War on Terror. I’ve had these conversations and I’ve made these points and people are not able to see through the massive brainwashed haze. I’ve had people actually agree with we and then say the government still has to do these things even thought they can’t actually explain why. Yeah, I agree the war on drugs creates more harm then good but we can’t just let people do drugs because drugs are bad. How do you argue with people that obtuse.

    1. And don’t get me started on the the whole misdirect to but Booosh or some similar. Some action is justified because of some prior unrelated action taken by the opposite team that was worse. No points for pointing out this fallacy.

  11. “So it remains only for libertarians to engage in a series of thought experiments to win others over to their position.”

    Public accommodation provisions of the Civil Rights Act? Drunk driving?

    Libertarians are always better off when they DON’T engage in thought experiments. It never ends well.

    1. Loved your extensive career in porn!

  12. I think you’re oversimplifying it a lot, Richman. I don’t think Libertarians aren’t different because we hold government to the same standard as individuals. I think we are different because we try to enforce only the most minimal of moral codes on others, namely, do no harm, and because we define harm fairly narrowly. Most people either want to enforce a much broader moral code and/or define harm much more broadly than libertarians.

    Saying that spreading libertarianism is as easy as engaging people in some thought experiments implies that non-libertarians just haven’t thought about it enough, and that libertarianism is the natural outgrowth of reasoning from first principles. It’s not. You have to adopt a certain system of values, too, and there are people who reject those values. To think otherwise is hubris.

  13. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately in some aspects, people do NOT strictly abide by the non-agression principle, many libertarians included, including this mostly-libertarian guy (me).
    Many people DO believe that some force is just if it can work to greater ends. For example, if the government can build bridges and roads that otherwise might not be built, or fund healthcare for everyone, then they feel force IS justified.
    I SORT OF agree, but my point is the government tends to SUCK at this stuff, it’s the WORST organization to be doing this. However, I see this as related to the non-agression principle; it is something that is so BECAUSE of the simplistic nature of the idea that you can just get things done with force. “Oh, well if everybody rich and poor paid the government then they’d have tons of money to make sure the poor don’t go untreated medicaly.” Yeah, except for when it’s money that doesn’t exist and we’re just borrowing from the future, more money than will ever actually be produced, and how do you limit consumption the way prices naturally do? and how can you codify anything as personal and varied as personal healthcare, once you do try to decide who gets covered for what? And honestly, how many rich people are there out there that can pay for poor people? And what do you do when prices inevitably rise because prices keep skyrocketing because no one

    1. is budgeting? And the litany of other serious issues that get in the way
      The idea that you can do great things simply with the power of the club is just deeply deeply childishly simplistic.

      Even for the things that I ostensibly agree with the government doing, like public works/public transport/the public roads, any advantages the government COULD have administering these things compared to private industry is just that, POTENTIAL benefits that are not being realized because of our ridiculous union laws, and by now appropriate privatization has a hell of a lot more going for it, and has been proven to work better.

  14. My experience in discussing this with people who have accepted statist notions is that reason isn’t going to sway them. Most recently, tried this with my uncle, who got kind of angry with me and said I wasn’t listening to him, and worse, I wasn’t being “practical”.

    1. Consider also the possibility that people just like to argue.

    2. I wasn’t being “practical”.

      Notice that a central consideration of the “third-way” political groups of the 20th Century was “practicality.”

      Fascists always appeal to “practicality.” It’s sickening that they think using thugs with guns to make everyone behave the way they want is in anyway “practical.”

      You should call your uncle what he is, a filthy Fascist.

  15. Glibertarians and “morals”, lol.

    1. ‘Murkin?

  16. I’ve been using a similar argument with friends for a while. I ask them if it is right that I go into my neighbors house, open his books and determine whether he is giving enough to the poor or to the national defense. When they agree, I ask them if it is OK if I get the whole block to agree that I should do this, what if I get the whole neighborhood to agree? At what scale does this suddenly become the correct and moral thing to do?

    1. You’re right.

      That’s why we need a World Government.

      /reductio in the wrong direction

  17. I couldn’t agree more, but where do these moral standards come from? Are they absolute?

  18. Most people, as individuals, rarely break the basic libertarian code – to not use offensive force against others. But that doesn’t prevent them from hiring third party agents to do so and because of the distances created between the hiring party, the agent, and the victim, Good can be manufactured out of the evil of using offensive Force against innocent parties. The basic underpinning of 1984 doublespeak is at hand.

    Libertarians are willing to be disinterested when such is naturally called for. Libertarians are willing to tolerate less than optimal behavior in others so long as they don’t clearly and presently harm others and, if we become an interested party, use persuasive means rather than fear and force. We hold the same beliefs and wish just as much as anyone else the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people. We simply don’t delude ourselves that Good intentions justify using the vector of Force overlaid on top of our belief, and don’t smoke and mirror that evil is actually good simply because our intentions are noble.

    It takes more than to say that Force is bad, we must show that Force ends up doing more harm than good. Unfortunately doing so takes more than easily digestible sound bites.

    1. I have to disagree. When we buy into the utilitarian argument, we give away first premises. We accept the notion that, if it were beneficial or convenient to rob some of our neighbors and throw some others into cages for ingesting the wrong things, we’d be okay with it. At that point, we’ve ceded the moral high ground. The statists get to roll out the little orphans and the families of dead addicts and tell everyone efficiency be damned, they caaaarrrre!

  19. There’s also the fact that people perceive tons of things as harms. Someone upthread pointed out the ever-expanding precautions against potential harm.
    There’s also the fact that someone taking drugs is perceived as causing harm to others, gays are accused of destroying the morality of society, the rich are preying on the working man, etc.

    At that point they figure harming those who harm others is legitimate (which we do too, we just don’t stretch the meaning of harm as much).

    As long as people believe that broad classes of non-coercive behaviour are inherently harmful, this argument of yours won’t work.

  20. Google is paying 75$/hour! Just work for few hours & spend more time with friends and family.On sunday I bought themselves a Alfa Romeo from having made $5637 this month. its the best-job Ive ever had.It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out

  21. Jesus, Sheldon, what fucking Americans are you talking about? Is this serious, or did you just forget to take your medication today? Team Blue, Team Red, Americans are above all statists. There is only one religion in America: government. Here is what the vast majority of ‘muricans believe:

    Without the FDA (and it’s use of force) we would all be eating poison food.

    Without the welfare state the streets would be filled with starving people.

    Without bully cops, rights-violating Feds, and govt. spying, we’d all be at the mercy of pedophiles and terrorists.

    I could go on and on…

    Try to convince these coercion-hating Americans that the cop who opened fire on a minivan driven by a mom with FIVE children in NM is a homicidal lunatic. A few will admit that the cop “made a bad choice.” Most repeat the script given to them by their masters: “She should have obeyed. She brought this on herself.”

    File this piece under Libertarian Wishful Thinking.

  22. This argument is readily circumscribed by a number of examples but some obvious ones come to mind;
    1. Everybody should have equal rights until it is realized that people truly aren’t equal and equal rights aren’t always a desirable outcome. Men deciding about women’s reproductive rights is no more or less oppressive than women deciding their own reproductive rights regardless of the men involved.

    2. Acting like a group of people have no more right or ability than individuals themselves denies or forbids the synergy that is known to rise out of social organizations. An armed citizenry is no contest for a standing army (Ruby Ridge, Waco, etc., etc.). Indeed, numbers one and two are the right to peaceably assemble with arms.

    3. I don’t 100% agree with this one but the argument has traction in modern minority-friendly societies and that’s oppression through omission. Inequalities and injustice will happen, a strong limit on individuals’ right to compel action in others means that individuals are often powerless to correct injustice that they themselves didn’t create.

    I’m not in favor of more social power or stronger gov’t but this article came across as a somewhat childish rehashing of the tired old arguments about “Why can’t everyone just follow the golden rule?” Rather than a serious illustration of why equality in liberty is generally a good idea, but not always.

  23. My view on the difference between libertarians and liberals/conservatives is that libertarians believe that people ought to be able to keep their freedoms even if they don’t morally agree with them. I’ve never taken drugs or shot a gun due to my own moral code, but I cannot allow my moral standard to define everyone else’s moral standard. To me that’s the hardest part about persuading a liberal/conservative to jump ship. Because most people in the US fall into libertarian policies even more than their own party. But they have trouble giving up a few moral issues that eventually separates them into their preferred political parties.

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