Blond with Sandel(s)

Two of the League’s brethren attended Philip Blond’s lecture at Georgetown last week.  Will’s review here, David’s here.

For those interested, Blond’s thought has been a source of numerous posts in the League’s annals (e.g. me, Erik).

Will writes:

Despite my nasty libertarian streak, I found a lot to like in Blond’s talk, particularly in his enthusiasm for decentralization and local competition. My only quibble is that while Blond’s diagnoses are often compelling, his proposed solutions are sometimes less so.

David writes:

His philosophical positions, however, are a little incoherent at the margins. For instance, he fully endorsed the position that we need an account of what a good life consists in in order to make political decisions, a position familiar to critics of Liberalism from an Aristotelian point of view, but then identified himself as an “Antique Liberal” (while in the same breath condemning Locke) and declared his allegiance to the liberal premise that individuals in pluralistic  societies should follow their own conceptions of the good while debating them publicly and neutrally with others. He did not try to give an account of how the state might embody so-called “thick” views about what makes for a good life while at the same time serving as a referee amongst the many competing visions of the good life put forward by its citizens.

This was shortly after saying, puzzlingly, that his work was in the MacIntyrean tradition but that he doesn’t think MacIntyre is right about the failure of public reason in liberal society, which is, after all a fairly central element of MacIntyre’s position and its derivatives.

I agree with David that Blond’s self-definition as Antique Liberal is more confusing than clarifying (if not outright incorrect).

Blond would do better, in my view, to call himself a little ‘r’ republican.  I realize this might be rhetorically difficult as people will hear republican to only mean The US Republican Party who are actually a form of pro-corporate liberals, a group Blond has very clearly in his sights to take down.

Little ‘r’ republicanism is the strand of political philosophy most clearly distinct from liberalism in all its forms.  Classical republicanism, also known as civic humanism.  In essence it argues that conversations about the moral trajectory (the “good life”) are inherent to civic existence and must be faced, debated, and discussed.

I’ve been reading a great deal of Michael Sandel lately, who argues precisely for this point of view.  His book Democracy’s Discontent chronicles the history of the US as a country initially heavily influenced by republican thought but over time (especially since the Second World War) turned into a liberal only country.  Sandel calls this the procedural republic (as opposed to the humanistic/civic republic).

According to Sandel, our current US tripartite classification of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians assumes great divisions on the part of said groups, when in reality all three are descendants of liberalism.  All stand opposed to republicanism.

The hallmark of the liberal procedural republic according to Sandel is that citizens are treated as consumers.  The market becomes the dominant form of thought and practice in the polis.  Beings become instrumentalized and utilitarian ethics is the only (meager) form of ethics/morality left in such a market-satured universe.

Liberals, by which we normally mean progressives, left-wing views, New Deal Democrats, argue the power of the state must be increased to effectively combat the vicissitudes of said market.  As in last night’s House vote to reform health insurance companies through state power.  Following from a Rawlsian disposition, liberals emphasize equal opportunity, choice, etc.

[US] Conservatives are basically liberals in the classical sense.  They believe in reducing the power of large scale government to weigh in on the market mechanisms.  The GOP as a political party breathes that ideological oxygen but tends to exhale pro-corporate influence.

Aligned with conservatives come libertarians, arguing for human freedom, tolerance (in the classical Lockean sense), with individuals defining the good life in their own ways, allowing each to choose their own way so long as they do not negatively impact the ability of others to choose their own way of life.

The line between the three is not always as sharp and distinct as it is normally portrayed in the media or blogosphere. Liberaltarianism (advocated by a few members of this very League) is the basic assumption that libertarianism is not incompatible with a certain view of a social safety net, as first promoted by Hayek and Milton Friedman in various ways.

All of those are liberalisms as compared to republicanism.  The lone counter-movement in US politics that could be genuinely term republican is social conservativism, which (as someone with deep republican sympathies) very frightening, as their version of republicanism is (in my view) a retrograde, even pathological form of republicanism.

If our only choices are that religiously-defined form of imposed republicanism or liberalism (of whatever variety), then I’ll chose liberalism.

But Sandel wants to point to the ways in which republicanism is a necessary element to civic existence–i.e. that we have to talk about morality and worldviews/ideas of the good life.  Failure to do so, creating a social environment that screens out such discourse, forces all such energy and thought into the illiberal discourse of religious fundamentalism.

This also I think explains Will’s connection of Blond to the Students for a Democratic Society.  Little ‘r’ republicanism can (and does) exist on both what we typically call the “left” and “right” sides of the spectrum.  What sometimes gets called (from a non-Marxist left), left conservatism–just further confuse the hell out of everyone possibly.

So we have something I would say of a three part republican spectrum.

On one extreme, as per David, is Alisdair MacIntyre and his student (and Blond’s teacher) John Milbank.   MacIntyre’s praxis (such as there is one) envisions small groupings essentially extricating themselves from the modern/postmodern secularized world.  MacIntyre emphasizes the Aristotelian notion of virtue capacity and arete (excellence).  While for Milbank (and his radical orthodox peers), the way forward consists of a renewed Thomistic philosophy and medieval liturgical worldview as a counternarrative and divine eschatology to combat the counter-eschatology of liberalism in all its forms.  Both however, for their differences, are radically opposed to liberalism in a way that the others are not.

On the other side of the (still totally marginalized) republican discourse comes Blond (I think).  He is much more willing to advocate for specific policies in the political realm and even attempt (as David notes) to wrest the idea of “true liberalism” from (progressive) liberals, libertarians, and contemporary conservatives.

And somewhere in between those stands (in my interpretation) Michael Sandel.  He is not (a la MacIntyre & Friends) advocating a kind of utopianism.  But he is taking (in contrast to Blond) a more meta-position relative to Western political discourse.  Sandel argues that the foundation of Western political discourse is completely skewed by its dominance of liberal voices and the false notion that conservatives, liberals, and libertarians are A)the only form of accepted discourse and B)really that different from one another.  When in reality they are much closer to each other than any of the three is to republicanism.

Sandel (check out this video) engages citizens qua citizens in discussions of their underlying belief systems, morality, and views on the world.  He is interestingly operationalizing (I think) Habermas’ notion of intersubjective or communicative rationality, thereby (re)integrating republicanism with liberalism (as Habermas stands squarely in the Kantian liberal tradition, after the critiques of post-structuralism and postmodern thought).

Otherwise Blond, in the end for all his criticisms of liberalism (in all its shades), really does not offer an alternative, only modification around the edges.  Potentially interesting modification I imagine, but modification nonetheless, not really outside the bounds of liberalism/market.  The overarching extent of the market-procedural republic could easily incorporate a Blondian critique and metabolize it to its continued interests of expansion.

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47 thoughts on “Blond with Sandel(s)

  1. May I just say that whether or not American conservatism deserves to be called classical liberalism is a matter of controversy? It is taken as axiomatic, in a lot of the Internet, that American conservatives are the heirs to Mill or Locke or Jefferson, but that is, in part, exactly what is at issue in our political debates. The Rawlsian liberal position is that there is no conflict between liberal social policies and the classical liberal philosophy, because rights aren’t really rights if they have no material possibility of being enacted. In this sense, social programs and the like are necessary to protect the Enlightenment rights which the classical liberal thinkers espoused, and thus the actual classical liberals are American liberals and leftists. The actual relationship of people like Mill to positive and negative rights, and whether there is really such a divide at all, is very complicated. So while you can of course argue that the Rawlsian position is wrong, to say as a given than American conservatism is the classical liberal tradition is to beg the question.

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    • freddie,

      good question. I think that Rawls makes a strong case that his position is not incompatible with a version of classical liberalism. I also think libertarians (and even liberaltarians and conservatives) have taken another strain of classical liberalism and gone in a slightly different direction.

      I think this is complicated by the rise of industrialism, so that I would say both US conservatism and US liberalism are heirs to classical liberalism which they’ve also modified in some regards given the reality of the industrialized (and now post-industrialized) world.

      Neoliberalism in that sense I think is a uniting link (in terms of economic philosophy) between the three (conservatives, liberals, and libertarians).

      But all three are not republicanism (as a political philosophy). I think Sandel makes a persuasive argument in this regard.

      So if you take say the famous Rawls v. Nozick debate, I’m not sure either can totally answer the critiques of the other side, but both are assuming atomistic individuals in the hypothetical state of nature and are just arguing about the merits/demerits of redistributionism and whether it can be validly described as in line with classical liberalism.

      But republican thought would critique both Rawls and Nozick because both assume the foundation in atomistic individuals and then building a political philosophy solely from that foundation. True they disagree in where they take those foundations but they do share that same foundation, a point that is totally missed in most debate (I think).

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  2. I don’t see libertarians aligned with conservatives at all… see, for example, 2006. Perhaps even 2008.

    This week? Yeah, they’re probably aligned with conservatives this week.

    When Conservatives regain power and start making it illegal to… I dunno. They’ll figure out some dumb thing to say we need to do “for The Children” the libertarians will unalign themselves again… just like the last time.

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      • If libertarians aren’t used to being Cassandras by now, they’ll never get used to it.

        I do wonder what this will do the next time Republicans find themselves with majorities… what’s the next bill that will be Reconciled because of a promise of a particular Executive Order?

        This genie ain’t gonna go back in the bottle.

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        • *shrug* Don’t go all Republican on me Jay. Bart Stupak conjured an imaginary complaint and got an imaginary solution to resolve it. The Senate bill never was going to institute federally financed abortions. That’s why the pro-choice forces yawned when Obama issued his order; nothing was being changed. Bart backed himself into a corner and was merely afforded a convenient face saving way to come home. If you’re looking for the last time that politicians extracted concessions (up to and including executive orders) in exchange for their votes I’d refer you to the year forever since it’s been going on for centuries. Nothing special went down, the bill was passed, not reconciled (the reconciliation bill is a separate item and is off to the Senate to be debated) and there wasn’t any special legislative shenanigans with the HCR bill. It was passed with a super majority in the Senate and a 219 majority in the House and now it’s off to the President.

          Look there’s plenty for libertarians to hate about the bill without making up things to hate.

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          • I’m *NOT* going all Republican on you. I’m going all Libertarian on you.

            I see the following things happening as part of a worst case scenario:

            Republican majority in the House come 2010, and Republican President in 2012 and a balanced (50/50) Senate for his (or her, shudder) first term.

            And they pass something using similar shenanigans.

            Does this strike you as a particularly far-out worst case scenario?

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            • I don’t consider it far out Jay, my objection is to characterizing it as unusual or shenanigans. What occurred was typical legislative maneuvering. It has happened a lot before and shall doubtlessly happen again. You can say that the legislation that was passed is horrible and awful and while I will disagree with you it’ll be something on which people can reasonably differ. But if you say that the way legislation that was passed was passed was horrible or illegal then it’s a whole different level because what you’re asserting is objectively incorrect.

              And if a Republican gets control of the house, the Senate and the Presidency then yes they’re entitled to try and pass legislation. The opposition is entitled, Democrat or Republican, to stand in unified opposition (though I’d say it’s against their interest to do so) and the majority is entitled to use all options the rules make available to them to pass the legislation. My position would not change on those items whoever was in control.

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              • What struck me as unusual was the exchange of an Executive Order for a vote for a Bill.

                It reminded me far, far, far too much of “signing statements”.

                Has this sort of thing happened all the time in the past?

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                • Legislators getting the executive to give them things, shout outs, alterations of bills, executive orders etc in exchange for votes? Yeah ‘fraid so. And in this case the Executive order consisted of “Hey you know how Federal Law prohibits us from spending Federal Money on abortions? Yeah well I’m issuing an executive order also saying that there’ll be no spending money on abortions in this federal item”.

                  You can be sure that if the general concept of exchanging an executive order for the vote was even slightly screwy Fox and the Republicans would be screaming it from the rooftops. Now they’re yelling that Stupak sold out or that somehow abortion is still built into the law but they’re not screaming about the actual principle of the executive order resulting in the vote.

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                  • I’m kinda old-school. I see signing statements as impeachable offenses. Sign it or veto it. If it’s not worth signing, it’s worth a veto. Worst case, just let it stay on your desk for 30 days or whatever it is and let it become a law by default. Sure. (Wimp.)

                    But if a law is vague to the point where the executive is interpreting the law, then we’ve got ourselves a Constitutional Crisis waiting to happen and it ought to be nipped in the bud.

                    This whole executive order thing modifying an insufficiently precise law is all going to end in tears, mark my words.

                    And it’d all end in tears even if it legalized pot, gay marriage, and allowed 7 more nuclear power plants to be built in each state by 2015. If the process becomes corrupted, it’ll be abused.

                    The genie ain’t going back in the bottle.

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                    • But the law wasn’t vague Jay. No one outside Stupak and the Catholic council of bishops thought that it was. Stupak was backed into a corner by his own rhetoric and this merely gave him an out. Also this was an executive order, not a signing statement. There’s a rather big difference (especially considering that Obama hasn’t signed it yet). If the genie had been in the bottle last week and was out now I’d get your point wasn’t. There hasn’t been any unprecedented quid pro quos.

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                    • Well, I’m not saying that *THIS* law was vague (I haven’t read it… actually, has anybody?) but that the “trade” of an EO for a vote struck me as downright Unconstitutional.

                      But we’ll see. I’m sure that the pendulum will swing and we will see these particular proceedures used to do something unsavory in the future over the objections of the other party.

                      My intuition is that we’ll be wondering how in the heck we got this far down this particular slope.

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                    • Fair enough Jay, perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree on this.

                      Personally I feel that nothing of substance was exchanged. That it was kabuki to obtain Stupaks vote. My datapoint; the powerful pro-choice groups in the Dem caucus. Notice how little noise they made. Note their collective yawn. If Obama had given Stupac something substantive I do not believe they’d have responded so anemically. These people make their living fighting on this issue. Their silence suggests to me that Obama’s statement amounted to nothing more than a restatement of current law.

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                    • Jay, here’s the text of the Hyde Amendment:

                      SEC. 507. (a) None of the funds appropriated in this Act, and none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are appropriated in this Act, shall be expended for any abortion.

                      (b) None of the funds appropriated in this Act, and none of the funds in any trust fund to which funds are appropriated in this Act, shall be expended for health benefits coverage that includes coverage of abortion.

                      (c) The term `health benefits coverage’ means the package of services covered by a managed care provider or organization pursuant to a contract or other arrangement.

                      SEC. 508. (a) The limitations established in the preceding section shall not apply to an abortion–

                      (1) if the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest; or

                      (2) in the case where a woman suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, that would, as certified by a physician, place the woman in danger of death unless an abortion is performed.

                      (b) Nothing in the preceding section shall be construed as prohibiting the expenditure by a State, locality, entity, or private person of State, local, or private funds (other than a State’s or locality’s contribution of Medicaid matching funds).

                      (c) Nothing in the preceding section shall be construed as restricting the ability of any managed care provider from offering abortion coverage or the ability of a State or locality to contract separately with such a provider for such coverage with State funds (other than a State’s or locality’s contribution of Medicaid matching funds).

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                    • Thank you, Joseph… but I was talking about the Health Care Bill itself.

                      I think that the Hyde Amendment is awful… I seriously think that the country would be better off if people had to actually say “holy cow, they’re spending my money on *WHAT*???” a little more often.

                      Maybe the bond rating changing will allow that to happen…

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    • Jay,

      I think you’re only thinking of alignment in terms of votes in elections relative to Dems and Reps. I’m talking more in philosophical (and particularly economic & political philosophy) terms.

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      • From looking at not only George W Bush from 2001-2008, but at what the Republican Party Itself was willing to defend, I’ve gotta say… I don’t see it.

        It *MIGHT* be possible to say that Bush was No True Republican when it came to economic philosophy but the Republican Party Itself was pretty much in lockstep with the guy and defended him against the left and libertarian alike.

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        • tax cuts.

          Again I’m not talking the Republican party and certainly not Bush’s presidency. My sense of the parties is that they both are into increasing the size of the state and getting closer to corporate power. They just differ on exactly how to go about that and what that alliance should be deployed to.

          In this post, I’m talking at the more philosophical level. The two (philosophy and political parties) are not in my mind completely separate but they aren’t totally to be equated either.

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          • Gay marriage, abortion, and drug war.

            Oh, wait. The democrats agree with republicans on two of those.

            It still seems to me that on a more philosophical level that the Republicans have, ahem, progressed from their older viewpoints and they now have, erm, grown while the Libertarians have stayed somewhat… unevolved.

            I base this not on what the Republicans stood for waybackwhen, of course… but what their principles are like once they are in power.

            If you want to know what a guy is really like, then give him power, right?

            I think we know what the viewpoint of Republicans *REALLY* are thanks to 2002-2006.

            I don’t know how to divorce Republicanism in theory with Republicanism in practice… anymore than I can divorce Democraticism in theory from Democratism in practice.

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    • If I understand correctly, only the offspring of liberalism and the Enlightenment that you love to deride even consider “maximum liberty” to be the highest value. A nonliberal philosophy would thus not primarily be concerned with maximizing liberty (though it may do so incidentally).

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  3. Think about it this way, Jay– some number of people will have their effective liberty increased by having access to health care. I know that neither you nor the libertarian mass will likely admit that this is a net increase in liberty, nor will you likely celebrate it; but it is an increase in their personal liberty, it will result in a higher quality of life for them, and it does matter.

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    • I have no doubt that some number of people will have their effective liberty increased by this increased amount of “coverage” and “access”.

      Let’s say that the number is X and the average amount of effective liberty increased is Y… so X times Y gives us the increase of liberty given us by this legislation. Hurray.

      Now, does this legislation also decrease the effective liberty of some group of people? Let’s say that it does and that number of people is P and the average amount of liberty decreased is Q. Hey, there are tradeoffs.

      If PQ is larger than XY, then this was not only a bad bill, but it was an immoral one. Do we agree with that?

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      • Well that’s the question, about comparing different types of liberty. There are indeed tradeoffs. Where I stand is how William described it– meeting minimum levels of satisfaction of material needs is a different kind of thing, a higher order category of liberty from the point of view of society. But that’s just me.

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        • There are indeed tradeoffs.

          I certainly hope that the measurement is something to the effect of “liberty gained vs. liberty lost” rather than “the amount of liberty intended to be gained vs. the liberty intended to be lost”.

          What would you consider to be a good measurement of whether this bill is successful?

          What measurable numbers ought we look at in 2011? 2014? 2018? 2020?

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          • I’ll just interject here to say that this is precisely what Sandel is talking about. Namely that we get to this point about “measureables” and we hit inevitably the question about political morality. There is no (however much it might be desired) perfect objective measure of liberty lost vs. liberty gained. Because (according to Sandel), our very choice of measurement values is influenced by our political values/morality.

            We try to get around that much tougher discussion by things like public choice theory or mathematical attempts to quantify liberty (liberty already being the presupposition of a certain political philosophical view). These in the end are de facto political philosophy-morality questions coming in through the back door that our discourse really can’t adjudicate head on.

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                • I think it’s a vocabulary problem, primarily.

                  The current most popular morality is somewhat divorced from spirituality while most moral vocabulary is tied to the spiritual.

                  But I need to sleep on that, I think, before I can say much more about it.

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            • Chris, just from a rhetorical/pedagogical standpoint (no offense, Jaybird, but you were rather getting yourself openly schooled in this discussion) standpoint, this last comment was an absolutely pristine example of a graceful redirection back to the underlying point which you were seeking to discuss. Just don’t want you to think such things go completely unnoticed.

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  4. The overarching extent of the market-procedural republic could easily incorporate a Blondian critique and metabolize it to its continued interests of expansion.

    This is precisely why liberalism is such a hardy paradigm, and is WHY it’s so dominant – it mutates like influenza, absorbing memetic coding from every challenge to it, and moreover does so through an evolutionary rather than teleological process.

    Not that there isn’t a telos to liberalism – definitionally, it’s “liberty” – just that history is not moving along a predefined path towards it, and there is broad disagreement on what it would actually consist of (which is why we modern mutations of liberalism fight amongst ourselves with such vehemence. )

    Actually it seems to me that the appeal of certain strands of socialism comes from essentially hitting some of the republican notes in a way that could adapt to the secularism of postliberal societies.

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      • i don’t see why that wouldn’t make sense. I think that is the appeal for many of what we call left wing social programs in Europe. Government programs can support and enhance a chosen lifestyle. Theoretically if we paid a stipend to every mother with a child of school age, women could be the classic stay at home. we could even offer tax credits for wearing 50’s style dresses, baking pies and naming kids Beaver and Chip. A controlled economy does have the advantage of stability which can reinforce traditional culture, or at least protect it from MTV, reality tv and the jessica simpson.

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          • Well, back in the day, we always explained that tribal relationships like family operated on a Communist paradigm and how, with guidance, we could expand that paradigm so that all members of society could be cared for as we would want our own family members cared for.

            The continual problem that constantly needed guidance with was the whole “loving their own kids more than strangers” problem. Religion, it seems to me, did a fairly good job of wrangling people into line but the atheism of many of my comrades did a good job of oozing contempt for the bourgeois theism held by many of the people they wanted to convert.

            After a while I seriously got the impression that my comrades did not particularly have a single positive emotion toward the people they claimed to love like family.

            But I digress.

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  5. If Blond’s alternative (Red Toryism) is not up to addressing the challenges he’s outlined (liberalism) why is he worth discussing? My theory is that Red Toryism functions in the market of liberalism much like X-TREME Corn Nuts function in the snack food market. Deep down we know it’s not skydiving (Marxism) or rock climbing (Anarchism) and that it’s just snack food (liberalism). But deep down we’re terrified of any actual serious alternative. Really, we just want to snack but we don’t want to be seen as snackers because we’re all seen what THOSE PEOPLE are like. And we can’t really be like THEM. X-TREME Corn Nuts to the rescue!

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