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walter block
We all know the arguments against the notion, but somewhat reluctantly I conclude that libertarians are indeed human. After all, our species contains the incontinent, the mentally disabled, the incurably giddy, and Mr. Walter Block.

Mr. Block is an elderly academician inspired by Ayn Rand, Nathanial Branden and Murray Rothbard. Libertarians find him pleasant and even jolly. He teaches economics at Loyola University (Jesuit) but in Louisiana (America’s historical epicentre for demagogues) so call that a draw. He is of the Austrian School (no bad thing), but styles himself an anarcho-capitalist and “a devout atheist” (is one out of three a passing grade?).

He has (in his words but my italics) “strengthened libertarianism to make it more consistent.” He may have overlooked Emerson’s thought that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” as, busy with the big stuff, he asserts peoples’ right to sell themselves into slavery.

Presumably the voluntary contract may include comfy manacles and selecting the whip (come to think of it, a lot of this may occur already in Mr. Block’s native Brooklyn especially after Fifty Shades of Grey). Less certain is what happens when Massa pays 100 doubloons to the sloe-eyed Jemima and then repossesses her cash because, well, she’s now a slave and needs his phone to call her lawyer from the cotton fields. However, I’m sure that Mr. Block has worked this out in a consistent fashion.

walter blockHe begins discussing abortion by defending a woman’s right to evict a fetus from her womb like an unwelcome tenant in a rented apartment (presumably if the kid has a lease, he stays).

Pregnant women may slay the unborn, he maintains, if (a) the foetus is “not viable” outside of the womb; then (b) if the mother abandons her right to “custody” of the little person lurking inside her, and (c) “no one else has ‘homesteaded’ that right by offering to care for the foetus.” (I am not making this up). By “not viable” he presumably means if the foetus can’t get a credit card until the third trimester.

So if Mom runs a classified ad in The Village Voice telling her unborn little tyke that his tenancy is over and he has to scoot, can some other woman “homestead” by offering a rent-free womb-with-a-view? If so, who pays the moving company? Or can she promise to adopt and force the biological Mom to carry the unborn baby to term, or does the homesteading wannabe mummy need to pay womb-rent to the real mother and if so does that include water and electricity? All food for thought.

Then, he explains, if “no one else in the world” wants the foetus, the unborn youngster can be used by his or her custodian for lab experiments. No kidding. It is admittedly economical because, if caught early enough, unborn humans eat less than hamsters and lab-rats. I am less sure how eight billion people get rights of refusal, but presumably “the market will take care of it.”

You may think this is nuts, but please, get serious here: libertarian consistency is at stake.

Mr. Block may even be a traditionalist. America has a venerable record of crackpot ideologues beginning with the communist Christian-Taliban on Plymouth Rock, leading to the Jacobin elements among the Founders, to every entrepreneurial huckster of poisonous patent-medicines in the 19th Century, to the racist eugenics-freaks of the early 20th, to modern global-warmist moon-calves and Paul Krugman. What they have in common is internal consistency.

Mr. Block’s modus operandi may be simple; in modern times saying something profoundly daft guarantees you media publicity to help sell your new, say, nasal-spray laxative, or get a job teaching at Loyola.

Yet he is also a walking advertisement for the kindness of a relatively free society. Think about it; if you found yourself on a crowded airplane sitting next to this pest you’d pay good money for an upgrade. Beside him on a barstool you’d settle your bill before you tasted your first drink. But instead of him suffering hideous loneliness, instead of him being run out of town after town having a big red “A” spray-painted on his t-shirt (not for Adultery but for a southerly body-part), he flits around nationwide to meetings in junior high-schools after-hours, where similarly ideological but presumably odoriferous autodidacts yearn to hear him. This is mercy after a fashion.

But it’s another matter altogether when someone traduces Bangladeshis, whom God knows are already busy enough traducing one another. I like them. Yes, Bangladesh is one of the poorest and most miserable, corrupt, crowded, dysfunctional and disorderly nations on earth, but its people are often excellent company, and besides working there a few times I’ve gone back on holiday.

Although Muslims, the vast majority aren’t obsessive; their almost universally beautiful ladies wear saris and bindis (the little red dots) because it is a cultural tradition, not particularly Hindu (wearing that rig in public may get a Muslim girl lynched in parts of Islamist Pakistan). Their rich culture is tolerant and their culture comes first.

They are full of merriment and argument, of gentle poetry and lively prose; the average newspaper goes through eleven pairs of hands before it wraps fish in equally Bengali Calcutta next door. They are rather like tanned Irish. They also hold artisanal picnics, taking you on a small boat to their lush green ancestral villages where relatives lay in wait with bushels of fattening delicacies; Bengali sweetmeats, in particular, are the supper-party gifts for which every South Asian hostess longs. They can be inspired artists and craftsmen. Yet it can be a ghastly cut-throat place, and I am ever as grateful to be a visitor as I am relieved not to be a Bangladeshi.

This is where Mr. Block swans in. Recently, more than one thousand Bangladeshi garment workers died as their ramshackle factory high-rise collapsed in Dhaka. The Wall Street Journal blamed it on American consumers insisting upon cheap clothing made, by supposed necessity, in substandard high-rises (weird: if you want expensive clothing why not buy it from Paris instead of Dhaka?). Mr. Block, of course, blamed it on (wait for the organ music) the state. From a self-confessed anarcho-capitalist, I mean, who’d have guessed? His ideology confers blame even Acid-Reflux Syndrome on dark governmental conspiracies.

walter blockUnfortunately his analysis here is not even up to his usual standard on, say, convincing Jemima to sell herself down Ol’ Man River or foetal condo rentals in utero. He says that government safety codes and building regulations fool everyone into believing that the erections (so to speak) are safe. This implies that he has neither spoken to a Bangladeshi nor set foot in that country where mocking politicians and bureaucrats is an art-form. He might have condescended to meet a Bangladeshi beforehand, but that may have spoilt his fun.

Next, (“surprise, surprise!” as Gomer used to say) he declares that all they need is a libertarian state sans government, where their production costs will be so low that they’ll all become prosperous. I can’t wait to tell my Bangladeshi friends, who usually have funnier jokes than I do.

If you want to sell chewing-gum or pens or shoelaces on the mean streets of Dhaka, you must pay weekly for the privilege. These sums go to muscular gangsters operating per block or even by portion thereof, who are part of bigger networks of bigger scoundrels. Private construction firms skimp on materials unless you are expert in such things and scrutinise them day and night. Shopkeepers routinely adulterate milk with river water and flour with sawdust. Deadly fake pharmaceuticals slip past even the most virtuous and attentive pharmacist. Families, even whole villages, die from contaminated cooking oil. An Australian underwear buyer for J.C. Penney once told me that he had to visit every six weeks or his manufacturers started cutting corners and the underwear started creeping down one’s anatomy. To anyone but an ideologue, somewhere in this mess it sounds as if they need some government.

Where government does provide service is by curtailing the riots that burn cars and shops and beat people to death on the streets; the politically partisan gangsters who riot wouldn’t give up were government and parties abolished, they’d merely slug it out under different labels. Who would stop them then? Maybe “the market would take care of it” and the poor would buy off the sharks? And the next sharks, and the next.

walter block

Bangladesh’s problems, imply Mr. Block, get solved by eliminating government; by giving the system a massive cathartic dose of libertarian mineral oil flavoured with Rand and Rothbard. He means anarchy. Yet the slippery underwear factory-owner has virtually nothing to do with his government apart from paying small bribes to avoid taxes. The shoelace vendor, too, already lives in a state of anarchy, and it costs him dearly not to have his shoelaces wrapped around his neck and tightened slowly. Their cities are in approximate anarchy already; and not the fuzzy-bunny fictional kind espoused by the Randroids and the incurably retarded but the real thing, the Hobbesian State of Nature “red in tooth and claw.”

When I tell my best Bangladeshi pal about Mr. Block’s prescription, his comely, bright and vivacious wife will run to the bathroom lest she have an accident during the giggle-fit.

If you followed this carefully you may have drawn four conclusions. First, our morals and ethics form the circumstances under which we live, more than government or lack thereof. A Dutchman or a Canadian or a Japanese may approach work and community and citizenship more conscientiously than perhaps a Greek or Libyan or a Bangladeshi. Shrink it prudently indeed, but stripping away too much government may remove one set of problems to exacerbate another.

Second, in economics or politics or even underwear, one size never fits all. Different cultures are, well, different and change slowly, if ever. One could posit that the day-to-day perfidy and brutality of Bangladesh stems from overpopulation, or unemployment, or crushing poverty, or moral lassitude in commerce and politics, or a culture abusive to the weak, or in extended families that always apply insuperable pressures to misbehave on behalf of poor or greedy cousins. Or all combined. It doesn’t matter. While change may be possible one day, even a full century of draconian discipline or market incentives won’t overturn 2,000-year-old habits. Get over it. Love them for their picnics. Feed their hungry.

Third, parking on one’s backside in an endowed chair at Loyola is a license to talk rubbish, based on any quantity of sheer ignorance and egotism, to anyone fool enough to listen. It helps, however, to be an ideologue. Then you swallow your own hog-slops; you may believe that your wholly concocted, feel-good, fairy-tale take on life still holds an iota of merit because you are, um, intellectually consistent. Marx, you may recall, was consistent without ever condescending to hobnob with his beloved proletariat, comfy in his leather-upholstered chair in the British Library, and his nifty ideas killed more than a hundred million people. If anywhere was foolish enough to follow Mr. Block’s wholly “thunk up” bull-goose-loony prescriptions, perdition would follow apace.

Fourth and finally, you may recognise that most people who call themselves libertarians are normal conservatives who are either confused or who are humiliated by the egregious fascists who lay false claim to the title. But if you are like me, sometimes you also find real libertarians as arrogant as Milton’s Satan, as dark as the night and as malodorous as brimstone.

Those are men like jolly Mr. Block, and while they are human they are anything but humane.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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24 replies to this post
  1. I have been a libertarian for 51 years and a libertarian activist for 49. I have never ever been a conservative. I have, however, raked Walter Block over the coals many times. His views on abortion are idiotic not because he is sort of pro-choice (but not really) but because his argument is silly. I don’t take anything he writes seriously. He is hardly a major player in the libertarian movement, now or then. He is far far from being representative of libertarianism. Yes, there are inhumane libertarians but then there are inhumane conservatives. What is important is not the jerks in the movements but the principles. When one looks at the principles, it is clear that libertarianism is not a subset of conservative. We believe in equal rights for every single individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual preference or gender identity, Can you say the same about conservatism? Of course not. We believe that coercion is always wrong, whether by an individual or by a government. Can you say the same of conservatives. Not even close. So your argument is just as silly as Block’s.

    Sharon Presley, PhD
    Executive Director
    Association of Libertarian Feminists

  2. Along the same line of thought as Dr. Presley’s comment, Libertarianism (in particular Anarcho-Capitalism) isn’t exactly an impressive movement.

    Certainly Mr. Masty has done a bang-up job of pointing out the fundamental attitude of ego-centric libertarianism, which is the most common Libertarianism one seems to encounter—the “you have no right to make me care for the poor” sort of Libertarianism. Strong advocates of this particular school share the same kind of zeal Conservatives dislike about the gay rights movement. Haven’t they anything better to get themselves whipped up about? Conservatives are put off by people who are obsessed with their and others’ sex lives. Conservatives also tend to be shocked by folks who are passionate about their right to be inhumane. It isn’t, perhaps, the logic itself, but the attitude that doesn’t sit well with Traditional Conservatives. If Prof. Block is a poor representative of the logic (or illogic) of Libertarianism, so be it. But he’s representative enough of the principles, or the attitude, that underlies a very large segment of Libertarianism as a whole.

    It’s perfectly alright to say, “But ego-centric Libertarianism doesn’t represent me!” though the fact remains that most Libertarians, or at least those the non-Libertarian public addresses, are of that sort. If anything, this moral minority ought to thank Mr. Masty for undermining a particularly noxious brand of their kith. Unless, of course, one would prefer any Libertarianism—egoist or otherwise—to any system that ensures the basically humane treatment of its parts. That would be more of an ideological fanaticism, which is another point no one is apt to win Conservatives over to: Conservatives (the traditional sort anyway) are zealously anti-zealous.

    But then, Libertarianism really is such a small faction relative to their impressively visible members. Unless we’re trying to secure the YouTube trolls’ votes, there’s no real demographic where Libertarianism would be our main contender.

  3. Sharon, you made the author’s point. No coercion ever? That falls apart the instance one examines parents and children. One does not reason with a one-year old about what’s best for the child. No, the parents’ decide how much sleep and when, what food and how much, etc. And what about the thugs described in the article or the builders who cut corners? Is coercion with the goal of justice for those wronged itself wrong? Please…

  4. Another feminist libertarian here; where to start, (thanks Dr Presley for a great summary of the ridiculousness of this post’s generalisations). I’ll try to make my contribution straight from the heart, gut felt reaction to this blog:

    1. No, I am not a conservative, nor a conservative in denial. I began working as a kid to try and better myself, gain an education and work toward a life with as much financial independence and autonomy as a goal, never forgetting my background and where I had come from.

    2. I am self employed, relatively successful at what I do, and provide goods and services for public at large. Where possible I am also involved in philanthropic pursuits, not just locally, but on a global basis.

    3. I am certain our world involves all kinds of folks with all kinds of traits, I guess some might consider these traits less or more desirable by many others. I can be the best person I can be and show personal leadership by doing and living to my principles and values, they happen to have a feminist libertarian bent, not a concept of what you consider libertarians or libertarianism to be.

    I welcome your response, questions to help clarify anything further, but please understand I take grave issue with your portrayal of libertarianism from not only my personal standpoint, but other fellow libertarians I know and various groups of libertarians who espouse very much like what Dr Presley wrote in her reply.

  5. Ms Presley, of course your team disagrees with Block’s team; all ideologies break into tiny warring parties and condemn each other as heretics. I do thank you for so ably illustrating my main point, libertarian principle and consistency. But why, for thousands of years, do ship captains take total control in extremis? Might it suggest that order is more important to survival than all your luxurious views of rights and consistency?

  6. I can’t imagine what “feminist libertarian” means, except perhaps that there is no legitimate function of government except to make sure that women remain completely free to do whatever they want. Which of course leads directly to totalitarianism, as all ideologies do. Or, perhaps, something learned from many years of trying to understand what feminists of various kinds demonstrate: Feminists tend to lack a sense of humor; Ms. Presley and goodrumo are self-described feminists; therefore it should not surprise us that they show little regard for Mr. Masty’s humor.

  7. To the commenters above who clearly do not understand the concept of “coercion.” In the ship example, there is clearly an implicit or even explicit understanding that the captain has final control and all the sailors agree to this when they sign on. It is not coercion in the strict sense or even in a looser sense. As for parents, they have some right to control their children (up to a point) to keep them safe. Coercion occurs in systems where the people in the system did not agree to the rules forced on them, like governments. Let me clarify my concept: I am talking about the initiation of coercion. If some people try to harm others by violating their rights, they have initiated coercion. It is not coercion to call them to account.

    But some of you are missing the point. All I cared to do was make it clear that libertarians are not conservatives. If you disagree with our principles, so be it. That makes *my* point.

    JOHN W: If I had a dollar for every time someone called “feminists” lacking in humor simply because we disagree with their point of view, I’d be rich (which currently is not the case). Your comment is extremely trite and stale. As for the rest of your comment, you have no idea what a feminist is and since it is clear that you don’t care to change your biased point of view, why should I explain the ways in which you are so very wrong. Should I be wrong in my estimation of your lack of tolerance, please see and see just how wrong your idea is.

    But speaking of humor, I’m quite amused at several of you who called me “Ms.” instead of “Dr.” Does it hurt that much or were you deliberately being condescending?

    • I must wonder from where it is that parents (in a Libertarian universe) obtain the “right” to control their children. Is it because they are their offspring? If so, why does the right terminate once the child is an adult? If it is due to the inability of children to govern themselves properly, why is it the parent’s right in particular to guard his offspring, and not the right of every passerby?

      In the example of the ship captain you say this is not coercion because the sailors voluntarily entered the ship, understanding that by boarding they were subordinating themselves to the captain. You then say that governments are coercive because the people being ruled have no say in the rules that are put upon them. But, aren’t they able to emigrate if they do not wish to submit to the government of a particular land? By choosing, of my own free will, to remain in the United States rather than to move to another country, haven’t I subordinated myself in the same manner that the sailors have, since there is an understanding that to remain in America is to be obligated to obey its government?

      • And how many of us have the means to go elsewhere? And even if we did, there is no place that does not rule by coercion, Accepting the lesser evil is not the same as agreeing with the rulers. You have a simplistic view of society and government if you imagine that we all agree to be ruled.

        • So to put oneself under the authority of a ship captain by one’s free choice is not coercion because we have chosen to do so. But if we are of means to move to another country and freely choose to do so, thereby subjecting ourselves to the authority of that country’s government, that government’s actions are nevertheless coercive.

  8. John, attacking a person’s lack of sense of humor, or for being feminists says far more about your issues than my life, my choices, or feminist libertarians. I’ve contributed here in good faith.

  9. Quoting Mr Masty: “Ms Presley, of course your team disagrees with Block’s team; all ideologies break into tiny warring parties and condemn each other as heretics. I do thank you for so ably illustrating my main point, libertarian principle and consistency. But why, for thousands of years, do ship captains take total control in extremis? Might it suggest that order is more important to survival than all your luxurious views of rights and consistency?” [Unquote} -Mr Masty, why do you generalize so much? It a sincere question, I tried my best to explain my values, my principles from a personal, individual point, hopefully making it clear this is how I had responded to life, it’s challenges from childhood, I can assure you despite being fortunate to ‘find’ Dr Presley and other ‘like-mindeds’ Dr Presley, it no one big groupthink tank, Dr Presley is an academic and expert in many fields, including critical thought development. By by her very nature, teaches (by example) many of us to develop our critical thinking skill(s) and not be a bystander, to research and learn and hold up to scrutiny, be prepared to back up statements. We are from many countries, many diverse cultures, various occupations and diverse temperaments as well. Human existence by it’s very nature is and has been chaos, edge of chaos, edge of order and order. It is a part of complexity theory, if we (feminist libertarians) were to fall off the perch tomorrow, order and chaos would still exist. Are you aware though, for all the benefit of an authoritarian body of government, it has feminists (along with and supporter lobbyists, including men and women) that achieved most gains for issues such as reducing violence against women, full political rights, etc.. May I reccommend Dr Valerie Hudson and her team’s resource, ‘Sex and World Peace’.

  10. In all fairness, I welcome a book recommendation from you that you may feel you find important in your world view, if possible on ekindle, or perhaps further a further essay of your own work you might feel I would benefit from, or could comment on, respond to.

  11. Mr. Masty, your essay is excellent, but I must request some further reasons to reject anarchy-capitilism. I have an Anarcho-Capitilist friend who is also a devout Catholic and he would almost certainly condemn your arguments as consequentialist, and reply that moral and natural evils should not be solved by the use of an “evil” state. Like Aristotle, I believe the state to be natural, but I cannot convince him of this. Might you have any suggestions? Thank you and Merry Christmas.

  12. Mr or Ms Goodrumo, try Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, in the TIC bookshop. Mr Button, if your friend is a sincere Catholic have him sign up for religious education; it’s clear he knows no more of Cathoicism than he does of economics or political science. The Church is clear on the need to work within the imperfect world we are given! Otherwise, you see, you won’t disabuse him of a very nutty secular religion to which he is so attached.

  13. I reject socialism and anarcho-capitalism because they exist on the extremes and thus run against Aristotle’s notion of the “Golden Mean” which has proven correct over the course of time. If studying history has taught me anything it’s that Man requires at least a modicum of legitimate authority to maintain order in a society. This legitimate authority is what we call government. It is necessary, for otherwise we’d be living in a chaotic world where life would be very short indeed, though prudent restraints upon government’s power are absolutely necessary. Anarcho-capitalism, if implemented worldwide, would end up being a kind of global economic oligarchy that, from where I stand, has only one end: the oligarchy becoming a tyranny as one kills off or swallows the other and thus corners all the market, being able to set prices, control supply, etc. How can anyone say that this is better than a economic life dominated by the State?

    I repeat: I reject communism and socialism on the one side and anarcho-capitalism (extremis) because they pull economic life out of equilibrium. I wholeheartedly support the efforts of those who try to find a Third Way that balance freedom and the right to private property and the needs of the less fortunate and the broader needs of society. Libertarianism of any kind has no answer for these because, from where I stand, it is soulless and cares only of liberties without reciprocal duties. All wealth is temporary, and a free life without a purpose is not worth living.

    Mr. Masty, thanks once again for a great post. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  14. May I suggest you statist children all keep your delusions about your statist chains to yourselves and leave the rest of us, the libertarian adults, to be free? Most of the comments here, as well as the original article, are simply ignorant politically childish nonsense based in nothing resembling logic, research, or reality, and those posters have a distinct mental illness; a dysfunctional codependency upon an infantile reliance upon a parent figure, be it government or deity (or in most cases, one in the same). To coin a phrase, grow up already!

    Just because YOU can’t handle the concepts of self-ownership and individual rights and responsibilities doesn’t mean you have any legitimate grounds to criticize those that do, and it especially means you have zero right to force your politically immature views upon others by aggressive force of government, either.

    • It is the libertine/libertarians who are the spoiled rotten little children. Selfish, narcissistic little children. Some say liberalism is a mental disease. I believe libertarianism is. They all have authority issues.

  15. “Anarcho-Libertarians” of all stripes, not just the feminists, suffer from the same ailment — they are humorless ideologues who have absolutely no perspective on the world beyond, “I got Mine, to hell with YOU!!!!!”. In this, they are very much like their patron saint, the billuminous Ayn Rand of unhappy memory. I should feel sorry for them, but it would violate their ethic to feel pity for the morally impaired.
    And, yes, libertarians/libertines have nothing to do with conservatism, a philosophy/attitude of morality.

  16. Dear Sharon: Hey, I thought we were friends? Best regards, Walter
    Dear Mr. Masty: You are a gifted humorist, and I greatly enjoyed reading your essay. I’m honored you would single me out in this way. I’d dearly love to respond to what you have written. But, I get so many criticisms of my work I just can’t reply to all of them (not and continue with my research and writing program of promoting liberty and free enterprise). So, I’ve made up a rule: if a critic publishes his material in a refereed journal, then I’ll do so, otherwise pretty much not. I urge you to publish a more scholarly version of what you’ve written; you’ve already done 95% of the work. All you now need to do is add a few footnotes, a few direct quotes from some of my publications, and a short reference section. If this sort of thing isn’t your usual practice, I’ll even help you get it published. There are some editors of refereed journals, believe it or not, who really want to publish me. If I tell them that I will respond in their journal to a scholarly version of what you have written, they will be inclined to publish it; and, I’ll do so. Best regards, Professor Block

    ***The above is what I would have said to Mr. Masty. However, I just learned that he had passed away. I was saddened, because he passed away all too soon, and the world is an unhappier place as far as I am concerned, for his absence. Mr. Masty, RIP. Yes, he was very critical of my contribution to politics and philosophy, but, shining through the criticism was his rapier wit, which I very much enjoyed. Bill Buckley, who I surmise was a hero of Steve Masty’s, had a habit of being friends even with people with whom he disagreed, and sharply disagreed. In my view, that was one of Buckley’s most admirable characteristics. I have always tried to emulate William F. Buckley in this regard. In that spirit, I am very saddened by the passing of Steve Masty; he and I might have been friends, despite our differences. I just reread what I wrote before I heard of his untimely passing, and I am delighted with myself for being cordial, and, even, perhaps, trying to be helpful to him.

  17. Walter, I think you are a very nice guy on a personal level. But friends can disagree. I think your views on abortion are very very wrong. If I had an email for you, I’d send you a discussion of why.

  18. It’s a quibble, but to imply that Block was equally influenced by Rand, Branden, and Rothbard is misleading. Rand and Rothbard were ideological foes, and Block firmly sided with Rothbard. Block has no truck with Rand, Branden, or the larger Objectivist movement. He is a Rothbardian anarch-capitalist.
    Block is the author of the book “Defending the Undefedable”, in which he goes to bat for slumlords, pimps, drugs dealers, and other unsavory types. So I’m not surprised at his comment regarding Bangladesh. In fairness, I’ve talked to people who have met Block at Austrian economic conferences and found him to be enjoyable and stimulating company.

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