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The Sociology of the Development of Austrian Economics

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Although this paper was presented as a lecture in 1996, I have chosen to publish it in this volume in nearly its original manuscript form.1 It was never previously published or posted electronically, but the paper achieved a limited circulation in manuscript form via copy and fax machines during the primitive days of the Internet. ...

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Although this paper was presented as a lecture in 1996, I have chosen to publish it in this volume in nearly its original manuscript form.1 It was never previously published or posted electronically, but the paper achieved a limited circulation in manuscript form via copy and fax machines during the primitive days of the Internet. Despite its relatively restricted exposure, however, it generated a remarkably heated discussion in Austrian economics circles—much of it based on an inaccurate hearsay version of the paper—that lasted for a number of years.2

So the first reason for publishing the paper now without major revision is to set the record straight regarding the actual claims and supporting arguments contained in it. A second reason for proceeding with belated publication of the manuscript is to acquiesce in and thus put a halt to the numerous importunities to publish that I have been subjected to over the years by colleagues and friends who were broadly aware of the prolonged controversy that swirled around the paper but were neither in the audience at its original presentation nor had the opportunity to read it subsequently. The third, and perhaps the most important, of my reasons for complying with the editors’ request to publish the paper is that, despite the fact that the situation in Austrian economics has greatly changed for the better since the paper was originally written and despite my dissatisfaction with its imperfections of style and tone, I think its substantive claims have stood up quite well and bear repeating. In particular, I believe the paper identifies counterproductive attitudes peculiar to proponents of a heterodox intellectual movement. Such attitudes are always liable to recur and must be vigilantly guarded against because they are likely to impede the movement’s further progress, if not threaten its very survival.

Austrian Economics Defined

Before we venture to speculate on the future of the Austrian School, we must first define the distinct intellectual paradigm adherence to which characterizes a member of this school.

Specifying a vague methodological attitude or stance, for example “subjectivism” or “methodological individualism,” is not sufficient. These labels arguably apply to a broad array of modern economists—from the late George Shackle to Milton Friedman the price theorist—as well as to the contemporary followers of Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises. To capture the essence of the distinctively Austrian approach to economics, therefore, we must do much more. Namely, we must define the precise and realistic method utilized by the acknowledged masters of Austrian economics for discovering and explicating what Menger called the “exact” laws of economics.3

For my money, this method is praxeology, which was given its name and first comprehensive explication by Mises. Mises did not conceive praxeology as a metaeconomic discourse unrelated to the workaday concerns of the economic theorist; he himself used it as a tool of research in revolutionizing the theories of money, business cycles, and socialism. Even before Mises, however, this method was actually employed by the great founders of the Austrian school, Menger and Böhm-Bawerk, to discover new economic truths. What Mises calls “the modern theory of value and prices,”4 first systematically expounded by Böhm-Bawerk, is a tangible creation of praxeology. Going back further still, this method was also adumbrated and used by some of the most creative eighteenth- and nineteenth-century economists, namely Cantillon, Say, Senior, and Cairnes.

The essence of Austrian economics may be defined, then, as the structure of economic theorems that is arrived at through the process of praxeological deduction, that is, through logical deduction from the reality-based Action Axiom. In addition to providing a unique and practicable method for developing the science of economics, this definition is useful precisely because it clearly excludes Shackle and Friedman, as well as many other economists, past and present, from being considered as practitioners of Austrian economics. It is childish to seek to define an intellectual paradigm, or even to use a definite term to designate it, while at the same time bemoaning a particular definition because it excludes or is “intolerant of” those whose views are essentially inconsistent with the paradigm so defined. It must not be forgotten that a definition, by definition, is meant to be rigidly essentialist and, hence, exclusivist.

Having given a definition of Austrian economics, I now turn to a discussion of two problems which cloud its future. Both of these problems, I will argue, betray a peculiar reluctance on the part of some of its practitioners to define precisely what is meant by Austrian economics. Perhaps this reluctance is due to a fear that to define a science or the specific method of pursuing it is to peremptorily foreclose the possibility of any future progress in the discipline. The enormous advances that have occurred within the praxeological paradigm since Say and Senior first began to self-consciously articulate its method, I think, render this fear baseless. Indeed, I would argue that it is hardly accidental that Mises, the first economist to deliberately utilize praxeology as a comprehensive research method, was the economist who made the greatest substantive advances in the Austrian theoretical paradigm. However, due to a severe constraint of time, I will not pursue this point any further here.

Austro-Punkism

The first problem beclouding the future of the Austrian school I call “Austro-punkism.” My use of this neologism here is not intended to evoke the older, indefinite sense of the term “punk” as anyone, “especially a youngster, regarded as inexperienced, insignificant, etc.”5 Rather, I use it in the more specific and now widely-accepted sense to indicate the harboring of an impious attitude toward the accomplishments of the past and, hence, toward all authority. This attitude is the driving force of the phenomenon of “punk” rock, which from its narrowly musical roots in the late 1970s has grown into a broad cultural movement today. The broad social acceptance of the punk phenomenon is exemplified by the fact that its music, now blandly but significantly entitled “alternative rock,” permeates the airwaves of even mainstream, commercial radio stations. (I must confess I am bitter that the last remaining “classic” rock station in New York City has recently and abruptly converted to the “alternative” rock format.) 

Now, I am not trying to suggest here that the roots of Austropunkism lie in popular culture. I will deal with the causes that underlie it shortly. My immediate purpose in the allusion to punk rock is to justify my use of the “Austro-punkism” label as a nonpejorative and meaningfully descriptive term, which contributes precision and clarity to our discussion of the prospects for Austrian economics.

Austro-punkism, as I employ the term, then, identifies a movement within Austrian economics that recognizes no masters of the discipline and that, therefore, calls all received doctrine into question. It views Austrian economics as a discipline in a state of constant and radical flux, devoid of any fundamental and constant principles but rife with a myriad of endlessly debated questions. Indeed, leading proponents of Austro-punkism proudly trumpet that an Austrian economist is one for whom there should eternally exist more questions than answers. To venture a more meaningful definition of Austrian economics than this represents for Austropunks an attempt to intolerantly close off the perpetual and openended conversation that they uphold as the hallmark of scientific inquiry.6

With no acknowledged masters, any self-proclaimed Austrian (whether equipped with formal training in economics or not) is judged fit to try his hand at radically reconstructing the discipline. In other words, Austrian economics can and should be revolutionized on a daily basis, by anyone and everyone. This means that the works of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard are not treated as authoritative texts to be learned from and built upon in the painstaking labor of systematically adding to the inherited structure of economic theory. Instead these texts provide Austro-punkism with a common vocabulary in which to carry on their incessant and carping metaeconomic discussion about the dire need for radical reconstruction of economic theory. But the plans for reconstruction that issue forth from such metaeconomic griping never amount to more than casual and wildly implausible glosses on the texts of the masters. This explains the centrality of hermeneutics to Austropunkism; it provides a justification for treating the meaning of the texts as infinitely elastic and capable of bearing almost any interpretation, however outlandish. Without recourse to the exercise of deconstructing the texts of the masters, the metaeconomic discourse of Austro-punkism would come to a screeching halt, because it has offered no practical alternative to praxeology as a method for systematically elaborating economic theory.

The treatment meted out by the Austro-punks to Mises and Rothbard sharply contrasts with the pious treatment accorded by these creative geniuses to their own masters. Mises confesses that he felt himself competent to criticize the value and price theory that he learned from Menger and Böhm-Bawerk only after he himself had reached a mature understanding of the issues.7 This occurred only at the age of 52, after he already had published his major treatises on money and socialism and had achieved eminence as one of the leading economists on the Continent. And, despite their substantive and long-standing differences in political economy, the first time Murray Rothbard ever ventured to directly criticize Mises in public was in the classic paper he presented at South Royalton in 1974 on “Praxeology, Value Judgments and Public policy.”8 Murray was then already 48 years old and yet, after his talk had ended, I remember him confiding to a few of us that he was still a “little shaky” from the experience of publically disagreeing with his mentor for the first time. (This of course is precisely the attitude one should have when attempting to advance beyond the acknowledged master of a discipline, even in a minor area.)

Austro-punkism itself, indeed, raises more questions than there are answers for. Most significantly, why Austro-punkism? Why is the neo-Austrian school—of all schools of economics past and present—seemingly the only school ever to be afflicted with the scourge of punkism? Why not Ricardian-punkism or Chicagopunkism? The works of Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Gary Becker, after all, are never casually derided or subjected to grossly distorted reinterpretations by those professing to be Chicago economists. This is not to deny, of course, that almost all schools spawn radical internal critics. But generally such dissidents, sooner or later, promote a schism among the like-minded in the discipline. One only has to think of Paul Davidson and the Post-Keynesians, Robert Mundell and the Supply-siders, Robert Lucas and the Rational Expectations school, Gregory Mankiw and the other New Keynesians to recognize the pervasiveness of this phenomenon in contemporary economics.

Yet, schismatics differ from punks in three important respects. First, the promoters of schism are generally individuals who have completely absorbed and may even have substantially contributed to the orthodoxy they are now seeking to escape. Second, they are eager to proclaim their apostasy to the world by relabeling themselves. And, third, at least some in the ranks of the schismatic movement are willing and able to embark upon the arduous task of substantively reconstructing the edifice of the orthodox economic theory they object to. Austro-punks, in contrast, tend to be innocent of a profound understanding of the orthodoxy they criticize. Moreover, their interest lies not mainly in theoretical or applied research in economics proper, but in promulgating metanorms for economic theorizing and dawdling glosses on the texts of the masters. Most significantly, rather than seizing the first opportunity to break free of the oppressive orthodoxy they disdain, Austro-punks cling to their proclaimed position within Austrian economics like Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae. 

So, I ask again, why the peculiar phenomenon of Austropunkism? I have pondered on this question for a few years and I think I have a few answers. The causes of Austro-punkism are threefold. Briefly, they are the lack of formal graduate training in Austrian economics, the influence of 1970s-style left-libertarianism, and the work (not the person) of Ludwig Lachmann. I will say a few words about each of these causes in turn.

1. Lack of a Graduate School

Lack of formal graduate training in Austrian economics represents the objective or institutional deficiency that has bedeviled Austrian economics from the inception of its modern renascence. Despite several laudable programs in Austrian economics associated with universities in the U.S., there is still not available to the interested young scholar a conventional graduate program in which he or she may obtain comprehensive and rigorous training in Austrian economic theory. But rigorous theoretical training is essential not only to the development of the aspiring Austrian economist but also to the healthy flourishing of the overall discipline. Graduate education is the means of fostering respect for the masters of the science by enforcing a disciplined interpretation of their texts. The chairman of my dissertation committee, an unreconstructed IS/LM Keynesian9, once told me that the first time he read Patinkin’s Money, Interest, and Prices10, William Fellner led him through it by the nose; the second time, Fellner sent him through it on his ear; and by the third reading, humbled and scraped, he had begun to understand it. Needless to say, my advisor neither lacked respect for Patinkin, nor foisted upon me any bizarre reinterpretations of his work. A similar engagement with Human Action or Man, Economy and State11 would work wonders for our metaeconomists.

In fact, it is precisely the inadequacy of their grounding in technical Austrian economic theory that accounts for their absorption in metaeconomics. When pushed to analyze a real-world problem, Austro-punks generally resort to Chicago price theory, Public Choice theory, Game theory, or Transactions-costs economics depending upon the era and institution of their graduate training. Those who have not been relentlessly drilled in the technical aspects of price theory as taught by Böhm-Bawerk, Wicksteed, and Mises or compelled to master the intricacies of Austrian production and capital theory in their intellectually formative years will hardly be inclined to pursue meaningful research in theoretical or applied Austrian economics.

But graduate schools are essential to a flourishing discipline not only for how they teach but also for whom they exclude. There are no other means available for weeding out those who are unsuited by ability or temperament to pursue research in economics and who, therefore, are apt to develop into sterile and punkish malcontents. This all-important exclusionary function is generally performed by rigorous drilling in the fundamentals of the discipline. For example, beginning with what Paul Samuelson calls the “terror” employed by Viner in his theory course in the 1930s, the University of Chicago’s Economics Department has not lacked for a mechanism for screening out unfit candidates for advanced degrees. Thus one rarely encounters individuals proclaiming to be “Chicago economists” who seek to overturn Chicago price theory or, for that matter, “MIT economists” who repeatedly express doubts about the efficacy of mathematical modeling. Would that we could say the same about so-called “Austrian economists” who regard Rothbard as merely a libertarian theorist and ridicule praxeology as a simplistic and intolerant methodology.

This singularly promiscuous use of the label “Austrian economist” cries out for the implementation of an institutionalized exclusionary process in Austrian economics. Of course, this is not a call for anointing a particular person or institution as final arbiter of who does and who does not qualify as an “Austrian economist.”

This would be a ridiculous and less than ingenuous inference from my argument. Rather, the existence of a graduate program in Austrian economics would provide the critical objective test—a “market test,” if you will—to facilitate the natural process of doctrinal self-exclusion, as is the case currently, for example, with Chicago economists. Those individuals who flunk out of the Chicago graduate economics program or whose interests or aptitudes divert them into a graduate philosophy program rarely, if ever, refer to themselves as “Chicago economists.” Why should matters be any different with Austrian economists?

2. 1970s-Style Left-Libertarianism

Many of those interested in pursuing Austrian economics are naturally motivated by ideology. They are intensely interested in learning how to rationally defend a free society. This motivation, in and of itself, should present no difficulties for our science. But many of the ideologically-inclined individuals who found their way into Austrian economics since the beginning of its revival in the 1960s have been proponents of 1970s-style left-libertarianism. This variant of libertarianism fosters a punkish worldview, since its adherents tend to promote atomistic individualism, which neglects the distinction between State power and bureaucracy on the one hand and the necessarily hierarchical and authoritarian structures and institutions of culture, religion, scholarship and business on the other. They do not realize that society and all its institutions are pervasively and inescapably elitist and authoritarian.12 They chafe against the operation of the iron law of oligarchy, which ensures that an elite will always tend to coalesce and predominate in any human endeavor.

Accordingly, as Mises has pointed out, “There never lived at the same time more than a score of men whose work contributed anything to economics.”13 Yet the Austro-punk is not humbled by this insight; from his perch in metaeconomics, he behaves as if literally anyone is competent to prescribe a method of proceeding for the wholesale reconstruction of Austrian economics. The Austropunk is also not chastened by the fact that the great methodologists of our science were each one of the score of those then currently living who made genuine contributions to economic theory. Moreover, it was generally only later in their careers, after prolonged meditation on and practice of economic theory, that men such as Say, Senior, Cairnes, Menger, Hayek, and Mises took up methodological concerns.

3. Ludwig Lachmann

While left-libertarian ideology goes a long way toward explaining the predisposition that many Austro-punks harbor to dismiss the body of theory inherited from the past masters of the science as inconsistent with their prescribed meta-norms, it is the work of Ludwig Lachmann that supplies the content of these norms. Without embarking on a detailed evaluation of Lachmann’s work, or of his position in Austrian economics, suffice it to say that Austropunks have seized upon his well-known assertions that the “future is unknowable” and that “expectations, like human preferences, are autonomous.”14 These propositions are then wielded by Austro-punkism as a rhetorical bludgeon to bash any systematic elaboration of economic theory that employs, in however subsidiary a manner, the equilibrium construct. Thus, for example, the mighty edifice of praxeological economic theory laboriously constructed over the years by economists from Menger to Rothbard is summarily rejected as “too equilibrium” and “failing to meaningfully incorporate expectations.” Of course, the Austro-punk project that seeks to formulate a system of economic theory completely dispensing with any reference to the mental construct of equilibrium has not yet advanced beyond the meta-plane. Nor will it ever, because human action always and everywhere embodies an inherent tendency toward equilibrium. Furthermore, Austro-punkism will never succeed in its program of expanding economic theory to incorporate learning and expectations-formation processes. As Mises has demonstrated, the content of specific individuals’ knowledge and expectations, which renders the economist’s praxeological theorems relevant to real-world analysis, can only be derived from the historical discipline of thymology.15

The South Royalton Syndrome

A second problem besetting the contemporary Austrian School of economics and threatening to stunt its future development is what might be called the “South Royalton Syndrome.” It also is attributable to a failure to clearly define a uniquely Austrian paradigm. South Royalton, Vermont was the site in June 1974 of the first conference on Austrian economics held in North America. The main speakers at the conference were Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and Ludwig Lachmann, and its participants included a surprisingly large number of graduate students who have since gone on to academic careers, while continuing to pursue research in Austrian economics. Together with the wholly unexpected awarding of the Nobel Prize in economics to Hayek later in the same year, it was truly a defining moment in the Austrian revival whose galvanizing effect on the young acolytes is difficult to overestimate.16

Given these circumstances, there is an understandable, although unfortunate, tendency among those who participated in the South Royalton conference to define Austrian economics as a closed network of South Royalton participants and their immediate students. The focus of the definition is thus not on a specific body of truth and the method of advancing it but on a specific group of people, whose work is viewed as the exclusive source of new contributions to the discipline. Those who are afflicted with the South Royalton syndrome, consequently, are inclined to ignore or dismiss the work of those outside the network and treat them as unwanted interlopers into Austrian economics. This is especially the case if the newcomer’s approach is fresh and diverges from the familiar or, even worse, directly challenges the work of a revered insider.

A living science, however, requires the new blood of those who display the vision and drive to diverge from well-worn paths and to venture beyond the boundaries tentatively marked out by the current leaders of the discipline. These young visionaries should be enthusiastically welcomed into the Austrian fold and encouraged and supported in their exploration for new truth. This was always Murray Rothbard’s view of how Austrian economics should progress. He was always urging others, especially the young, to “go beyond” his own work while adhering to the basic praxeological paradigm. He once wrote to me that “I welcome change and advances in Austrian theory provided they are true, i.e., that they work from within the basic Misesian paradigm. So just as I think that I have advanced beyond Mises in developing the Misesian paradigm, [other] people … have advanced the paradigm still further, and great!” 

Conclusion

It is interesting to note that Austro-punkism and the South Royalton syndrome, although they appear to denote attitudes that are polar opposites, may actually be complementary. After all, given their self-conscious aversion to defining a common intellectual paradigm, the bonds linking the network of Austro-punks tend to be personal rather than purely scientific. And their much-ballyhooed devotion to tolerance as the beau ideal of the scientific method does not seem to be manifested in the treatment accorded those young scholars who are eagerly advancing the frontiers of the praxeological paradigm.

My purpose in making these remarks is not to accuse particular persons of error, and so I have studiously tried to avoid any references to particular persons. Rather my purpose is cautionary; we are all as fallible human beings in a shared intellectual movement confronted with similar temptations to err. I have been moved to speak out because the errors in this case are capable of destroying a recently reborn and still fragile science with a great and glorious tradition and much to offer the human race.

Originally published in Property, Freedom, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe 
  • 1. Footnotes have been added and the title has been changed, but save for the correction of grammatical errors and the insertion of a few clarifying words here and there, the text has remained substantially unaltered. 
  • 2. See, for example, David L. Prychitko, “Thoughts on Austrian Economics, ‘Austro-Punkism,’ and Libertarianism,” in idem, Markets, Planning and Democracy: Essays after the Collapse of Communism (Lyme, N.H.: Edward Elgar Publishing,
    2002), p. 186, et pass.
  • 3. See Carl Menger, Problems of Economics and Sociology, Louis Schneider, ed. (Urbana: University Illinois Press, 1963), pp. 61, 69; idem, Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics, Francis J. Nock, trans. (New York: New York University Press, 1985 [1883]), chaps. 4–5
  • 4. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Chicago: Contemporary Books Inc., 1966), p. 201.
  • 5. Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged 2nd ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), p. 1462.
  • 6. See Murray N. Rothbard, “The Hermeneutical Invasion of Philosophy and Economics,” Review of Austrian Economics 3, no. 1 (1989): 45–59; HansHerman Hoppe, “In Defense of Extreme Rationalism: Thoughts on Donald McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics,” Review of Austrian Economics 3 no. 1 (1989): 179–214; idem, “Comment on Don Lavoie,” Mont Pèlerin Society, General Meeting (1994), available at www.HansHoppe.com.
  • 7. Ludwig von Mises, Notes and Recollections (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1978), p 60. On the moral obligation entailed in pronouncing on a specialized subject, Rothbard stated: “It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.” Murray N. Rothbard, “Anarcho-Communism,” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, 2nd ed. (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2002 [1974]), p. 202; originally published as “Anarcho-Communism,” The Libertarian Forum II, no. 1 (January 1, 1970).
  • 8. Murray N. Rothbard, “Praxeology, Value Judgments, and Public Policy,” in Edwin G. Dolan, ed., The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1976), pp. 89–111, also published in Murray N. Rothbard, The Logic of Action One (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 1997), pp. 78–99.
  • 9. IS/LM stands for “Investment Saving/Liquidity preference Money supply.”
  • 10. Don Patinkin, Money, Interest, and Prices, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965).
  • 11. Mises, Human Action; Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles, with Power and Market: Government and the Economy, Scholars edition (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2004; Man, Economy
    and State originally published 1962).
  • 12.
    The word “authoritarian” is not used here in its usual sense as a description of a political system or an individual psychological trait; rather it is used, for lack of a better term, to refer to a social process in which authority in some area or subject is voluntarily and spontaneously invested in specific individuals, families, and organizations. On the nature and constitution of authority in this sense, see Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975). For more on the topic of natural elites and related matters, see Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy—The God That Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001), p. 71 et pass.
     
  • 13. Mises, Human Action, p. 873.
  • 14. On this topic see Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “On Certainty and Uncertainty, Or: How Rational Can Our Expectations Be?”, Review of Austrian Economics 10, no. 1 (1997): 49–78; also idem, “In Defense of Extreme Rationalism” and “Comment on Don Lavoie.”
  • 15. Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969 [1957]). See also Joseph T. Salerno, “Ludwig von Mises on Inflation and Expectations,” Advances in Austrian Economics, vol. 2B (1995): 297–325.
  • 16. See Murray N. Rothbard, “The Present State of Austrian Economics,”
    paper delivered at the Tenth Anniversary Scholars’ Conference of the Ludwig
    von Mises Institute, October 9, 1992; published in Journal des Economistes et des
    Etudes Humaines 6, no. 1 (March 1995), pp. 43–89 and in The Logic of Action
    One: Method, Money, and the Austrian School (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar
    Publishing, 1997); also Karen I. Vaughn, “The Rebirth of Austrian Economics:
    1974–99,” Journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs 20, Issue 1 (March 2000);
    Peter Lewin, “Biography of Ludwig Lachmann (1906–1990): Life and Work”
    (accessed Jan. 12, 2009)
Joseph T. Salerno
Joseph T. Salerno is an Austrian School economist in the United States. He is a professor at Pace University, an editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, and Academic Vice President of the Mises Institute. Salerno specializes in monetary theory and policy, comparative economics, and the history of economic thought. Dr. Salerno received his Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University. His most recent publication is Money: Sound and Unsound.

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