Bryan Caplan  

Two Takes on Hayek's Flabbiness

Links of Interest... Borenstein's Biased Reporting...
I've long since lost all patience with Hayek.  His original, true ideas could have been five good blog posts, his errors and bizarre obsessions are numerous, and his writing style insults every person who ever tried to write a decent sentence.  On the latest Cato Unbound, Dan Klein tries to meet me halfway.  He grants many of these complaints, but excuses Hayek's failings as a strategic response to his statist intellectual climate:

I'm a sucker for Hayek, however, and tend to forgive the shortcomings. I can't help seeing him as an historic figure, struggling desperately after the collapse and vanquishing of liberalism, the professionalization of scholarship, and the fierce advance of modernism. The voluntary-coercive distinction -- The Distinction -- was anathema to contemporary intellectuals, and today remains a matter of deep pervasive taboo. Hayek was aristocratic in upbringing and genteel in temperament, destined to make his thinking palatable, acceptable. In The Constitution of Liberty he defined liberty not properly, as others not messing with one's stuff, but vaguely and inconsistently, mostly in terms of some of its appealing correlates. Had he, like Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and Mises, worked plainly and explicitly from The Distinction in developing his ideas, his fate would have been very different -- well, very much like that of Spencer, Sumner, and Mises. Strategic or not, Hayek's circumlocutions may have been for the best.

To some extent Hayek wrote in code. When he wrote of "custom" being between instinct and reason, he mainly or often meant liberal principles; of "competition as a discovery procedure," freedom as a discovery procedure; of "the market," freedom; of noncentral versus central decisionmaking, freer versus less free. All liberals still practice such code when circumstances warrant it. Between the lines, then, is focus on The Distinction.

Dan's defense was especially striking to me because I just read Rothbard vs. the Philosophers, which contains a self-described "confidential memo" on Hayek's Constitution of Liberty.  The Volker Fund, which had given Hayek a grant to write CoL, asked Rothbard for his opinion of a draft of the first fourteen chapters.  Here's what Mr. Libertarian wrote in 1958:
Since Hayek is universally regarded, by Right and Left alike, as the leading right-wing intellectual, this will also be an extremely dangerous book.  The feeling one gets from reading it is the same sort of feeling I would have gotten if I had been a U.S. senator when Taft got up to support the Wagner public housing bill, or any of his other compromises: i.e., that this tears it.  For when the supposed leader of one's movement takes compromising and untenable positions, the opposition can always say: "but even Taft (Hayek) admits..."  Hayek is the philosophic counterpart.  The only tenable conclusion is that any Volker Fund or any other support for this book will be self-destructive in the highest degree.
Since Rothbard lived in the same statist intellectual climate that Hayek did, it's hard to dismiss his strategic analysis.  If I were Dan, though, I'd respond that, "Nothing succeeds like success."  Ex ante, maybe it was reasonable for Rothbard to expect support for the book to be self-destructive.  Ex post, Hayek won a Nobel prize and inspired classical liberal reformers behind the Iron Curtain.

If I were me, however - and I am - I would remind Dan that another great libertarian economist won a Nobel prize and inspired great reforms without talking nonsense: Milton Friedman.   Friedman was influential in part because, like Hayek, he was a moderate "libertarian bargainer."  Unlike Hayek, however, he was full of original true ideas, had few outright errors or bizarre obsessions, and wrote respectable sentences.  In a world with Friedman, I frankly can't understand why my dear friend Dan Klein or anyone else would choose to be Hayek's sucker.

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COMMENTS (47 to date)
zefreak writes:

Hayek was a much better economist than political philosopher. Still, I am surprised to see such vitriol directed at him, and dismayed that you find his writings on scientism and naive rationalism to be a bizarre obsession. I read your writings often and think you are a great economist (not so much when it comes to meta-ethics or philosophy of mind if you don't mind me saying so), but wonder if you have really given Hayek the fair reading that he deserves. Yes, his writing could be much clearer and some examples sprinkled throughout his denser works would be helpful. I still place him way up there in the history of thought with regards to sociology, economics and philosophy of science.

Greg Ransom writes:

Right. _The Sensory Order_ is easily just a blog post. And his socialist economics essays -- nothing more than a blog post. And ditto his 1928 paper introducing the idea of intertemporal equilibrium. And his _Scientism and the Study of Society_ essays.

Thanks for clearing this up for me Bryan.

Contemplationist writes:


This post is extremely disappointing. You are an extraordinarily perceptive economist who cuts thru the bullshit.
How, then, can you not see how absolutely relevant and almost TIMELESS Hayeks critique remains? Do you not see the scientistic macroeconomic models that statists and keynesians have never stopped using? Do you not see extensive technocratic wankery on the modern "Progressive" left which derives its support from, again, scientism of macroeconomics? (at least a major part).

Do you not see climate science as one big scientistic exercise? Do you not see whole major fields today with nothing but scientistic cargo-cult science with massaged statistics and data-mining masquerading as insightful social science?
How, pray, can you live in such a bubble? The evidence for Hayeks relevance is literally ALL AROUND US in the political and scientific world today.
The "Discovery Process" metaphor is also a FANTASTIC device to think about market competition. Here is how I thought of competition before reading of Hayek's idea:
Soaps: A bunch of firms make soap, compete on price and quality, and the ppl depending on their purchasing power choose likewise.
AFTER reading Hayeks story of the Discovery Process, I actually recognized the CRUCIAL fact that NOBODY knows APRIORI what is the 'BEST WAY' to make this soap. Nobody knows what will work beforehand, and hence can't be designed by bureaucrats.

Frankly, Bryan I wish you could open your eyes and see how Hayek is relevant everywhere to see the soft side of social science, how the rationalistic arguments of top-down models a la Chicago macroeconomics are not only NOT enough, but may be detrimental to the cause of liberty.

WE NEED HAYEk!! And we'll have Greg Ransom to thank for his great work at his site.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

What better than a long and convoluted Hayekian sentence (badly translated from German) to instill the idea that our knowledge is limited, shifting, and evolving?

Chance wanted that just today I was reading an essay by Hayek titled "Two types of mind", in which he describes himself as a "muddler", who constantly struggles through basic ideas, reinventing them each time, as opposed to other more brilliant economists that he labels as "master of his domain".

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

Sorry "Master of his subject" and "muddleheads" are the correct terms.

jr. writes:

Because Dan Klein is a leading proponent of Hayek ...

"For when the supposed leader of one's movement takes compromising and untenable positions, the opposition can always say: 'but even Taft (Hayek) [Dan Klein] admits...'"

And Bryan Caplan claims Hayek hiding behind bad writing style to gain fame, but in his very own case, it's exactly the writing style of Hayek being attacked and lowering his opinion about Hayek.

I just hope you see this silly recursion.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

Conquest's Second Law of Politics appears to hold for individuals, as well as for institutions. Will Wilkinson leaps to mind as independent confirmation.

RL writes:

"Since Rothbard lived in the same statist intellectual climate that Hayek did, it's hard to dismiss his strategic analysis."

Bryan, it's not exactly as if Rothbard was obviously correct in his strategic analysis. He didn't have more dramatic effect outside the libertarian ambit than Hayek. And now that both are beyond the veil, Murray's appeal as we move into the future will likely fade more quickly than Hayek's.

As to your finding his work less than mellifluent, English WAS his second (?third) language, and his style more early than late 20th century. I personally think he has a nice turn of phrase occasionally. Granted, perhaps not as catchy as "Smash the State" and "I'd Push the Button"...:-)

Kevin writes:

Bryan, I'm pretty disappointed by this post as well. What did you think of Bruce Caldwell's book? In fact, what would you say to Bruce to convince him that Hayek isn't valuable as a scholar, economist, social theorist and political philosopher?

zefreak writes:

Pietro, is that the first article in the History of Economic Thought volume of Hayek's collected works? If so, I have read that as well. An excellent collection.

Randy writes:

I like to read the classics, and my experience is that very few of these very famous writers have had more than one or two really good and original ideas. That is, it is quite obvious that most of them are being paid by the word, and not by the thought. So if Hayek had five, as you say, then good for him.

michael writes:


unlike other commentators, i feel like hayek was a much better political philosopher than economist. i dont believe in the austrian business cycle but i still hold 'law, legislation and liberty' near and dear.

anyway, your criticism of hayek sounds like the criticism of friedman that i would hear from other people. i.e. that hayek was original and friedman was just a derivative undeserving of his nobel.

the question i have is why are friedman and hayek always pointed to as opposites? why is one always held as the libertarian ideal to the detriment of the other?

E. Barandiaran writes:

Bryan, you're very wrong. You attempt to compare two persons with very different backgrounds, abilities and agendas. Regarding Hayek, let me just say that if you read the epilogue to volume 3 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, you will find a good guide to what many scientists (in several fields) have been struggling to do in the past 50 years. I was lucky that I read it when it was published in 1979, just after I had read the book by G. Pugh that motivated the epilogue.
Regarding Milton Friedman, I learnt a lot from him, particularly a lot of price theory and monetary theory, as well as about consumption theory. I know how important his work has been and still is, but I think he was wrong about the purpose of economics and science in general (I prefer Buchanan's What should economists do?). For example, today I don't think his monetary (macroeconomic) theory provides a good framework for analyzing changes in aggregates, mainly because his aggregates were ill-defined (take the case of money). And this failure was largely the result of his view of economics.

Snorri Godhi writes:

The first thing to note is that Rothbard [a] considered FDR and Sydney Hook more dangerous than Marx, Lenin, and Mao and [b] flirted first with the far-left, then with Pat Buchanan. So I tend to take his criticism of Hayek as a compliment [to Hayek].

WRT Hayek's writing style: I found The Sensory Order impenetrable (and I know neuroscience much better than economics!) The Road to Serfdom is readable, but too badly written for me to follow the logic behind the argument, at least not without working hard at it. "Why I am not a conservative" otoh is very well written in my opinion.

The deeper issue is why people are interested in Hayek. My tentative conclusion is that Hayek at least tries to remedy 3 flaws of orthodox economic thinking: [1] an emphasis on equilibrium rather than growth; [2] an emphasis on how the free market works rather than why central planning fails; [3] the assumption that culture is irrelevant. Other people have tried to deal with these flaws, but none has become as famous as Hayek; whether deservedly or not, I am not prepared to say.

Les writes:

Hayek essentially wrote in the most formal Austrian literary style, which makes difficult reading for our much more informal, casual contemporaries.

Like any major figure, he can be judged at his worst or at his best. Like virtually all major figures, at his worst he made errors, and while he dived deeper than most, he often came up muddier than most. However, at his best he was magnificent, to the point of genius achieved by very few.

That leads me to the conviction that he should be greatly valued for his best, and his worst should receive decent burial.

Alan Forrester writes:

It seems to me that Hayek's explanations of the knowledge problem are still valuable. See Mario Rizzo's paper on the knowledge problem of "libertarian paternalism" work for an example of a current controversy that can be addressed using Hayek's ideas:

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:


the essay is from a volume called "The trend of economic thinking" and yes it's the third essay.

The other day Robin Hanson said that "Our evaluation system punishes variance". Are we punishing variance in Hayek's case?

bbb writes:

You are so, so wrong, Brian.

To the discussion of Hayek in the comments section I would like to add that in my view Hayeks most important contribution lay in his emphasis of the knowledge problem in economics and society, and his attempt at a full elaboration of the consequences of this problem for the organization of society (and the process of social sciences). Too many economists and reformers today act as if they have never heard of this basic problem.

Sanjiv writes:

While on the topic of writing a decent sentence:

1. "If I were me, however - and I am - I would remind Dan.."

2. "I would remind Dan...."

Jason K writes:

It's good to know that someone else finds Hayek's writing style as dense as I did. I read "Uses of Knowledge in Society" a few months ago, and found it very well written. However, I recently tried to read Road to Serfdom, and found that very often I had to re-read sentences or paragraphs multiple times to get it. I finally gave up after about 20 pages. I intend to try it again in a few months, after my disappointment has waned.

By contrast, I have read both Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose by Milton Friedman, and found them both easy to read and insightful.

I am curious what "original, true ideas" you would take from Hayek.

Steve Horwitz writes:

If you think Hayek can be reduced to 5 blog posts, I would suggest the fault lies with you not with Hayek.

Nothing like unfairly bashing Hayek to drive up the traffic and the number of comments...

Colin Fraizer writes:

This post brings to mind my favorite line from "Some Like It Hot", the 1959 movie that featured Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis.

To escape gangsters, Lemmon and Curtis masquerade as women to join an all-female band.

Lemmon, to Marilyn, delivers the line: "If I were a girl--and I am!--then I'd watch my step."

Mike Kenny writes:

What would those five blog posts be?

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

Lin Ostrom mentioned Hayek in her Nobel acceptance speech. It'd be interesting to count how many times Hayek was mentioned in those occasions. It seems then that despite flabbiness he inspired several economists to react to his ideas.

Lee Kelly writes:

I can understand why Caplan doesn't like Hayek, because it's the same reason that I don't like Caplan. They're tuned into different wavelengths--alternative styles of thought.

Caplan's style of thinking -- and what he finds important -- is alien to me. Reading Hayek feels like coming home, even if his writing could have been more succint. Meanwhile, I find Rothbard intolerable.

Lee Kelly writes:


By the way, I think Hayek's insights regarding "contructivist rationalism" are some of his best, and I don't think you understand them very well. They are couched in a philosophical style of thought which I suspect is very alien to you.

Richard Ebeling writes:


I don't see what contributions Milton Friedman made that make him superior to Hayek.

1) Monetarist counter-revolution? Really just a restatement of Irving Fisher's quantity theory of money (including short run effects) with a demand for money function instead of the velocity of circulation of money variable (and Friedman did not originate the cash balance approach).

2) His monetary history? Yes, an enlightening work, but the "big" insight that there was a monetary contraction in the early 1930s? Sorry, Clark Warburton explained most of this in the late 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s in the context of his monetary disequilibrium theory.

3) The idea of a monetary rule? Friedman basically adapted the argument that Henry Simons made in the 1930s on "Rules vs. Discretion. And Friedman said in his 1985 presidential address before the Western Economic Association that he no longer believed in the viability of such a rule based on what he had learned from Public Choice theory.

4)The Permanent Income Hypothesis? This is really just a modification of one of the assumptions within the Keynesian consumption function analysis, i.e., the income earner includes future income periods rather than just the current period for deciding on how much to consume out of income.

5) The political-economic argument of the importance of property rights and economic liberty for securing personal freedom? Sorry, his brother-in-law, Aaron Director, made this case very persuasively before the appearance of "Capitalism and Freedom."

6) Pro-market micro policy proposals? I really do not think that Friedman can be credited with being the first one to do that, given the last 250 years of economic theory and policy analysis.

7) A persuasive and often eloquent expositor of the classical liberal, free market perspective? Yes, I absolutely will agree with that. At his best, Friedman could be masterful.

I do not mean to belittle Milton Friedman. He was, as I just said, a powerful voice for liberty in the second half of the 20th century. And an influential economic theorist.

But I really don't see how he is somehow "superior" to Hayek as a voice of reason in a very irrational age.

As for Hayek sometimes seeming to be sounding "out-of-date" or tilting at windmills long since defeated or abandoned.

Every thinker must be put in his historical context to both understand him and appreciate him fairly. The issues of today are not carbon copies (assuming in the computer era anyone remembers what "carbon copies" were), of those when Hayek was writing in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, which shaped the context in which Hayek was thinking and responding to the collectivist and statist policies and proposals of that time.

I would say that, likewise, those who think that Friedman seems passe in monetary analysis today, must understand the context of the Keynesian monopolization of macroeconomic theory and policy discussion in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to fully appreciate how and why Friedman formulated his arguments in the way he did.

(One of the reason that Friedman has gotten more credit for his analysis of Fed monetary policy in the early 1930s than Clark Warburton, who did write very clearly and had carefully studied the Federal Reserve data, was that Warburton's voice was covered over in the Keynesian avalanche of the 1940s and 1950s.)

So, Bryan, you really are very unfair.

Richard Ebeling

flenser writes:

Agreed that Hayek was a poor writer.

As for the rest, a lot of the venom directed at him is based on the mistaken assumption that he was a libertarian and then a libertarian heretic. Once you accept that he was a conservative, his strange essay to the contrary notwithstanding, a lot of other things fall into place and you can cease complaining about his apostasy. His socio-political observations are exactly what you'd expect from a self-described Burkean Whig.

Paul Mansour writes:

As a layman (majored in Economics), I have always been surprised when Hayek's writings are said to be difficult to read. Granted, my main exposure is to Road to Serfdom, Fatal Conceit, Constitution of Liberty, and the three volumes of LLL and the various papers (I was unable to understand The Sensory Order) but I found these works to be a breath of fresh air after all the economic crap I had to read in college. These works are so quotable that my copies have more underlined than not. How does it get better than "Man is good neither by reason nor by nature, but by tradition."?

I think one reason many economists don't like Hayek is that his work makes so much of what they have spent their life doing obviously ridiculous and useless.

zefreak writes:

Paul Mansour:

Exactly. I love that quote of his. He truly understood both bottom up phenomena and the evolution of norms and its implications for economics. I love his analysis of Hume with regards to the evolution of law and property.

David writes:

Paul Mansour said:

"I think one reason many economists don't like Hayek is that his work makes so much of what they have spent their life doing obviously ridiculous and useless."

Got that right.

Thomas Jackson writes:

After suffering through turgid economic texts and the drivel they promote I can understand why lesser economists dislike Hayek so.

He is reason in a field of Elmer Gantrys.

Troy Camplin writes:

Spontaneous Order theory. Enough said. Sure, he wasn't the first; sure, he wasn't original with it -- but his name is most associated with it. Self-organizing systems theory is the theory of liberty, and Hayek's name is the name most associated with it early on and in regards to the social sciences. Full of faults, yes -- but plenty to work with and improve upon. As indeed I am with the Fund for Spontaneous Orders conferences, two of which I have attended. He is also central to the use of information theory as a central element to economics, and that still needs to be developed. Of course, that too is central to spontaneous order theory.

Josh W. writes:


"The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

Hayek's contributions to the nature of knowledge should not be so readily dismissed. When Hayek lived, his ideas were new. He fleshed out them out as best as he could, and yes, at times used more words than necessary. Given that he probably would have struggled to expressed his core message in fewer words, would you rather he have not written at all? I think it's worth the extra words for the occasional gem like the above quote.

Bob Murphy writes:

His original, true ideas could have been five good blog posts...

Those would have been some amazing blog posts.

(BTW my verdict on the Road to Serfdom was that you can read it and agree passionately with it, and then when you're all done all you remember is, "Why the worst get on top." So I'm with you on the writing, Bryan, but c'mon.)

Steve Miller writes:

A few weeks ago Adam Martin brought the following quote to my attention:

"It becomes necessary here to state explicitly a consideration which is implied in the whole of our argument on this point and which, though it seems to follow from the modern conception of the character of physical research, is yet still somewhat unfamiliar." -Counter-Revolution of Science p. 82

I will not comment on the merits of Hayek as a thinker relative to Mises or Milton Friedman or anyone else. I would just like to ask those of you who teach economics and are passionate about Hayek to think of your students' welfare before you assign them a few hundred pages of sentences like that. You surely aren't doing them a favor.

Okay, I will suggest that most of you would normally associate such muddled writing with muddled thinking. Why does Hayek get a pass?

Ryan Vann writes:

Same reason Keynes gets a pass (and the guy was a bloody Englishman). Ideas can sometimes transcend sentence structure.

Vincent Jappi writes:

Ankle-biting by a pretentious self-promoter.
Hayek reminded us how little we know or understand : no wonder that Bryan Caplan doesn't like this.

Jay Brazier writes:

Sorry if this sounds like a cheap shot, but it seems warranted in this case:

"A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out."

Ludwig van den Hauwe writes:

Agreed, Hayek was not a consistent libertarian, but he never claimed to be one. His approach is more inductive and historical. If one looks at the societies we actually characterize as historically "free" and compare, say, their legal systems with the precepts of Rothbard´s _The Ethics of Liberty_ it´s still entirely different. Rothbard is consistently libertarian but a-historical (disconnected from historical reality which, by the way, is never ruled by this kind of logical consistency) and 200% normative.

fundamentalist writes:

I have read a great number of Hayek's books, and I have read Caplan's. Hayek is a giant in comparison. Caplan's criticisms seem to be nothing more than a failure to try to understand Hayek's writings in terms of his context.

As for Milton Friedman, he called Hayek's "Pure Theory of Capital" incomprehensible. I thought it was brilliant. I realize Friedman wasn't stupid. I can only guess at what he meant. I assume he meant that because Hayek didn't agree with Friedman, Hayek didn't make any sense. That's about all I get out of Caplan's criticisms.

liberty writes:

"I've long since lost all patience with Hayek. His original, true ideas could have been five good blog posts"

It is interesting to me how popular opinion has Austrians saying the simple things and mainstream economists saying the complex things--in one sense its true, as e.g., Austrians keep coming back to the basics.

In another sense it is the exact opposite: mainstream economics is usually best summed up "given x assumption, y is the result (see graph)" and most papers and even books could be a very short blog post stating "given x, y results" plus a jpeg.

On the other hand, Austrian economics can almost never be summed up so simply: much of it involves dynamic consequences that have to be fleshed out, caveats and variations on possible outcomes, and involve picturing a complex and dynamic system within which the policies are taken.

Recall that the mathematization of economics was precisely taken as a way of simplifying the model, making it more tractable--so by its very nature it ought to be seen as simpler, not more complex. Just because there are a bunch of graphs and equations does not make it more well developed or more insightful.

Stephen M writes:

Here is the issue I see. When you look at Hayek the economist or Hayek the political philosopher and separate them out, you are doing a true disservice to what the man was all about. Hayek was unique because he made economics be about more than just output or prices or supply/demand. What Hayek showed through his work was that essentially economics was everything! His theory on knowledge, social theory, ideas on tradition and culture, beliefs on democracy and totalitarianism, and finally his economics - they all stream from the same fundamental belief. It is all connected.

For the most part, economists stay within their given field. Political scientists stay within theirs. Finally, sociologists stay in theirs. But Hayek said wait a minute, these are not isolated disciplines. They are intertwined with each other. Most people didn't think this way. They didn't see the connection between political liberty and economic liberty. They thought they can have central planning as well as freedom - Hayek demolished this thought.

Are there better economists? Sure. Better political philosophers? Probably. But nobody in my recollection was able to tackle so many fields so brilliantly.

Martin Brock writes:

Editing Hayek:

"During the last hundred years, man has learned to organize the forces of nature. This learning contributes to a belief that similar control of the forces of society can bring comparable improvements in human conditions. With the application of engineering techniques, the direction of all forms of human activity according to a single coherent plan should be as successful in society as it has been in innumerable engineering tasks. This seemingly plausible conclusion seduces those elated by the achievement of the natural sciences. Countering the strong presumption in favor of this conclusion requires powerful arguments, and these arguments have not yet been adequately stated. Pointing out the defects of particular proposals based on this kind of reasoning is not sufficient. The argument will persuade until economists show conclusively that what has produced advances in so many fields has limited usefulness and can be positively harmful if extended beyond these limits. This task has not been satisfactorily performed, and it must be achieved before this particular impulse toward socialism can be removed."

Still sounds pretty good to me. Note "this particular impulse". Hayek clearly doesn't believe that scientism is the only impulse toward socialism.

Ironically, academics will credit mathematical chaos theory with making the case that Hayek argues is so necessary here, but it won't stop climatologists from predicting the global weather a century in advance, and it won't stop anyone predicting the stock market or planning the economy either.

Jacob Oost writes:

Senor Caplan, I haven't been this baffled and perplexed in quite a while. I can only think that this is something of a test, rattling our cage to test for some reaction.

Adam writes:

Hayek's truths are so obvious? If so, why isn't the Congressional healthcare hubris ridiculed in the media and academics in learned institutions? If you really get Hayek, the DC policy agenda is at best comic and at worst highly destructive. Where are all the economic blogs with LOLs on healthcare 'reform', global warming policy, banking 'reform', energy, etc? The chuckles are few and far between.

James A. Donald writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. See your email from for more information.--Econlib Ed.]

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