David R. Henderson  

Center Libertarian?

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For years, conservative commentators on the Fox News Channel and elsewhere have said that the United States is a "center right" country. They seem to say it more insistently when the voters elect a left-wing Democrat as President.

But James Rainey, a commentator at the Los Angeles Times, has made a reasonable case, by looking at the recent election results and the exit polling data on voters' attitudes, that the United States is becoming a "center-libertarian" country. The title of his piece: "Has America Gone from Center-Right to Center Libertarian?"

An excerpt:

After 32 straight losses for same-sex wedding laws, four states approved marriage-equality proposals last week. Two other states legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Wisconsin elected the first openly homosexual U.S. senator in history, Tammy Baldwin. An Iowa Supreme Court justice targeted for removal because he voted in 2007 to approve gay marriage, David Wiggins, defeated an effort to oust him. And, crucially, Obama won with 60% of voters telling exit pollsters they supported the president's call for higher taxes on the rich.

But Americans appear to remain more receptive to conservative viewpoints on spending, debt and the size of government. A bare majority, 51%, of voters last Tuesday told exit pollsters that government should do less, with 43% saying it should do more.


The item jarringly out of place, of course, is the data on voters wanting to tax "the rich" even more heavily. But Rainey catches this. His conclusion:
A more precise verdict would be that the majority of the country remains slightly right of center when it comes to supporting lower spending, decreased debt and smaller government. But America appears to have shifted left of center in allowing more liberal policies on drugs and the institution of marriage. So, left on social issues and right on economics. If you eliminated the desire to tax the rich, it would sound like we had a center-libertarian nation.

HT to David Boaz.


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COMMENTS (37 to date)
Ken B writes:

I quite disagree. I think the electorate shows a clear preference for more government. Even the issues like gay marriage and legalized pot are not generally sold and bought as Libertarian issues. It's government setting the rules for marriage and families and many people think we should change those rules. That's not libertarian; it's a better policy is all. And it's government taxing and regulating pot. I applaud the changes, but I think you're heading up a garden path if you think it means the voters are embracing a stronger notion of personal autonomy as central to politics and culture. They are changing their views of how they want government to shape society. They may be making it more humane and opne, but they are not de-centering the nanny state.

ThomasH writes:

"They seem to say [US is center-right] more insistently when the voters elect a left-wing Democrat as President"

When has THAT ever happened? :)

Seriously, is it not consistent to want the government to "do less" (wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, wars on drugs, wars on terrorism, airport security) AND to want high-income people to pay a higher share of thier incomes to support whatever government does?

Bostonian writes:

The gay marriage movement is not libertarian but is driven by the desire to eliminate expressions of disapproval of homosexuality. People who oppose gay marriage are routinely described as "haters". Where gay marriage has been approved, businesspeople that do not want to be involved in such ceremonies, such as photographers or innkeepers (sample NYT story -- "Couple Sues a Vermont Inn for Rejecting Gay Wedding"), have been fined for discrimination.Gays have no trouble finding people to serve them, but some want to punish anyone who refuses to.

ThomasH writes:

"They seem to say [US is center-right] more insistently when the voters elect a left-wing Democrat as President"

When has THAT ever happened? :)

Seriously, is it not consistent to want the government to "do less" (wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, wars on drugs, wars on terrorism, airport security) AND to want high-income people to pay a higher share of thier incomes to support whatever government does?

Ken B writes:

Bostonian makes one of my points very forcefully.

Personally I see this election as pretty bad for Libertarians. They moved away from Obama, who still got over 50%. The electorate increased the dem control of the senate and house, and guaranteed us more bailouts.

Well, I've been wrong before. One lives in hope.

Robinson writes:

How much of the "lower spending" conclusion has to do with what voters incorrectly think money is being spent on?

Bryan Caplan has noted that 41% of Americans believe that foreign aid is one of the two biggest areas in the federal budget. I think he'd note that when voters claim to be in favor of cutting spending, they're usually talking about cutting the imaginary fortune spent on foreign aid.

Tom West writes:

Gays have no trouble finding people to serve them, but some want to punish anyone who refuses to.

Same with blacks, Asians, Hispanics, women, etc.

Chris H writes:

As much as I hate it, I've got to agree with Ken B and Bostonian. For more evidence, just consider what happened with Gary Johnson. Gary is about a good a candidate as the Libertarian Party can hope to put up. A two-term former governor, charismatic, a dedicated campaigner, and running on a platform that dove-tails nicely with the pot legalization and gay marriage movements. He did do better than as a percentage of the vote than anyone since Ed Clark, but given the circumstances he probably should have done better. Especially if the electorate is swinging more center-libertarian. Not even quite making 1% seems weak given the relative strength of the candidate.

Beyond that we should also probably be cautious at the same time. This is one election and elections are complex things. It's difficult enough to determine what the electorate "really" wanted in an election, and trying to determine a trend from one election day is even more problematic. I wouldn't be dancing in the streets because of this election, but total hopelessness is similarly unwarranted.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Hmmm... this basically sounds center left to me.

Unless by "left" you mean "always wants to spend bazillions more and could never conceive of a leaner government", and by "libertarian" you mean "wants to make the government leaner but still large and active".

Both of those those definitions sound laughable to me, so it seems to me this just suggests a center-left nation, right?

Ken B writes:

Actually Daniel Kuehn, it sounds like Stockholm Syndrome to me.

But if you scroll up you'll see we agree.

David Boaz writes:

Folks who don't find marriage equality a step toward equal freedom under law: Do you feel the same way about the Supreme Court's 1967 decision that struck down bans on interracial marriage? Do you think that was just tinkering with the state apparatus? Or that making black-white marriages legal was just an attempt to demonize people who didn't like black people?

Let me note that I don't think "center-libertarian nation" means that voters are against all the things that I'm against -- Patriot Act, drug war, taxing the rich, Obamacare, etc. But I do think it's true that there's a broad consensus for a little more personal freedom and a little less government spending/taxing/regulation, and that's the reason that public policy tends to be better in America than in most of the world.

Andrew writes:

The election (and prior comments) has simply reinforced the status quo. People are libertarian in regards to their own behavior and authoritarian towards the behavior of others.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

David Boaz -
re: "But I do think it's true that there's a broad consensus for a little more personal freedom and a little less government spending/taxing/regulation, and that's the reason that public policy tends to be better in America than in most of the world."

I guess what's confusing is that this doesn't sound especially libertarian. A lot of liberals would reject the characterization of the left as wanting "big government" as opposed to a trim government that does certain stuff well.

The things that happened on gay rights and marijuana aren't unique to libertarians, and the stuff on the fiscal front isn't libertarian at all and could be considered consistent with a wide range of people on the non-libertarian right and left.

...so exactly how is this center-libertarian?

I think a lot of libertarians just want to see something that isn't there and probably never will be: a large libertarian constituency in the United States. Yes, we like limited government and personal freedom. But that's because we're almost all in the classical liberal tradition, not because we're libertarian.

Jeff writes:
I guess what's confusing is that this doesn't sound especially libertarian. A lot of liberals would reject the characterization of the left as wanting "big government" as opposed to a trim government that does certain stuff well.

Yeah, but isn't the "certain stuff" you're referring to really big tasks, like, say, making sure everyone in the United States always has access to the best medical care available?

MingoV writes:

Those who claim that USA adults are center-right or center-libertarian are cherry-picking results. The most reliable way to assess where adults are on the political spectrum is to look at who they elect. Politically, USA adults have been left-of-center since the late 1960s. They voted for candidates who supported more entitlements, bigger entitlements, more national government, more federal benefits (student grants and loans, housing loans, business loans), tariffs and protectionism, the war on drugs, intrusive agencies (DEA, ICE, TSA), local pork spending, etc.

The usual retort is "What about the Reagan presidency?" Reagan was our most right-wing president in recent history, yet he did nothing to end any entitlements or federal benefits. He did not shrink the federal government (and actually increased its spending). He did not reverse the trend of a more intrusive national government that reduces individual freedoms. He stepped-up the war on drugs. The reality is that Reagan was a political centrist.

The current adult population, by a huge margin, favors our nanny-state, redistributionist, multi-entitlements, multi-benefits, national government. Almost all adults agree that the national government should spend less, but when they are asked what should be cut, the typical response is "foreign aid" which is less than 1% of spending.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Jeff -
You're demonstrating the mischaracterization again.

I don't know many people who think the government should guarantee everyone always has access to the best medical care available. I do know people that think that the government should take steps to ensure that everyone has some health insurance. I also know people (less of them) that think that the government should directly provide everyone with some minimum amount of health care. I don't know anyone that thinks they should guarantee the best care available.

Do politicians talk like that? Sure. But we're talking about public opinion, not political rhetoric and mischaracterization.

None of this necessarily means a bloated or ever increasing government. But characterizing it that way makes libertarians feel better about themselves.

I tell ya, if I really believed half the things that libertarians attribute to people who think like me, I'd be disgusted with me! I might even consider becoming a libertarian.

Limited government, maybe shrinking some activities, more freedom, and a basic safety net? That sounds center-left to me. I would think for the populace to be center-libertarian you'd actually need some libertarianism: some dramatic cuts along with these social priorities. Is anyone suggesting that that's where the American people are at?

The very term "center-libertarian" seems oxymoronic to me. Libertarianism is not a viewpoint of the center unless you stretch it to include everyone in the classical liberal tradition.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Jeff -
Let me put it more succinctly: the program that David Boaz presents as center-libertarian seems to me like it would make a lot of people who consider themselves on the center-left happy and very few people who consider themselves libertarian happy.

So I struggle to understand what the term "center-libertarian" even means, much less how it could describe the current situation.

The electorate said (1.) Obama is the way forward, (2.) we need to move forward with civil liberties the Obama administration hasn't been working on very hard, and (3.) Republicans should not be shut out of the discussion. That sounds center-left to me.

If Gary Johnson pulled a Ross Perot I might think differently.

BZ writes:

@DK - You are correct -- Polls are a fun game to play, but it's hard to argue with vote counts. The American electorate wants the Government to "Keep it's damn government hands off my Medicare!" but also to let those well dressed young boys get married and smoke doobies.

I have a hard time forgetting about the patriot act, ndaa, increased federal drug raids, etc over the last 12 years, so while there is some significant good news on social issues, I'm not sure it's a net gain for civil libertarians, and it is certainly a Continued loss for those who value allowing free trade between consenting adults.

Maybe the point that is stirring the optimists is that the U.S. is "behind the times" in statist institution building? Not sure, but progress continues apace.

Chris H writes:
The electorate said (1.) Obama is the way forward, (2.) we need to move forward with civil liberties the Obama administration hasn't been working on very hard, and (3.) Republicans should not be shut out of the discussion. That sounds center-left to me.

Saying "the electorate said" after an election can be a dangerous thing to do and exactly the type of mistake the LA times is making. With point 1) for instance, the electorate said Obama was the way forward, compared to Mitt Romney. Even a Ross Perot couldn't get a single state's electoral votes so regardless of whether people like a third party's platform or not, they believe voting third party is a "wasted" vote. I agree that Johnson should have done better if the electorate had shifted center-libertarian, but a preference for Obama over Romney might be as much over issues of character/trustworthiness as ideology.

For 2), though I was heartened by most of those results, at most we can say that several states (all democratic) wanted to move forward with those rights. It would be a mistake to use them as a proxy for the electorate at large.

Finally, 3) has similar problems to both 1) and 2). The majority of house seats are in safe districts anyways so it's only the potential swing districts which we would expect to see any change in the electorate's feelings. The safe districts can be interpreted as ideological status quo, while for the swing districts issues of personality and reliability may be as important, or even more so, as which party controls the House. So the most we can say there is the electorate of swing districts might want a Republican controlled House.

Kevin writes:

ThomasH:

Seriously, is it not consistent to want the government to "do less" (wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, wars on drugs, wars on terrorism, airport security) AND to want high-income people to pay a higher share of thier incomes to support whatever government does?

Assumes the only reason to tax someone is for revenue for government programs. In reality, many on the left want to tax those with high-income just because they don't like them/would like to poke at them.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Chris H -
The point isn't that they want a Republican controlled House. It's simply that there wasn't a landslide against Republicans. I think that probably says something about voter preferences, don't you? I can't imagine how that's controversial to say.

As for your response to 1, of course the choice is a constrained one just like every electoral choice. I fail to see the point. Isn't the choice that was made, given those constraints, a fairly center-left one? I can't think of what else to call it.

Hume writes:

I partially agree with Daniel on this one and disagree with both David and David. The institutional recognition of gay marriage and pot decriminalization are not indications of a 'libertarian' mindset. We need to decouple views about morality in general from political morality . We can do this by analyzing *why* people support gay marriage and pot decriminalization. I believe it is a result of a shift in moral views in general rather than a shift in political morality in particular. I think people believe there is nothing wrong with homosexuality or gay marriage, and the fight for equality is about ending the oppression of an innocent minority. It is *not* about toleration or the recognition of freedom of association. In other words, people believe there is no morally relevant difference between homosexual and heterosexual marriage. I think evidence for this is seen in the complete lack of a simultaneous movement to end the outlawing of polygamy (people still think it wrong, and are thus still willing to outlaw the practice).

Similarly, the decriminalization of pot is not about the recognition of the freedom of the individual, about being the author of one's life, etc. Rather, it is a shift in beliefs regarding (1) the harm of pot, and (2) the pragmatic irrationality of criminalization. In other words, people no longer think it's as bad for the individual as they used to. It is not a decrease in paternalistic mindset. This can be seen in the simultaneous increased willingness to outlaw (or make more difficult) smoking tobacco and 'unhealthy eating'. With the trends we are seeing and the direct politicizing of health care, I do not think it is implausible to see calorie limits in our lifetime (conditioned upon technological development),

So while it is an extremely good thing that gay marriage is now becoming recognized, and it is an extremely good thing that homosexuals are becoming more and more accepted, this is not the result of a libertarian shift in attitudes. It is a shift in the views regarding a certain sexual lifestyle, i.e., that there is nothing wrong with it and thus there is no reason to morally or legally condemn these people. And ditto for marijuana: there has been no shift in the willingness to pass paternalistic legislation.

Chris H writes:
Isn't the choice that was made, given those constraints, a fairly center-left one? I can't think of what else to call it.

What about calling it about personalities? It could entirely be the case that Romney had a personality which repelled more people than Obama, not to mention people might have just trusted his competence less. Here's a few scenarios:

1) The electorate's overall preference is center-right, but the majority of the electorate viewed Romney as too incompetent/untrustworthy to be president and therefore voted Obama.

2) The electorate's preference was exactly centrist, and the majority of the electorate viewed Romney as too incompetent/untrustworthy to be president and therefore voted Obama.

3) The electorate's preference was center-libertarian and say Obama as less damaging to liberty than Romney.

4) The majority of the electorate was actually solidly left rather than center-left and didn't view Gil Stein or Rocky Anderson as viable and therefore voted Obama.

I can probably think of many more scenarios where a majority vote for Obama does not mean "center-left" ideology for the majority of the electorate. What the election tells us is who was considered the best candidate, not what ideology was preferred.

Andy Hallman writes:

Interesting post, David.

I'd like to believe the country is becoming more libertarian, but let's not get our hopes up just yet.

Libertarians have often felt that the public was on their side because the public consistently reported it wanted "less government." However, you'll notice that in just about every poll, the public only seems libertarian when asked about government in the abstract. Once you ask the public about specific policies, it supports almost all of them, except for foreign aid, which it wrongly perceives as being a huge part of the budget. (Just as Robinson points out above)

James writes:

Daniel Kuehn,

For as long as I can recall the politicians on the left have favored policies which, if implemented, would result in a bigger government by any of the following measures: increased government spending as a share of GDP, increased transfer payments as a share of GDP, higher tax rates, an increase in the number of government employees as a share of the total labor force, an increase in the number of pages in the federal register, an increase in the the number of activites that consenting adults cannot do without government permission.

Exactly who are you referring to when you say a "lot of liberals would reject the characterization of the left as wanting "big government" as opposed to a trim government that does certain stuff well?"

Are there any currently active liberal politicians who favor platforms which would result in a smaller government according to any of the metrics listed above?

Chris H writes:

James writes:

Exactly who are you referring to when you say a "lot of liberals would reject the characterization of the left as wanting "big government" as opposed to a trim government that does certain stuff well?"

I think one problem you're going to run into here is diverging opinions on what constitutes "trim government that does certain stuff well." If you want to push this point, specificity is key.

So a better way of asking this question might go into particular issues. Let me get a bit into methodology here. The "center-left" is a relative term which tends to align itself more with ideas emanating from the left (with Democrats a decent, if imperfect, proxy for that) and being more in opposition to ideas from the right (with Republicans as our proxy). If close to 50% of the populace or more supports a Democratic proposal it's reasonable to assume that this is a proposal also generally supported by the center-left (as they would be the first group after the left and far left to support leftist proposals). The converse would be a proposal originating from the right that gets broad support, say in excess of 65%, might be said to include the center-left as they would defect to right-wing proposals sooner than the left and far left. With that in mind let's look at some examples of "trim" government means to the American center-left.

Consider Obamacare. We can be fairly sure the left would generally give more support for Obamacare than the right. The divide on the individual mandate is almost even. One could then use that as evidence that the center-left is in this instance for expanded not decreased government.

Another example would be the proposal to privatize Social Security, a Republican poll that the left tends to oppose. The latest poll I could find also shows about an even break on that, so the center-left would oppose that measure to decrease government.

One poll I found had 51% in favor of maintaining current levels of benefits for Social Security and Medicare over reducing the budget deficit. Given that proposals for Medicare/Social Security benefits cuts typically come from the right, we can again see this as showing the center-left support for opposing a trimmed government. This covers two of the three biggest ticket issues on the budget. So let's go to defense.

Here I was actually a little surprised on. The latest poll I could find showed 41% saying we spend too much on the military, 32% saying we spend about enough, and 24% saying we don't spend enough. Defense cuts are a more democratic issue (Ron Paul/Gary Johnson excepted, their fan bases are probably small enough to effectively ignore here) so that breakdown is 41% supporting cuts, 56% against cuts. That's not enough to say the center-left definitively isn't in favor of cuts by the methodology established earlier, but it's enough that there might be some divide in the center-left on this issue. However, overall I'm counting this as a net center-left supporting a decreased government.

So on the three current big ticket items, the center-left is not in favor of decreasing government on two of them. On the one big permanent increase in government spending the center-left is also in favor. So now we have some baseline for what a "trimmer" government means to the center-left. A trim government apparently means the same level of benefits (which means increasing spending as costs rise) for the big-ticket programs plus the addition of the big ticket Obamacare individual mandate, and a smaller military.

If Daniel supports a program essentially similar to that then it is fair to call him within the American center-left. In that case it might also be fair to say that his definition of a "bloated" or "ever-increasing" government would come into conflict with libertarian definitions. The definition of "bloated" is simply a matter of opinion and thus a libertarian would not be mischaracterizing an opponent as supporting a "bloated" government unless said opponent actually supports a libertarian size government. That opponent may have his/her own idea of what is "bloated" but neither opinion is ultimately a better definition of "bloated" and thus neither are necessarily wrong. For "ever-increasing" however that can be measured. Medicare and Social Security costs continue to rise as health care costs and the number of seniors increase. Defense cuts cannot make up for that in the long run. Especially with the addition of Obamacare, it is fair to characterize the center-left as supporting an ever-increasing government in order to continue paying for stable benefit levels in the face of costs rising faster than inflation. If Daniel doesn't support maintaining benefit levels for these programs, then it is reasonable to assert that he is not a good representative of the American center-left given the polling data (and may not even be in the center left at all).

Daniel Kuehn writes:

James -
Welfare reform ring a bell? Move to doing social policy through EITC and other tax expenditures (although if you are just calling any transfer big government I guess that doesn't work... but I'm not sure why you're doing that).

Last I checked, government spending as a percent of GDP seemed to trend up under Reagan, down under Clinton, up under Bush, and down under Obama. There's nothing about American liberalism that demands a big government. True, we're not as nuts about the prospect of government growing. But I think you guys are mistaking a libertarian and conservative meme for an actual stance of liberals.

Ken B writes:

David Boaz:

Folks who don't find marriage equality a step toward equal freedom under law: Do you feel the same way about the Supreme Court's 1967 decision that struck down bans on interracial marriage? Do you think that was just tinkering with the state apparatus?

I suspect I am part of the intended catchment of that question. I DO think it a step towards greater equality but I do NOT think that implies a Libertarian sentiment in the populace. Bostonian gave a good explanation of how this is possibly a manifestation of a demand for conformity. Conformity to better norms, but still not a demand for personal autonomy. The underlying notion is that many believe government should have a hortatory goal in making law and policy. That is deeply unlibertarian.

Citing a SC case is ironic. That's hardly representative of public sentiment either is it?

Ken B writes:

Daniel Kuehn:

There's nothing about American liberalism that demands a big government.

Yes there is Daniel: American liberals.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
government spending as a percent of GDP seemed to trend . . . down under Obama.
No, it didn't.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

David -
Yes, I'm quite sure it did.

Total 2009: 37.1%
Feds 2009: 25.2%
States 2009: 11.9%

Total 2011: 35.4%
Feds 2011: 24.1%
States 2011: 11.3%

No matter how you cut it.

Now, if you want to do something like go before Obama was even in office we have some increase. But then an honest interpretation of that would require noting that that increase at the federal level (not at the states) is a factor of counter-cyclical forces. If we want to substitute "liberals always want to grow government" for "liberals like counter-cyclical policy", I'd be fine with that. But that doesn't really seem like the same thing to me.

Chris H writes:

Isn't the 2009 spending including the TARP bailout? That's a significant explicitly temporary expansion of government spending (that Obama supported) while the trend line after 2009 (that has actually happened rather than been proposed) has been stable. 2010 had the Feds spending 24.1% just like in 2011. Furthermore, this isn't considering what Obama wanted to do, only what Congress let him do. Obama's proposals for spending in 2010-11 were both $200 billion higher than what was actually enacted, a jump significant enough to erase that downward blip from 2009. And no proposed spending has sought to bring the federal budget in-line with the pre-recession 2008 budget either in absolute terms or as a percentage of GDP. (source for numbers)

Floccina writes:

I agree with Ken B. The USA seems to be moving more and more in a majority rule direction. Isn't the main reason for gay marriage to get any remaining outliers to pay spousal benefits?
I also agree with him on marijuana on that subject they are saying that they are singling out marijuana saying that the penalty is too harsh, they are not saying drug use is none of the majority's business. At the same time they want new rules on smoking and now even eating!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
It was the one-time TARP, as Chris H noted above, that accounted for the high % in FY 2009. Here are the CBO's projections, published January 7, 2009, before Obama was president and had a chance to implement his plans, for government spending as a % of GDP for the next few fiscal years:
2010: 22.4
2011: 22.0
2012: 21.2
As you can see, your 2011 number is a good bit above that. So Obama did raise the trend of government spending as a % of GDP.

Floccina writes:

On why Republicans and democrats are big spenders and far from leaning libertarian:

One thing you will never hear a Republican say:

We spend too much on the military.

You will never hear a Democrat say:

We spend too much on education/social security/medicare.

Most rational people who really study the subject for a while will tell you that you can easily cut military spending by at least a third and not endanger US national defense and that you can cut social security by a third and not hurt needy retirees.

I personally think that you can cut education spending at least in half without hurting education and cut at least a forth off medicare spending without having a significant impact on retirees health but I admit some rational people who really looked at these disagree with me.

James writes:

Daniel Kuehn,

That coservatives have been resonsible for government growth is unrelated to the matter of whether liberals favor a big government platform. It should tell you something about the credibility of your own position that you had to change the subject rather than actually defend it.

Did most liberals favor welfare reform at the time?

Can you please answer the last question in my comment above this one?

James writes:

Daniel Kuehn,

One version of countercyclical policy has been to call for tax increases in good times and spending increases in bad times. Over a full cycle that implies a government which taxes and sends more and more. Favoring this type of countercyclical policy is essentially equivalent to favoring a big govrenment platform.

It would be possible to implement a second type of countercyclical policy by cutting marginal tax rates in bad times and cutting spending in good times. Over a full cycle that implies a government which taxes and spends less and less.

Can you name any active liberal politician that has spoken in favor of the second form of countercyclical policy? Can you name any that have warned of the big government implications of the first form?

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