"Preliminary Observations" is the introduction to his first, and possibly most important book, the lengthily entitled "An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth most conducive to human happiness; applied to The Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth" of 1824. It is this work of which the anarchist historian Max Nettlau remarks: "[this] book, however, discloses his own evolution; having started with a demand for the full product of labour as well as the regulation of distribution, he ended up with his own conversion to communism, that is, unlimited distribution". This preface piece shows signs of being originally written before his own conversion to communist distribution with supplemental additions after that change. In it Thompson lays out his approach of applying the critical method of utilitarianism - the re-examination of all social institutions with an atheist skepticism of all received truths, judging outcomes on the basis of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" - to the theories of Political Economy.

From "Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth", 1824, William Thompson


Those who have observed, reflected, or written on political economy and the various branches of knowledge connected with it, may be ranged in two classes, the intellectual and the mechanical. Of later days, and in this country, conspicuous amongst the intellectual speculators or philosophers stands Mr. Godwin, the author of "Political Justice". Equally eminent amongst the mechanical reasoners, particularly in his earlier productions, is Mr. Malthus, whose treatise on the "Principles of Population" is become almost a text-book of a politico-economical sect.

The intellectual speculators, informed by their own feelings of the gentle, ever-springing, and all-sufficient pleasures of sympathy and intellectual culture, their animal wants being all comfortably supplied and therefore exciting little of their attention, little studious perhaps of the physical laws of nature, of the physical constitution of man and the beings that surround him, conscious of their own power of restraining and regulating what they regard as the grosser propensities of our nature, proclaim man as capable of attaining happiness by his mental powers alone, almost independent of material subordinate agency. To such a superiority have they elevated the thinking part of the human organization, as to suppose that man may hereafter, by the perfect use of it, will his own health independent of the material agents usually employed to promote it. They have thought that the mind may command mechanical operations, such as ploughing or navigation, without the intervention of intermediate physical means. How these mysterious processes, these wonders of volition, were by possibility to be carried on, consistent with any established analogy of things, could not of course be explained. Though such alleged possibilities were the extreme of the system of those who rested their hopes of the improvement of mankind, almost exclusively, on the cultivation of their intellectual powers; it is easy to conceive how great an influence such theories must exert over the judgement when directed to the investigation of the every-day, sluggish, realities of life. In possession of so compendious and sublime a mode of commanding nature, how should they submit to walk the lowly paths of observation, to toil through the endless slavery of experimenting in order to get a glance at a new power of nature, or of a new or more useful mode of application of any thing before known? How could they stoop to examine the vulgar agency, by which rustics and mechanics elaborate inanimate matter into forms moulded by the caprice of their superiors? Would they not almost esteem it time lost to discuss the efficiency of unthinking things in influencing the happiness of a being so superior, or capable of being made so superior, to their controul?

As the superstitious impute all changes to the arbitrary caprice and favoritism of their divinities sporting with the essential and immutable properties and mutual relations of material things; so do these intellectual speculators introduce a species of divinity within themselves, to exercise that controuling power over nature, before which, when placed without them, the superstitious tremble. The fears of the one and the hopes of the other, are almost equally vain. For whatever advances mankind may make in the arts of social happiness, they must be indebted, to an enlarged and minute acquaintance with the surrounding universe of things and of themselves, and to the wise use and distribution and regulation of them. The intellectual speculators on political economy, wishing to make man all thought, affect to disdain labor as mechanical and grovelling, unaware of the paramount principle of utility by which alone the worth or worthlessness of every thing must be estimated. What is thought, but motion produced and felt in the brain? What is labor, but motion communicated to and in co-operation with the ever-active energies of nature? And by what standard is the superiority of either species of motion to be estimated, but by their relative tendency to produce human happiness? Herein, in their contempt for the mechanical drudgery of labor, coalesce the intellectual with the political aristocracy. The one disdaining its exercise, ungratefully glory and plume themselves in the use and exhibition of the articles which it produces; while the other, the intellectual aristocrat, disdains, or affects to disdain, equally its exercise and its productions, forgetting that without its kindly and ever-recurring aid in the supply of food, clothing and shelter, the high intellectual energies, of which he boasts, could scarcely for one hundred hours preserve themselves distinguished from the unconscious air around them, or from any other masses of unorganized matter. There are endless shades of opinion amongst these intellectual speculators on wealth and human happiness. They all agree in overestimating the capabilities of mere mind, or what they term morals or virtue, to promote happiness, and leave too much out of their calculation those homely physical agencies, on which the development of both mind and morals depends, and without which they could not exist.

If the class that I have termed intellectual speculators, leave material things and physical agencies too much out of their calculation, those whom I have termed mechanical speculators adopt the opposite extreme. With them, intellectual power and sympathy form no part of the creature man: he is altogether a mechanical agent, like the plough or the loom or the horses with whose motions he co-operates; and he is to be urged to labor by the same rude means that operate on other animals. Those who call themselves pure political economists, and profess to have no other object but wealth in contemplation, belong more or less to this class. By them the sublime notions of intelligence, benevolence or mutual co-operation and perfectibility, are held in derision. Their sole object is so to arrange, as that the machines, whether living, as cows, men or horses, and propelled by food and air, or inanimate and propelled by steam or water, should produce in the greatest abundance all articles of food, clothing, shelter and elegance, or caprice; and that, on the other hand, means should be devised that an abundance of consumers should be found to use the articles produced, so that every year a continual demand should be kept up for these or similar articles. By what means, or by whom, the articles were produced, whether by camels, horses, men, slaves or not slaves, whether by hard labor or by easy labor, by healthful or life-consuming exertion, signified not; except in as far as the wear and tear of the dead or living machinery might enhance the price and lessen the production. By what means, or by whom, these articles were consumed, whether by the mass of the producers to diffuse gladness through a smiling population, or by a few living in palaces surrounded by unenjoyed waste and sickly appetites, signified not. The problem with them has been, how to raise the greatest produce and to ensure the greatest consumption or efficient demand. No considerations but such as related immediately to wealth or exchangeable value, were admitted into the reasonings of these severe economists. Amongst these mechanical reasoners there are shades of opinion as well as amongst the intellectual speculators; and they occasionally adopt more or less of their adversaries' views.

Is it to be wondered at, that neither the one nor the other of these two classes of reasoners on political economy and human happiness, called here the intellectual and the mechanical, have arrived at the truth? That no consistent and useful system of human labor and the most wise and wholesome distribution of its products, has yet been devised between them? That while each of them have discovered on their own side a good deal of truth, their chief felicity has consisted in developing the errors of their opponents? How should it be otherwise? Man is not a mere machine like a steam-engine or a spinning-jenny, nor an uncalculating animal like the horse or the ox whose labor he employs. Nor is man a mere intellectual agent, without properties in common with both the inanimate and living things around him. Man is a complicated being. Like the timber or the wool on which he operates, he is liable to the impulses of external things. Appropriate agents produce chemical and mechanical changes on his structure, both within and without, just as on other masses of matter. The overwhelming force of the current or the tempest equally shatters and sweeps away him and all inanimate obstacles, whether the shed which he has reared for his protection or the plank to which he clings for succour, in proportion to the mass and powers of resistance of each. Certain living powers, the result of organization, developing themselves in nervous and muscular motions, enable man to increase but a little his power of resistance. Like all other animals, man exists but on the condition of keeping up the external excitement of air and food: like the best organized of them, he is liable to various sources of enjoyment and of pain, by means of the terminations of different species of nerves in what are termed organs of sense on different parts of the body: like them, he is liable to certain impulses arising from internal secretions, entirely independent of his volition, and thence to certain propensities, desires or wants, inseparable from his actual organization. But, unlike condensed or aerial particles of inanimate matter, unlike any known vital organization but his own, not only is he liable in a super-eminent degree to the feelings arising from the observation of all things around him and their relation to himself, not only to the feelings of memory perpetuating these original feelings of observation, but also to those of comparison and reasoning. Hence he is enabled to look in upon his own structure, to look forward into futurity to calculate the effects of his actions, and thence to be guided by distant as well as immediate motives. By proper training, he is enabled to add to the pleasures of the senses and internal excitement, the pleasant feelings of intellectual cultivation; and by the wise regulation of his appetites and passions, he not only increases indefinitely their pleasure, but avoids the evils to which want of foresight would lead them, and contracts a sympathy and inclination to benevolent co-operation with his fellow-creatures.

Can we reason then on any matters, in which the labor, voluntary or forced, of such a creature as this, is the chief ingredient, as we could respecting sheep or the wool separated from their bodies, or respecting the powers of air, water, steam, and machinery? Or can we justly reason on any matters in which such a creature as this is chiefly concerned, as if he were all composed of intellect and benevolence, as if he were uninfluenced by the chemical mechanical laws of nature operating within and around him, as if he could shake of the feelings and impulses co-existent with the several stages of his organization, as if he were gifted with a mysterious power of producing changes within and around him, by mere volition, without the intervention of the usual ascertained natural agents or causes? Like the power ascribed to the great spirit or mind of nature, in the poetical creation of all things?

I conceive, then, that in order to make the noble discoveries of political economy - and magnificent they are when viewed in their proper connexion - useful to social science, the application of which becomes the art of social happiness, it is necessary always to keep in view, the complicated nature of man, the instrument to operate with and the creature to be operated upon. Without a constant reference to it, the regulating principle of utility is sacrificed, and the grand object of political economy, the indefinite increase of the accumulations of wealth or of its yearly products, become worthless objects consigning to the wretchedness of unrequited toil three-fourths or nine-tenths of the human race, that the remaining smaller portion may pine in indolence midst unenjoyed profusion. It is not the mere possession of wealth, but the right distribution of it, that is important to a community. It is with communities as with individuals. Men cannot be happy without the physical means of enjoyment, which in all civilized societies consist chiefly of objects of wealth; but, with a comparatively small portion of these objects, men may be happier than they have ever been seen to be; while, though surrounded by with them to superfluity, they may still be miserable. 'Tis not the multitude but the use and the distribution of the objects of wealth, with which society is chiefly interested. Hence the necessity of considering wealth not only in its effects on industry and reproduction, but also in its moral and political efforts, in every way that it can influence human happiness.

Moralists have been, for the most part, ignorant of physical science and of the truths of political economy: theologians affect to disdain all other knowledge but their own peculiar and profitable dreams: political economists profess to direct their sole attention to the production and accumulation of wealth, regardless of its distribution further than as it may influence re-production and accumulation, leaving to moralists, politicians and statesmen, its effect on happiness, and drawing a broad line of distinction between their solid material speculations and the airy philosophy of the mind. Nay, more; the chemist and mechanician and operative manufacturer or merchant, have, til lately, affected to disdain the speculations of political economists, as mere theories, inapplicable to the realities of their respective operations.

What is to be inferred? Not that we condemn the division of knowledge any more than the devision of labor; but that we would have it limited to the improvement of its own particular branch, and not have it applied to the immense concern of social happiness without regard being had to all those other equally important data on which a just application must depend. Social science, the science of morals, including legislation as one of its most important sub-divisions, requires not only a knowledge of what is technically called morals and political economy, but of the outlines of all that is known, with a capacity for following up any particular branch that may be, on particular occasions, conducive to the general end. None of these speculators have confined themselves to their own peculiar province, but have adventured, without appropriate knowledge, on the direct application of their isolated speculations to social science. A few illustrious exceptions might be named, one of whom has done more for moral science than Bacon did for physical science; for whereas Bacon did no more than point out the new and secure road to physical discovery, he has not only pointed out the right road to moral investigations, but has made such progress in it as no man ever before conceived, much less accomplished. Following in the road which he has demonstrated, our object is to apply to social science the ascertained truths of political economy, making these and all other branches of knowledge subservient to that just distribution of wealth which tends most to human happiness.

Mr. Mill in his useful epitome, the "Elements of Political Economy", chapter on Distribution, page 52, says "If the natural laws of distribution were allowed to operate freely, the greater part of this net produce would find its way, in moderate proportions, into the hands of a numerous class of persons exempt from the necessity of labor, and placed in the most favorable circumstances both for the enjoyment of happiness and for the highest intellectual and moral attainments. Society would thus be seen in its happiest state."

These natural laws, or tendencies to distribution in particular channels, with the effects, moral and political, as well as economical, necessarily resulting from them, are no where developed, partly because they extend beyond the mere bounds of political economy or wealth prescribed to the work, and partly perhaps because the author conceived that the intelligent reader might gather them in the way of inference.

I need not cite the vague speculations of the more numerous and unreflecting portion of the community, to prove that no particular opinions are yet assented to as true respecting the most useful distribution of wealth; but simply refer to the opinions of some of the most able writers who have lately condensed and simplified for public use what they conceive to be the ascertained truths of political economy. The author of the "Conversations on Political Economy" (as well as those on Chemistry and Natural Philosophy) would lead us to believe, that such an inequality as we see in England in the distribution of wealth, that such luxury as we see concentrated in capital cities and elsewhere, is necessary to give employment and food to the great bulk of the industrious and productive classes of society, and that the poor must starve if there were not to be found masses of wealth of hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum concentrated in the hands to set the people to work, by means of its expenditure. Much of abuse as may take place in the expenditure of these enormous masses, she still thinks that the state of things producing them, is necessary, even for the employment of the productive laborers themselves. The necessary inference is, that this mode of distribution being so excellent, our efforts in legislation and otherwise should be directed to its support and continuance, if not to its increase.

The celebrated author, as above, of the History of British India gives his opinion as to the best mode of distributing the national wealth. And what is - as far as his explanations can aid us in forming a supposition - this best mode? He tells us that literary men not under the necessity of any bodily labor for their support, possessed in a moderate degree of the comforts and conveniences of life, are capable of enjoying, and do enjoy, more of happiness than any other members of society. He therefore advises such a state of things, such a distribution of wealth as will tend most to increase the number of this happy class of beings. I need not go further to point out the fallacy of these speculations founded on mere partial views; the one founded on an excessive admiration of the baubles engendered by excessive wealth, the other founded on a more rational admiration or moral and intellectual pleasures, than thus to put them abreast, and permit them, like certain chemical mixtures, to neutralize each other. It is evident that some more general, some universally-comprehensive principle, embracing the happiness of the whole of men or of nations, taken, not as classes, but as sentient beings, must be resorted to, in this momentous inquiry.

Consequences so extensive, so awfully important to human happiness, as those arising from different modes of distributing wealth, must not however be left to mere inference. That inference, which to one intelligent mind may appear legitimate, another may look upon as inconsequential. Not to advance beyond the proposition above quoted from Mr. Mill, - how many are there who think the present state of society, of excessive wealth and extreme poverty, preferable to the existence of the numerous class of small possessors therein described? Who will not admit the existence of any natural law or tendency to bring about such a state of things? And who still think that such a natural tendency ought be every possible means, even by force, to continue to be restrained, as it now is everywhere, by force restrained? To me it appears that the natural laws of distribution, if left freely to operate, would produce much more happiness in any community so wise as to unchain them, than is even promised above: to me it appears not proved, nor a just inference, that freedom from the necessity of moderate labor is essential either to the highest intellectual or moral attainments, or, as flowing from these and from a due supply of physical wants, to the enjoyment of the greatest happiness: to me it appears that the natural laws of distribution, if left freely to operate, would, with the present aids of art and science, do much more than produce to a numerous class, intellectual and moral culture, with the comforts and conveniences of life, and therefore happiness: to me it appears, that what I conceive to be the natural laws or the wisest mode, of distribution, would even produce these blessings to the community at large. Is it not then of consequence clearly to ascertain what these natural laws of distribution are, from which such mighty consequences are anticipated? And respecting the actual tendencies of which and the desirableness of these tendencies, opinions so contradictory prevail?

But the subject, the distribution of wealth, is a hackneyed subject. What subject important to human happiness is not hackneyed? The subject of wealth in general is indeed so: but it is conceived that the least hackneyed branch of the subject is the distribution. No bold hand, it is conceived, has yet presumed to lay down just principles on this all-sensitive subject. Force, fraud, chance, prescription, are almost everywhere the main arbiters of distribution, and have almost frightened reason from daring to contemplate the mischiefs they have caused. Injustice in this momentous matter has everywhere prevailed; but the perennial source has not been unfolded. Hence discontent, misery, vice, universal degradation - degradation not always absolute, but compared with the state of happiness attendant on the natural laws of distribution, if left freely to operate, in the present state of improved and every-day extending knowledge.

In every nation, and in almost every age, of the world, the blessings of equal comforts to all, and the enormous evils of great inequality of wealth, have been dimly seen and recognised; and vain and ignorant efforts have been made to establish a just distribution. Force is the instrument employed by ignorance to accomplish every thing, even justice itself: to establish equality therefore was force employed. But no sooner was force made use of than security fled, and with security production and consequently the means of happiness. Here therefore is the cruel dilemma in which mankind has been placed. Here is the important problem of moral science to be solved, "how to reconcile equality with security; how to reconcile just distribution with continued production." This problem it is the object of the following pages to develop, to trace its consequences, and to point out those just and gentle means by which the natural laws of distribution may every where introduced, and by which security, impartially applied to all, and not exclusively and hypocritically applied to a few, may become the firmest guarantee, instead of being the eternal opponent, of rational and healthful equality: as it is the only sure basis of the continued reproduction and accumulation of wealth.

This momentous problem has not yet been fully solved. Mere political economy has not attempted to solve it. To the minds of a few enlightened men the first principles necessary for its solution may be familiar: but none of them has yet undertaken the task of bringing to a point the scattered rays of knowledge on this subject, applying them all to the distribution of wealth. To diffuse, and by diffusing to direct to practical use, the knowledge acquired on this branch of social science, to lead forth from the calm closets of philosophical inquirers, where they have delighted and elevated the minds of a few, into the world of life and action, those important truths, which it behoves all mankind to know and practise, to assist in wiping out the stain from science, noticed thirty years ago by Condorcet, but still adhering, that though she had done much for the glory of mankind, she had done nothing or little for their happiness, is to me an object of the most anxious desire.

Who can throw his glance over the affairs of the civilized portion of mankind, and not rejoice?* [*: Written in 1822- W.T.] Who can behold the proofs, every where and every day exhibited, of the diffusion of real knowledge, and not rejoice? Who can behold all the civilized nations of mankind either in the very act of calmly new-modelling their social institutions, according to their respective degrees of knowledge, or on the point of taking the bounteous, the magnificent, the inevitable operation, and not rejoice? Who is there that sees not that whatever may be the absolute quantity of knowledge or the articles of wealth in a community, it is not their abundance, but their right use and distribution, that constitute the happiness of that community? Is not this therefore peculiarly the time to investigate with uncompromising steadiness the natural laws of distribution, to ascertain how far legislatures and individuals may usefully co-operate with these tendencies of things, that new organizations of society may reject those perennial sources of vice and misery which ancient ignorance engendered?

But if the aspect of the great commonwealth of civilized nations and the interest which we of these countries have in the general progress of events, be not sufficient to awaken our attention to a matter momentous like the present; there is an aspect of things nearer home, in our very bosoms, which challenges our attention this moment to the distribution of wealth. How comes it that a nation abounding more than any other in the rude material of wealth, in machinery, dwellings and food, in intelligent and industrious producers, with all the apparent means of happiness, with all the outward semblances of happiness exhibited by a small and rich portion of the community; should still pine in privation? How comes it that the fruits of the labor of the industrious, after years of incessant and successful exertion, are mysteriously and without imputation of fault to them, without any convulsion of nature, swept away? It is not for want of physical knowledge; it is not for want of abundant materials of wealth to make all comfortable, it is not for want of the capacity or inclination to abundant reproduction. To what then is this strange anomaly in human affairs to be attributed? This misery in the midst of all the means of happiness? That savage tribes, ignorant of the means of production, disinclined to labor, should be overtaken by want, were a matter of no surprise: but that where art and nature had run, as it were, a race of emulation in the prodigality of their gifts to intelligent and industrious millions, that these millions should be disenabled from enjoying these products of their own creation - this is a mystery, this the astounding spectacle. To what but to a vicious distribution of wealth can this extraordinary phenomenon be attributed? What so natural as the cry of injustice, under such circumstances? What so natural and so usual as the imploring of the interference of the strong arm of power, to remedy such injustice? What so necessary as to ascertain the causes of this vicious distribution? Whether they are of a temporary or a deep-rooted and permanent nature? Whether present appearances are any thing more than the full development, the maximum, of the evils inherent in long-established errors and radically vicious institutions, now brought to the crisis of their injurious operation? Whether there are in art or in nature any means to be found, excluding the use of force, which would make impossible the recurrance of similar calamity, and substitute a universally-benevolent, self-regulating, and self-preserving distribution for the present, engendering the evils notoriously experienced? Can any inquiry be more called for, not with a view to mere topical, temporary, remedies, but to radical cure?

The tendency of the existing arrangement of things as to wealth, is to enrich a few at the expense of the mass of producers; to make the poverty of the poor more hopeless, to throw back the middling classes upon the poor, that a few may be enabled, not only to accumulate in perniciously large masses the real national, which is only the aggregate of individual, capital, but also, by means of such accumulations, to command the products of the yearly labor of the community. Who is not alarmed at the every day increasing tendency to poverty on the part of the many, to the ostentation of excessive wealth on the part of the few? Who sees not the gradual undermining of the nation's resources, the sickening of the very spirit of industry on the part of her producers, if this progress cannot, by a recurrance to first principles, or otherwise, be arrested? Is not time to inquire whether, by the laws of nature and society, we are doomed to submit to actual and anticipated evils such as these, under the peril of enduring still greater, if we rashly attempt to remove them? All moral and political wisdom should tend mainly to this, the just distribution of the physical means of happiness: for how senseless would it be to send codes and laws and maxims of morals to the savages of New Zealand for the regulation of their passions, if matters were not so adjusted, as that - if not by gift - at least by the exercise of their faculties, these savages might be put in the way to procure not only the means of existence, but of comfort in life! 'Tis in the use and distribution of these that all their good or bad qualities, their vices or virtues, must be chiefly developed. Skill and persevering industry are necessary to produce the objects of wealth, the means of enjoyment. Truth or falsehood are used to facilitate their acquisition by exchange or otherwise. Honesty is displayed in respecting the acquisitions of others; violence and cruelty in ravishing them from their producers; prudence and temperance in so regulating their use, as to secure all the immediate pleasures they are capable of producing without the drawback of those contingent remote evils which would follow a blind obedience to instinctive feelings; and beneficience in yielding to the grateful emotions of sympathy under the guidance of wisdom, and making wealth tributary to the happiness of others. In this way is the most important portion of our virtues and vices so indissolubly connected with the distribution of wealth, that to speak of morals and legislation with an affected contempt of such matters, is to grasp at a shadow and to leave a substance - is to add hypocritical or ignorant insult to the miseries of communities.

Should we find that the mode of distribution which political economy requires, militates against political utility, while general morality is silent, we must weigh the claims of wealth and politics and carefully adjudge the balance. Should we find the increase of wealth and supposed political utility calling for one mode of distribution, and universal morality prescribing another, we must, consistently with our principles of promoting the greatest happiness of the whole, compell both wealth and politics to bend to that distribution which ensures the greatest virtue, the greatest happiness. But should we be so fortunate as to find that that species of distribution of wealth which tends most to its production and accumulation, tends also to political utility more than any other possible distribution of it, and affords the grateful aspect of the widest diffusion of moral habits, while it is, at the same time, so simple as to require no cumbrous legal machinery, almost no machinery at all, for its support; we shall unite all impartial voices in approbation of a mode of distribution so recommended. Such, and attended with so many concurring benefits, is, it is believed, the mode of distribution, the description of which follows.

Three modes of human labor are discussed and contrasted in the following pages: first, labor by force, or compulsion direct or indirect; second labor by unrestricted individual competition; third, labor by mutual co-operation. The last of these modes of human labor, that by mutual co-operation, is shown to be as superior in production and happiness to the second, or that by individual competition, as the second is superior to the first, or labor by force or compulsion.

The immediate incident that gave rise to the inquiry pursued through the following pages is as follows: In one of the literary societies established in the city of Cork for the diffusion of knowledge, a gentleman celebrated for his skill in the controversies of political economy, thought proper to descant on the blessings of the inequality of wealth, as now established; on the dependence, and consequent gratitude the poor should feel to the rich; on the too-great equality of wealth of the United States of America; with similar topics. Astonished at such notions, and particularly from such a man, the writer not only repelled them at the time, but determined to enter into the subject, and to lay it before the Society in the shape of an essay, for future and more enlarged discussion. As the essay proceeded, the importance and extent of the subject seemed to increase; and the confused and erroneous notions prevailing almost every where, in print and conversation, redoubled the zeal for its completion to whatever extent the interests of truth might require. Thus has the proposed essay extended to the current inquiry.

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