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Freedom, Virtue, and the State
National Review ^
| Sept. 10, 1963
| William F. Rickenbacker
Posted on 07/13/2010 8:08:58 PM PDT by Delacon
As the discussion of individual liberty and civil order enters its 2,363rd year, the forum welcomes a new voice, pleading for definition, definition.
In the September 11, 1962 issue of National Review an essay of signal importance was published under the title, “Freedom or Virtue?” Written with the grace and knowledge typical of all of Brent Bozell's work, the essay mounted an attack on the “fusionist” efforts of Frank Meyer and Stanton Evans, in effect affirming that there can be no peaceful coexistence of the “libertarians” and the “traditionalists” among conservatives.
First, let’s take a moment to review Mr. Bozell’s line of argument. He agrees with Meyer, I gather, that man’s goal, his first duty, is to pursue virtue. He outlines the three “propositions” he finds implicit in the “libertarian” position: “A. Man cannot restrain his ‘appetites’ meaningfully — i.e., pursue virtue — without choosing to do so. B. His ability to choose meaningfully and thus to restrain his appetites depends, to a significant degree, on external ‘circumstances.’ C. The more these circumstances favor choice, the better he can restrain his appetites and so achieve virtue; and conversely, as these circumstances become unfavorable, the opportunities for virtue diminish accordingly — and theoretically they can shrink…to the zero point.”
Mr. Bozell then scans these propositions in search of his target. “For the moment,” he writes, “we may accept proposition A as true: the sense in which choice may not be necessary to virtue is not germane at this point.” (Mr. Bozell elucidates the exception later: “For as the mystics tell us, true sanctity is achieved only when man loses his freedom — when he is freed of the temptation to displease God.” It seems to me the state of true sanctity is rare enough to allow us to ignore the exception; consequently I assume Mr. Bozell accepts proposition A as true and relevant in any discussion of political theory.)
Mr. Bozell then finds that proposition C “is probably true also” — if proposition B is true. So he concentrates his attention on proposition B, the thesis that man’s ability to choose meaningfully depends largely on external circumstance.
But first he asks why man’s goal is to pursue virtue. “I think there are two possible answers to such a question. One is that God desires — for its own sake — a human order that conforms to the transcendent order, and therefore that He measures virtue by the extent to which human action existentially reflects divine norms. But this answer is certainly not the one Meyer and Stanton Evans would give. Under such a view of things, man’s concern is simply to establish temporal conditions conducive to God-approved human action, and while leaving matters to individual choice may be useful in some instances, there is no a priori need for freedom at all. The other possibility is that God wants man to ‘prove himself’ — or, in Christian terms, to earn salvation. This we may assume, until they tell us otherwise, is exactly Meyer’s and Evans’ meaning.”
But, Mr. Bozell asks, if earning salvation is the goal of man, will it be possible for one man to damage another’s chances of it — “e.g., by restricting the exercise of his freedom”? He finds Christian teaching “generally to the contrary.” True, says Mr. Bozell, every man’s choice will be “loaded” with the sanctions that have accumulated during a life suffused with the effect of social institutions, but “the mystery of freedom which we feel, or take on faith, but cannot demonstrate is that in spite of these sanctions an element of spontaneity remains. And when this spontaneity (Christian teaching goes on) figures in the selection of the ‘greater’ good over the ‘lesser’ one, as determined by each man’s conscience, merit accrues and a step has been taken toward salvation.”
“But,” continues Mr. Bozell, “this is simply another way of saying that morally significant choice is a psychic event.” And so it is unaffected by external circumstance: a notion that is “surely” (and I do not disagree) “among the most ordinary of theological commonplaces.” And so Mr. Bozell concludes, “The freedom that is necessary to virtue is presumably a freedom no man will ever be without. Morally significant freedom is merely an aspect of the human condition: it is indispensable, but it is also inalienable.” And so “moral freedom is beyond the reach of politics.”
At this point Mr. Bozell handles a possible objection: that “the simulacrum of virtuous acts brought about by the coercion of superior power is not virtue, the meaning of which resides in the free choice of good over evil.” Agreeing for the moment “that virtue is not necessarily to be equated with the merit that qualifies for salvation,” Mr. Bozell describes a “second” or “humanistic” order of virtue, depending upon the good freely chosen, and proceeds to build a reductio ad absurdum the meaning of which is that we must destroy all institutions that make evil choices difficult and virtuous choices easy: “In short, libertarianism’s first command — maximize freedom — applies with equal vigor to all of society’s activities; and the meaning of the command, in effect, is this: virtue must be made as difficult as possible.”
Anticipating the libertarian’s further objection that it is only the state props that he wishes to dismantle, Mr. Bozell says, “On his own showing he has no business making such a distinction. There are, of course, vital differences between ‘state’ and ‘social’ sanctions, but they have no bearing on the argument in question here — namely, that maximum freedom of choice is essential to individual virtue.”
Mr. Bozell characterizes this position as an “existentialist” sort of heresy, that “man has no nature — no essence — and therefore no end other than to work out a nature from his potentialities, each man for himself.” Over against this Mr. Bozell offers his understanding of the “Christian metaphysic,” in which man’s nature is seen as “totally integrated with that of the rest of being.” But also it is man’s nature, he says, “that he, uniquely among created beings, has the capacity to deviate from the patterns of order — to, as it were, repudiate his nature: i.e., he is free. So viewed, freedom is hardly a blessing.…”
As a peroration to this section of his argument Mr. Bozell states the “marching orders of Christianity” — “to magnify the Christian Church: and to establish temporal conditions conducive to human virtue — that is, to build a Christian civilization.”
Is freedom, then, an a priori requirement for virtue? No, says Mr. Bozell: “We can agree that the freer the choice — i.e., the more difficult it is — the greater the merit. But if, by definition, the virtuous act is one that conforms with man’s nature, with the divine patterns of order — is the kind of heroic freedom envisioned by libertarian doctrine essential to such an act?” Here Mr. Bozell gives three examples of “good” actions, one of them “reflexive,” one of them “instinctive,” and one even “coerced by state power.” “Yet each of them, in itself, is a virtuous act if man’s virtue consists in conducting himself in conformity with his nature, with the divine patterns of order.”
Bozell sums up the “traditionalist” position:
“1. The goal of man is virtue — the fulfillment of the potentialities of his God-oriented nature. Man’s purpose therefore is to seek virtue. God rewards or punishes depending on how individual man, each judged in the context of his peculiar circumstances, conducts the quest.
“2. The chief purpose of politics is to aid the quest for virtue. Man’s corruption necessitates many such aids. The peculiar function of politics is to create a commonwealth whose institutions — one of which is the state — will reflect as nearly as possible the ideal values of truth, beauty and goodness, and so help instill them as real values in the consciousness of its citizens.
“3. Political (and economic) freedoms are, in this sense, ‘institutions’ which the prudent commonwealth will adopt in such measure as they are conducive to the virtue of its citizens.
“4. Free will inheres in human nature as a condition of each man’s personal quest for virtue. Without it, the quest could not take place — movement toward the goal would be impossible. Without it, no less important, the quest would be unnecessary — the goal would be at hand. Short of the goal, no man will lack opportunity for exercising free will. As the goal approaches, the occasions for exercising it will diminish, as it merges into the will of God.
“5. The urge to freedom for its own sake is, in the last analysis, a rebellion against nature; it is the urge to be free from God.”
Thus Mr. Bozell. Along with Frank Meyer he correctly scuttles the position of the doctrinaire libertarians, those who would place freedom as the highest goal of man, society, and state. But in asserting the supremacy of virtue as the unique goal of man, society, and state, Mr. Bozell must destroy Meyer’s claim that freedom is the requisite condition of virtue: must destroy, that is, the fusionist position. Mr. Bozell starts reasonably enough — by granting that man has free will, that man’s goal is to seek virtue, that there is such a thing as morally significant choice. But by gentle degrees he takes us to the position that asserts that freedom is, if anything, hardly a blessing; that freedom is not necessary to the good commonwealth but may be granted by the commonwealth to the citizens, on prudential grounds, in political and economic affairs; and that in any case freedom, or at least morally significant freedom, is beyond the reach of politics. How does Mr. Bozell lead us to these conclusions?
Confusion in Terms
I submit that the steps he has taken are concealed beneath a confusion in the use of his terms. Freedom, according to Mr. Bozell, may be many different things. It can be a “mystery” that leads to “spontaneity” in making choices — and hence is beyond the reach of politics: it is a moral condition. Or it can be an “institution” adopted in some measure by the “prudent commonwealth” — a sort of economic condition or political condition. (And in a section of his argument that I have omitted, Mr. Bozell speaks of political freedom as if he defined it merely as the right to vote.) In one place Mr. Bozell finds freedom “inalienable”: in another, it is possibly “conducive” to the virtue of citizens, and therefore should be “adopted” by the commonwealth and presented to the citizens. Doesn’t this conflict with his assertion that “morally significant freedom” is “inalienable” and “indispensable”? The urge to freedom for its own sake is, Mr. Bozell says, a rebellion against nature; yet he tells us man’s nature is uniquely defined by his being free. In another place he defines freedom as the “temptation to displease God” — though, if freedom is “hardly a blessing,” how can it be “indispensable” in the pursuit of virtue? Still elsewhere Mr. Bozell equates freedom of choice with “difficulty” of choice. He also uses a term, “heroic freedom,” the precise significance of which seems somewhat ignored.
I find similar confusion in Mr. Bozell’s idea of virtue. Clearly he concludes by defining it as “the fulfillment of the potentialities of man’s God-oriented nature.” But Mr. Bozell asserts that it is part of man’s nature not to be necessarily God-oriented; is the fulfillment of man’s potentialities for freedom part of man’s pursuit of virtue? We must assume not. Virtue, according to Mr. Bozell, must be the fulfillment of the potentialities of only that portion of man’s nature that is God-oriented. But Mr. Bozell also uses a term, “salvation,” which he says is earned by merit — and merit, he says, derives from a psychic event untouched and untouchable by external circumstances: that is why morally significant choice is beyond the reach of politics. However, Mr. Bozell does not mention salvation as the goal of man, but virtue, and apparently virtue is quite within the reach of politics: that is why politics must foster a commonwealth that will develop institutions that will aid man in the quest for virtue. This “morally significant choice” is equated, in Mr. Bozell’s terms, with virtue itself, the kind of virtue from which Mr. Bozell deduces the conclusion that “the freedom that is necessary to virtue is presumably a freedom no man will ever be without.” Yet he defines “true sanctity” as something to be achieved only in the loss of freedom.
A Singular Circularity
Finally, Mr. Bozell’s theory of the state reduces to a singular circularity. Man is corrupt, he tells us: and so man needs help in seeking virtue. Therefore man must engage in political activity, and his political activity will “create” a commonwealth (in itself a questionable chain of events), and the commonwealth will include (create? adopt? foster?) “institutions” (“one of which is the state”???) which will help to instill in man the real values of truth, beauty, and goodness. Thus corrupt man, working through various agencies under his influence (apparently), brings about his own beatification.
Mr. Bozell can manipulate his circular theory of the state as long as he can manipulate his unhinged definitions of freedom and virtue. If he wishes to show that freedom has nothing to do with virtue, he calls virtue a psychic event. If he wishes to show that the state has a great deal to do with virtue, he defines virtue as an existentially measurable action, which may be virtuous even while it is reflexive, instinctive, or even coerced by the state: that is, virtue is not a psychic event. If he wishes to ignore the claims of the actual world, he can discuss virtue in theological terms. If he wishes to press the claims of the world, he informs us that one of the marching orders of Christianity is to build a Christian civilization.
If the inner logic of Mr. Bozell’s argument fails by a wide margin to support his conclusions, his conclusions also fail to satisfy the circumspect reader. Let us grant for the moment Mr. Bozell’s assertion that the goal of man is virtue, and that virtue is measurable existentially in overt actions, and that the state and society’s institutions can help (and even coerce) men to make those overt actions. My objection here is that I have never been personally introduced to “the state” or to “social institutions.” I have met only men and women, and they have all fallen short of my, and I’m sure of Mr. Bozell’s, definition of a saint.
Also, I am not impressed with Mr. Bozell’s attempt to lump social institutions and the state all together in one bag of coercive powers that must be tossed into the sea if we are to have freedom: that is, his reductio ad absurdum derived from the libertarian plea to maximize freedom. He admits “vital distinctions,” but he fails to specify them. The vital distinction is that the state has the plain brute power (troops, bayonets, prisons) to enforce its will; whereas social institutions do not have that plain brute power. The difference between governmental coercion and social suggestion (or sanction, if you will) is crucial. I will retain my life, liberty and property if I thumb my nose at the whole range of social institutions; not so, if I resist the state. The merely influential force of accumulated custom and voluntary associations may be strong, but it is not commanding. Freedom consists in not being commanded.
The “theological commonplace” that man’s moral freedom is inalienable is commonplace enough, but it is a theological and not a political commonplace. We are, after all, conducting a discussion of political theory, with its necessary investigation of theological assumptions; but ultimately we are aiming to arrive at political truth and not theological truth. If we were interested only in the theological view of the doings of Mr. Bozell, for instance, we should find it easy to agree that he would not suffer in his opportunity to seek virtue even if he were chained in a dungeon. Indeed, under his theory that the good commonwealth actually uses coercive power to minimize the opportunity for non-virtue, that is, to minimize temptation, I suspect he would welcome the dungeon and the chains. For there is little temptation to be found when one is immobilized and isolated, is there? But if it is to be the state that must minimize temptation, let me remind Mr. Bozell that in one prayer popular among certain traditionalists it is not the state to whom we pray to lead us not into temptation.…
Nevertheless, we have Mr. Bozell in the black pit now: what will he do? Relax, smile, be virtuous “in the context of his peculiar circumstances”? The crucial point is that he would not. He would struggle for something besides his admittedly inalienable moral freedom, because he would see his position not only in theological terms (the dungeon be damned, it’s the soul that counts) but also in political terms — that is, in terms of the damage suffered by the good society when good men are salted away for keeps. There are children to be reared, are there not? Our definition of the good society excludes the alternative of rearing children in dungeons, does it not? There are good works to be performed, are there not — such as the magnification of the Christian Church? There must be freedom, in more ways than moral: freedom to travel, freedom of speech, freedom of worship. Else how do we act as missionaries? Much as Mr. Bozell pretends to rail at those who find a “secondary” or “humanistic” order of virtue, something less austere than the private effort toward personal salvation, I think he must accept a good part of what he rails at. There is work to be done here, now, in this world; and it is not to be done by immobile captives, nor, except in the mystical sense, by saints sitting on pillars in the desert. I once had the opportunity to mention to Mr. Bozell that it was possible to consider the community of pillar sitters as in one sense a good society, but that it had suffered from one obvious handicap: it was unable to reproduce its kind.
At this point I think Mr. Bozell will grant a certain reluctant assent. If I let him have his theological commonplace about the inalienability of moral freedom, he will let me have a certain amount of freedom in other directions as long as it is subservient to the ends of the good society. But thus far isn’t far enough. And before we go further, let’s strip our vocabulary of its confusions. The time has come to nail a couple of terms down for good.
A Couple of Definitions
Freedom. In relation to the individual citizen, the absence of coercion exercised against his life, property, person, action, thought, expression. So defined, freedom can never be achieved absolutely, because from the start it must be limited (by governmental coercion) so that one individual may not coerce another. So defined (and here lies the argument against the doctrinaire libertarians), freedom cannot serve as man’s goal, because it involves no value judgment: it is an objectively measurable social condition. When it obtains, and to the extent that it obtains, individual human beings enjoy the opportunity to make choices over a range of matters varying from the purely psychic (shall we or shall we not look upon another’s wife with lustful thought?) to the purely mechanical (shall we or shall we not send this airmail?) — and yet to some extent every choice has a bearing on the direction and viability of the society as a whole. That is why Mr. Bozell must choose to get out of that dungeon if he can, and if he chooses bribery over the hacksaw, it may make a difference for Christian civilization, for it may make the difference between success and failure in his attempted bolt.
Freedom, so defined, has nothing to do with influences exercised by voluntary associations. The influences (usually for the good) of social institutions and voluntary associations are measurable, both in the degree to which they affect the individual judgment, and, granted a wisdom properly tempered with humility, measurable also in terms of their consonance with the constitution of being. This much granted, the wise and mature individual person will consider himself quite capable of evaluating the institutional influences at work upon him; and quite capable of rejecting them if he wishes. This is what Mr. Bozell does when he undertakes to discuss political theory and social conditions. Does he feel somehow unfree despite the vigor with which he attacks these influences? Nay, the concept of the good society must include the individual’s option to reject whatever institutions he finds at variance with reality. That is why the claims of freedom must not be subordinated to the other claims implicit in the human condition. But note that freedom is not raised to the prior notch, either: it is no more and no less than the essential condition under which man must, to be human, live his life and seek virtue. And Mr. Bozell has his signals reversed here: if he wishes to make virtuous choice easy, and if he defines virtue as the choice men make in accordance with their own conscience, then only when men are not subject to the coercion of the state can they make their choices, according to their conscience, in the knowledge that an unorthodox or original solution will not lead to a jail sentence. In dungeons one may be virtuous, but dungeons are not necessary to virtue.
Virtue. Virtue it is in man to conform to his nature: a nature that includes not only the potential capacity to know God but also the present capacity to repudiate his nature — to be “free,” as Mr. Bozell would (inaccurately) say. Given both sides of man’s nature, virtue must consist in man’s consciously choosing to know God. Merit, then, accrues to the extent of man’s knowledge of God; salvation, to that extent again but with the additional advantage of grace unmerited — “unbought,” would Burke say? But the condition of the choosing: that is the condition of moral inviolability in human nature. The soul cannot be coerced. It can be tempted, though, and in the possibility of temptation Mr. Bozell finds the justification for his politics of coercion. But we have seen that his political theory is circular, and now we can see the ultimate reason for its failure: virtue, like freedom, can be considered only as an aspect of the individual human being. The state is not free; it is autonomous. The state cannot be virtuous, because it cannot be damned — or saved. Society (the sum of individuals) cannot be free or unfree, because it has neither life nor property nor personality that can be subject to coercion; only individuals can be coerced. Thus the individual is, as Meyer says, the locus of virtue, and the locus of freedom. The state cannot coerce the individual’s virtue, but it can coerce individuals to act in accordance with the state’s notions of virtue. But here comes the dungeon again, as soon as you admit a state that can lock up anyone who looks as if he might present a temptation to others. The dungeon is the opposite side of the coin in which Mr. Bozell minted his reductio ad absurdum, when he lampooned the idea that virtue consists only in resisting the most seductive and the most numerous temptations. Virtue consists in the willed movement towards God. The man who never sins (in the objective order), but who also never prays — may be an atheist.
Free Will. That quality of man’s nature which may be assumed to be functioning when he takes a course of action that he knows may lead to moral or material disaster. Not objectively measurable — in fact, neither provable nor disproven. Unfortunately, the phrase uses the word “free” although what it signifies has nothing whatsoever to do with the notion of “freedom” as defined above, which is an objectively measurable social condition, and which is best described in negative terms. A man is free to the extent that certain observable conditions obtain; he has free will no matter what the external circumstances are.
Freedom, virtue, and the state — let us finally come to grips with these. The ultimate question Mr. Bozell asks is whether freedom is an a priori requirement for virtue. As long as virtue consists in a willed movement towards God, the only a priori requirement is the existence of free will. As long as free will is considered to be inalienable and inviolable, the coercive power of the state is irrelevant: that is, whether a man lives under Communist tyranny or in the relatively free conditions in the United States, he remains in charge of his moral decisions, and solely in charge, and his performance in the moral realm will help to determine his reward. But the central consideration here is that a tyranny such as Communism makes it extremely difficult for a citizen to live a moral life and survive the usual number of years allotted to men. Virtue can be a costly thing under tyranny. It is under a dictatorship, not in freedom, that virtue becomes, as Mr. Bozell would say, “heroic.” I fully agree with him that the state (and society, to the extent it has coercive power) should not operate in such a way as to make virtuous action heroic — that is, to make it expensive, painful, disastrous. That is why the claims of freedom are prior to the claims of virtue in the political realm, because as freedom is extended so also are amplified the opportunities for men to seek virtue without fear of overwhelming consequences.
If Mr. Bozell thinks that to maximize freedom is to make virtue as difficult as possible, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that he thinks a certain degree of tyranny is an a priori requirement for virtue — which is an absurdity, granted virtue’s dependency on free will, and the inviolability and inalienability of free will. Not to mention the corruption of the tyrant.
Of course the amplification of freedom opens the door to an expanse of activities we couldn’t call virtuous. But if man is capable of misusing his freedom, we should direct our attention not at his freedom but at his free will: for it is his faulty choices, and not the lenience with which they are tolerated, that constitute the difficulty. But his free will is untouchable; and if we cannot restrict his free will by restricting his freedom, what earthly (or other) purpose can be served by restricting his freedom?
In Mr. Bozell’s proposals I find a hint of despair: surely he knows that man’s freedom leads to non-virtuous actions as well as virtuous, and he appears to be seeking to end evil by inventing a mechanism by which man can avoid making choices. But man cannot avoid making choices, even in that famous dungeon (you can come out now, Brent). The essence of his nature is precisely the making of choices, and the challenge of his condition is to make the correct choices — the virtuous choices.
The Species Is Wise
This is where we must turn to social institutions, tradition, cultural wisdom. The individual is foolish, but the species wise; and for most individuals the accumulated knowledge of mankind as expressed in social institutions will suffice as an initial guide to virtue. But virtue cannot be coerced; and so social institutions must not be anything more potent than voluntary associations. Taken altogether, they may present a towering structure of sanctions, directives, regulations — but the individual who rejects the entire package of social sanctions and who yet lives in freedom will retain the means of his existence both material and moral: his property, his personal mobility, his unhindered right to thought and expression, and so his opportunity to continue to seek virtue according to the light of his conscience, even having rejected all other lights.
The individual is foolish, but the species wise. Yes, but the species is wise not because of the accumulated wisdom of the species, which does not think or write or pray, but because of those exceptional individuals who have thought and written and prayed — and who have often been killed for their efforts. We have killed our saints and our prophets but we have always come, at the end, to the point of learning from them, and what they died for cannot be claimed as the accomplishment of the species. And yet what they have given us is worthy and necessary in and of itself; it matters not that they were killed. Killing a prophet is not an a priori requirement of the good society or the wisdom of the species. Indeed, I should imagine the reverse to be more likely: that a society that welcomes its prophets and affords them a place of honor in the forum will the more readily learn the paths toward virtue.
TOPICS: General Discussion
KEYWORDS: frankmeyer; freewill; fusionism; history; libertarianism; rnlc; virtue
Caught this in a National Review email.
posted on 07/13/2010 8:09:03 PM PDT
Thats just my online text to html converter. Haven’t found a better one yet. Open to suggestions.
posted on 07/13/2010 8:21:32 PM PDT
("The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule." H. L. Mencken)
They overcomplicate the issue.
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” - Ecclesiastes 12:13.
posted on 07/13/2010 9:02:41 PM PDT
(For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.)
Ah but Reed, should the government force us to adhere to the commandments if we are not readily inclined? Read my tagline.
posted on 07/13/2010 9:08:46 PM PDT
("The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule." H. L. Mencken)
I did not refer to government in my post at all. The writer makes an attempt to equate the virtuous nature of an individual to the virtuous nature of society, claiming through the “species is wise” that even when the group does wrong it learns from the same. This is an assumption that can be proven false by merely looking at the cyclical nature of our economic situation.
No, in fact, I would argue that the individual must inherently focus on themselves - whether government exists or nay. Then if the individuals are moral the sum of the whole will tend toward morality.....however, tendency does not ensure a sustaining nature beyond the moment. Thus the mob of “law-abiding” citizens that once having completed their task look in horror upon what they have wrought. Thereby the momentary corruption of the many results in an abhorent result, whereas the momentary corruption of the one will tend back toward the line that they have set for themselves.
Morality as with governmental action MUST by it’s nature end at the tip of ones nose with the result that none impinge upon another’s natural rights. The summation of these rights being what the individual believes - for to categorize these rights is a limitation unto themselves. The one caveat being that you may not take a right upon oneself (or any institution) that would impact another’s right.
This is why my quote wherein I’m basically saying mind to your own self for there is no duty to mind another - nor is there any right and this limitation extends to the government as well as the individual.
posted on 07/14/2010 2:47:07 PM PDT
(For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.)
It’s far better to post challenging material that forces us Freepers to think, and to consider what is truly important, than to worry about aesthetics. Keep up the good work.
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