519-530

519-530
 The Use of Knowledge in Society
F. A. Hayek
The American Economic Review, Volume 35, Issue 4 (Sep., 1945), 519-530.
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Thu Mar 8 17:52:12 2001
The American Economic Review
VOLUME XXXV SEPTEMBER, 1945 NUMBER FOUR
THE USE OF KNOWLEDGE IN SOCIETY
by F. A. HAYEK*
I
What is the problem we wish to solve when we try to construct a
rational economic order?
On certain familiar assumptions the answer is simple enough. If we
possess all the relevant information, if we can start out from a given
system of preferences and if we command complete knowledge of
available means, the problem which remains is purely one of logic.
That is, the answer to the question of what is the best use of the
available means is implicit in our assumptions. The conditions which
the solution of this optimum problem must satisfy have been fully
worked out and can be stated best in mathematical form: put at their
briefest, they are that the marginal rates of substitution between any
two commodities or factors must be the same in all their different uses.
This, however, is emphatically not the economic problem which
society faces. And the economic calculus which we have developed to
solve this logical problem, though an important step toward the solu-
tion of the economic problem of society, does not yet provide an
answer to it. The reason for this is that the “data” from which the
economic calculus starts are never for the whole society “given” to a
single mind which could work out the implications, and can never be
so given.
The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order
is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circum-
stances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or
integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and
frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals
possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem
* The author is Tooke professor of political economy and statistics at the University
of London (London School of Economics and Political Science).
520 THE AMERICAN ECONOMIC REVIEW [ SEPTEMBER
of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean
given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by
these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of
resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose
relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly,
it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge not given to anyone
in its totality.
This character of the fundamental problem has, I am afraid, been
rather obscured than illuminated by many of the recent refinements
of economic theory, particularly by many of the uses made of mathe-
matics. Though the problem with which I want primarily to deal in
this paper is the problem of a rational economic organization, I shall
in its course be led again and again to point to its close connections
with certain methodological questions. Many of the points I wish to
make are indeed conclusions toward which diverse paths of reasoning
have unexpectedly converged. But as I now see these problems, this is
no accident. It seems to me that many of the current disputes with
regard to both economic theory and economic policy have their common
origin in a misconception about the nature of the economic problem
of society. This misconception in turn is due to an erroneous transfer
to social phenomena of the habits of thought we have developed in
dealing with the phenomena of nature.
II
In ordinary language we describe by the word “planning” the com-
plex of interrelated decisions about the allocation of our available
resources. All economic activity is in this sense planning; and in any
society in which many people collaborate, this planning, whoever does
it, will in some measure have to be based on knowledge which, in the
first instance, is not given to the planner but to somebody else,
which somehow will have to be conveyed to the planner. The various
ways in which the knowledge on which people base their plans is
communicated to them is the crucial problem for any theory explaining
the economic process. And the problem of what is the best way of
utilizing knowledge initially dispersed among all the people is at least
one of the main problems of economic policy—or of designing an
efficient economic system.
The answer to this question is closely connected with that other
question which arises here, that of who is to do the planning. It is
about this question that all the dispute about “economic planning”
centers. This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done
or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally,
by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided
1945] HAYEK: THE USE OF KNOWLEDGE IN SOCIETY 521
among many individuals. Planning in the specific sense in which the
term is used in contemporary controversy necessarily means central
planning—direction of the whole economic system according to one
unified plan. Competition, on the other hand, means decentralized
planning by many separate persons. The half-way house between the
two, about which many people talk but which few like when they
see it, is the delegation of planning to organized industries, or, in other
words, monopoly.
Which of these systems is likely to be more efficient depends mainly
on the question under which of them we can expect that fuller use
will be made of the existing knowledge. And this, in turn, depends on
whether we are more likely to succeed in putting at the disposal of a
single central authority all the knowledge which ought to be used but
Which is initially dispersed among many different individuals, or in
conveying to the individuals such additional knowledge as they need
in order to enable them to fit their plans in with those of others.
III
It will at once be evident that on this point the position will be
different with respect to different kinds of knowledge; and the answer
to our question will therefore largely turn on the relative importance
of the different kinds of knowledge; those more likely to be at the
disposal of particular individuals and those which we should with
greater confidence expect to find in the possession of an authority made
up of suitably chosen experts. If it is today so widely assumed that
the latter will be in a better position, this is because one kind of
knowledge, namely, scientific knowledge, occupies now so prominent
a place in public imagination that we tend to forget that it is not the
only kind that is relevant. It may be admitted that, so far as scientific
knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in
the best position to command all the best knowledge available—though
this is of course merely shifting the difficulty to the problem of selecting
the experts. What I wish to point out is that, even assuming that this
problem can be readily solved, it is only a small part of the wider
problem.
Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not
the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there
is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowl-
edge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowl-
edge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances
of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every
individual has some advantage over all others in that he possesses
unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of
522 THE AMERICAN ECONOMIC REVIEW [SEPTEMBER
which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left
to him or are made with his active cooperation. We need to remember
only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have
completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life
we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all
walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and special
circumstances. To know of and put to use a machine not fully employed,
or somebody’s skill which could be better utilized, or to be aware of a
surplus stock which can be drawn upon during an interruption of
supplies, is socially quite as useful as the knowledge of better alterna-
tive techniques. And the shipper who earns his living from using
otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the
estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of
temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local
differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful
functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting
moment not known to others.
It is a curious fact that this sort of knowledge should today be
generally regarded with a kind of contempt, and that anyone who by
such knowledge gains an advantage over somebody better equipped
with theoretical or technical knowledge is thought to have acted almost
disreputably. To gain an advantage from better knowledge of facilities
of communication or transport is sometimes regarded as almost dis-
honest, although it is quite as important that society make use of the
best opportunities in this respect as in using the latest scientific
discoveries. This prejudice has in a considerable measure affected the
attitude toward commerce in general compared with that toward pro-
duction. Even economists who regard themselves as definitely above
the crude materialist fallacies of the past constantly commit the same
mistake where activities directed toward the acquisition of such prac-
tical knowledge are concerned—apparently because in their scheme of
things all such knowledge is supposed to be “given.” The common idea
now seems to be that all such knowledge should as a matter of course
be readily at the command of everybody, and the reproach of irra-
tionality leveled against the existing economic order is frequently based
on the fact that it is not so available. This view disregards the fact that
the method by which such knowledge can be made as widely available
as possible is precisely the problem to which we have to find an answer.
IV
If it is fashionable today to minimize the importance of the knowl-
edge of the particular circumstances of time and place, this is closely
connected with the smaller importance which is now attached to change
1945] HAYEK: THE USE OF KNOWLEDGE IN SOCIETY 523
`
as such. Indeed, there are few points on which the assumptions made
(usually only implicitly) by the “planners” differ from those of their
opponents as much as with regard to the significance and frequency of
changes which will make substantial alterations of production plans
necessary. Of course, if detailed economic plans could be laid down
for fairly long periods in advance and then closely adhered to, so that
no further economic decisions of importance would be required, the
task of drawing up a comprehensive plan governing all economic
activity would appear much less formidable.
It is, perhaps, worth stressing that economic problems arise always
and only in consequence of change. So long as things continue as
before, or at least as they were expected to, there arise no new problems
requiring a decision, no need to form a new plan. The belief that
changes, or at least day-to-day adjustments, have become less im-
portant in modern times implies the contention that economic problems
also have become less important. This belief in the decreasing im-
portance of change is, for that reason, usually held by the same people
who argue that the importance of economic considerations has been
driven into the background by the growing importance of technological
knowledge.
Is it true that, with the elaborate apparatus of modern production,
economic decisions are required only at long intervals, as when a new
factory is to be erected or a new process to be introduced? Is it true
that, once a plant has been built, the rest is all more or less mechanical,
determined by the character of the plant, and leaving little to be
changed in adapting to the ever-changing circumstances of the moment?
The fairly widespread belief in the affirmative is not, so far as I
can ascertain, borne out by the practical experience of the business
man. In a competitive industry at any rate—and such an industry
alone can serve as a test—the task of keeping cost from rising requires
constant struggle, absorbing a great part of the energy of the manager.
How easy it is for an inefficient manager to dissipate the differentials
on which profitability rests, and that it is possible, with the same
technical facilities, to produce with a great variety of costs, are among
the commonplaces of business experience which do not seem to be
equally familiar in the study of the economist. The very strength of
the desire, constantly voiced by producers and engineers, to be able
to proceed untrammeled by considerations of money costs, is eloquent
testimony to the extent to which these factors enter into their daily
work.
One reason why economists are increasingly apt to forget about the
constant small changes which make up the whole economic picture is
probably their growing preoccupation with statistical aggregates, which
524 THE AMERICAN ECONOMIC REVIEW [SEPTEMBER
show a very much greater stability than the movements of the detail.
The comparative stability of the aggregates cannot, however, be ac-
counted for—as the statisticians seem occasionally to be inclined to
do—by the “law of large numbers” or the mutual compensation of
random changes. The number of elements with which we have to deal
is not large enough for such accidental forces to produce stability. The
continuous flow of goods and services is maintained by constant de-
liberate adjustments, by new dispositions made every day in the light
of circumstances not known the day before, by B stepping in at once
when 4 fails to deliver. Even the large and highly mechanized plant
keeps going largely because of an environment upon which it can draw
for all sorts of unexpected needs; tiles for its roof, stationery for its
forms, and all the thousand and one kinds of equipment in which it
cannot be self-contained and which the plans for the operation of the
plant require to be readily available in the market.
This is, perhaps, also the point where I should briefly mention the
fact that the sort of knowledge with which I have been concerned is
knowledge of the kind which by its nature cannot enter into statistics
and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical
form. The statistics which such a central authority would have to use
would have to be arrived at precisely by abstracting from minor differ-
ences between the things, by lumping together, as resources of one
kind, items which differ as regards location, quality, and other particu-
lars, in a way which may be very significant for the specific decision.
It follows from this that central planning based on statistical informa-
tion by its nature cannot take direct account of these circumstances
of time and place, and that the central planner will have to find some
way or other in which the decisions depending on them can be left to
the “man on the spot.”
V
If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one
of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time
and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be
left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know
directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately
available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be
solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board
which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must
solve it by some form of decentralization. But this answers only part
of our problem. We need decentralization because only thus can we
ensure that the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and
place will be promptly used. But the “man on the spot” cannot decide
1945] HAYEK: THE USE OF KNOWLEDGE IN SOCIETY 525
solely on the basis of his limited but intimate knowledge of the facts
of his immediate surroundings. There still remains the problem of
communicating to him such further information as he needs to fit his
decisions into the whole pattern of changes of the larger economic
system.
How much knowledge does he need to do so successfully? Which
of the events which happen beyond the horizon of his immediate
knowledge are of relevance to his immediate decision, and how much
of them need he know?
There is hardly anything that happens anywhere in the world that
might not have an effect on the decision he ought to make. But he need
not know of these events as such, nor of all their effects. It does not
matter for him w”y at the particular moment more screws of one size
than of another are wanted, why paper bags are more readily available
than canvas bags, or why skilled labor, or particular machine tools,
have for the moment become more difficult to acquire. All that is
significant for him is how much more or less difficult to procure they
have become compared with other things with which he is also con-
cerned, or how much more or less urgently wanted are the alternative
things he produces or uses. It is always a question of the relative
importance of the particular things with which he is concerned, and
the causes which alter their relative importance are of no interest to
him beyond the effect on those concrete things of his own environment.
It is in this connection that what I have called the economic calculus
proper helps us, at least by analogy, to see how this problem can be
solved, and in fact is being solved, by the price system. Even the single
controlling mind, in possession of all the data for some small, self-
contained economic system, would not—every time some small adjust-
ment in the allocation of resources had to be made—go explicitly
through all the relations between ends and means which might possibly
be affected. It is indeed the great contribution of the pure logic of
choice that it has demonstrated conclusively that even such a single
mind could solve this kind of problem only by constructing and
constantly using rates of equivalence (or “values,” or “marginal rates
of substitution”), i.e., by attaching to each kind of scarce resource a
numerical index which cannot be derived from any property possessed
by that particular thing, but which reflects, or in which is condensed,
its significance in view of the whole means-end structure. In any small
change he will have to consider only these quantitative indices (or
“values”) in which all the relevant information is concentrated; and
by adjusting the quantities one by one, he can appropriately rearrange
his dispositions without having to solve the whole puzzle ab initio, or
without needing at any stage to survey it at once in all its ramifications.
526 THE AMERICAN ECONOMIC REVIEW [SEPTEMBER
Fundamentally, in a system where the knowledge of the relevant
facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coordinate the
separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective
values help the individual to coordinate the parts of his plan. It is
worth contemplating for a moment a very simple and commonplace
instance of the action of the price system to see what precisely it
accomplishes. Assume that somewhere in the world a new opportunity
for the use of some raw material, say tin, has arisen, or that one of
the sources of supply of tin has been eliminated. It does not matter
for our purpose—and it is very significant that it does not matter—
which of these two causes has made tin more scarce. All that the users
of tin need to know is that some of the tin they used to consume is now
more profitably employed elsewhere, and that in consequence they
must economize tin. There is no need for the great majority of them
even to know where the more urgent need has arisen, or in favor of
what other needs they ought to husband the supply. If only some of
them know directly of the new demand, and switch resources over to it,
and if the people who are aware of the new gap thus created in turn
fill it from still other sources, the effect will rapidly spread throughout
the whole economic system and influence not only all the uses of tin,
but also those of its substitutes and the substitutes of these substitutes,
the supply of all the things made of tin, and their substitutes, and so
on; and all this without the great majority of those instrumental in
bringing about these substitutions knowing anything at all about the
original cause of these changes. The whole acts as one market, not
because any of its members survey the whole field, but because their
limited individual fields of vision sufficiently overlap so that through
many intermediaries the relevant information is communicated to all.
The mere fact that there is one price for any commodity—or rather
that local prices are connected in a manner determined by the cost of
transport, etc.—brings about the solution which (it is just conceptually
possible) might have been arrived at by one single mind possessing
all the information which is in fact dispersed among all the people
involved in the process.
VI
We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for com-
municating information if we want to understand its real function—a
function which, of course, it fulfills less perfectly as prices grow more
rigid. (Even when quoted prices have become quite rigid, however, the
forces which would operate through changes in price still operate to a
considerable extent through changes in the other terms of the contract.)
The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge
1945] HAYEK: THE USE OF KNOWLEDGE IN SOCIETY 527
with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to
know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form,
by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on,
and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to
describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change,
~ or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers
to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might
watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to
changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the
price movement,
Of course, these adjustments are probably never “perfect” in the
sense in which the economist conceives of them in his equilibrium
analysis. But I fear that our theoretical habits of approaching the
problem with the assumption of more or less perfect knowledge on the
part of almost everyone has made us somewhat blind to the true
function of the price mechanism and led us to apply rather misleading
standards in judging its efficiency. The marvel is that in a case like
that of a scarcity of one raw material, without an order being issued,
without more than perhaps a handful of people knowing the cause, tens
of thousands of people whose identity could not be ascertained by
months of investigation, are made to use the material or its products
more sparingly; i.e., they move in the right direction. This is enough
of a marvel even if, in a constantly changing world, not all will hit it
off so perfectly that their profit rates will always be maintained at the
same constant or “normal” level.
I have deliberately used the word “marvel” to shock the reader out
of the complacency with which we often take the working of this
mechanism for granted. I am convinced that if it were the result of
deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes
understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their
immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of
the greatest triumphs of the human mind. Its misfortune is the double
one that it is not the product of human design and that the people
guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do.
But those who clamor for “conscious direction”—and who cannot be-
lieve that anything which has evolved without design (and even without
our understanding it) should solve problems which we should not be
able to solve consciously—should remember this: The problem is pre-
cisely how to extend the span of our utilization of resources beyond
the span of the control of any one mind; and, therefore, how to dispense
with the need of conscious control and how to provide inducements
which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone
having to tell them what to do.
528 THE AMERICAN ECONOMIC REVIEW [ SEPTEMBER
The problem which we meet here is by no means peculiar to eco-
nomics but arises in connection with nearly all truly social phenomena,
with language and most of our cultural inheritance, and constitutes
really the central theoretical problem of all social science. As Alfred
Whitehead has said in another connection, “It is a profoundly erroneous
truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they
are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking
what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization ad-
vances by extending the number of important operations which we
can perform without thinking about them.” This is of profound sig-
nificance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols
and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use
of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which
individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and
institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved
successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the
foundation of the civilization we have built up.
The price system is just one of those formations which man has
learned to use (though he is still very far from having learned to make
the best use of it) after he had stumbled upon it without understanding
it. Through it not only a division of labor but also a coórdinated utiliza-
tion of resources based on an equally divided knowledge has become
possible. The people who like to deride any suggestion that this may
be so usually distort the argument by insinuating that it asserts that
by some miracle just that sort of system has spontaneously grown up
Which is best suited to modern civilization. It is the other way round:
man has been able to develop that division of labor on which our
civilization is based because he happened to stumble upon a method
Which made it possible. Had he not done so he might still have de-
veloped some other, altogether different, type of civilization, something
like the “state” of the termite ants, or some other altogether un-
imaginable type. All that we can say is that nobody has yet succeeded
in designing an alternative system in which certain features of the
existing one can be preserved which are dear even to those who most
violently assail it—such as particularly the extent to which the indi-
vidual can choose his pursuits and consequently freely use his own
knowledge and skill.
VII
It is in many ways fortunate that the dispute about the indispensa-
bility of the price system for any rational calculation in a complex
society is now no longer conducted entirely between camps holding
different political views. The thesis that without the price system we
1945] HAYEK: THE USE OF KNOWLEDGE IN SOCIETY 529
could not preserve a society based on such extensive division of labor
as ours was greeted with a howl of derision when it was first advanced
by von Mises twenty-five years ago. Today the difficulties which some
still find in accepting it are no longer mainly political, and this makes
for an atmosphere much more conducive to reasonable discussion.
When we find Leon Trotsky arguing that “economic accounting is
unthinkable without market relations’; when Professor Oscar Lange
promises Professor von Mises a statue in the marble halls of the future
Central Planning Board; and when Professor Abba P. Lerner re-
discovers Adam Smith and emphasizes that the essential utility of the
price system consists in inducing the individual, while seeking his own
interest, to do what is in the general interest, the differences can indeed
no longer be ascribed to political prejudice. The remaining dissent
seems clearly to be due to purely intellectual, and more particularly
methodological, differences.
A recent statement by Professor Joseph Schumpeter in his Capitalism,
Socialism and Democracy provides a clear illustration of one of the
methodological differences which I have in mind. Its author is pre-
eminent among those economists who approach economic phenomena
in the light of a certain branch of positivism. To him these phenomena
accordingly appear as objectively given quantities of commodities
impinging directly upon each other, almost, it would seem, without
any intervention of human minds. Only against this background can
I account for the following (to me startling) pronouncement. Professor
Schumpeter argues that the possibility of a rational calculation in the
absence of markets for the factors of production follows for the theorist
“from the elementary proposition that consumers in evaluating (‘de-
manding’) consumers’ goods ipso facto also evaluate the means of
production which enter into the production of these goods.”
Taken literally, this statement is simply untrue. The consumers do
nothing of the kind. What Professor Schumpeter’s “ipso facto” pre-
sumably means is that the valuation of the factors of production is
17. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York, Harper, 1942), р.
175. Professor Schumpeter is, I believe, also the original author of the myth that Pareto
and Barone have “solved” the problem of socialist calculation. What they, and many
others, did was merely to state the conditions which a rational allocation of resources
would have to satisfy, and to point out that these were essentially the same as the condi-
tions of equilibrium of a competitive market. This is something altogether different from
showing how the allocation of resources satisfying these conditions can be found in prac-
tice. Pareto himself (from whom Barone has taken practically everything he has to say),
far from claiming to have solved the practical problem, in fact explicitly denies that it
can be solved without the help of the market. See his Manuel d’économie pure (2nd ed.,
1027), pp. 233-34. The relevant passage is quoted in an English translation at the begin-
ning of my article on “Socialist Calculation: The Competitive “Solution,” in Economica,
New Series, Vol. VIII, No. 26 (May, 1940), p. 125.
530 THE AMERICAN ECONOMIC REVIEW
implied in, or follows necessarily from, the valuation of consumers’
goods. But this, too, is not correct. Implication is a logical relationship
which can be meaningfully asserted only of propositions simultaneously
present to one and the same mind. It is evident, however, that the
values of the factors of production do not depend solely on the valua-
tion of the consumers’ goods but also on the conditions of supply of
the various factors of production. Only to a mind to which all these
facts were simultaneously known would the answer necessarily follow
from the facts given to it. The practical problem, however, arises pre-
cisely because these facts are never so given to a single mind, and
because, in consequence, it is necessary that in the solution of the
problem knowledge should be used that is dispersed among many
people.
The problem is thus in no way solved if we can show that all the
facts, if they were known to a single mind (as we hypothetically
assume them to be given to the observing economist), would uniquely
determine the solution; instead we must show how a solution is pro-
duced by the interactions of people each of whom possesses only partial
knowledge. To assume all the knowledge to be given to a single mind
in the same manner in which we assume it to be given to us as the
explaining economists is to assume the problem away and to disregard
everything that is important and significant in the real world.
That an economist of Professor Schumpeter’s standing should thus
have fallen into a trap which the ambiguity of the term “datum” sets
to the unwary can hardly be explained as a simple error. It suggests
rather than there is something fundamentally wrong with an approach
which habitually disregards an essential part of the phenomena with
which we have to deal: the unavoidable imperfection of man’s knowl-
edge and the consequent need for a process by which knowledge is
constantly communicated and acquired. Any approach, such as that of
much of mathematical economics with its simultaneous equations,
which in effect starts from the assumption that people’s knowledge
corresponds with the objective facts of the situation, systematically
leaves out what is our main task to explain. I am far from denying
that in our system equilibrium analysis has a useful function to per-
form. But when it comes to the point where it misleads some of our
leading thinkers into believing that the situation which it describes
has direct relevance to the solution of practical problems, it is time
that we remember that it does not deal with the social process at all
and that it is no more than a useful preliminary to the study of the
main problem.
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