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by Horacio Spector


Liberty is one of the central concepts in political theory.   Liberty (social or political freedom) and metaphysical freedom (“freedom of the will”) are logically distinct concepts.  Metaphysical freedom denotes the position of human agency in relation to the causal structure of the natural world.   In contrast, liberty relates to the condition of individuals in relation to each other (e.g., in society).  Still it is important to note that metaphysical freedom and related notions of autonomy and moral freedom have historically played an important role in the shaping of the liberal conception of liberty (Taylor 1984; Gray 1984; Schneewind, 1998). 

Some modern political theorists (e.g., Locke, Rousseau) draw a distinction between natural liberty and civil liberty.  The latter denotes the condition of individuals in a civil or political association.  The former refers to the condition of people in the state of nature -- a situation where the political society is not still established or has ceased to exist. Yet the concept of natural liberty has an important role in political theory. It is often introduced in order to explain sovereignty or to ground the legitimacy of government.

In 1819 Benjamin Constant delivered a famous speech at the Athénée Royal in Paris (De la liberté des anciens, comparée avec celle des modernes), in which he framed the modern debate about liberty (Constant 1988).  However, the basic ideas were already present in his essay on De l’esprit de conquête et de l’usurpation, dans leurs rapports avec la civilisation européenne.  Constant distinguishes between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.   While the ancients called liberty the collective exercise of political sovereignty, the liberty of the moderns consists in privacy and independence. Constant argues that Rousseau and the abbé de Mably took the ideal of liberty as political self-government from Greece and Rome. He says: “The liberty which was offered to men at the end of the last century was borrowed from the ancient republics… That liberty consisted in active participation in collective power rather than in the peaceful enjoyment of individual independence” (Constant 1988, 102).  For Constant a representative government alone provides the necessary guarantees for individual independence. This does not mean that Constant identifies the liberty of the moderns with political liberty.  Political liberty is a means to and a condition of modern liberty, but it is not modern liberty itself. Constant makes a masterful analysis of the conditions under which collective liberty was valued in antiquity: narrow territory of republics, permanent war, and slave labor. For Constant such conditions are different in modernity.  In particular, commerce leaves little time for political activities and the wealth arising from it gives rise to private pleasures, the enjoyment of which requires individual independence.  The whole thrust of Constant’s speech is political and normative.  Horrified by the bloody extremes of the French Revolution, he alerts about the utopian project of imposing ancient liberty in modern commercial societies.

Under the influence of Constant (among others), Isaiah Berlin differentiates negative liberty and positive liberty in his renowned  essay on Two Concepts of Liberty.    For Berlin negative freedom has to do with the question “What is the area within which the subject …is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons”.  On the contrary, positive liberty is related to the question “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” (Berlin 1969, 121-122).  Berlin equates negative liberty with absence of interference (or coercion), and positive liberty with individual or collective self-direction.  Typically, self-direction accords with reasons and laws. Berlin associates negative liberty with “liberty from” and positive liberty with “liberty to” (Berlin 1969, 131).  He also says that the ideas of acting without interference and of being one’s own master -- i.e., negative liberty and positive liberty-- “seem concepts at no great logical distance form each other -- no more than negative and positive ways of saying much the same thing.” (Berlin 1969, 131).

As much as Constant’s distinction between ancient and modern liberty, Berlin’s division is not merely analytical, but serves a political purpose.  His emphasis on negative liberty might suggest that he is trying to defend liberal individualism.  This is wrong. The laissez faire/social democracy debate exceeds the scope of his essay. Indeed, Berlin writes in a time where the great menace is totalitarianism.  He notes that positive liberty has often been a dangerous weapon in the hands of authoritarians, because it suggests the idea of a self divided into two sides: a “higher or true self” and a “lower self”, with the former governing the latter.   This makes it possible to claim that totalitarian coercion is not only congenial to liberty but also a necessary condition of it, so long as the coercion is addressed to the lower self as a means to achieve the full manifestation of the true self.  Berlin is best understood as demarcating the proper place of liberty as opposed to equality and other political values. In fact, he defends a pluralistic value theory, which warrants social democratic governments.

The Constant-Berlin dichotomy must be supplemented by a distinction between moralized and non-moralized concepts of liberty (Cohen 1979).   Non-moralized concepts are defined in purely factual terms.  Liberty as physical non-interference is a non-moralized concept.   In contrast, moralized concepts must be defined by appeal to some moral notions or principles.  One example of a moralized concept is liberty as the capacity to achieve moral perfection.  Since “moral perfection” is a moral notion, this concept of liberty is moralized.  Moralized concepts of freedom typically raise a methodological problem.  Given that these concepts must rely on moral grounds, they do not allow liberty to play a foundational role.  In our example, it would not be liberty, but rather moral perfection the fundamental concept in our theory.


Negative liberty, in its non-moralized variety, is exemplified in Hobbes’s definition of liberty as non-interference. Thus Hobbes understands for liberty  “the absence of external impediments”; for Hobbes a free man “is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to” (Hobbes 1996, 146).  On this view, both physical and legal obstacles cause unfreedom.  Jeremy Bentham endorsed much the same conception (as Berlin says): “All coercive laws, therefore, and in particular all laws creative of liberty, are as far as they go abrogative of liberty” (Bentham 1843).   Locke rejects a non-moralized conception of non-interference.  In fact, he discards liberty as licence (“a Liberty for everyone to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tyed by any Laws”).  Instead, he adopts a moralized, negative conception of natural liberty.  Locke says: “The Natural Liberty of Man is to be free from any Superior Power on Earth, and not to be under the Will or Legislative Authority of Man, but to have only the Law of Nature for his Rule” (Locke 1998, 283).  This sort of moralized conception of liberty as non-interference has been very influential in liberalism.  For instance, John Stuart Mill says, “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it” (Mill 1962, 138).

In contemporary political theory non-moralized concepts of negative liberty have often been exalted by classical liberals and libertarians.  On these views, liberty is the absence of coercion. Generally, these authors claim that a free-market economy alone is capable of guaranteeing or maximizing liberty in this sense (Hayek 1960; Levin, 1985; Leoni 1991). Other classical liberals defend moralized versions of negative liberty related to natural rights, following Locke’s path (Rothbard  1982; Narveson 1988).

Berlin’s concept of positive freedom encompasses a gamut of different notions. For systematization purposes, they can be classified under two general headings: personal autonomy/moral freedom and political self-government.   Some accounts of personal autonomy are admittedly metaphysical, though they usually serve social and political purposes, as Berlin was only too concerned to show.   Ideals of personal autonomy/moral freedom as self-mastery, rational self-direction, self-improvement and self-perfection have been defended since the Stoics’ times by thinkers from different religious and intellectual traditions.  These ideals are moralized to a greater or lesser extent.  Yet the ideal of personal autonomy takes definite shape in modern times under Kant’s pen.  For Kant the autonomous agent only recognizes the authority of the moral law that he has rationally prescribed to himself (Kant, 1998).   Personal autonomy has been an important motivation in modern liberal thinking.  For instance, though Berlin regarded John Stuart Mill as a defender of a negative conception of freedom -- which he surely was --, his more profound moral vision embraces positive freedom as self-development or self-improvement (Smith 1984).  Even if J. S. Mill does not use the term “autonomy”, he holds to a conception of human nature that stresses autonomy as a set of capacities and opportunities to reflectively frame successive forms of life.  Mill praises utility only “in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being”; this conception of utility comprehends liberty as autonomy   (Gray 1983).  Berlin himself acknowledges, in his lecture on J.S. Mill, that Mill regards negative freedom as a means to a social and political environment in which man can exercise his capacity for individual self-expression, experimentation and self-improvement (Berlin 1989).  Underlying Mill’s normative liberalism there is a liberal theory of human nature.

At the end of the nineteenth century British neo-Hegelians espoused ideals of moral freedom, that is, moralized conceptions of positive freedom as self-realization and self-fulfillment (Nicholls 1962). Generally, these ideals sought to justify positive state action and social reform.  (As we saw, Berlin was concerned about the authoritarian implications of moral freedom.)  The most important figure in this movement, Thomas Hill Green, says that persons have rights because they have a moral personality, that is, the capacity to develop a conception of a common good and be moved by that conception.  In fact, each individual has the capacity to conceive a common good as his own.  Green adds that “the claim or right of the individual to have certain powers secured to him by society … rest[s] on the fact that these powers are necessary to the fulfillment of his vocation as a moral being, to an effectual self-devotion to the work of developing the perfect character in himself and others” (Green 1999, 15). 

In contemporary political theory, a number of marxists and liberals defend generally non-moralized conceptions of positive freedom.  For these authors, freedom is either the possession of opportunities, options and powers, or the actual exercise of those powers (Macpherson  1973; Crocker  1980; Gewirth 1982, 311-17).  Similarly, Sen argues that well-being should be understood as a set of substantive freedoms or “capabilities”.  He avails himself of the concept of “functionings”, the various things a person may have a reason to be or do.  Freedom as capability connotes the idea of a range of options or “alternative combinations of functionings” that a person can achieve (Sen 1985, 1987, 1993, 1999).  Other authors defend autonomy-related conceptions of freedom to justify classical liberal positions.  Lomasky grounds negative rights on the fact that persons are project-pursuers (Lomasky 1990, 2000), Spector claims that the moral respect for positive liberty and individual autonomy implies negative rights (Spector 1992), and Wall justifies “competitive markets with well-defined property rights” on the basis that this structure alone provides an environment in which people can exercise their ability to plan their lives (Wall 1998, 2003).

The greatest modern champion of political self-government (political liberty) is Rousseau.  Though Rousseau understands man’s natural liberty as non-interference (“an unlimited right to everything he wishes for and can achieve”), he adopts a positive conception of political liberty as democratic self-government.  According to Rousseau, in the civil state man acquires moral liberty, that is, “the obedience to the law that one has prescribed to oneself” (Rousseau, 2001, 61).


Berlin seems to equate the division between negative and positive liberty with the distinction between “liberty from” and “liberty to”.  Drawing on this, MacCallum has argued in a seminal essay that freedom is as much a “freedom from” as a “freedom to”.  He claims that the defenders of negative freedom and positive freedom do not advocate for different kinds of freedom but rather handle the same concept of freedom (MacCallum 1967).  So MacCallum says: “Whenever the freedom of some agent or agents is in question, it is always freedom from some constraints or restriction on, interference with, or barrier to doing, not doing, becoming, or not becoming something” (MacCallum 1967, 314).   MacCallum’s paper must be read as redirecting the debate about freedom from a conceptual to a normative focus.  This quest for redirection has been very influential in contemporary political theory (Rawls 1971, 202).

Despite the acuteness of MacCallum’s point, it is doubtful whether Berlin can be charged with a serious confusion in this respect.  He uses the “freedom from” metaphor in section I of the essay, in order to describe Mill’s doctrine of liberty: “…liberty in this sense is freedom from; absence of interference beyond the shifting, but always recognizable, frontier” (Berlin 1989, 127).  For Berlin negative freedom is freedom from coercion.  At the end of the same section, Berlin says: “For it is this –the “positive” conception of liberty: not freedom from, but freedom to—to lead one prescribed form of life--which the adherents of the “negative” notion represent as being, at times no better than a specious disguise for brutal tyranny.”  Positive freedom is here understood as a capacity for autonomous self-determination.  It is plainly true that one thing is absence of coercion, another autonomy in this sense.  MacCallum may be right that, so understood, negative freedom and positive freedom are two conceptions or kinds corresponding to the same concept, not logically distinct concepts.  But this is a minor point in Berlin’s argument.  His project is not concerned about logical relations, but about historical links and processes and political consequences.  This is precisely the kind of normative argument about freedom that MacCallum upholds.  

It is also controversial whether positive freedom as personal autonomy is a form of “freedom to”, that is, a capacity for something, as opposed to an achievement.  Charles Taylor opens his famous essay on What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty? by saying: “Although one can discuss almost endlessly the detailed formulation of the distinction, I believe it is undeniable that there are two such families of conceptions of political freedom abroad in our civilization”.  Taylor claims that the distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom is best captured in terms of the contrast “opportunity concept”/”exercise concept”. According to  Taylor, while negative freedom is an “opportunity concept”, positive freedom is an “exercise concept”.  Therefore, positive freedom is not a form of “freedom to”; it is a sort of personal achievement as opposed to mere opportunity.  Taylor claims that negative freedom slides into positive freedom as self-realization, because qualitative judgements about the relative importance of various freedoms (e.g., freedom of worship, freedom from traffic lights, etc.) presuppose qualitative discriminations among motivations.  In turn these discriminations are bound up with a conception of the self as structured in desires, desires about desires, and so on.  According to this conception, in the presence of internal constraints (e.g., false consciousness, irrational fears, etc.) some desires may be disqualified as not truly expressive of the self.  On the basis of this argument, non-interference turns into personal autonomy (Taylor 1979). (A parallel argument had been anticipated by John Plamenatz (1968,122-6 )).

The identification of positive freedom with personal autonomy is common in the literature. For instance, the Italian theorist Norberto Bobbio challenges the assimilation of negative liberty to “liberty from”, and of positive liberty to “liberty to”.  According to Bobbio, the difference between negative liberty and positive liberty lies in the distinction between liberty to do and liberty to will.  While liberty to will is the condition in which a person’s will is not determined by someone else’s will (personal autonomy), liberty to do takes place when an agent is not impeded or constrained by other people’s actions (non-interference). Bobbio says that “liberty from” and “liberty to” are just two (necessarily related) aspects of liberty to do (Bobbio 1979).  Another example is Tom Baldwin’s analysis of the debate. Baldwin argues that while negative freedom relates to non-obstruction, positive freedom par excellence is moral freedom, that is, the effective realization of a moral ideal (Baldwin 1984).  As much as Berlin, Baldwin has in mind neo-Hegelian conceptions of moral freedom.

4. four concepts of freedom

The conceptions of liberty as non-interference and positive freedom do not exhaust the whole idea of individual freedom in modern times.  British republicans like James Harrington and John Milton embrace neoroman political theory, brought from the ancient to the modern world by Machiavelli in the course of his interpretation of Livy’s texts (Skinner 1995; 1998).  On this view, liberty is not (only) non-interference, but (also) the absence of domination, that is, the state of being subject to the arbitrary will of another. Pettit provides a working  definition of domination: A dominates B when (1) A has the capacity to interfere with B, (2) on an arbitrary basis, (3) in certain choices that B is in a position to make. (Pettit 1997, 2001). When it comes to liberty as non-domination, law becomes indispensable for liberty, for liberty amounts to possessing the status of a “free citizen”.  Neoroman authors emphasize that persons can only be thought to be independent of anyone’s arbitrary power when they live under the empire of laws, as opposed to the government of men.

The republican conception of freedom, which prevailed prior to the ascendancy of the liberal conception in the seventeenth century, left nonetheless its mark on liberal writers.  For instance, Locke says about civil liberty, or “liberty in society”: “… in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom” (Locke 1998, 306).  Locke defines civil liberty in this way:  “The Liberty of Man, in Society, is to be under no other Legislative Power, but that established, by consent, in the Common-wealth, nor under the Dominion of any Will, or Restraint of any Law, but what the Legislative shall enact, according to the Trust put in it (Locke 1998, 283). This concept exceeds the idea of non-interference as a natural or moral condition; it  rather focuses on a certain legal and political status.

Skinner and Pettit regard liberty as non-domination as an alternative form of negative liberty.  In fact, the idea of non-domination is not distant from non-interference. Imprisonment is the exemplar of interference, as much as slavery is the paradigm of domination. Even Berlin seems to include non-domination within negative liberty: “Freedom, at least in its political sense, is co-terminous with the absence of bullying or domination” (Berlin 1969, lvi; italics added).  But although non-interference and non-domination are kindred notions, they express distinct conceptions of freedom.  Pettit gives a useful example: the benign master refrains from interfering with his slave, but he nonetheless subjects him to his dominion.

Non-interference is a natural or an ethical condition, depending on whether the conception at stake is non-moralized or moralized.  No appeal to legal norms or political structures is needed to make sense of it. True, there is a platitudinous relation between law and non-interference, because, by definition, law abridges non-interference.  But it is the absence of law, rather than its presence that is essential to non-interference.  In addition, the legal and political system can secure a certain amount of non-interference (e.g., by providing privacy rights).  However, this relation, when it exists, is contingent and instrumental, not necessary or conceptual.   In contrast, non-domination can be conceived of in legal and political terms alone. It is a “status-concept”: it characterizes a certain status (e.g., franchise, citizenship) defined by the legal and political system.

Nor can non-domination be assimilated to positive freedom (i.e., personal autonomy/moral freedom or political self-government).  In fact, a non-democratic political regime can afford non-domination if it provides ample institutional means to contest coercive measures, and a democratic government can make non-domination illusory by subjugating minorities.   But there is a similarity  between non-domination and political self-government, because both concepts define a certain status.   (This is not the case with personal autonomy or moral freedom).  Because both non-domination and political self-government are “status-concepts”, it is often difficult to separate republican from democratic themes in writers like Rousseau and Montesquieu.

As Figure 1 shows, four distinct concepts of freedom arise when one conjoins the negative/positive divide with the contrast between natural/ethical concepts and “status concepts”:

Natural/moral 1. Non-interference 2. Personal autonomy/Moral freedom
Legal/political (“status-concepts”) 3. Non-domination 4. Political self-government

Fig. 1: Four concepts of freedom

This classification of concepts of freedom suggests a portrait of the liberty of the ancients that differs strikingly from Constant’s.  Constant thought that the Greek republics as well as the Roman  republic rejected the idea of privacy and cherished freedom as political self-government.  (He admits that Athens, the most commercial of the Greek republics, praised individual independence.)  Constant assumes throughout his famous speech that Greece and Rome are on a par: “The same subjection characterized the golden centuries of the Roman republic; the individual was in some way lost in the nation, the citizen in the city” (Constant 1988, 312).  Yet the philosophy of freedom was far more complex in the ancient world.  Leaving aside anticipations of positive conceptions (e.g., the Stoic conception of moral freedom), the ancients divided their sympathies for two divergent “status-concepts” of liberty. While the Greek eleutheria connoted democratic self-government, the Latin libertas referred to republican non-domination. All this shows that negative liberty and positive liberty cannot be equated to the liberty of the moderns and the liberty of the ancients. Indeed, both distinctions are orthogonal to each other.  Since Hobbes modern conceptions of freedom have shifted  from the legal and political and toward the natural and ethical.  But, as we saw, republicans are engaged now in a revisionist movement.  Though forecasts are still too premature, it seems that the legal and political thinking of freedom is back to stay.

Related entries

Isaiah BerlinThomas HobbesImanuel KantJohn LockeRousseauLegal Theory.

Annotated bibliography

Baldwin, T.: “MacCallum and the Two Concepts of Freedom”, Ratio 26 (1984).

Bentham, J.: “Anarchical Fallacies”, in J. Bowring (ed.), The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Edinburgh, vol. II.

Berlin, I.: Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press (1969).

Bobbio, N.: “Libertà”, Enciclopedia del Novecento, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, Roma, Vol. III, pp. 994-1004 (1979)

Cohen, G. A.: “Capitalism, Freedom, and the Proletariat”, in The Idea of Freedom. Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, edited by Alan Ryan, Oxford University Press (1979).

Crocker, L.: Positive Liberty: An Essay in Normative Political Philosophy, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff (1980).

Constant, B.: “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns”, in Political Writings, edited by B. Fontana, Cambridge University Press (1988).

Gray, J.: Mill on Liberty: a defence, London, Routledge & Kegal Paul, 1983.

, “On Negative and Positive Liberty”, in  Z. Pelczynski and J. Gray (eds.), Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, London, The Athlone Press (1984).

Green, T.H.: Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, Batoche Books, Kitchener, available at: (1999)

Gewirth, Alan.: Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Applications, Chicago, University of Chicago Press (1982).

Hayek, F.A.: The Constitution of Liberty, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul (1960).

Hobbes, T.: Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (1996).

Kant, I.: Groundwork of the Metaphysics  of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (1998).

Leoni, B.: Freedom and the Law, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund (1991).

Levin, M.: “Negative Liberty”, in Ellen Franken Paul et al. (eds.), Liberty and Equality, Oxford, Blackwell (1985).

Locke, J.: The Second Treatise of Government, in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (1988).

Lomasky, L.: Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community, New York, Oxford University (1990).

, “Liberty and Welfare Goods: Reflections on Clashing Liberalisms”, in G. Pincione and H.  Spector (eds.), Rights, Equality, and Liberty, Dordrecht, Kluwer (2000).

MacCallum, G. C.: “Negative and Positive Freedom”, Philosophical Review 76 (1967).

Macpherson, C. B.: “Berlin’s Division of Liberty” in Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1973).

Mill, J.S.: “On Liberty”, in Utilitiarianism, On Liberty, Essay on Bentham, edited by Mary Warnock, Glasgow, Collins (1962).

Narveson, J.: The Libertarian Idea, Philadelphia, Temple University Press (1988).

Nicholls, D.: “Positive Liberty, 1880-1914”, The American Political Science Review 56 (1962).

Pettit, P.: Republicanism, Oxford University Press (1997).

A Theory of Freedom: From the Psychology to the Politics of Agency, Oxford, Oxford University Press (2001).

John Plamenatz, Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation, 2nd edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Rawls, J.: A Theory of Justice, Oxford, Oxford University Press (1971).

Rothbard, M.N.: The Ethics of Liberty, Atlantic Highlands, Humanities Press, 1982.

Rousseau, J.: Du Contrat Social, Paris, GF Flammarion (2001).

Sen, A.: “Well-Being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984”, Journal of Philosophy 82 (1985).

The Standard of Living, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
, “Capability and Well-Being”, in Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (eds), The Quality of Life, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993.
Development as Freedom, New York, Anchor Books, 1999.

Schneewind, J.B.: The Invention of Autonomy, Cambridge University Press (1998).

Skinner, Q.: “The Paradoxes of Political Liberty”, in Stephen Darwall (ed.), Equal Freedom, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Liberty before Liberalism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (1998).

Smith, G.W.: “J.S. Mill on Freedom”, in Z. Pelczynski and J. Gray (eds.), Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, London, The Athlone Press (1984).

Spector, H.: “Libertad negativa y libertad positiva”, Revista Latinoamericana de Filosofía XVII (1991).

,  Autonomy and Rights, Oxford, Oxford University Press (1992).

Taylor, C.: “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty”, in The Idea of Freedom. Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, edited by Alan Ryan, Oxford University Press (1979).

, “Kant’s Theory of Freedom”, in Z. Pelczynski and J. Gray (eds.), Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, London, The Athlone Press (1984).

Wall, S.: Liberalism, Perfectionism, and Restraint, Cambridge University Press (1998).

, “Freedom as a Political Ideal”, Social Philosophy and Policy 20 (2003).


[1]I am grateful to an anonymous referee for valuable criticism of an earlier draft. This is revised version of a text I presented in the Law and Philosophy Seminar at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella; my thanks are also due to my audience on that occasion for helpful comments.

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