To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement.

—Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics” (1964)

We are not our own…

—John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536)

Jesus or Ayn Rand?

Politics has long made strange bedfellows. Ayn Rand has for years been the darling of American conservatives. Her novels, particularly Atlas Shrugged, and her essays argue for a free market in terms of a libertarian worldview. But Ayn Rand was a self-conscious atheist, and a lot of conservatives are professing Christians. Smart liberals have pointed out this foolish inconsistency. So they ask… how can sincere Christians support the ethical philosophy and writings of a God-hating, third-rate novelist? These liberals aren’t concerned about the spiritual integrity of their Christian neighbors, of course. Their motives are political and their tactics pragmatic. Nonetheless, their question is a good one. It’s especially good since Ayn Rand deliberately linked her dedication to the free market to her atheism. The prophet’s ancient question, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3), is unavoidably relevant.

Libertarian Ethics

Rand’s ethics, like those of her fellow libertarians, begin with a simple assumption: “I am my own.” My old friend Murray Rothbard spoke of “every man’s absolute right of self-ownership.” For Murray, self-ownership is a natural right because it is simply what he thought to be naturally best for him. Murray could have done better—he was a sharp guy. His claim and the claim of other libertarians is ambiguous. What is “self-ownership”? And what is a “right”?

Let’s be honest—anyone can claim autonomy and self-ownership. Small children often yell, “I’m not going to do it, and you can’t make me!” Adults often make similar claims. Remember Henley’s poem, “Invictis.” Yet no man has ever willed himself into existence. No man ever chose his parents or the color of his skin. No man can control the growth or degeneration of his body’s cells. No man can stave off death by an act of their will. Nowhere in the objective facts of human life are there any grounds for the dogma of self-ownership—except in the trivial sense that a man’s consciousness is linked to a particular body and will inescapably enjoy or endure whatever physical conditions that body experiences. In the same way, a prisoner may be said to “own” his prison cell.

And, of course, a man’s claim to self-ownership does nothing to protect him from those who don’t accept his claim. You can be robbed, beaten, enslaved, or killed by others who have greater power or privilege. All the while you can scream, “I am my own!” But the claim will have no material effect on your situation. Nature will not avenge you or correct the situation in any way. Your “right” is an unenforced right.

And what shall we say about your oppressors in this case? Are those who have abused you evil? And if so, the question is always by what standard?

Absolute or Relative?

Good and evil have become vague terms for Post-Modern Americans. From a theistic perspective, there are absolutes defined by an absolute God. From any other perspective, they are emotional or pragmatic terms, much like “painful” and “pleasant.” For instance, if a man hurts me, I say he is evil; that is, he has caused me pain, and I don’t like it. In the broader scope of things, he has hindered me from caring for my family or being a productive member of my community. A lot of people wouldn’t like that. And so a lot of people will think my assailant is evil—or at least that he has done “evil.” But what if I’m a crazed dictator about to sign an order for continent-wide “kill all the Jews” genocide? Is my assailant then a “good” man, now maybe even a hero? Sure.

More Like Guidelines

Thinking libertarians properly distinguish rules from standards. We obey rules; we observe standards. Rules imply sanctions; standards don’t. They’re more like guidelines, I suppose. Standards in our culture tell us what we must do if we want a particular end, but they don’t compel us or require us to seek those ends. Libertarians hate rules, but they have their “standards” because they have outcomes in mind. In theory, however, those outcomes are personal and individual. Each man, after all, seeks his own long-term happiness. To say that the personal happiness of individuals will result in the personal happiness of everyone is an incredible act of faith.

But people desire different outcomes . They aren’t homogeneous in their tastes or desires. Nor are people omniscient. No man can say with any certainty what will or won’t create long-term happiness. The wisdom of past generations on such matters is fallible, even contradictory. But here’s the thing… Ayn Rand didn’t want folks to listen to any human authorities, except Ayn Rand. Better to be a bumbling, inconsistent god yourself than the disciple of anyone else—unless you were a disciple of Ayn Rand.

Libertarians and Private Property

Rand’s defense of private property had to be then, hypothetical. She liked the word if:

If a man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. (“This Is John Galt Speaking,” 1963).

According to Rand… for man to live as man, he must live rationally. He must value his personal happiness and work toward it. Private property is a necessary corollary to such happiness. Those who reject these conditions for happiness she writes off as thugs, parasites, and beasts. She will hear nothing of survival at any cost, but only the survival of her “man qua man.” And “man qua man” needs private property, she said.

But Rand’s standards are simply unfounded as well as blatantly religious. What if a man is quite content to live as a thug, a parasite, or a beast? What if a man prefers the life of the indolent, state-supported poor to that of the highly pressured but moderately successful middle-class? What if a man honestly prefers narcotic delirium to eight hours plus of mental discipline and exertion? It’s a little crazy for libertarians to say, “Well, he shouldn’t want to be poor”, unless libertarianism wants to become a prescriptive and authoritarian. Men value what they value, and there’s no accounting for taste. There is, however, the forgotten reality of sin.

Rand to the contrary, reason doesn’t and can’t prescribe morality and virtue. Reason may show man the most efficient way to obtain success or wealth or happiness, but it can’t oblige him to pursue any of these. What if a man doesn’t want to be happy? Worse, what if he doesn’t want to be rational? Reason sputters. Reason offers no real answers. Neither does Ayn Rand.

The Metaphysics of Ownership

The biblical concept of ownership or possession goes back into eternity, into the relationships among the Persons of the Trinity. In Proverbs, divine Wisdom says, “The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old” (Prov. 8:22). The word for “possessed” (qanah) can mean just that. But it often means to acquire by purchase. One may “buy” (qanah) food or cattle. Qanah is also the word Eve used when she bore Cain: “I have gotten a man from the LORD” (Gen. 4:1): that is, qanah can mean to acquire through begetting or bearing. That meaning is included in Proverbs 8:22. The Father possessed His Wisdom, the divine Logos, by eternal generation: the Word is the Father’s only begotten Son.

It may seem strange that Scripture uses the same word to describe relationships that are so different: the Father to the Son; a human mother to her child; a farmer to his land. The explanation lies in the relationship of God to His creation. The life of God is archetypical and original for everything within the created order. Every facet of reality points back to its Creator, though with varying degrees of clarity. This is especially true of man, who is made in God’s image.

A man’s relationship to his wife, his child, and his dog are by no means equal or equivalent. But all these relationships are within God’s sovereign purposes, and all are defined and delineated by God’s law. That is, they are covenantal. Neither spouse may sell the other, of course, but each has God-ordained responsibilities to and claims upon the other. The reciprocal responsibilities that define a marriage are not the same as those that define a father’s relationship to his son. The responsibilities of a man towards his dog, his land, or his money are quite different from those of marriage and family. But all of these relationships are personal in that they involve the requirements of an absolutely personal God, who owns the world.

Possessor of Heaven and Earth

God is the Creator and Owner of all things, “the Possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:19, 22). He is both transcendent and immanent. He is distinct from His creation and yet present within it at every point and every moment. In other words, God is not as the Deists say… an absentee Landlord. He is personally involved with every person, object, and relationship in His whole creation. He is Lord of all economic goods and transactions. He has an infinite number of purposes in each. But this sovereign God has delegated limited responsibilities within His creation to individual men and women. The biblical word for this is stewardship.

Stewardship and Private Property

The eighth commandment from Sinai was, “Thou shalt not steal” (Ex. 20:15). This means that man’s stewardship of God’s world is primarily individual and particular. I am responsible for this house, this plot of land, this sum of money. I am responsible for my things; my neighbor is responsible for his. I am not to steal from him; he is not to steal from me. Pretty simple. We are alike responsible before God for all that we have, and one day we will give account of our stewardship. For God’s ownership implies a final reckoning, a Judgment to come (Matt. 25). It also implies covenantal judgments within time and history (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).

“Thou Shalt Not Steal” and the Public Good

“Thou shalt not steal” is an application of the greater commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:39). Christian ethics are radically at odds with selfishness and an uncaring attitude toward others. Paul says, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). In other words, the prohibition of theft at the same time requires productive work and practical charity. A man should work hard, save his money, and give generously to those in true need. The laws that governed Israel extended this principle to include a tithe for the poor, the practice of gleaning, and zero interest on charity loans (Deut. 14:28ff; 23:19ff; 24:19ff). But the civil government’s involvement with these practices was minimal to nonexistent. The requirements for charity were moral and not statist, as those who love God would show love to their neighbors without compulsion.

At the same time, God did ordain civil government (Rom. 13:1-7). He set the parameters and duties of the state in His word. Its most common duties are to protect the life, liberty, and property of the innocent. Redistribution of wealth is not among its duties. Neither is creation of wealth out of nothing. It is wrong for the state to steal. As far as Scripture is concerned, eminent domain laws, excessive taxation, monetary inflation, wage and price controls, and government subsidies are all forms of theft. They are not acts of charity, but of oppression. The biblical state is a very limited thing, powerful in what it ought to do, but intentionally weak everywhere else. God favors civil liberty, but on His terms, spelled out in Scripture.


In The Screwtape Letters (no. 21), C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape say this about man’s natural ideas of ownership:

The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell, and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity come from men’s belief that they “own” their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another!

John Calvin gets at the same idea from the other direction:

We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels… On the other hand, we are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to him (Rom. xiv. 8). (Institutes, III: vii: 1)

It is one thing to cooperate with those who hate God in short-term projects with limited goals; we do that every day (I even use Google once in a while). It is quite another to embrace the worldviews of atheists or pronounce blessings upon their social ethics. Liberty is not the intellectual property of libertarians in general or of Ayn Rand in particular. Liberty is a Christian concept rooted in the nature of God and the promise of the gospel. Christians need to reclaim their intellectual property and be faithful to the Lord, Jesus Christ.

For Further Reading:

Gary North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1982).

Gary North, “Economics: From Reason to Intuition,” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, Essays in the Van Til Perspective (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1976), 74-101.

Rousas J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the State (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986).

Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard, The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: The Institute for Christian Economics, 1985).


  • IntuitiveMO Posted July 10, 2011 6:34 pm

    Why do you say Ayn Rand is an atheist and then call her a “God hater”? They do not mean the same thing. My understanding has been that atheist do not believe in the all supreme God of the Bible. Perhaps they do not believe in any God. However, I do not believe that qualifies as a “God hater”.

    • tlabreche Posted July 10, 2011 7:44 pm

      You’re right – the 1828 Webster dictionary defines atheism as “the disbelief of the existence of a God or Supreme intelligent Being” However, Scripture says that you are either for Christ or against him….no neutral ground there. I think it would be fair to say that an atheist is primarily a hater of the God of Christianity. When was the last time you heard an atheist debate why Islam or Buddhism was bad for the world? Their problem is always with Christianity.

      • Tyrtaeus Posted July 15, 2011 2:40 pm

        tlabreche- You are incorrect: it is not Christianity, it is all religion that is poisonous to reason. But in a nation that is the majority Christian, that is the worldview that we commonly meet and argue against. Whether Christian, Buddhist, Islamist or worshiping Odin, Ahura Mazda, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Russell’s Teapot or any of the other fairy tales that pass for religion, you will find that we consider them all equally imaginary.

        I don’t hate God, because there is no God. I could no more hate him than you could hate fairies in your garden or the tooth fairy. What I find frustrating (pitiable, even, although not worthy of hate) is their willingness to ignore logic and rational argument in favor of magical thinking. There are those that say that science is based in as much wishful thinking as religion, but science can be disproved. What could one do to disprove your contention about a deity?

        I am not a Randian, but I would not fault the man who wanted to live in filth off of the public teat. In fact I am not especially bothered by your personal belief in the mystical and magical. I may find it pitiable, and even contemptible that you could waste something as precious as your life in such a way, and I will fight against you extracting an undue portion of my labor to support your malingering, but your life is yours to live as you choose. Just as my life is mine.

        • gneal Posted July 22, 2011 3:26 pm

          Religion is no more “poisonous to reason” than irreligion is. Both are metaphysical understandings of the universe that is beyond our senses. To posit, a priori, that there is no god is no more rational than to posit, a priori, that there is a god. It is true that you cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell god. But, it does not follow that He is, therefore, non-existent. Such an assumption is arrogant and presumptuous in the extreme. You cannot be everywhere at every time, as one would have to do, in order to KNOW there is no god anywhere in the universe (i.e, you would have to be a god to prove there was no god). So the best any finite human being could manage to HONESTLY conclude is, “I don’t know if there’s a god.” – Agnosticism! All such a “god test” proves is that, if there is a god, He isn’t participating in your test.

          There are philosophical reasons to believe in god’s existence, just as there are philosophical reasons to doubt it. But, to say that religion is “poisonous to reason” simply demonstrates that you’ve never read Christian philosophy.

          It is true that, to accept a personal relationship with God, a person must exercise faith that goes beyond reason. But, to imply that faith is inspite of reason is a non sequetor. My reason took me so far. I weighed the evidience for and against God’s existence. I decided that the evidence for His existence was more consistent with the nature of reality than was the evidence against it. So, going to the edge of the evidence, I leapt into the pool of faith. These are not incompatable. Faith, or the lack of it, is simply a person’s response to the evidence he/she sees.

          I hope it’s obvious that the false dichotomy between faith and reason is a pet peeve of mine.
          Blessings, all.

    • acaciadad Posted July 14, 2011 11:20 am

      You’re right. “Atheist” and “God Hater” don’t mean quite the same thing. But, logically, an atheist should be able to live without obsessing about God. I don’t believe, for example, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a valid Christian sect. I also don’t give them much thought until they show up at my front door.
      Far too many atheists, on the other hand, seem to conduct themselves as if their philosophy is “I don’t believe in God; and, I hate Him.” Far from ignoring God, they spend all their time attacking Him and anyone who believes in Him.
      Once, after bowing my head to pray before a meal in a restaurant, I was asked by a young man at the next table, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” When I replied that I am, he rather curtly asked, “Do you think that makes you better than the rest of us?” I answered, “Heck no! And I’m not all sure why you would think it would. We can’t become Christians until we admit we’re sinners, and we don’t stop being sinners once we become Christians. We’re just forgiven and given the grace to do better.”
      He just looked at me and snorted. (I suppose you could call it a “harrumph.”) He then turned back to his table and didn’t say another word to me. He left a couple of minutes later or I would have tried to engage him in conversation when I’d finished my meal, but since then I’ve often wondered how many other non-Christians believe we think we’re “better” than they are.

      • gneal Posted July 22, 2011 3:37 pm

        Such “better than the rest of us” talk is merely an excuse not to engage us on the merits of theism, and the impossibility of demonstrating atheism. I believe that anyone who says, “I know there is no god”, isn’t thinking the matter through. The atheist position is arrogant and fundementally illogical. Therefore, to return to the original discussion, most atheists are not neutral, but antagonistic to the prospect of a deity who rules the universe. So, while calling them “God-haters” may be overly visceral, it is not a long stretch beyond the evidence.

  • Lwolfe Posted July 13, 2011 9:26 pm

    Your understanding of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy is very poor. Ayn Rand was not a libertarian nor did she support or approve of the “libertarian worldview”. The libertarian movement was disavowed by Ayn Rand and she refused support of any kind. Ayn Rand showed how man should and could be. If he chose the life of a mindless slug he is free to do so but if he chose to live life there was only one way and that was with reason.
    Good and evil are not vague terms they are absolutes, morality is an absolute. A morality based on man’s life and his pursuit of happiness, not a morality based on some wispy belief that our reward comes when we die, but a morality that states in NO uncertain terms that a mans life is his own and the GOOD is to live it without the burden of his brother or the witch doctors.
    You were right however to point out that it is the ideas of AYN RAND that you should fear, because they are the ideas that will win in the end. Evil has no power except the power you grant it.

    • Unconvinced Posted July 16, 2011 9:32 am

      Man, you can try, but you can’t speak reason/rationality to a bunch who believe in the superstition of a sky ghost. You’re spot on, but some can not grasp that things are they way they are, not they way they “believe” to make themselves feel less mortal.

      • gneal Posted July 22, 2011 3:41 pm

        Simply calling God names (i.e. “sky ghost”) doesn’t make you seem particulaly rational, either. Perhaps one of the atheists, here, would like to present ONE piece of legitimate evidence that there is no god. But, keep in mind, you’ll have to be everywhere at once to PROVE it; which dogmatic atheism MUST do. Otherwise, you’re left with???????????????????????????????? – agnosticism.

    • gneal Posted July 22, 2011 3:48 pm

      Incidentally, Christian morality is not based on expectations of reward or punishment. They are rooted in the nature of God, Who is Love. Scripture says, “We love because He first loved us.” And, conversely, some of us hate and misrepresent others’ beliefs because they refuse to repent and, therefore, be saved in order to love and respect others.

      You really demonstrate that you don’t even KNOW ABOUT what you so venomously attack!

      • gneal Posted July 22, 2011 3:49 pm

        This was directed to Lwolfe.

  • Greg J Posted July 19, 2011 6:48 pm

    Atheist may not hate god, but they hate the idea there there is a god.

  • RavenBlack Posted November 22, 2011 2:23 pm

    I’m an atheist (I came hear after asking Google where Ayn Rand thinks land ownership rights originate from, since that’s the hugest flaw in her position to my eye, not addressed at all in her novel – the heroes of the novel just bought the land with the money they don’t recognize, from people whose authority to own the land they don’t recognize, so logically they should also not recognize their own ownership of that land.)

    I don’t hate god, nor do I hate the idea that there is a god. I don’t hate people who believe in god, nor do I hate the fact that there are people who believe in god. I sometimes hate the influence that that belief has on things that impact me negatively. I hate when religion drives a man to murder. I hate when a religion gives someone else special treatment that is denied to me (I don’t mean within their religion, that’s fine, I don’t expect someone else’s mother to treat me as her son – I mean for example when a religion-endorsed relationship gets tax benefits while an identical relationship with no religious endorsement gets none).

    And I don’t hate, but am displeased, when religion drives someone to try to persuade me I’m wrong for not believing as they do. I suspect this is frequently where cries of “atheists hate god” come from – when an atheist tries to persuade a religious person that they’re wrong for not believing as he does, it’s interpreted as a hatred of the material of their religion. If you interpret it that way then any religious person who tries to convince people of their religion hates whatever other beliefs the “recipient” has. By that definition, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses hate every other religion, they hate atheism, and they hate any sort of secularism. I don’t agree with that definition, the Mormons I’ve spoken to have not been hateful people – and I don’t think most atheists are either. Not all disagreement arises from hate.

    If you can imagine how you would feel trying to save someone from a crazy destructive cult while they insist that their cult is based on truth, you might be able to understand how at least some atheists might argue against your religion not from hate but from love. They honestly believe that your religion is detrimental to you, and wish to spare you those costs, just as you would wish to save a cult victim. I’m not saying that religions are all crazy cults, it’s just an example to try to explain the “hateful” actions of many atheists. I’m also not saying that there aren’t hateful atheists, some of them really are just jerks, just as are some christians!

    To pick a simple example, if you saw someone paying 10% of their money to an organization that did nothing for them, would you not question it, maybe try to convince them to stop? Roman Catholics are supposed to do that, and the benefits, if any, are invisible, so I hope you could forgive an atheist for not understanding. My wife’s family are members of a couple of Judaic temples, they volunteer a lot of their time and money, while paying membership fees, and receive no tangible benefits – I feel that it would equally be quite reasonable to question that (though we don’t choose to).

    I hope this has been enlightening and that you don’t choose to take offense! And now, on with my search for an explanation of Ayn Rand’s view of property rights as they pertain to things to which nobody had any basis for an original claim!

    • collinsm Posted January 21, 2012 3:32 am

      I do not beleive that a “religion” drives anyone to do anything. I do beleive that a lot of people mask their responsibility by using religion. I beleive in God, and initially when I came out of college, where the uber-intelligent had worked overtime to convince me it was imaginary, I didnt or was very skeptical. I went into the Marines and learned on the battlefield that even the most militant anti-god smart alecs, got religion pretty darned fast when the shooting starts. And I became painfully aware as I watched the lights go out behind the eyes of the first man I watched die, that whatever made him a human was gone. It left. And you could see if pass. Call it the soul, or whatever you like, it is not the same with animals I have killed. Once that “light” leaves the human body all that is left is a piece of meat, what makes you human is something very different. The revelation that man was different set me back to researching God’s existence and his truth.
      Believe whatever you like, that is your right, that i actually fought for. But do not malign my religion because of the actions of men. Men do what they do, there is nothing wrong with religion, it is how men practice it.
      And I have seen nothing in the intellectual world, or so called geniuses that demosntrates that when they are in charge things are better. In fact the intellectuals convince themselves finally that murder and ethinc cleansing is right and just, with an alacrity that I have not witnessed in the religious. Even the true Muslims I have encountered. Nuts are nuts, no matter where you find them, and I think there are plenty in the intellgencia. If you dont believe that, next time you are at a party with your avantegard friends, tell them you think abortion is murder, or that Darwinian theory has no basis in fact and see how wonderful your friends respect you and your oppinion when it disagrees with theirs!?! The left, the liberal, and the atheist have no room in their esteem for any thought that doesnt agree with theirs. If you dont think like them you are wrong, if you can prove your point they think you might need killing. Seen it many times over the world.
      The Col

  • Tim Endrizzi Posted March 9, 2012 6:00 pm

    Did you hear about the dislexic, atheist who had insomenia? He stayed up all night wondering if there really was a dog.
    A cult is the church down the street from yours.

  • detail_nut Posted July 9, 2012 11:20 pm

    Liberty is not a Christian concept, it is a universal concept. No matter what you believe or don’t believe, nobody has a monopoly on it. It existed well before the Buddha, Jesus, or Confucius.

    Actually the libertarian idea of self-ownership and the Christian idea of divine servitude and the ownership by God, whatever, aren’t irreconcileable. The Christian would argue for self-ownership as his civil right to self-determination in conscience. He would want to be free of the alternative of state/collective ownership of himself as a safeguard of his voluntary assignment of that to God.

    To be devil’s advocate a minute, though, what’s strange is how few Christians and conservatives actually recognize or defend for others the rights they claim for themselves. They treasure freedom of conscience, then they turn around in a neutral environment like a school and claim the right to force prayer. Not because they don’t have a chance to pray at home or anywhere else – let’s be honest here – but because it’s an excuse to proselytize, witness, convert. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves. If the shoe was on the other foot, they’d be screaming, but when you’re in a majority, no one’s forcing you to be consistent. Or they say get guv’mint the hell out of dictating what I can and can’t do — and then fight to make the state their personal tool to deny others their rights – it wasn’t that long ago that hypocrites claimed the right to legislate what gays could do in the privacy of their own homes. Or if you really loved the flag (or bible or quran or talmud), you’d realize someone burning one doesn’t affect your person or your rights any more than burning a shirt, and claiming the right to legislate away others’ freedom of speech that you personally oppose is hypocrisy and idolatry. It’s not just liberals that claim a universal right not to be “offended,” conservatives do it all the time too.

    I love liberty and revere Jesus, it’s the double standard Christians that get my goat. The real Christians – I mean the ones not out there shoving their beliefs onto others and parading their prayers and faith on the street corners – recognize what I’ve said here is the truth too. *Ducks and covers* Just sayin’.

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