John Rawls

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John Rawls

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In 1971 a reclusive American academic revived liberal political philosophy with “A Theory of Justice.” Why did he write it? And why was it applauded and then ignored by the left?

I have before me a copy of a new book called Collected Papers, by John Rawls. It does not have the feel of an important book. Its language is often blunt and lifeless; certain phrases—”a well-ordered constitutional democracy,” “the fact of reasonable pluralism,” “the criterion of reciprocity”—seem to crop up again and again, as if part of a strangely unpoetic mantra. For the most part its headings are dry and academic: Chapter 12: “Reply to Alexander and Musgrave”; Chapter 13: “A Kantian Conception of Equality.” Its arguments seem remote; they are certainly difficult.

Yet the publication of this book is an important event. Since the appearance of Rawls’s epoch-making A Theory of Justice in 1971, he has been acknowledged as America’s—perhaps the world’s—leading political philosopher. On a conservative estimate, there are now about 5,000 books or articles that deal with it, at least in part. Where once the foundations of western civilisation went from Plato to Freud, nowadays it is from Plato to Rawls. Most American and British, and ever more European students of politics or philosophy study his ideas. The story of “How John Rawls Revived Political Philosophy and Rejuvenated Liberalism” is part of academic legend.

Given all this, you might think that Rawls would be a familiar figure—that his reputation would have seeped beyond the academic world. Yet nearly 30 years after the publication of A Theory of Justice, almost nothing is known about him. Nor is it obvious that his ideas have had any great impact on the “real” world. His influence was greatest on the centre left during the neo-liberal ascendancy in the 1980s. But as the centre left has returned to power so Rawlsian ideas seem to have been left behind.

Rawls is a sophisticated and ambitious thinker. His arguments are informed by a deep sense of history and draw on an array of different disciplines. Still, as Isaiah Berlin was fond of saying, underlying most great philosophical systems there lies a fairly simple set of ideas. This is true of Rawls. Almost everything he has written is animated by an urgent concern with reviving and extending a neglected liberal tradition—the tradition of rights-based social contract thinking.

At the centre of Rawls’s system is the inviolability of basic civil and political rights. Rawls believes, following his hero Kant, that the most distinctive feature of human nature is our ability freely to choose our own ends. Our most fundamental duty in dealing with our fellow citizens is to respect this capacity for autonomy; to let them live according to their own lights; to treat them, in Kant’s famous phrase, “as ends not as means.” Rawls gives priority to the “right” over the “good”—to claims based on the rights of individuals over claims based on the good which might result from violating those rights. “Justice,” as Rawls insists in the first rousing paragraphs of A Theory of Justice, “is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust… Justice denies that the loss of freedom for some can ever be made right by a greater good shared by others.”

To understand what is radical in this (perhaps innocuous-sounding) approach, we must contrast it with some of its rivals. First among them is utilitarianism—the doctrine that we ought to seek to maximise the aggregate well-being of a society’s members regardless of its distribution. There was much that Rawls admired in utilitarianism. It had the scope and rigour he wanted for his own theory, and possessed a good track record as a progressive principle, inspiring directly or indirectly a great deal of social and political reform. And yet it had one flaw: it did not take human rights seriously.

Utilitarians might maintain that, as it happens, the general good will usually be served by respecting human rights, but they are committed to the position that when a conflict between individual rights and general well-being arises, it is the claims of the latter which count. Thus, the greatest happiness principle could have permitted slavery. Or, more to the present point, it could be used to defend what is often said to be an unstated principle of the modern market economy: that in the battle for low wages and low inflation, the life chances of some are sacrificed for the good of the rest.

Utilitarianism is the first target of Rawls’s criticisms, but there are others. Although A Theory of Justice has little to say about Marxism, that creed was alive and well when Rawls was working on his book; and like utilitarians, Marxists tend to regard the notion of natural human rights as nonsense. Finally, Rawls challenges various “perfectionist” and communitarian theories—theories which look to the state to advance a single value system, such as Christianity, Islam, or indeed some version of liberal humanism.

These standpoints all permit the sacrifice of human rights to some other good—to utility, the interests of the proletariat, or some religious ideal of the good life. It is as an alternative to these theories that Rawls champions the social contract. Society is, of course, involuntary, and our place in it largely beyond our control, but Rawls asks what arrangements people would consent to if it were freely entered into, and then tries to construct society on that basis.
Rawls suggests a thought experiment, asking us to imagine ourselves into his now famous “original position.” People in this position are situated behind what he calls a “veil of ignorance”; they are denied knowledge of everything which makes them who they are: their class, skills, age, gender, sexuality, religious views and conception of the good life. Rawls argues that the principles which these people would choose to regulate their relations with one another are definitive of justice.

An enormous amount of ink has been spilled on explaining, attacking and defending the original position, but the thinking behind it is plain enough. The veil of ignorance is meant to ensure that our views on justice are not distorted by our own interests. “If a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he was poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle…”

Rawls believes, contentiously, that if we were participants in the original position, we would pursue a low-risk strategy and agree to principles which are basically egalitarian—principles which guarantee the highest possible minimum levels of freedom, wealth and opportunity, even at the cost of lowering average levels. RawIs suggests that we would elect to be governed by two principles (his famous “two principles of justice”), the first concerning liberty, the second the distribution of wealth and power.

The first point on which men and women in the original position would agree is the importance of guaranteeing their freedom to live their lives as they see fit. Rawls’s first principle holds that each person should have a right to the most extensive basic liberties (the right to vote, freedom of thought, and so on) compatible with a like liberty for others. Rawls contends that the state should remain neutral between different conceptions of how to live, simply safeguarding the freedoms which allow us to live according to our own conception of what makes it valuable. This principle does little more than offer a more general guarantee of the freedoms protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment.

Rawls’s second principle, however, is more original. The “difference principle” states that social and economic inequalities are acceptable only in so far as they ‘benefit the least advantaged. The best way of understanding this principle is as a radical alternative to the principle of equality of opportunity. The proponents of equality of opportunity argue for a market society in which people who have the same talents, and a similar willingness to use them, enjoy the same prospects of success. Rawls, however, argues that it is not only wrong that our lot should be determined by our class or educational opportunities, it is equally unjust that our position should be determined by our abilities and talents. These, just as much as the class positions of our parents, are the outcome of what he describes as a “natural lottery.”

Rawls’s point is echoed in other critiques of meritocracy (Michael Young’s, for example): it seems unfair that just because someone is especially strong, intelligent or dexterous, they should have a higher standard of living than someone with less marketable skills. The “natural lottery” argument jettisons the notion of desert as it applies to rewards at work and often turns into an argument for equality of income. But Rawls says that there is a better way of dealing with the unfair distribution of abilities: by allowing inequalities that benefit the worst off. Rawls argues that unlike the inequalities we see all around us, inequalities based on the difference principle would not be felt by the less well-off as unmerited or degrading.

Thus, A Theory of Justice showed that left-wing liberalism was not, as its opponents on the right liked to think, an incoherent mishmash of socialist and capitalist values, but an intellectually respectable political philosophy. Ronald Dworkin, himself a leading liberal theorist and an old friend of Rawls, also points out that part of Rawls’s appeal is the brilliant phrasemaking: “the difference principle”; “the original position”; “the veil of ignorance.” It is true, too, that the book has a regal quality. Rawls never uses the first person and never once refers in the text to a living author. It would, however, be taking admiration too far to pretend that Rawls is a gifted writer: his work is slow moving and oddly graceless. Reading it, one feels the pain that went into writing it.

Still, Rawls’s influence has been enormous. A Theory of Justice has sold more than 200,000 copies in the US alone and has been translated into at least 23 languages. Dworkin says that Rawls has quite simply set the terms of the debate: “I do not even have to think where to start; it is automatic that I start with him. My present view is opposed to his in some ways, but only from within a field defined by him.”

The impact of A Theory of Justice also has something to do with the fact that it was published at a time when political philosophy was on the defensive. The dominant philosophical currents—logical positivism and linguistic philosophy—were hostile to large-scale theorising; the extravagances of Marxism and fascism had given ideology—even liberal ideology—a bad name. Dworkin explains: “The 1950s were a complacent period and there was a feeling that the US was on the right path. Then the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement cast doubt on all that. Here suddenly was a book which raised all the issues—it gave people a way of arguing about these questions that suddenly seemed so important.”


There is though, another point about the success of A Theory of Justice—it has a lot to do with Rawls himself. Rawls is an extraordinarily private, self-reliant man in a very American mould. He has long since withdrawn his name from Who’s Who, declines to accept honorary degrees and refuses to be interviewed. When I wrote to him to request an interview, I received a cryptic but touching reply: “I am sorry, but I have not been well, and for that and other reasons I am unable to give an interview. I am sorry. Sincerely yours, John Rawls.” His friends were willing to talk to me, but they were universally cautious and reserved. I understood how Ian Hamilton must have felt in attempting to write the life of another shy New England writer—JD Salinger.

For all his shyness, Rawls has exercised a great influence on those who come into personal contact with him. Recently I spent ten days in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, talking to people who know him. The experience was heartening. I telephoned Rogers Albritton, an old friend from the 1940s: “My principal sense of Jack is of a man who has an incredibly fine moral sense in his dealings with other human beings. He is not just the author of a great book, he is a very admirable man… he is the best of us, the best of America.” Albritton’s testimony was repeated again and again. One eminent philosopher (he did not want to be named) said: “I find it hard to express what I feel about Jack. He has a much more refined sensibility than I even aspire to. He is a rare creature. He has a much more developed moral and social instinct than most people.” Joshua Cohen, a former student and now a friend, says: “Not since Rousseau has anyone had such a profound sense of the harm done by inequality.”

At the centre of Rawls’s system is a very radical attitude to fate. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this attitude might have a source in Rawls’s own life. It is the duty of society, Rawls believes, to ensure that our opportunities are as little affected by our circumstances as possible. It is not that he believes that social institutions have to ensure that everyone is as happy as everyone else—that is our own responsibility. But he does insist that, as far as possible, we should all be given similar opportunities to achieve happiness—that our family upbringing, our abilities and talents, our looks and health, our whole genetic and environmental heritage, should not be allowed to give us an unfair start in life. Life will contain its afflictions and troubles without unjust institutions adding to its lot. This, you might say, is a conventional left-wing conviction, but in Rawls’s case it was not the product of a deprived upbringing. Instead, it seems to be the outcome of a life which has been full of very good luck or of very close shaves. “He has,” as one former student put it, “an unusually strong sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’”

John Borden Rawls was born in 1921 into a rich Baltimore family, the second of five sons. His father, William Lee Rawls, was a successful tax lawyer and constitutional expert. Rawls’s mother, Anna Abell Stump, from a distinguished German family, was a feminist and president of the local League of Women Voters. Isaiah Berlin, an admirer, used to say that he couldn’t but see Rawls as a Puritan “in a tall black hat,” and it is true that there is something deeply puritan in Rawls’s austere, aspiring life. Yet other friends point out that Rawls comes from an old southern family and has a patrician sense of noblesse oblige.

Rawls appears to have given only one interview in the course of his career, and that to a small Harvard student magazine. The only other source for his life is the first chapter of a German book on Rawls by Thomas Pogge. Rawls described to Pogge the formative experience of his early life: the death of two of his younger brothers, both through illnesses they contracted from Rawls; the one from diphtheria, the other from pneumonia. These events constitute some of Rawls’s closest shaves. Joshua Cohen says that they are reflected in A Theory of Justice in discussions of the “arbitrariness of fortune” and the “unmerited contingencies” of life. It was about this time that Rawls developed his stutter; he traces it back to his brothers’ deaths.

Rawls spent a short spell in a public school in Baltimore, but most of his high-school years were spent at Kent, a smart, strict, Episcopalian private school in Connecticut. According to Burton Dreben, another Harvard friend and colleague, Rawls himself went through a religious phase about this time, and although he has not remained a believer in any conventional sense, the experience left its mark. As his later writings attest, he shows more feeling for religious values than most of his liberal-left colleagues.

Like his two remaining brothers, Rawls went to Princeton—in 1939 still very much what it had been in the days of F Scott Fitzgerald, the northernmost outpost of a southern gentleman. It was at Princeton, under the influence of Norman Malcolm, a friend and follower of Wittgenstein, that Rawls became interested in philosophy.

Finishing Princeton early, he joined the army and saw action in the Pacific, serving in New Guinea, the Philippines and Japan. Rawls belonged to those years worst hit by the war—17 in his year at Princeton were killed; 23 died in the year below. Dreben says that he never talks about his experiences as a foot soldier, but they were certainly horrific.

Rawls was still in the Pacific when, in August 1945, US planes bombed Hiroshima. Fifty years later, he wrote an article in the American political journal Dissent, in which he argued that although in times of extreme crisis a liberal democratic regime waging a just war can be justified in attacking enemy civilians, the US army in 1945 was facing no such crisis; in Rawls’s view, it followed that the firebombing of Japanese cities and the dropping of the atomic bomb were “very great wrongs.” The Dissent article is the only one Rawls has ever written tackling a concrete political issue. His willingness to write it can perhaps in part be explained by the fact that he was in Japan soon after the bombings, and saw some of the consequences of what had been done. But Joshua Cohen suggests that something else also: weighed upon him: Rawls knew that if the bomb had not been dropped, he and his fellow soldiers would certainly have had to fight a conventional campaign in Japan. Once again’ Rawls was “lucky” to get away with his life.

Although he was offered the chance of becoming an officer, Rawls left the army early, as a private, in 1946. He returned to his alma mater to write a doctorate in moral philosophy. In his last year as a student, 1949-50, Rawls took a course in political theory; it was then that he formed the idea of writing a treatise on justice. A Theory of Justice was 20 years in the making.

In 1949 Rawls married Margaret Fox, a graduate fresh from Brown, and they have had five children. She became a painter; Rawls—himself a connoisseur of painting, especially American painting—has often sat for her. The couple spent their first summer together drawing up an index for a book on Nietzsche by Walter Kaufmann. Rawls also did the index to A Theory of Justice and it is a masterpiece of the art. Rawls’s thoroughness, indeed, is the stuff of legends. Ronald Dworkin remembers a midnight conversation in the deserted bar of the Santa Lucia hotel in Naples in June 1988. He, Rawls and one or two others found themselves in the middle of a very fruitful discussion about Rawls’s later work. In the middle of the exchange Rawls halted the conversation, asked no one to talk while he was gone, retrieved from his room a yellow pad and sat down among the wine-stained tablecloths to take notes.

Princeton failed to recognise Rawls’s genius. On his return from a year at Oxford in 1953, Rawls joined his old mentor Norman Malcolm at Cornell, in a department which was emerging as one of the best in the US. At Oxford he had begun to formulate the concept of the original position, although his real breakthrough appears to have come when he devised the veil of ignorance; the results appeared in a seminal article, “Justice as Fairness,” in 1957. Rawls was in his mid-30s and it was only his third article. Students remember, however, that by 1960 Rawls was already using an early draft of A Theory of Justice as the basis for his seminars. The next decade was spent honing its arguments.

In the early 1960s Rawls was given a tenured position at MIT. Two years later he moved to Harvard, where he has remained, living in the same large Lexington house for almost 40 years.

Vietnam provoked the same conflicts at Harvard as everywhere else. One of the philosophy department’s leading lights, MW Quine, was a staunch conservative, another. Hilary Putnam, a Maoist. From the beginning, Rawls was opposed to the war, and made his opposition known. He participated in an anti-war conference in Washington and, back at Harvard, taught a course on international law as it applied to Vietnam. He also campaigned against the “2S” deferment, which allowed students “in good standing” to have their call-ups deferred. According to Rogers Albritton: “Both of us thought that it was wrong that the sons of the privileged should be allowed to stay out and accumulate grades, while someone who wanted to start a filling-station was sent off.” In retrospect, Albritton saw the irony in their position: “There was something a bit bizarre about saying we were against the war, but our students should go to fight in it.”


Rawls seems to have been unprepared for the success of A Theory of Justice. “I thought I would publish it and some friends might read it. I had been writing it for a long time, so I would finally get it off my desk and then do something else.” But despite his intellectual stardom his life remained that of an anonymous, hard-working, rather tortured academic. His wife was for a long time a member of Lexington council and he reads and writes mainly at home: “I am a monomaniac really. I just like to get something right.” Slight and lithe, until recently he used to run —and his healthy eating habits are famous.

If the measure of the importance of a work lies not only in the amount of agreement it elicits, but in the quality of its opposition, then Rawls’s book is important indeed. There is scarcely a page in it which has not been criticised; there are utilitarian, feminist, conservative, libertarian, catholic, communitarian, Marxist and Green critiques of Rawls’s work. Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard, who made his name as one of Rawls’s critics, distinguishes three stages in the book’s reception.

First it sparked a debate about utilitarianism. “Rawls fairly clearly won that debate,” says Sandel; rights-oriented, anti-utilitarian liberalism is now the philosophical orthodoxy. The next argument, of the late 1970s, took place within rights-oriented liberalism, and pitted Rawls’s brand of liberal-egalitarianism against the sort of right-wing libertarian views which found their most powerful voice in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. This debate, Sandel says, “corresponds roughly to the debate in American politics between defenders of the market economy and advocates of the welfare state.” There is a sweet irony in the fact that the egalitarian position should have been defended by Rawls, a wealthy “wasp,” and the neo-liberal one by Nozick, a poor Jew from Brooklyn.

The last and longest-running of the arguments has been between Rawlsian liberals and “communitarians,” including Michael WaIzer, the Canadian Charles Taylor and Sandel himself. The “communitarian critique” of liberalism revolves around the charge that Rawls’s ideas are excessively individualistic. The communitarians claim that Rawls’s work surreptitiously draws on an implausible version of individuals as free from all deep moral ties and thus bound only by ends and roles they choose for themselves. The fact is that most of what we value is not a matter of choice but inheritance—what really matters is the sustenance of strong communities, in which we can live out the values in which we have been brought up. The communitarians also attack Rawls’s ideal of a neutral state: in pursuing the goal of absolute neutrality, the Rawlsian state offers no support for the sort of strong communities we all need. Rawls’s work is an apology for the weak, atomistic and relativistic culture which we see all around us.

Rawls has responded to some of the criticisms by reworking his theory. He has published about 15 articles since the book came out; six years ago he collected some of them in revised form in Political Liberalism. At some point in the late 1970s Rawls came to realise that A Theory of Justice was inconsistent. It offered the ideal of a society in which individuals— Christians and Muslims, theists and aesthetes, heterosexuals and homosexuals, puritans and hedonists—could live life according to their own conception of the good. Yet, as Rawls came to see it, his argument appealed to a single conception of the good; it rested on a Kantian version of a secular liberal outlook, according to which each of us has a right and a duty to actively search out our own good from the alternatives available to us. This will seem reasonable enough to a secular liberal, but it won’t appeal to, say, a catholic; catholicism teaches that a life which faithfully accepts church tradition is superior to one spent ceaselessly exploring moral alternatives—it rates fidelity and submission over autonomy or experimentation. Rawls came to believe that while his society was meant to permit a great diversity of value systems, the argument he advanced for it would only ever appeal to those who accepted one set of values—those of secular liberalism.

The main concern of Rawls’s later work is to argue that this in itself should not undermine the liberal project. Instead, we need to recast liberalism as a strictly political creed—one which appeals not to contentious views about God, morality or the person, but to the less contestable values of reciprocity, fairness and mutual respect. In this way, Rawls hopes, a conception of justice rooted in liberal values—equal political and civil liberty; equality of opportunity; economic reciprocity; mutual respect between citizens—can become, even in a society like the US, where there is little agreement about fundamental moral questions, the basis for an “overlapping consensus.”

As he has grown older Rawls has come to recognise that many of the most powerful statements of principle within the liberal tradition do not rest on the sort of individualistic Kantian foundations he constructed in A Theory of Justice. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, to take two American examples, champion liberal civil and political rights, but they invoke a religious world-view to do so. Political Liberalism tried to do justice to this fact—to argue that liberalism as a historical phenomenon has always been the subject of an overlapping consensus and that its future lies in understanding itself in this way.

The 25th anniversary, four years ago, of A Theory of Justice was marked with a large conference at Santa Clara. Rawls expressed his concerns about developments in the US with surprising force. He is especially exercised by the way in which the lack of limits on political donations is being allowed to distort the political process; in Rawlsian terms, the value of political liberty is now almost infinitely greater for some than it is for others. I think,” says Joshua Cohen, “his hopefulness has been shaken by the world. His feelings have soured.”

Two days after the Santa Clara conference, Rawls was struck by the first of a succession of severe strokes. He continues to work, although he is weaker than he was. The introduction to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism, finished after the strokes, has more passion than anything that he has published before. Similarly, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” published two years ago, includes a blunt criticism of the way in which American politics “has become dominated by corporate and other organised interests who through large contributions to campaigns distort if not preclude public discussion and deliberation.”

Even rawls’s critics cannot deny that he has had an enormous impact on political theory; yet Rawls’s own despair about politics in the US suggests that his teachings have had very little influence on political debate more broadly. There are some qualifications to be made. It is said that A Theory of Justice has had an influence among dissidents in China and was seen at Tiananmen Square. Sebastiano Maffetone, who wrote the preface to the Italian translation, reports that it is common to find left-wing politicians citing his ideas in Italy. Various left-of-centre politicians in Britain—Anthony Crosland, David Owen, Shirley Williams—have invoked Rawls’s book. Roy Hattersley still does. On a literary level, Margaret Drabble’s latest novel, The Witch of Exmoor, opens with its protagonists playing a game “The Veil of Ignorance”—in which they imagine themselves in the original position.

Still, most of the Rawlsians I spoke to confirmed that Rawls’s ideas have had little impact in the US. Ronald Dworkin says he can think of no Supreme Court decisions which drew on Rawls’s ideas, and they have had little influence on either American political party. As in the US, so in Britain; the Commission on Social Justice, which articulated the thinking behind New Labour’s social and economic policies, was quite explicit in rejecting Rawls’s strictures against letting individuals profit from their natural skills and endowments.

Rawls’s principles remain extremely egalitarian, and he has argued that they could only be realised in a “property owning democracy” or “a liberal socialist regime” and not in a modern welfare state. The difference principle only allows inequalities in so far as they benefit the worst off—even then they might not be permitted if they give the rich unequal influence over the political system. New Labour politicians on the other hand, have repeatedly suggested that they do not care how rich the rich become. It is true that Labour is committed to raising the income of the poor and reintegrating the excluded back into society, but there is no suggestion that the earnings of the rich need be limited by this goal. All the evidence suggests that the gap between the rich and the poor will increase over the coming decades, yet this is not a trend that Blair or Clinton have set themselves against. The left-of-centre parties now in power all over the west speak the language of community, not of individual rights; of equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome; of desert rather than the difference principle. For the moment at least, the egalitarianism which animated old-style socialism or social democracy and still animates Rawls’s work appears to be dead as a political force. People don’t care about equality any more: they want good public services and they want to see a safety net for the weak, but they are also happy to see talent “rewarded.” No one complains about the earnings of a Steven Spielberg, a Geri Halliwell, a Michael Jordan; these are popular heroes.

Rawls’s critics argue that this attests to the irrelevance of his ideas. John Gray, one of his British critics, says the spirit of the times demands a pluralist political morality, “concerned to satisfy basic human needs… foster inclusion and promote meritocracy.” We also need to acknowledge that these values can conflict. ‘A truly pluralist political culture will not indulge the illusion that fairness is simple. It will openly negotiate the conflicting dictates of fairness.” Rawls’s friends, on the other hand, tend to adopt a long-term perspective, arguing that Rawls’s time will come his ideas are just too powerful, too profound, not to have an effect. There is a third position, one perhaps occupied by Rawls himself in his bleaker moments. That for all their importance, for all their power, his ideas are simply too radical—too many people have too much to lose. The development of a more global economy and the corresponding decline in the power of the nation state have, if anything, made a Rawlsian state harder to achieve now, at the time of Collected Papers, than it was at the appearance of A Theory of Justice and it was hard enough then.

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