Where does Hobbes go wrong?

After an interesting class today in which we compared the contract theories of Locke and Hobbes, I realized I roughly agreed with Hobbes’ understanding of the State of Nature, but not his extreme solution (i.e. the creation of an absolute power). While I can only speak for myself (and I suppose Graham as well), I think many of us may still feel unsure about why Hobbes at first seems so correct in assessing lawless society, but after proposing his remedy so absurd. I’m sure this is lengthy philosophical question that’s been debated for at least a century or two, but I’d like to propose the idea that Hobbes’ major error is assuming people to be acting excessively rashly when they leave the State of Nature. In a nutshell, Hobbes argues that the State of Nature is so awful that people do whatever it takes to get out of it, often entrusting power to a leader/group and giving them absolute power. But I’d disagree that people would feel an immediate desire to exit the S of N and immediately become party to an unjust agreement with some type of sovereign. In a S of N, the people don’t simply appear out of nowhere, instead, I believe it’s a somewhat gradual process to get there. Not only must population reach a level in which people are forced to frequently interact with each other, but resources must begin to dwindle and people must gain the basic knowledge which would allow some type of government formed later to even work. With such a gradual buildup to instability, it seems to me unlikely people would immediately elect to enter into a contract which is clearly unjust. The underlying principle I’m trying to get at is that urgency is proportional to the unfairness of a contract, and thus Hobbes’ exaggeration of urgency, leads to an exaggeration about the extremity of the social contract. Of course, though, that’s just one take on it. Please note that while some might reference civil wars in developing countries in recent decades as evidence that anarchy can quickly become immense and that general will turns to a dictator, I do not consider such examples true S of Ns. In my opinion, as long there’s knowledge about a previous period of effective government (or to say it another way, people aren’t developing government in intellectual isolation), people aren’t in a Hobbesian S of N. Also, I use the word social contract occasionally in the post, though some might argue Hobbes doesn’t really put forward a SC, I use the phrase informally for clarity.

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15 Responses to Where does Hobbes go wrong?

  1. Dr. K says:

    I wouldn’t think of the state of nature as a real thing. It’s really a thought experiment. In other sections of Leviathan, Hobbes tells a story which seems more historical about state formation (e.g., some people conquering other people). That implies that his state of nature isn’t an argument about what really happend. So the real question is, if people were plunged into a state of nature, would they be desperate to get out of it–desperate enough to pay any price? You can’t say they wouldn’t accept an unjust social contract, because that’s begging the question: you’re assuming the Hobbesian social contract is unjust, but Hobbes would say it is just, because it follows the first natural law: seek peace and follow it (in this case, by creating a government). So if you think people wouldn’t “rashly” leave the state of nature, you seem to be saying the State of Nature wouldn’t be so bad, which sounds more like Locke. If you agree with Hobbes’s conception of humanity, but not with his conception of the state of nature, what’s the error in logic (not in history) that he makes in going from one to the other.

    Your last point is slightly different (one made by Rousseau, among others)–there’s no such thing as a state of nature because people are already condition by years of society. So in a “state of nature” we’re not seeing what people are “by nature” but what people are like as a result of social conditioning. Of course, that calls into question Hobbes’s entire approach.

    • Benjamin says:

      Dr. K,

      While I would retract my last point, I would humbly disagree for I still hold that there’s no compelling reason not to treat the state of nature with at least basic tenants of reality. In Chapter 13 of Leviathan, Hobbes writes, “It may peradventure be thought there was never such a time nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America… live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before.” While the phrase “I believe it was never generally so” might seem damning at first, I interpret it simply to mean that Hobbes never believed the world to be simultaneously and globally in a S of N. Thus, Hobbes himself provides us with a passage with the irrefutable conclusion that his own version of the state of nature is not solely hypothetical (even if it’s often treated that way, perhaps often rightly so). To look at the S of N in another way, using an analogy, when I pose the thought experiment to myself of what would happen if I pulled the fire alarm in school, my question is not only hypothetical. I would consider the location of the fire alarms, the probability of me being caught, and the likely repercussions. Even if I were to concede that the S of N is purely hypothetical (which I most certainly do not), the entire idea is pointless if there’s no elementary factual basis. To extend the ideas in my original post using another actual Hobbes example, in the article Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes, “…he [i.e. Hobbes] notes that all sovereigns are in this state with respect to one another. This claim has made Hobbes the representative example of a ‘realist’ in international relations.” I believe European history is littered with countless examples in which the sovereigns of states engaged in war with neighbors only once it became a necessity stemming from the rational interest of self-preservation. I believe we can scale down that example to my original point, that members of a state of nature don’t often find themselves just immediately thrown into it. There’s often a buildup, and Hobbes bellum omnium contra omnes only comes towards the end of the process. Furthermore, I would also continue to hold my claim that the compact which establishes a sovereign with absolute power over people is very often unjust. Firstly, using Hobbes’ own notion that people are inherently rational, I believe people would be extremely aware of the freedoms they forfeit by anointing an absolute sovereign. Secondly, I disagree with the idea that Hobbes’ first law of nature automatically legitimizes absolutism, partially because I feel that there are other methods to seek peace, and partially because there’s so little academic consensus about what his laws of nature truly are. My feelings, at this point, on civil war and the S of N in a Hobbesian sense are still incredibly muddled, so I admit I don’t have much to say on the topic right now.

      • Dr. K says:


        Well, you got me with the quote from Leviathan–although Hobbes is of course completely off-base in his judgment of the political status of Native Americans. They certainly weren’t in anything close to a state of nature. And it is also true, as you note, that international relations are often held up as the best example of the state of nature, and that does seem to suggest the difficulty of getting individuals to accept an overlord. However, it seems to me that even that poses problems for your argument. Hobbes could agree that the state of nature descends into chaos gradually, but so long as it gets there eventually (i.e., so long as people aren’t willing to accept any “common power” until things get really bad) then his argument still stands. People don’t have to “immediately elect to enter into a contract which is clearly unjust,” they only have to only and eventually enter into such a contract. Hobbes doesn’t have to show that the state of nature happens suddenly, only that people won’t leave it until things get really bad. I would suggest that international relations proves exactly that point. What did it take to get international organizations (League of Nations, UN)? The two world wars, which between them killed well over 50 million people in the course of 30 years. And even then the organizations that resulted are largely powerless. All of which suggests that individuals are extremely reluctant to leave the state of nature, and won’t leave it until things get very bad–in which case, Hobbes’s argument would apply.

        I’m still not completely convinced that the social contract, undertaken in the state of nature, can be unjust. Hobbes writes, “To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice.” (Levithan 13) and “before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants” (Leviathan 15). You provide valid reasons to think it is unjust, but I think they are reasons that Hobbes would not accept: in particular, the claim that there are other ways to achieve peace (which he certainly would seem to disagree with), and also the implication that people will care about their rights when their lives are on the line.

        It seems to me that your disagreement with Hobbes really lies in those last points: you seem to assume that people won’t be that desperate to get out of the state of nature and (therefore) they care about more than preserving their lives. And that sounds reasonable–though also very Lockean.

        • Benjamin says:

          Dr. K,

          Thanks for continuing this very interesting conversation, and, before the finer points of Hobbesian moral theory go entirely over my head, I’d look to offer my ruminations on what seem to be the two particularly contentious subjects discussed thus far; the question of whether social contracts can be established gradually, and the question of the moral legitimacy of the contract itself. Reiterating my beliefs above, I feel that a gradual model is a more helpful interpretation of the state of nature/social contract. To begin, let’s say there are 4 important punctual moments in this model, the creation of people (just go with it), the beginning of people in some form interacting, the interaction of humans devolving into a S of N, and the creation of a social contract. Hobbes essentially states that after living in the state of nature for some time, people decide to form a social contract. Yet he ignores the time (and the events) from the origin of people to their affairs entering into a state of nature, something Trevor talks about. Using deduction, if anarchy leads to a social contract, then shouldn’t mild anarchy lead to a mini social contract? There’s simply no way in which people become party to a massive social contract without belonging to smaller ones first, say a family or clan. I realize I’m bordering on being overly literal with Hobbesianism, but I think I’ve stayed just within its boundary, after all, the family is one of earliest recorded historical units of collectiveness. Thus, by the time society has reached a state of nature (say clan warfare for this example), there already exists numerous frameworks for a loosely just hierarchy. Thus, I find the notion that people are irrational and driven entirely by emotion when joining a SC somewhat flawed. Moving on to the legitimacy of the contract, I agree that the passage from Leviathan is especially interesting. I wonder whether Hobbes opens himself up to a paradox when he rights, “Before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants.” If we only have have to honor our agreements after the creation of a state, why must we honor our agreement with the state in the first place (which only exists after the original agreement)? One might say the “paradox” is solved by the fact that the state comes into existence immediately after the agreement, but I don’t think this addresses the underlying issue. The best way I can think of expressing this idea is with an example, so here goes. Let’s say I make an agreement with my history teacher that I won’t pull the fire alarm in school, which I then do. In explaining why I’m being expelled, my history teacher points to the agreement, yet I question why I had to follow it. I argue that a contract itself can’t legitimize the practice of abiding by contracts, but he (an experienced debate coach) points out that although I might be right about that, there is a higher power (perhaps morality) which compels us to abide by contracts we make. To apply this poorly articulated idea to Hobbesianism, there needs to be some higher power in the first place which makes us abide by the social contract. I think it’s the same power that establishes the law of nature and gives “in such a condition every man… a right to every thing [sic].” The point of this long tangent is that even before a social contract is formed, Hobbes’ philosophy inherently requires a basic moral framework. Thus, I feel confident in asserting that a contract has the potential to be unjust. Establishing the framework for the possibility that the contract is unjust is definitely a step in the right direction, but now we must deal with the question of whether the contract actually is. I have to concede at this point we’ve left what it seems Hobbes actually said in Leviathan, and we’ve delved into a hypothetical extension of a mostly hypothetical scenario. In the loose moral framework discussed above there’s not really any stipulation that would clarify the legitimacy of the contract, so we’ll essentially have to make a fairly obvious one up: the two sides of the contract should have equal gains. To hyper-condense the subject, people promise eternal loyalty, the sovereign promises far less, and thus the contract is unjust (a conclusion many people draw within about a minute of learning about Hobbes’ “solution” to a state of nature). Though I haven’t had a personal interaction, I’m pretty sure Hobbes would vehemently contest my suggestion, but the title of the post after all is Where did Hobbes go wrong? So, to again state my underlying point, Hobbesian contract theory offers such an absurd result because a) Hobbes misunderstands the condition people are in when entering the contract and b) he doesn’t realize people will find the contract unjust, even when they’re leaving the state of nature. Ultimately, I am very interested to here your thoughts on the above, as I find Hobbes exceedingly interest and surprisingly complex.

          • Trevor says:

            I completely agree with your second point, and am positive I would have never been able to state it as clearly as you just did. For your first post, however, I only have one question I’d like to pose: Couldn’t the numerous clans you describe that come before a larger scale SC follow a Hobbesian governmental system themselves? Correct me if I’m wrong though, because I’m not sure if Hobbes’ philosophy takes the size of a government into consideration.

          • Dr. K says:


            Since I’m enjoying the conversation I’ll keep it going.

            You write, “if anarchy leads to a social contract, then shouldn’t mild anarchy lead to a mini social contract?” That depends on what you mean by “mini social contract.” If you mean small in size, Hobbes admits that small-scale social contracts are possible. In fact, I believe that Hobbes argues (as Trevor also suggests) that family “rulers” have the same rights as government rules because there is also an implicit contract. So mini-as-in-small contracts are possible, but they are of the same nature as larger social contract. If by “mini” you mean “less despotical,” Hobbes doesn’t admit that. The social contract must be absolute in order to maintain obedience and preserve order. He doesn’t miss the possibility of a gap between the origins of humanity and the origins of the state of nature because there is no such gap; as soon as you have people without a government, you have a state of nature. He does miss the possibility of a gradual descent into chaos that can be prevented with more moderate contracts, because that doesn’t fit with his assumptions about human nature. We, of course, are free to disagree with those assumptions–but many people seem to want to agree with them, without accepting Hobbes’s conclusions from them. As far as Hobbes is concerned that would be like accepting that 2+2 = 4, while denying that 2+4 = 6. Of course, he could be wrong about that, too.

            You’re second point is interesting, but I’m not completely sure I agree. In particular, I’m not sure if Hobbes’s theory requires much of a pre-existing moral framework. I think his logic is something like this:

            1. The law of nature requires that people do what is necessary to preserve their lives. “A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life” [That’s about as far as he concedes a moral framework–it’s pretty minimal]
            2. Formation of a government via Hobbesian social contract is the best way to preserve men’s lives.
            3. Therefore, the law of nature requires that men form a government. “From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself…”
            4. Once they form a government, they need to obey it (because that saves men’s lives). [“FROM that law of nature by which we are obliged to transfer to another such rights as, being retained, hinder the peace of mankind, there followeth a third; which is this: that men perform their covenants made”]
            5. Therefore justice requires that they obey the government and keep the social contract.

            So I suppose you are kind of correct that there is a “higher power” (or perhaps better, a moral framework) to justify his notion of justice. I suspect, however, that Hobbes, would see his principle “Each man ought to do what he needs to do to save his life” as the moral equivalent of cogito ergo sum–so self-evident, and so rooted in human nature (don’t all people seek to preserve their lives?) that it scarcely requires justification, and certainly doesn’t require an sort of appeal to God or a moral framework of the universe. Though what Hobbes’s attitudes were towards God and religion are a matter of dispute.

            I also wouldn’t say that contract is unjust because the sovereign promises less. As I understand Hobbes, the sovereign promises nothing, since he isn’t really a party to the contract. But again, justice isn’t about fairness, or balance. What is just (outside the state) is what saves people’s lives.

            I think you’re last point (b) is really a variation on point (a) (they reason they might regard the contract as unjust is because it is unnecessarily severe). So you’re disagreement, it seems to me, comes down to a disagreement about what the state of nature is like. And that, it seems to me, is rooted in a deeper disagreement, about human nature. Do you, perhaps, think that people aren’t so destructive if there is no common power to overawe them? Do you agree with Locke that we have a moral sense that tells us (even if we don’t always listen) that we ought to respect other people?

            Interesting conversation, Benjamin. As you know, I can’t resist a good philosophical discussion.

            P.S. All quotes from http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-contents.html

          • Dr. K says:

            And yes, Hobbes is surprisingly complex. That’s why political philosophers love studying his work so much.

    • Trevor says:

      Dr. K, you bring up some great points; however, I think Hobbes’ argument that people would be desperate enough to pay “any price” to escape the State of Nature is not logical. If those in a Hobbesian society are truly self-interested, it seems to me that it would not be in every person’s self-interest to so readily sacrifice all of their personal liberties based on a whimsical notion of who could possibly control them best, whether the social contract appears to be just, or not. Although Hobbes’ logic that the supreme leader will look out for the people because it is in his best interests to have their admiration is sound on the surface, it lacks merit in my opinion. True devotion to the people can’t be replaced by artificial care because if times become tough, a Hobbesian leader would be willing to make the people sacrifice as long as his own life remains peachy. Governments have often attempted to impose absolutism in different parts of the world, and History has proved time and time again that it only leads to Revolution, and occasional bloodshed. Even if dictators are promoted by the people to lead, it is the general will, not the will of all, and the outliers are bound to advocate change at some point or another. If those in the State of Nature are able to come to some sort of consensus, whether spoken or unspoken, over whose hands they are placing their lives in, shouldn’t it make sense that they would be able to come to simple agreements catering to their self-interests, first, and gradually work their way towards a better government/society, as Benjamin said? Would this not allow people to move forward without having to pay any price, no matter how steep? In my opinion this would seem like the logical path to take.

      • Dr. K says:

        Hi Trevor,

        Those are good points. Your last point, in particular, is one that a lot of critics of Hobbes have noted: if people are so self-interested that the state of nature descends into chaos, how can they ever cooperate enough to form a government? Hobbes’s argument seems a bit self-contradictory there, and a lot of political philosophers have spent a lot of time ruminating on the problem.

        Your other point (dictators often turn bad, so why would people trust them) also seems valid, but it points to a different problem in Hobbes. He assumes people are rational, meaning (1) they know their self-interest, properly understood (2) they know how to achieve their self-interest and (3) they always do that. But it’s not clear that people really are rational that way. It wasn’t rational (in the sense of, promoting his long-term self-interest) for Saddam Hussein to try to bluff the United States by pretending he had nuclear weapons–but he did it anyway. It may not be rational for dictators to squeeze their countries economically–but they do it anyway. And that’s a problem for Hobbes’s theory.

  2. Benjamin says:


    I’m answering your question here because for some reason the WordPress software isn’t allowing me to directly reply to your comment. First of all, I’m glad your in agreement about Hobbesian moral framework and I agree that my first point is a little ill-explained. I think there a few ways to address such a question but it’s late so I’ll use the simplest one I can think of, a stepping stone argument. If, upon returning home from school and informing your father about a bad grade you received on a math quiz, he ordered you take break your history teacher’s leg, I think we can conclude you wouldn’t. Why, because though (I imagine) you love and respect your father, he does not have absolute control over you. The idea I’m sure you’ve drawn from the example is that despite your closeness, your family does not operate in an absolutist fashion. Now, we need to accept that a typical family, regardless of cultural or era, does not operate in an entirely, 100% absolutist fashion. I realize this supposition can be a little tricky to accept (and it might seem like I’m taking Hobbes a tad too literally), but if you challenge yourself with more extreme examples of what an absolutist family might demand, I think you’ll eventually come into agreement that that’s simply not how a typical family ever functions. Moving on, the next level of organization (a clan in this instance) cannot be anymore restrictive than the family since we’ve already entered a SC at that prior level. Since the family is the most basic of all units and the state perhaps the most complex, and since the family can’t be absolutist, the state cannot function in an absolutist manner. Ergo, Hobbes’ conclusion is incorrect.

    Now, honestly, I don’t think the above explanation is particularly fulfilling (in fact I think it’s pretty lousy), but hopefully it’s able to suffice until I have more time to devote to an explanation to your question, which is certainly an excellent one.

    • Benjamin says:


      Here are two more potential answers to your question, and although they are still flawed, I think are better than my explanation above. Firstly, going back to the gradual model, well before we reach a state of nature, we live in an increasingly dangerous and tumultuous setting. This means that we also gradually join social contracts, though the largest one, the contract which establishes the state, is not formed until we’ve reached DEFCON 1, the state of nature. Conveniently, we can exit the hypothetical and point to real institutions (like families, clans, religions, etc.) as evidence that such gradual contract building really occurred. But of course, I’ve already said this so now must go one step further using deduction, but before that we must except the golden rule of contractarianism, the urgency of the members is proportional to the extremity of the contract. So, going back to before, when we enter into our smallest social contract (say a family or clan) the urgency is relatively small, thus the chances of us forming an extreme contract very unlikely. Now, as discussed above, we do this a few times before ultimately getting to the contract which establishes the state. Hobbes’ argument essentially rests on the supposition that when we are in the state of nature, it’s so scary we do whatever must be done to get out of it, to him that’s creating an absolutist government. But what he forgets is all the history before entering the S of N, in that time people have employed moderate social contracts and their collective memory has likely taught them the (undeniable) issues of absolutism. Thus, Hobbes’ misunderstanding about life before the S of N (and people’s disinclination to absolutism), leads to him misunderstanding how humans respond when entering into the state of nature.

      Now, on the other hand, let’s go ahead and (exempli gratia) concede the fact that at some level we enter into an absolutist contract. Let’s also there another group of people who do the same thing, now the tricky part is justifying how these groups merge together to create an absolutist sovereign on a higher level. As Dr. K talks about in his example, nations have historically been extremely hesitant to enter into some sort of higher level contract, and, even more, those international organizations have very little real power. Why? Simply put, because people of real authority are often very hesitant to give it up. Now let’s extremity the example, how likely is it that an absolutist power figure is going to give up all his power to another absolutist power figure in a largely chaotic world with little personal protection? Now, if that’s unlikely, what do you think the likelihood of that happening many times for just one group of people is? One might argue that Group A can simply conquer Broup B, but remember were in Hobbesian contract theory, in which legitimate government may only be enacted by social contracts, even if this differs from “real life.” Thus, the idea of an absolutist sovereign on some contract level is indirectly proven to be impossible. So hopefully these two points help illustrate my skepticism that the levels of government-forming can be absolutist in function.

      • Dr. K says:


        A couple of more points.

        First a quote from Hobbes: “In sum, the rights and consequences of…paternal…dominion are the very same with those of a sovereign by institution…” In other words, family rulers have the same rights as governmental rulers, according to Hobbes. Whether or not they choose to exercise those rights is a different matter. So for Hobbes, the idea that the smaller contracts are less severe because they are earlier isn’t correct. All sovereign rights are despotical.

        Second, Hobbes grants that many states form not by social contract per se, but by conquest (chapter 20), but insists that even commonwealths by conquest have the same rights as commonwealths by institution. The social contract is the (perhaps hypothetical) model, but it provides the justification even for those governments not formed by an actual social contract, and instead formed by one group conquering another group. Thus Hobbes quite explicitly (in my opinion) rejects the view that “legitimate government may only be enacted by social contracts.” As he puts it, “the rights and consequences of sovereignty are the same in both [commonwealths by conquest and commonwealths by institution]” (Leviathan, chapter 20).

        He may be harsh, but at least he’s consistent.

        • Benjamin says:

          Dr. K,

          While I’m currently indisposed as a result of preparation for an unnamed assessment, I hope to continue the discussion in the (relatively) near future.

  3. cmiller2015 says:

    In my attempt to write something intelligent while fulfilling my blogging obligations, I would like to suggest that perhaps both Hobbes and Locke are wrong. The S of N obviously can’t be replicated in the world of today, or in the world of Hobbes and Locke. The State they talk of is pure chaos, which hasn’t been very common since men stepped out of caves. As Dr. K, influenced by Rousseau pointed out, the State of Nature couldn’t be created during the Enlightenment (or today), because order is installed in people from a young age. Hobbes and Locke aim to explain the order that mankind subjects itself to. Hobbes says that order is important, and that people would destroy themselves without it. Locke says that this order is bad, and must be thrown off. Both are too idealistic. Hobbes thinks that, short of absolute dictatorship, man will be unhappy. Locke thinks that, short of complete anarchy, man will be unhappy. Neither attempt to think of the possible middle line, and neither consider the full scope of their claims. Under absolute dictatorship, Hobbes wouldn’t be allowed to publish his works. Under complete anarchy, Locke would be forced to compete with the underclass that he looked down upon. Both make far-reaching claims that would not be in the interest of the authors themselves. While Hobbes claims that he supports decisions that are not in the interest of most people, would he be willing to live under his own Draconian laws. Would either man put forth those ideas if they thought they had a possibility of happening? Maybe, but maybe not.

  4. sweiswasser2015 says:

    This post has been a very fascinating read and have lost track of time from reading it. Benjamin- I think that your argument poses a fascinating question about human nature and what our true self interests are. In accordance with Hobbes’ remedy to the state of nature with absolute governing, I believe that absolute rule would have to be in the people’s best interest, as self-interest is part of how Hobbes describes S of N. Throughout my class in History, we discussed that to Hobbes, absolute governing is in everybody’s best interest. It is in the ruler’s best interest to govern well and to keep a prosperous nation because people will be happier and the ruler will thus have more power and a stronger reputation. However, I do agree with you in that that is assuming that people would want to get out of their state of nature. I do think that people would be inclined to develop out of a Hobbesian state of nature, considering that it is in their best interest (a component of Hobbesian state of nature) to develop out of their S of N, given that according to Hobbes, absolute rule is in everybody’s self interest. I also agree that people must gradually develop into a Hobbesian state of nature. This made me consider your question as to what would make people develop into this state of nature, a question that can be examined through Locke’s tabula rusa, the idea that our environment and society define our character. This was a very fascinating post and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I look forward to reading more.

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