This is Chapter 4 in a blog series. If you’re new to the series, visit the series home page for the full table of contents.
Part 2: The Value Games
“We need a government, alas, because of the nature of humans.” – P.J. O’Rourke
Chapter 4: The Enlightenment Kids
The American forefathers knew all about the Power Games.
This particular scene wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It was a typical development in the Power Games, where most nations of the time were on the “tyranny → coup → chaos → tyranny” merry-go-round.
The forefathers were sick of tyranny and decided it was time to move on to the coup stage—or, in this case, the coup’s less intense cousin, an independence movement.
What was unusual was their long-term plan. Normally, the people rebel because they’re annoyed about being powerless and they want to turn the tables. So a rebellion topples the king, some chaos ensues, some friends murder friends, and when the dust settles, there’s a new king. For centuries, most people assumed that this was just the way things had to be. But this was the late 1700s, and the forefathers were Enlightenment Kids.
During the Enlightenment, Higher Minds in parts of Europe started cautiously talking about a new story.
The new story talked about ideas like human rights and equality and tolerance and freedom. According to this new story, humans had made incredible advancements in knowledge, wisdom, and technology—but they were still doing government like it was 7,000 BC. The Power Games, the story went, were unpleasant, unfair, unproductive, and unnecessary—and they were fundamentally immoral, violating the most sacred elements of being a human.
The story was a mind virus, just like other stories—and it started to spread.
Before long, it had crossed the Atlantic and taken hold in minds throughout the American colonies, turning well-behaved English subjects—good cells in the global English giant—into Enlightenment kids. Enlightenment kids were the entitled Millennials of their time, and pretty soon people across the colonies had decided that wait, they had rights—and those rights weren’t being respected.
The American forefathers were coming of age right in the middle of all of this, and they decided to take action. They had bigger ambitions than overthrowing their king—they wanted to overthrow the concept of a king.
So they wrote a letter to King George III explaining the new situation.
King George was terribly unamused by this development, and the British waged war. A 44-year-old George Washington found himself in charge of fending them off—which, hilariously, his mom apparently hated.1
But George didn’t let it stop him, and he and his crew, with the help of a delighted France, held off the British long enough that they finally gave up and headed back across the ocean.
The Americans had won their independence, and for the first time, a group of Enlightenment kids found themselves with a rare opportunity: a chance to create a new kind of country, from scratch—a chance to take the “here’s what I’d do if I could start my own country” fantasy and actually play it out. It was time to put the Enlightenment to the test.
This was a lot to figure out.
Designing the American Giant
A lot of what follows will seem intuitive to readers today. But back when the U.S. started, not one country in the world was what we would consider a democracy today—so these ideas were anything but obvious. That’s part of what makes the design of the U.S. such an impressive feat.
The forefathers thought about each of these levels as they designed the country.
First, and perhaps most important, was the individual American citizen. While Power Games dictatorships often treated their populace like just another resource to be used in the service of achieving domestic and foreign objectives, the Enlightenment was all about the sanctity of the individual. No matter what, individual rights had to be protected.
The Let’s Just Get This Out of the Way Right Here Blue Box
“No matter what, individual rights had to be protected” is one of many sentences in this post that look pretty silly without an asterisk that acknowledges the irony that a country founded on equality and freedom and high-mindedness also initially believed those tenets only applied to certain groups of people, while treating other groups like livestock, inferior savages, household accessories, etc.
The U.S. is not a perfect manifestation of its stated core values or founding intent—a fact at the heart of much of the strife today and throughout the country’s history. We’ll be diving into all that later in the series. For now, let’s all get on the same page about what the intent was in the first place. This chapter will help us build the language we’ll use to talk about the trickier stuff later on.
The Okay While We’re Doing This Let’s Also Get Another Thing Out of the Way Blue Box
This part of the series, and some other parts later on, are super U.S.-centric. The reason is that I’m American and I’m currently immersed in U.S. society—so I have a way better understanding of the U.S. than I do of any other country.
But I bet that even in the U.S.-specific sections of the series, most of the ideas correspond pretty well to wherever you’re living. According to Google Analytics, 58% of WBW readers are American and 42% are from other countries—but when we dug in a bit, we learned that most WBW readers are living in democracies:3
So for most of the non-Americans, you have your own version of all this to think about. As for the other 8% (which is actually probably higher due to VPNs), I hope you share your perspectives with the rest of us—they’ll help paint a better picture here of the full spectrum of modern human societies.
Now go back up to the paragraph above these two blue boxes so you don’t forget what we were talking about before this diversion.
Specifically, the Founders drew on the core Enlightenment concept of inalienable rights—which they articulated in the most famous sentence in American history:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.4
Throughout human history, it was often taken for granted that some people had god-given rights that others didn’t—because they were from a certain family, of a certain demographic, or were thought to be favored by the prevailing god. Enlightenment thinkers thought this was silly. They saw inalienable rights as inherently applying to everyone equally and existing beyond the realm of politics.
Higher up on Emergence Tower, the forefathers tried to strike the right balance between competing layers of giants. The big U.S. giant was made up of what would eventually be 50 smaller state giants, each of whom was made up of even smaller giants like counties and cities. The designers engaged in furious debates about what kinds of power each giant tier would have and the extent to which smaller giants would have autonomy versus being subject to orders from above. The debates rage on today.
We’ll dive into those weeds in another post sometime. For now, we’ll focus on the big national U.S. giant at the very top of U.S. Emergence Tower.
The inside of the U.S. could be the perfect Enlightenment utopia, but the world outside was still playing the Power Games, and if the U.S. giant couldn’t hold its own on that stage, it would be a short-lived experiment. The U.S. giant would have to be strong, economically and militarily, and it would have to make wise decisions on the global landscape.
The Founders thought they could satisfy both the individual and national concerns—if the right rules were in place. But that introduced a new issue:
Who would enforce the rules? And who would get to make the decisions that affect the whole country?
If the country could have been run by a perfectly high-minded, selfless, principled, consistent, non-overthrowable, immortal, eternal dictator—then sure, that mythical leader could enforce the rules and make the decisions forever.
But since that’s not possible, how would the U.S. avoid the predictable Power Games fate, where either the first dictator, or one of their successors, goes corrupt and starts bending and breaking the rules and sends the whole thing to shit?
The Founders had a plan. They would take the standard dictator—
—and split it into three parts (not to be confused with the three branches of government).
The first part would be the dictator’s rules, which in this case would not emerge from the mind of any leader but from the Enlightenment itself. The Founders would collaborate to forge a custom-crafted version of Enlightenment philosophy and lay it out in a sacred document called the Constitution.
In the Power Games, kings, emperors, and warlords were typically focused on some set of goals—personal or national prosperity, defense against other giants, expansion, etc. These were the leaders’ sacred ends, and they’d try to achieve them by any means necessary. The rules they used to govern would usually be treated as part of these means—set strategically in order to support the sacred goals. When two values come into conflict, the one held more sacred will stay nailed firmly in place, while the other one will compromise in order to accommodate the sacred value.
The U.S. Constitution would work the opposite way. It was a set of rules that, rather than serving any particular goal or outcome, would be sacred in themselves. The Constitution described a sacred process—a set of inviolable means by which any and all national or individual goals would need to be accomplished. It outlined the means by which leaders would be elected, the means by which conflicts would be settled and people who broke the rules would be punished, the means by which the country could act on the international stage—all processes that emerged from Enlightenment values. The U.S. and its citizens could and would do anything they wanted—as long as they did it Enlightenment-style.
By centering the new country around a sacred process, the U.S. Founders flipped the normal order of things on its head.
The second part of the U.S. dictator—the brain that makes decisions about both what goes on inside the country and what the country does on the international stage—would be handled by the citizen body.
The citizens would be able to make whatever decisions they wished, as long as they abided by the sacred rules. There would even be portions of the rules the citizen body could decide to change—certain laws, judicial precedents, amendments to the Constitution—but even these rule changes could only happen via pathways outlined in other parts of the rules. Of course, in a micro sense, politicians handle national decision-making, but over the long run, elections meant that the citizen body would be ultimately running the show.5
The final part of the split dictator would be the dictator’s cudgel—the iron fist that enforces the rules and keeps everything functioning the way it’s supposed to. This would be the job of the U.S. government.
A huge chunk of the Constitution’s rules would pertain to the scope and limitations of the government. The idea was, the government wouldn’t make the rules, it would be subject to the rules. The government wouldn’t be the core driver of the evolution and direction of the country—it would, in theory, simply execute the will of the people as they evolved. With a monopoly on the use of violence, the government would be the grand enforcer that holds the operation together—but its use of force would be severely restricted beyond that purpose.
If the U.S. were a soccer game, the Constitution would be the rules of play, the citizens would be the players on the field, and the government would be the referee. In one sense, the ref is powerless—totally bound by the rulebook and unable to control the outcome of the game. But in another sense, the ref is immensely powerful—because whenever rules are broken, the ref can pull out a red card and send people to jail.
The Founders couldn’t conjure a mythical, immortal, high-minded dictator, but they could conjure each of its parts, that together, could last forever, remain consistent, and ultimately accomplish the same thing.
For a species that, by nature, plays the Power Games, this system had a remarkable ambition: to put the nation’s collective Primitive Mind in a cage, giving the nation’s Higher Minds space to decide how things would go.
With this plan in mind, the forefathers got to work designing the specifics of the rulebook—starting with a concern on every citizen’s mind:
One of the worst parts about living in the Power Games was the lack of freedom. Most people lived their lives at the whim of someone else’s cudgel. But that’s actually a symptom of the real problem with the Power Games: too much freedom.
In the Power Games, everyone actually starts off with unlimited freedom.
So before anyone does anything, a Power Games environment looks like this:
A complete freedom bar for every person. Which sounds great—until conflicts arise, and the guiding rule of the Power Games comes into play:
Everyone can do whatever they want, if they have the power to pull it off.
Without any principles in charge, the Power Games are a simple contest of who can be the biggest bully. In most cases, no matter how much power you can muster, there’s someone around with an even bigger cudgel—and they’ll usually use it to restrict some of that unlimited freedom of yours, whether you like it or not.
Depending on who the local bully is and how they feel about you, you may find yourself with almost no freedom at all.
That’s why the typical Power Games environment has a few freedom winners and lots and lots of freedom losers. More like this:
The U.S. was founded, above all, as a reaction against the Power Games’ freedom problem—a problem that the Constitution solves with a compromise that goes something like this:
Everyone can do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.
Said more simply:1
Your right to swing your arms ends just where another person’s nose begins.
In exchange for giving up the freedom to harm or bully others, you could live a life entirely free from anyone bullying you. Pretty good trade, right? In the U.S., no one would be completely free, but everyone would be mostly free:
This compromise has two points baked into it. The first part—everyone can do whatever they want—describes what citizens can do. Their rights. The second part—as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else—describes what citizens cannot do. Their restrictions.
The two are mutually exclusive: deciding that citizens should be free from having a thing happen to them is also deciding citizens should not be free to do that thing. Likewise, every freedom granted to citizens is something citizens will have to live with others doing. That’s why U.S. freedom isn’t really freedom as much as it’s a freedom-safety compromise. And in that compromise, the key word—harm—is the decider. As far as the Constitution is concerned, an action is judged mainly on the harm criteria: if it’s harmful, citizens must be protected from it; if it’s not harmful, it’s a right that must itself be protected.
I like to think of it as two circles surrounding every U.S. citizen: a red circle of safety and a green circle of rights.
A person’s green circle would give them a tremendous amount of freedom rarely enjoyed in the Power Games—but the second someone’s green circle invaded anyone else’s red circle, they’d be breaking the law and the government would be obligated to step in.
The Constitution required the government to handle its red circle protection duties. But just as pressing a concern was the protection of green circles. The government would be obligated to protect every citizen’s green circle of rights against illegal impingement by bully citizens and, most crucially, by the government itself.
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
To ensure that this was crystal-ass-clear, the Founders tacked ten amendments onto the original constitution—the Bill of Rights—that among other things spelled out the kinds of classic Power Games green circle encroachment the government would be expressly forbidden from. Most notable of the ten is the First Amendment, which protected classic Enlightenment rights like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
The Founders also held property ownership in high regard—so much so that they endowed property owners with special power they could exercise within the confines of their own property. The power would allow them to treat their property like a mini country, where they could make any rules they wanted—as long as they didn’t cross the harm line. In other words, a person’s red circle would be protected everywhere inside the U.S. borders, no matter whose property they were on—but a person’s green circle would only be protected in public or on their own private property. This means that for every U.S. citizen, the U.S. is divided into three types of space, each with their own tier of rights:
When you’re at my party, or working at my company, or hanging out at my restaurant, or commenting on my website, I have the right to kick you out if you say something I don’t like, wear something I don’t like, or if I just decide I don’t like you. If you contest my ability to do so, I can call the police, and they’ll take my side—because you’re the one violating the rules, not me.6 But the second I physically assault you, or kidnap you, or do anything else that falls under the government’s definition of “harm,” it no longer matters where we are—the police are now on your side.
But if the U.S. was going to work, it couldn’t just be a free country—it had to be a fair country.
“A fair country” means a few things.3
One important component is procedural fairness—i.e. are people being treated equally under the law, and is everyone subject to the same processes? A classic example here is the justice system.
When someone breaks the law, or when there’s a conflict between citizens, the government referee has to ensure it’s doling out the yellow and red cards consistently and correctly. Even when everyone is trying to be as fair as possible, this can be tricky.
For one thing, the line that separates legal from illegal centers around the broad concept of harm. Which means this—
—is often not nearly as clear-looking as it is in my drawing. The harm line isn’t always crisp—a lot of the time, whether harm actually occurred during a conflict is hazier and more ambiguous:
Then, there’s the fact that one person’s green circle rights regularly collide with the green circles of other people (like a public protest interfering with a public parade), and it’s not always obvious which of these rights should trump the others.
To make things even trickier, people don’t always tell the truth, and the government is often dealing with one person’s word against another’s without concrete evidence either way.
So the Founders created a justice system that allows anyone in a conflict or accused of a crime to tell their side of the story to other citizens, who can then decide who’s at fault and for what. The Power Games is full of people being found guilty without evidence and punished unfairly, something the Enlightenment was determined to put an end to—so the hard rule would be: innocent until proven guilty.
The Founders also knew that as society evolved, new industries with new technologies would be developed, which would yield new kinds of rights and new kinds of harm—so the justice system would apply the spirit of the Constitution to unfamiliar situations as they arose, setting new judicial precedents in the process.
The other major component of a fair country is distributive fairness.
Humans like resources, and resources are limited. In the Power Games, whoever holds the cudgel tends to also distribute the resources, in any way they see fit. In the new U.S., that would no longer fly.
But if no one on top would be deciding who gets what, who would?
In Part 1, I compared being born into a Power Games dictatorship to drawing a card from a deck:
If you happened to draw a jack of hearts and be born the child of a noble in one of the dictator’s deemed upper castes, you might live a safe and enjoyable life. But more often, you’d find yourself with the 7 of clubs and spend your one life as an in-the-shit peasant, or you’d draw a 4 of diamonds and spend 40 hard years as a slave, or you’d draw a 2 of spades and be thrust at the age of 13 into the front lines of one of Mr. Question Mark Man’s foreign exploits and that would be that for you.
The red and green freedom circles partially solved this problem by removing, at least for citizens, the most blatant kinds of oppression that constitute the lowest cards—which means U.S. citizens would be guaranteed to hold no worse than, say, a 7. To determine how the cards were doled out beyond that minimum, the country would need the right system of resource distribution.
To grossly oversimplify for a minute, let’s consider a country’s resource distribution options on a linear spectrum that’s sure to result in lots of people yelling at me:
We can overlay our soccer metaphor onto the diagram, where citizens are the players and the government is the ref:7
Most of us can agree that the right half of this spectrum—where resources are distributed arbitrarily, at a dictator’s whim—is an unfair system, and one that usually results in a vast underclass with little hope for upward mobility.
But one of the hottest worldwide debates of the past century has been over where the truest form of fairness lies on the left half of the spectrum.
The Founders favored the middle part of the spectrum—free markets and equality of opportunity—over the left end. They believed that on the U.S. soccer field, everyone should have an equal opportunity to play, but beyond that, how people played should determine their lot in life. The “equal opportunity” language is baked right into the third inalienable right: the pursuit of happiness. A right to the pursuit is what mattered to the Americans—the pursuit of happiness, wealth, power, influence—not a right to the acquisition of these resources.
But it’s a spectrum, not a choice between two binary options—and the exact location of where the U.S. is and should be on the left portion of the spectrum has been a debate inside the country ever since the founding. The general idea, though, is that the Founders chose equality of opportunity over equality of outcome.
They saw equal opportunity as intuitively fair. Yes, a system like that would yield resource winners and resource losers—and not everyone would be happy with their outcomes—but they believed that if people felt that opportunity was equal, they would also feel that the resulting outcomes were just.
The Founders were also big on freedom. So any system of fairness that came at the expense of too much freedom would be unacceptable.
If we add a “government control” y-axis to our equality axis, we can see how this likely played into the thinking.
The general idea is that the farther you get from the center of the equality axis, the more government control is needed to generate the accompanying equality (or inequality) outcome—meaning a country’s distribution system will probably fall somewhere along this V:
The Founders’ insistence on both individual freedom and law and order restricts the top and bottom parts of the square:
And as we discussed above, the principle of equality of opportunity wipes out the right half of the x-axis too.
So adding back our V, we can see why the Founders landed where they did along the equality axis:
A perfectly even distribution of resources that would guarantee that every citizen would live an equal life with equal resources would be too costly in terms of freedom—it would mean that what you did in your life had no bearing on how your life went. In that situation, your life outcomes would instead be determined by the government—which completely clashed with Enlightenment thinking. So again, the Founders struck a compromise.
Putting this all together, we get a little window inside the big square that constitutes the U.S. zone:
The U.S. zone isn’t a single point, it’s a shape with height and width—so there would still be plenty for citizens, philosophers, and politicians to argue about. But the entire range of argument would be limited to those confines.
The reason lots of people will yell at me about these charts is that people don’t usually see their political opponents as simply nestled in the opposite corner of the U.S. zone. Rather, people tend to believe their political enemies are doing all kinds of awful Power-Games-y things in the restricted areas—predatory capitalism, government overreach, institutional discrimination, etc. And in some cases, they are. We’ll get to all that later in the series. What we’re looking at here is the spirit behind the way the Founders designed the system—or at least what that spirit has evolved into today.
There was another argument for free markets and equal opportunity—one that went beyond the realm of morality. The Founders predicted that equal opportunity would produce a brilliant side effect—fantastic productivity. A system in which everyone had the opportunity to compete for resources would generate a complete alternative to the Power Games—what we might call the Value Games.
The Value Games
In the Power Games, people who have cudgels use them to forcefully take the resources they want. In the Value Games, people use carrots to win resources over from others.
The Value Games are driven by human nature, just like the Power Games are. The difference is the Power Games is what humans do when there are no rules—the Value Games is what humans do when a key limitation is added into the environment:
You can’t use a cudgel to get what you want.
If I want something you have, but I’m not allowed to get it by bullying you, then the only option I’m left with is to get you to give it to me voluntarily. And since you’re selfish too, the only way you’ll do that is if I can come up with a “carrot”—a piece of value I can offer—that you’d rather have than the resource I want from you. If I can come up with that carrot, you’ll happily make the trade, and I’ll get my resource. In the zero-sum Power Games, the bully wins and the bullied loses. In the positive-sum Value Games, with bullying removed from the equation, both parties in a transaction can win.
Let’s bring back our behavior equation, in simplified form.
The Value Games are a classic example of tweaking the environment in order to alter behavior. Removing bullying from the game-playing options—or, rather, adding in harsh-enough penalties for bullying that it turns bullying into an undesirable game-playing strategy—changes everything. It changes the game from a contest of who can be the scariest, the most dangerous, and the most intimidating, to a contest of who can produce the best carrots—of who can provide the most value to their fellow citizens.
Two obvious examples:
In the economic Value Games—i.e. capitalism—any citizen can vie for wealth, but to actually gain wealth, a citizen has to figure out how to provide some form of carrot that other citizens want badly enough that they’ll trade their wealth for it. So, for example, anyone can apply for a job or start a business—but for your pursuit at wealth to turn into actual wealth, you’ll need employers or customers to decide to trade their wealth for the value you can provide. And in order to earn long-term wealth, the carrot better actually taste good and not just look or sound good. Your promise of value will have to prove true when tested—if not, you’ll be quickly fired from your job or your business reputation will deteriorate.
In the political Value Games—i.e. democracy—any citizen can run for office and vie for the power to allocate government muscle and funding. But to actually acquire that power, you have to convince other citizens to grant you the seat by earning enough votes to win an election. And to maintain power for a long time, you’ll have to use your power in a way that satisfies enough citizens to be continually reelected. If the carrots you promised during campaign season never ended up arriving, voters probably won’t give you the power you want the next time around.
Without the right laws, human selfishness gets out of hand and quickly overruns everything, which is why the Primitive Mind dominates the Power Games. But the Value Games turn the tables on the Primitive Mind, forcing it to play by Enlightenment rules or end up in jail.
While it was typically better to be feared than loved in the Power Games, in the Value Games, it’s usually better to be loved than feared—which keeps politicians and businesses on their best behavior.
And good behavior was only icing on the cake. The Founders believed that putting constitutional reins on the Primitive Mind would transform the wild fires of human selfishness into an inexhaustible, self-regulating, self-propelling steam engine.
On a day-to-day basis, the Value Games would make high quality of life an objective that achieves itself. As Enlightenment icon Adam Smith put it:4 “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Over the long run, the clash of Value Games competition would yield a shining forward arrow of progress and prosperity that would benefit all Americans.
The Value Games would do far more than determine who gets to live the 8, 9, 10, jack, queen, king, and ace lives…
The long-term benefits of the Value Games would bring the entire range up to the point where the average American of the future would live a far more comfortable and pleasant life than the upper crust of the late 1700s.8
But the coolest free market in the Value Games wouldn’t be economic or political, it would be the game of ideas—the game that would give the U.S. giant a brain.
If we’re going to achieve our goal in this series—to understand what’s going on in U.S. society and others—we’re going to have to learn to be neuroscientists in the world of giants and wrap our heads around the way a society thinks. That’s where we’ll pick up in the next chapter.
Chapter 5: The Mute Button
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Other semi-related Wait But Why things:
More on the U.S.: The deal with the U.S.’s first 25 presidents (yes, I know I need to finish this series)
Another history thing: I got super into charting out historical people’s lifespans one week in 2016.
Historians aren’t sure about this, but the lore suggests she was a staunch Loyalist opposed to George’s revolutionary politics. Also note the hilarious possibly-not-true story I found here about the time, during the French and Indian War, when Washington’s mom wrote a letter to him complaining that she needed more butter. George was like “for fuck’s sake mom.” Why did we waste so much time on the cherry tree legend when we had the “embarrassing mom” legend sitting right there this whole time.↩
Cities and counties can get a little confusing in the U.S. and they work differently in different states—but this is a pretty typical arrangement.↩
They borrowed this language from John Locke, except they changed “property” in his writing to “the pursuit of happiness”—further evidence that they were the 18th century’s Millennials.↩
Whether or not things truly play out this way in a democracy is another subject of debate. John Medearis’s book Joseph Schumpeter’s Two Theories of Democracy, for example, argues that the notion that the citizens run the show is an illusion.↩
In certain situations, like those within a company, the government may restrict some of the property owner’s discretion—by, say, forbidding discrimination—but even these restrictions are often politically contentious.↩
Today, a big argument for redistribution is correcting for systematic unfairness. This kind of correction would actually fall under the middle category below, in which the ref only guarantees fair play, because a true equal opportunity soccer game would already include those corrections (and leaving them uncorrected would mean the system was actually right of the center). The modern debates over those kinds of corrections aren’t usually about where we should be on the equality axis—they’re about the extent to which systematic unfairness exists. We’ll come back to all that later in the series, but it seemed worth mentioning now.↩
We all discussed this once on the Wait But Why Dinner Table. The question was: Is it better to be born as a French monarch in 1700 or a regular person today? Lots of interesting responses.↩
Both the exact wording of this delightful quote and the exact speaker are disputed.↩
The Wealth Of Nations, Book I, Chapter II, pp. 26-7, para 12.↩