Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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MACHINERY, Its Social and Economical Effects. I. Economical Superiority, Motive Powers and Limitations of Machinery. The distinction between a tool and a machine consists principally in the fact that in the case of the latter the motive power does not proceed immediately from the human body, while the former is only an equipment of, or a substitute for, particular human organs. A machine is more complex than a tool. Many machines can be properly compared to a complete laborer. Tools are in their origin more ancient than machines, and as motive powers of the latter, the larger domestic animals were earliest used, then water, next wind, and, last of all, steam was applied.


—The indisputable superiority of machines where they compete on an otherwise equal footing with the human hand supplied with mere tools, arises from the fact that they can perform services which would be now too heavy and now too fine for the human hand. An important saving in raw material is also often connected with the greater power of machines. Since machines do not tire, they can work with uninterrupted persistence, and therefore with a superhuman uniformity; and since they never cheat or deceive, they are perfectly trustworthy. As they make the various copies of the same model with the utmost exactness, they permit a greater expenditure of labor and attention upon the original. Besides this, machines work more cheaply than human hands. If this were not so, undertakers would prefer the latter in their enterprises, because, if worst comes to worst, the laborers may be dismissed, but the capital invested in machines is for the most part irrevocably fixed. The same thing is also true of machines as of factories, that within certain limits the relative costs decrease with their increasing size. Even the labor of animals has the advantage over human labor that it is more powerful and cheaper. Their sustenance and dwellings may be ruder than even the rudest which would do for men. Their clothing is the free gift of nature. The portion of their lives which is unfitted for labor is relatively short. Even their dead bodies can be economically utilized. Of the so-called "blind motive powers," water and wind are not only stronger than animals, but absolutely indispensable to the national economy as a whole. Steam, however, where there is an abundance of combustible material, is of all machine powers the most complete, the most obedient to man and the freest from external interruption. Water power is but seldom found concentrated in one place to any great extent, and still more seldom in seaboard localities which are favorably situated for commerce. Consequently the most effective form of large industry—the formation of great metropolises of industry—is possible only with the aid of steam. To what degree the power of man over nature is increased by the various machine powers can be most clearly shown by a comparison of the oar-driven galleys with horse-drawn canal boats, with sail ships and steamships.


—The more the production of a commodity depends upon the constant repetition of one and the same operation, the greater is the advantage of the machine. Very different is it, however, where the production demands a series of manifold movements, particularly if the latter must vary with the individual constitution of the object worked upon. Machines are especially adapted for making cloths, because their quality depends chiefly upon having the thread uniformly and evenly woven. If the stuff is well prepared, the machine can work it up much more evenly than the hand. On the railroad, which is smooth, level and straight, a steam engine is used; in the city, where the crookedness of the streets, the crowd of men, the different purposes of travel, compel a thousand irregularities, horses are employed; and in the house everybody goes on foot. Since machines require, as a rule, larger amounts of capital than laborers, and as they fix it more permanently, their use is advantageous only where the products can reckon upon a large market. The more costly the machinery the greater the market by which it is conditioned. Machinery is but illy adapted to the manufacture of costly articles of luxury. As a rule, machinery not only increases the economical superiority of him who applies it, but it also presupposes such superiority—superiority in raw material, natural power, and education in general. In the case of commodities whose price depends mainly upon the cost of raw material, and only to a small extent upon that of manufacture, even a very considerable reduction of the latter will not be able to enlarge the market to such an extent as to justify the necessary machinery.


—Finally, it goes without the saying that where thought or invention is required, a machine can never compete with the laborer. The shortest way out, therefore, for a branch of hand industry which is threatened by the introduction of machinery, is for the laborers to pass over to that artistic branch of industry which is most nearly related to it. It can not be denied, however, that the sphere of machines has been recently very much enlarged and that it is relatively constantly increasing.


—II. The Economical and Social Advantages and Disadvantages of Machinery. 1. It can scarcely be doubted that for the great public of consumers, or, in other words, for the national wealth as a whole, the advantages of machinery completely outweigh all disadvantages connected with it. The value in use of the national wealth is increased by every successful introduction or improvement of a machine. For the previous quantity of production fewer laborers are needed; since machines, as Ricardo says, are of value only in so far as they save more labor than they themselves have cost. It is, of course, possible that the laborers who have been thus rendered unnecessary should remain idle for the future, but it is not at all probable. Civil society is not ready, as a rule, to pension off the laborers rendered unnecessary by machines with their full previous wages, and so the laborers are impelled, either by necessity or pride, to seek out new spheres of work. Whatever they produce in these is, for the national economy as a whole, a pure gain. Fortunately the new field of labor ordinarily lies very near to the former, as active enterprisers like to apply the capital so saved in the extension of their business. We may say with Hermann, that nature proceeds with economical inventions in the same way as human legislation with patent rights. At first the inventor succeeds in enjoying the sole use of his invention. The public pays him the former prices while his costs of production have become smaller, and so he receives a higher rate of profit than is usual. Competition soon begins to make itself felt, his fellow enterprisers imitate him, and he finds it to his advantage to extend his business and take small profits on large sales rather than large profits on small sales. Thus the price finally falls to the amount of the present costs of production, and the consumers get the ultimate permanent advantage, since they are now able to secure with the same sacrifice far greater enjoyment than before. The cotton industry affords an excellent example of this. As one improvement after another has been introduced, the price of cotton fabrics has steadily declined and their use become more general. Thus, in 1849 one could buy more than eight times as much cotton cloth for a given sum of money as in 1810. The population of Europe increased about 11 per cent. in the years 1836-50, while the use of cotton cloths increased about 85 per cent.


—If the consumption of the cheapened commodities increases in exactly the same ratio as their prices fall, the value in exchange of the national wealth remains unchanged; if it increases in a larger ratio, not only does the value in use but also the value in exchange increase. The cotton industry is again a case in point. The average value of English cotton fabrics in 1766 was estimated at £600,000; in 1875, at £95,400,000. Of course, such a development will not always take place. If needles should fall one half in price, their consumption need not increase proportionately or even at all, because sewing is no amusement, and the products of sewing would not become appreciably cheaper on account of the cheapening of needles. The case would become different if the cheapening of the needles enabled us to conquer a foreign market which up to this time had been closed to us. A diminution in the costs of production of decencies or luxuries often increases the number of customers not only in arithmetical but also in geometrical ratio, because in a classification of wealth the number of persons belonging to any class increases as the amount of wealth taken as a basis decreases. The assertion is often made, that products of machinery, though of better appearance than hand-made products, are not so durable. Even if this be so, there is certainly no technological reason why the work of machinery should be less durable than that of hands. On the contrary, the undoubtedly greater uniformity of machines must, in itself considered, be favorable to durability. It is probable, however, that, owing to the greatly increased facility of manufacture by machines, the production of raw material has not kept equal pace. Poorer material has, therefore, been taken, material which could not be worked at all by hand, and consequently even the better work of machines has not been able to make good products out of them. But the fault in such cases ought not to be ascribed to the machines. We can not deny, then, that not only individuals, so far as they are consumers, but also nations in their entirety, have been made richer by the introduction of machinery.


—2. But when we come to consider the distribution of this additional wealth, the advantages of machinery, particularly for the lower classes of wage laborers, are much more questionable. They gain, of course, in their capacity as consumers, and those political economists go too far who overlook the advantage of cheaper clothing and of similar articles of necessity. And yet in highly cultivated lands, where a well-developed division of labor compels the choice of a calling for life, no important machine can be introduced without driving some laborers out of their accustomed field of action. We must remember, however, that machines do not necessarily diminish the demand for laborers, taking the country as a whole. As a rule they open a new demand in one place while they close the old demand in another. The manufacture of the machines themselves requires a large number of laborers. If the demand for the products increases largely, more laborers are needed in preparing the raw material, in the work of transportation, etc., etc. The actual expansion of any branch of industry which is owing to machines occasions the expansion of other branches which can employ the surplus laborers. If cotton fabrics sink one-half in price, all consumers have one-half the sum of their former expenditures on these commodities available for some other purpose. Different consumers will use it in different ways. One will employ it in purchasing other satisfactions, another in enlarging his business, still another in increasing his income-yielding investments, i.e., as a rule in increasing his loans for productive purposes. In each case a new demand for laborers will ensue, though in very different degrees according to circumstances—to a greater degree, for instance, if the capital saved is applied in building a railroad than if employed in the purchase of foreign wines. Only in case of wanton destruction or idle hoarding of the sums saved would it be possible for no new demand to arise—cases of rare occurrence in machine-using countries. This removal of the laborers to new fields is made much easier for them by the fact that the most effective machines are generally the most costly, and gain ground, therefore, but slowly. The effectiveness of a machine has often caused such an expansion of certain industries that the demand for laborers even in those industries has been actually increased. If for a given quantity of commodities three-fourths of the laborers become superfluous, but the market increases more than fourfold, the demand for laborers in that very industry will become greater. The simple fact of the enormous increase of laborers in all branches of modern industry proves that the use of machinery may increase the demand for laborers. Nor is it true that machinery has lowered the wages of laborers. The English cotton spinner in 1804 could buy with a certain number of hours' labor 117 pounds of flour or 62 pounds of meat; a spinner of the same grade could buy in 1850 with the same number of hours' work 320 pounds of flour or 85 pounds of meat. And it is still true that the English agricultural laborer is more poorly paid than his brother, the factory operative.


—We can not always expect such a development. If those who are most immediately benefited by the invention of a machine consume their advantage, reckoned as capital, unproductively, the machine might permanently diminish the demand for labor. On account of the cost of raw material the price of manufactures can not fall in the same ratio as labor is saved by the machine. Whether, therefore, the market can be enlarged to the same or a greater extent depends upon the ability of the remaining branches of the national industry to furnish an increased supply of equivalents; for it is only such a supply of equivalents that constitutes an effective demand. This presupposes also a nation which makes use of the possibility of saving for the actual increase of its capital, and can be spurred on to greater activity by the prospect of more enjoyment. It depends, indeed, ultimately upon the supply of raw material and of the provisions of the laborers. Every industry contains within itself the guarantee of its further progress only in so far as it can exchange its increased production for an increased quantity of raw material and provisions. It is, therefore, the expansive abilities of internal agriculture or of foreign commerce in raw material which determines the answer to this question. The rate of wages depends on the relation between the supply of labor and the demand for it. The supply is, of course, not immediately affected by the introduction of machinery. So far as the demand is concerned, the possibility of its becoming greater is assured by the fact that every economically successful machine increases the national wealth. On the other hand, we must not close our eyes to the fact that the actual demand for labor within the limits of possibilities depends on the will of the enterprisers and the consumers. And indeed the immediate effect of a labor-saving machine is to make capitalists less eager for labor, and laborers more eager for capital. The demand for labor is conditioned not so much by the amount of fixed capital as of that which is circulating. But the construction of a machine means the conversion of circulating into fixed capital. In all such cases, therefore, there are very different and often opposite forces at work, of which now one and now another prevails. The more the middle class, with its modest but extensive consumption, prevails in a people, and the more the newly discovered machines further the production of objects of necessity used by the laboring classes, the more reasonable becomes the hope that wages generally need not sink in consequence of the introduction of machinery.


—But even under the most favorable circumstances it will be impossible to introduce any important machine with out doing some injury. How many laboriously-acquired arts become in such cases superfluous! Rude clod-hoppers, or even children, can take the place of the strong and skillful laborer. The previous advantage of the latter, forming the main part of his capital, is thereby destroyed. Elderly persons rarely have the necessary elasticity of body and mind to pass from their former business into a new one, even if the latter, considered in itself, is just as easy and pleasant as the former. Perhaps hand laborers do not recognize soon enough how irresistible the revolution is; they hope for a long time to be able to maintain themselves by the side of the machine; they expend the best years of their life and all their savings in endeavoring to do so, and in this way miss every opportunity of getting into some other field. The more rapidly the inventions follow one another, the more frequently do these evils recur; and even the manufacturers themselves are often injured by their old machines losing a large part of their value through the invention of new and better ones. This dark side of machinery is not seen in cases where the branch of industry which is to be furthered by it has not hitherto existed in the country; for no laborers are interested in the continuance of the incomplete method. On a Robinson Crusoe's island even the most effective machine would do no damage. We see an illustration of this in the colonies of the European countries. For the same reason, because the laborers could easily change their occupation, because the division of labor was neither so detailed nor so firmly established, the many and exceedingly important inventions at the close of the middle ages made but few men unfortunate or unhappy.


—3. The most injurious influence of machines upon the laborers, and through them upon the national economy as a whole, arises from the fact that they increase the proletary, extensively as well as intensively. They sharpen very greatly the contrast between the rich and the poor in industrial life. Population, as a whole, is generally increased by the introduction of machinery. But this increase occurs mainly in the proletarian population. Every class of men has the tendency to increase the more rapidly, the less the amount considered necessary to the support of a family according to their standard of life. The factory laborer, whose tool is the machine, whose workshop is the factory, who receives his raw material from his employer, and his fixed daily or weekly wages from the same person, does not need any capital to commence business. He contributes nothing to production but his own personal labor, and, indeed, the more complete the machine, the more highly developed the division of labor, the earlier and the easier does he become ready for labor. Most factory laborers are almost as far along at twenty as they can ever hope to get. Why and how long shall they postpone the enjoyment of connubial pleasures? If the brides are also employed in the factories, which tends more and more to become true, then no increase of expenses immediately follows marriage. They hardly need dwellings; they need mere sleeping places, for during the day they live in the factories. Children, in their early years, increase the family burdens, but they soon become able to work in the factories, and are then sources of income. In this way it is not much more trouble to rear a large family than a small one—a circumstance which must increase the number of children the more rapidly, from the fact that those children who once enter the factories rarely ever leave them.


—In the idea, which we nowadays connect with the word "proletary," the lack of any prospect of improvement in the future forms one of the most important and disheartening elements. Most factory laborers receive wages enough to enable them to save if they would. But experience proves that they are but seldom inclined to do so. Men will not save to any great extent unless they can employ their savings profitably. Factory laborers find great difficulty in doing this, as they are not much inclined to trust the administration of their savings to others. One would think that the repeated interruptions to factory labor from panics, crises, etc., would impress upon the laborer the necessity of laying by a penny against a rainy day. But crises are irregular. Years may pass without a single day being lost, then come years of depression where the machines are run on half time. The ordinary man is not capable of providing against such emergencies. He yields rather to what he regards as the inevitable; he feeds himself fat in good times, and starves in bad times. Such uncertainty, so far from being a discouragement to population, is very favorable to it. A laborer who needs only a healthy body to support a household easily thinks that his posterity, however numerous, can not be any worse off than he himself—4. With every step of progress of the factory system the dependence of the laborer upon his employer increases. Pure theory must indeed grant that the factory owner needs in the course of his industry skillful and industrious laborers as much as the laborers need a wealthy and prudent employer. But as a matter of fact this mutual dependence has been thus far a very different one when looked at from different sides. On the one hand the demand for labor on the part of a very few capitalists, on the other the supply offered by great droves of laborers; the employers enabled by their capital to wait their opportunity, for months or even years, the laborers needing employment from week to week. The former need labor in order to make profits; the latter, capital in order to live: the former prudent enough to command a view of all the facts and circumstances of the case, to make their plans accordingly, and to hold to them firmly; the majority of the latter absolutely incapable of any real calculation or planning. And even if there are any wise individuals among the hordes of laborers it is exceedingly difficult to convince the great mass, and still more difficult to execute a plan in the face of hope and fear. How easy it has been for masters to make their resisting laborers unpopular with the public, how very difficult for laborers to do the same for their hard masters! The resolutions of laborers assume almost necessarily a tumultuous or revolutionary character by which even an impartial government is forced to take sides against them, while those of the masters can be taken in the greatest secrecy and are on that account more effectual. Great political and social changes have been necessary in order to make even a few of these relations more favorable to the laborers; such as a far-reaching liberalizing of the state by the extension of the suffrage, freedom of the press, and right of association even in the lowest classes, and consequently a very much greater sympathy not only on the part of the government but also that of educated public opinion with the lot of the laborer, and an increased self-respect on the part of the latter. But even under new conditions the constantly increasing division of labor in the factory must continually increase the superiority of the directing person, who holds the whole together, as compared with the laborer who forms, as it were, only a small wheel in the great assemblage of machinery. The latter as an individual can be more easily spared than the former. In a word, if every determination of price is to be fixed by a struggle between opposing interests, the contest is, in this case, a very unequal one.


—The darkest side of the modern factory system consists in its tendency to loosen the family ties. Many machines require so little human power for their operation that they can be worked by women or half-grown children quite as well as by men. In many cases, indeed, the weak, fine hand is more desirable than the strong and rude one. Now, wherever the labor of women and children is technically as productive as that of men, it is more economical to the capitalist, owing to its much greater cheapness. Even to the families of the laborers themselves the factory work of mother and children is a temporary advantage, if we regard only economical or rather mammonistic considerations. But it is not so in the long run. It is well known that the living expenses, not only of the actual laborers but also of the rising generation, form the minimum below which the rate of wages can not permanently sink. If it falls below this level, laborers fail to keep their ranks full; and if the demand for labor remains the same, wages must rise. Now, the labor of wife and child lowers this minimum below which the wages can not permanently fall. The father can now earn less and still maintain his family. If all laborers would use this opportunity to raise their standard of life, this condition might be maintained. But if they employ it, as experience proves they probably will, to marry earlier and to produce children still more recklessly, they increase the competition in their own field, and the rate of wages will fall to this new and lower minimum. We have already seen that the labor of wife and children is one of the most important incentives to a thoughtless and proletarian increase of population. When this influence has had its full effect, instead of better fed, better clothed and better trained laborers, we simply have more human beings who have sacrificed their childhood and their domestic happiness without obtaining anything more than they had before. And what have they lost withal? If the father ceases to be the supporter of the family, the most natural and undoubted basis of his parental and marital authority is threatened. Here are realized the diseased utopias of the friends of woman's rights—the woman devoted to the same pursuits as the man, independent as he—as a consequence, an enormous number of "wild marriages." No less ruinous is the early economical independence of children who are neither intellectually nor bodily ripe for it. The monstrous and growing importance of saloons and grogshops stands in connection with this loosening of the family ties, in the relation not only of consequence but also of cause. How can the laborer love his home, when in the evening he finds no warm and pleasant sitting room, and at noon no dinner because the housewife must be in the factory all day long? But where love does not bind the family together, it too often happens that the weaker members are abused by the stronger. For selfish parents the most convenient course is to neglect the younger children and exploit the labor of the older ones to the utmost—certainly not a highly developed but a thoroughly diseased division of labor.


—The hygienic evils of machinery have often been exaggerated. And yet apart from the disadvantages of the extremely one-sided bodily activity necessary for most factory operations, the tendency to the overworking of children is very injurious, and the great number of wounds to which laborers are exposed when working about machines constitutes a serious evil. The general question as to the morality or immorality of factory laborers as compared with other classes has been often discussed, but without any valuable results. The statistics of crime have not been collected with sufficient care and in sufficient detail to make any conclusion based upon them of any value. The crimes of cities are of a different kind from those of the country, but we can not prove from present facts that they are greater or more numerous.


—5. With such evils incident to machinery we need not be surprised that voices have been loudly heard among hand laborers calling for the repression of machines, particularly of new machines. So long as labor was of infinitely more importance in the national economy than capital, so long as the chief industrial cities were ruled by the guilds, even the government used to proceed against new machines under certain circumstances. At a later period, however, when capital and higher intelligence had become more important and more indispensable, the authorities ceased to lend their aid to the jealousy of the laborers. During the eighteenth century the English government often made restitution when the so-called Luddites had destroyed new machines. That envy, however, continued to show itself in private persecution and even in public disturbance for a much longer time. How short-sighted such an opposition to machinery is, becomes evident from its logical consequences. Whoever opposes every device which makes it possible to reach a given end with less human labor, ought to have all transportation carried on by human beings on natural roads, and to condemn all agriculture to be mere scratching of the earth with the finger nails. The widest limits between which the wages of labor may rise and fall, but which they can never permanently pass, and which are determined by the efficiency of labor itself, are enlarged by every new application of machinery. Only in this way is it explainable that English capitalists can afford to pay higher wages and yet sell their products more cheaply than their brothers on the continent. Again, it is wrong to suppose that the many dark sides of modern industry could not exist without machines. The very uniformity of machines forms a strong barrier to all merely capricious abuse of the weaker. Machines have made the relation between master and laborer less changeable and arbitrary, and therefore, as a rule, morally better, in that they form, on the one hand, a means of bringing troublesome laborers to terms, and, on the other, compel the capitalists to keep their factories running even in dull times, if they do not wish to see their capital invested in machines completely idle, or indeed perish by rust. Besides, the large capitalist (and only he can employ machines to any great extent) can better afford to be generous than the man of small means; and the more prominent a man is, the more he is exposed to the influence of public opinion. Further, we can not deny that machines have relieved men of many mechanical and unhealthful kinds of labor. It is sufficient to compare in this connection the attendance of a water, wind or steam mill with the labor of an ancient corn-grinding slave, or the sailor of a modern sail or steam ship with the oarsman of a galley. If machines, then, up to the present time have diminished the toil of the human race but little or not at all, the reason does not lie in any necessity of nature, but in the social imperfection of man. And the lack of forethought of the lower classes is certainly as much to blame for this as the hardheartedness of the higher classes. It is undoubtedly owing also in part to the fact that modern governments have until very recently unduly favored large industries at the expense of smaller.


—6. Many of the plans for improvement amount to nothing more than a proposal that the state shall make a deduction from the profits of the capitalist and add it to the wages of the laborer. This means communism. We may mention three objections to any such plans, without going further into the discussion of communistic theories. Such measures could be helpful only on three conditions: 1, that they should be universal. For if one country alone tried them, capital and brains would emigrate to more favorable localities, and thus leave the laborers worse off than before. 2, that the capitalists should be very numerous and all very wealthy. Neither the one nor the other is the case. Of a hundred manufacturing enterprises which are set on foot, only ten ever amount to anything. Diminishing profits largely would simply send them to destruction faster than ever, and thus increase the power and influence of the few successful ones. 3, that the increase of population should be relatively slower than the accumulation of capital. Compulsory deductions in favor of the laborers would tend to make it increase more rapidly, and the greater the deductions the more unfavorable the result.


—Other plans have been proposed which smell too much of the study-lamp to have much prospect of success in practical life. The idea of Sismondi that the capitalists should be bound to take care of their sick and aged laborers, is one of these. The logical outcome of such a plan would be a return to the institutions of the middle ages, which, however beneficent they may have been in their time, have showed themselves unable to exist under modern conditions. The fact that they have fallen away of themselves, decayed internally, not battered down from the outside, proves the impossibility of their resurrection. Some have thought that if the laborers were made participants in the profits and loss of the industry they would be great gainers. Aside from the difficulty of devising any plan of realizing such participation, the fact above mentioned, in reference to the large percentage of failures and bankruptcies in manufacturing enterprises, shows clearly that the laborer would not be much, if any, better off. Co-operative association is, according to some, the panacea for all industrial evils. But the history of co-operation can not be said to be very encouraging. The conditions of modern industry are such that a large business can be successfully carried on under ordinary circumstances only by a close and systematic organization such as associations of laborers are hardly capable of realizing, let alone establishing and maintaining. Whatever effectual remedy may finally be found, certain measures can be undertaken and successfully carried out which may alleviate much of the misery and remove some of the abuses of modern industry. The state can interfere to protect the most helpless classes—children and women—and compel capitalists to observe provisions in reference to the situation, arrangement and ventilation of factories, etc. Nearly all civilized nations have commenced this work, and some have carried it on to a great extent.


—If a nation is in process of transition to a higher stage of civilization, all the elements of that civilization, looked at from below, appear in the most rosy light. After a nation has once reached that stage it becomes aware that on earth at least there is no unclouded happiness. Men soon forget the pressure of old conditions and exaggerate that of the new. The short-sighted and despairing advise the throwing overboard of all civilization in order to destroy forever its evils—an advice whose ruinousness is only exceeded by its impracticability. The only true remedy consists in developing to their fullest extent the good elements of a higher civilization, with the hope that in a thoroughly healthy society they will so far outweigh the bad elements as to reduce them to comparative insignificance. (See INVENTIONS.)

E. J. JAMES, Tr.

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