Discover more from Overcoming Bias
Turns Out, I Believe In Magic
According to Durkheim (and me), humans prefer to bind together not so much by directly and explicitly valuing each other, but instead indirectly, by choosing something “sacred” outside ourselves to see the same together (and differently from other groups).
Two kinds of people specialize in the sacred: priests and magicians. The difference is that priests are seen as officially authorized to connect people to the sacred, while magicians, in contrast, are free-lancers instead trusted at best by individual clients. That is, priests are communal, while magicians are individualistic.
Priests and magicians have traditionally been hostile toward each other. Priests often see magicians as perverting what should only be used with official clearance for approved purposes, while magicians often see priests as unaccountable oppressive tyrants. For example, the Christian church often disapproved of those who claimed to contact or use spirits to forecast, heal, etc. Also, our society treats medicine as sacred, with professionally licensed doctors as its official priests, ridiculing and outlawing alternative medicine practitioners.
Interestingly, while over the last few centuries our society has become less religious and more individualistic in many ways, magic has appeared to decline even more than religion. For example, more people today say they believe in religion than believe in magic. However, once you realize that we still treat many things as quite sacred, you will see that we actually still have quite a few magicians.
For example, me. Many of the topics on which I specialize, such as radically-different institutions, strong motives, the future, aliens, and the sacred, are widely seen as substantially sacred. And most who specialize in such topics make sure to telegraph that they are endorsed by authorities, or that they are allied with and faithful to particular ideologies. But I don’t tend to do that. So in comparison, they are more priests, while I am more of a magician.
Most economists to whom the public listens make it clear that their first loyalty is to an ideology, such as progressivism, liberty, or their nation. They mainly use economics, they suggest, as a tool to serve such ends. Such economic “priests” find it easier to gain funding and attention for their work, and to get ordinary people to trust them.
Yes, political and business authorities often listen to professional economists. But that is mostly in service of the details of institutions whose designs and ends were set by others. In that role, economists are experts and technocrats, and neither priests nor magicians.
But when economists like me offer big grand theories or policy proposals with big impacts on the sacred, without the support of elite authorities nor alignment with ideological communities, then we act as “magicians”. We more just try to achieve neutral “economic efficiency” with our proposals, and to do “good economics” thereby. We may gain the respect of other such magicians, but not so much of funders, media, or the public.
This seems to me to help explain the, to me, surprisingly broad and strong lack of interest in big-change institutional and policy reforms proposals driven mainly by technical economic efficiency analysis. Even though we specialists can often find big changes that would give most everyone a lot more of what they want, most ordinary people are quite wary of such proposals.
I see this even from my econ undergrad students. They instinctively reject such proposals, don’t want to hear their supporting arguments, and grasp at most any plausible complaint as a reason to reject them. In contrast, people are often quite eager to embrace social policy proposals that are framed as affirming or advancing their community’s sacred themes, such as more equality for progressives, or more national security for nationalists.
This behavior seems to me in stark contrast to how most people react to proposals for physical or software changes which do not seem close to sacred themes. In those cases, most people seem quite willing to consider proposals for non-trivial changes driven mainly by technical efficiency analysis. And in fact most people then seem somewhat wary of proposals framed as being particularly supportive of a religious or ideological communities.
My explanation: we mainly only want to hear proposals for change re sacred areas from priests, not magicians. Especially when such proposals would require collective coordination to achieve, as with new institution proposals.
In this post, I have tried to add to our toolkit of ways to diagnosis social failures. I’ll consider fixes in other posts.
FYI, here are some quotes of Durkheim on magic vs. religion:
A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden -- beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. …
Magic, too, is made up of beliefs and rites. Like religion, it has its own myths and dogmas, but these are less well developed, probably because, given its pursuit of technical and utilitarian ends, magic does not waste time in pure speculation. Magic also has its ceremonies, sacrifices, purifications, prayers, songs, and dances. Those beings whom the magician invokes and the forces he puts to work are not only of the same nature as the forces addressed by religion but very often are the same forces. In the most primitive societies, the souls of the dead are in essence sacred things and objects of religious rites, but at the same time, they have played a major role in magic …
marked repugnance of religion for magic and the hostility of magic to religion in return. Magic takes a kind of professional pleasure in profaning holy things, (6) inverting religious ceremonies in its rites. …
Here is how a line of demarcation can be drawn between these two domains. Religious beliefs proper are always shared by a definite group that professes them and that practices the corresponding rites. … Even so-called private cults, like the domestic cult or a corporate cult, satisfy this condition: They are always celebrated by a group, the family or the corporation. …
Magic beliefs … are often widespread among broad strata of the population, and there are even peoples where they count no fewer active followers than religion proper. But they do not bind men who believe in them to one another and unite them into the same group, living the same life. There is no Church of magic. Between the magician and the individuals who consult him, there are no durable ties that make them members of a single moral body,… the magician has a clientele, not a Church, and his clients may have no mutual relations, and may even be unknown to one another. …
It is true that, in certain cases, magicians form a society among themselves. … But these associations … are rare and rather exceptional. To practice his art, the magician has no need whatever to congregate with his peers. He is more often a loner. In general, far from seeking company, he flees it. "He stands aloof, even from his colleagues."
Furthermore, and above all, when magic societies of this sort are formed, they never encompass all the adherents of magic. Far from it. They encompass only the magicians. Excluded from them are the laity, … A Church is not simply a priestly brotherhood; it is a moral community.