Venting Against Mysticism

by Don Boudreaux on September 1, 2004

in Myths and Fallacies

The bottom-line, fundamental reason I endorse markets over government direction of the economy – the essential reason I support extensive and vigorous private property rights and the consequent decentralization of decision-making that this institution brings – is that I cannot tolerate the mysticism that motivates too much reliance on government.

Too many people, including otherwise very smart people, believe in secular magic. They believe that words written on paper by people, each of whom receive a majority of votes on certain days of the year of adult citizens living in certain geographic areas, and who utter ritualistic pronouncements under marble domes in buildings conventionally called “capitols,” are somehow endowed with greater understanding of society’s complexities and with superhuman capacities to care about the welfare of strangers. These priests preach devotion, dedication, and sacrifice to the One True State (your own government), even while each recognizes that legitimate disputes about the details of the dogma divide various cliques of the secular clergy. When they speak and act in their official roles, they expect – usually correctly – that the laity pay their words special heed as if these words have extraordinary power.

For example, what’s so special about President Bush expressing his sympathies to victims of Hurricane Charley? I’m sure that Mr. Bush’s sentiments are sincere. But does he feel for these victims more than I do? More than do, say, the presidents of USX, George Mason University, and the Saginaw, Michigan, chapter of the Knights of Columbus? I’m pretty sure that the answer is no. And yet, the media unfailingly report expressions of such presidential sympathies. When I ask myself why this is so, I invariably conclude that lots of my fellow Americans regard politicians – and the President especially – as possessing certain mystical powers, or an exceptional capacity to empathize and sympathize with strangers.

And, of course, the belief is rampant that enacting statutes with promising titles – for example, “No Child Left Behind Act” – will fulfill the aspirations expressed in the titles.

I suffer from an unusually acute aversion to mysticism, to unsubstantiated claims, and to mish-mash about “we as a nation,” “the hopes of the American people,” “pulling together as a country,” and other romantic foolishness that inevitably is meant to submerge each person’s individuality, wishes, and choices under the suffocating drabness of politicized and allegedly “collective” endeavors.

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