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Do You Believe In Magic?

Norris (a self-described “regular patron of Cafe Hayek”) asked me to repost an entry that I did back in October of 2004 on magic.  Here it is:

My son, Thomas, loves Halloween so much that he launches his spooky celebrations in August. And just this past week, he and his mother and I watched a series of made-for-the-Disney-Channel-movies, all boasting the name Halloweentown. The main characters are friendly witches from magical Halloweentown living in the mortal world. These flicks are sort of a combination of Bewitched and Harry Potter. (If you’re above the age of nine, I don’t recommend watching these movies unless you have a young child; watching your child watch these movies is wonderful.)

The friendly witches perform a good deal of magic in the mortal world, such as flying and snapping fingers to summon tea kettles.

What struck me as I watched these movies was that a good deal of the Hollywood magic these Halloweentown witches perform is surprisingly part of ordinary Americans’ everyday world. Not truly magically, of course – it’s due to science and markets – but it’s nevertheless marvelous and amazing and wonderful.

We gently press a button and the sound of a Bach concerto recorded a decade or a half-century ago fills our room as if it were being performed live, then and there. We turn a knob and out comes a jet of clean water for us to shower in, at whatever temperature we choose. We crawl into giant hunks of metal and plastic, filled with highly explosive liquids, press a few pedals and we’re traveling down highways at superhuman — even super-equine — speeds. We hold tiny devices in our palms, press some more buttons, and we’re talking to other human beings who are miles, maybe thousands of miles, away from us. We flick switches and lights turn on or off at our whim. I could go on and on and on…… (For more, see my 1999 essay “Countless Wonders.”)

There’s an irony in this fact: the more deeply and widely that people believe in magic, the less magical are their lives, while the more fully people untangle themselves from belief in myths and magic, the more magical their lives become.

That is, the many marvels of our world – proximately the consequence of technology, ultimately the consequence of free markets and rational thought – are possible only insofar as we no longer really believe in magic. We don’t pray to, or dance for, rain gods; we use our minds and machines to irrigate fields. Most of us don’t depend upon unseen, other-worldly forces to maintain our health and extend our life spans; we rely upon medical science. If we want to extend our knowledge, we read books or watch educational television programs; we don’t study tea leaves or gopher entrails.

But one serious species of belief in magic continues to haunt us: politics. Many of us – indeed, most of us – believe that high priests who utter or write certain words according to treasured ceremonial prescriptions and done in certain temples (usually made of marble and topped with domes) can perform magic.

They can’t. But they try and try – and too many of us simply have faith that their rituals are effective.