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Do You Believe in Witches?

Mike Reid

If a building were to collapse and crush a man, would you blame a witch?

In the early 20th century, the Azande people of what was then British-controlled Sudan believed that witches or sorcerers caused almost every misfortune in life. And they believed that almost every death — whether due apparently to a falling building, a rampaging elephant, or a simple disease — was in fact a murder by magic.

Indeed, they believed that a witch’s spite and jealousy could inflict bad luck, harm, and death on other people — without the witch needing to cast any spells or even be aware that he or she was a witch.

You and I might be tempted to sneer at such “primitive” superstition. Certainly, the Azande represented an extreme case. But beliefs along the same general line — that our misfortunes are somehow caused by the ill will of our jealous enemies — are still exceedingly common.

Hardly anyone thinks they can explain, predict, or control the rain by appealing to the jealousy of witches or the actions of spirits.

Consider the price at the pump. Whenever oil prices rise, progressive commentators decry the greed of capitalists or speculators.

Natural Causation, Human Design, and Spontaneous Order

All over the world, in every culture, from time immemorial, humans have looked for a human or humanlike will or meaning behind everything from falling buildings to rising gas prices.

But over the last few centuries, the natural sciences have made enormous strides in changing the way humans think about physical events.

Even though no one knows for certain today whether it will rain in New York a week from now, practically everyone believes that the precipitation (or lack thereof) will be caused in a mechanical sense by something impersonal: convection currents, atmospheric humidity, and so on. Hardly anyone thinks they can explain, predict, or control the rain by appealing to the jealousy of witches or the actions of spirits.

Meanwhile, the sciences of human behavior have not been so successful. True, many scholars now understand that social phenomena such as prices are, in Adam Ferguson’s words, “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” But many ordinary humans still think that prices (and immigration, and drug use, and practically all other social phenomena) arise directly from the actions of capitalists or legislators, and thus that the ill will or goodwill of such people shapes the world directly.

In other words, we humans have largely succeeded in adopting the mechanistic worldview as a method of understanding natural phenomena, but we have not much succeeded in adopting the spontaneous-order worldview for understanding social phenomena. Instead, we keep falling for the appeal of essentially magical explanations that rely on the power of good or bad intentions.

In “3 Policies with Good Intentions and Tragic Consequences” (January 21, 2016), FEE contributor Corey Iacono points out some of the disastrous consequences of this faith in intentions: laws intended to decrease child labor end up increasing it; laws intended to save people from addictive drugs end up subjecting them to increasing violence; and food-aid programs intended to feed starving people in developing countries end up prompting or prolonging civil wars.

Greedy Bastard Economics

One of the most persistent manifestations of this problem is what Gary Galles, in his book Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies, calls “greedy bastard economics”:

Rather than tracing their understanding of something they dislike back to its ultimate source, people only trace it back until they get to someone they can demonize as a greedy bastard.

Now, to be sure, our world has many greedy people. But in a market framework, any person of dubious parentage whose desire it really is to part you from your money will actually tend to give you things you want.

If you have children, a greedy bastard will try to get your money by offering free cookies in his grocery store, so you can shop in peace while your children snack.

If you are blind, there is a greedy bastard out there right now trying to take your money by creating a car you can drive with voice commands.

Within the market, the best way for the bastard to get what he wants is to give you something that you want — better, faster, and cheaper than anybody else can. So anonymous strangers can and do help you every day in order to pursue their own selfish desires, regardless of whether or not they like you.

And in general, at every level of social interaction beyond the immediate, personal one, the good or ill will of other people has only indirect effects.

A Framework of Meaning and Vengeance

The Azande were fully aware that physical events led to injury and death. If a building collapsed, it was entirely likely that it had been weakened by termites.

But in a sense, this would be only the how of a death. There remained a mystery as to why the termites caused the collapse at that particular moment when that particular man was present to be harmed.

The Azande solved this mystery by finding out, via magical oracles, what person with ill will toward the victim was indeed a witch — a witch whom they could punish.

And thus, says E.E. Evans-Pritchard, the anthropologist who made the Azande famous in the West, witchcraft was “the ideological pivot around which swings the lengthy social procedure from death to vengeance.”

The purpose of the concept of witchcraft, in other words, was not to explain the world in a physical sense but to give people a way to act on the world in a social sense — to avenge otherwise anonymous harms.

It may be that the theater of modern democratic politics serves a similar symbolic function. Each politician tries to demonstrate his own goodwill and personal power while promising vengeance on his voters’ various scapegoat enemies — be they foreigners, oil speculators, or just politicians from the opposing party.

A World Full of Unknown Allies

The vast majority of people all over the world are actually helping one another, though usually indirectly. Meanwhile, well-meaning laws — like those that restrict drug use or regulate employment or mandate transfers of grain to developing countries — often backfire. And these effects occur regardless of how kindhearted the voters or politicians or bureaucrats may be.

The good news is that, despite our human intuitions to the contrary, we can cooperate without intending to. We can save each other without loving each other. All we need to do is pursue our self-interest (or altruism) peacefully — and stop looking for witches to punish for our setbacks.

There is no necessary conflict between rich and poor or oil tycoons and car owners. We are impersonal partners in a world-spanning spontaneous order of increasing peace and prosperity for everyone.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

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