Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Magnification Effect

Tibor R. Machan

Magnification is not enlargement but only the appearance of something as bigger than it really is. It may well have a dismaying psychological version, namely, when people magnify the significance or value of something or someone because, well, they benefited from the event or person.

In my teaching career I have found that when some of my students have felt especially benefited by me, they have showered me with praise. Sometimes my lectures draw such responses, even my columns or other writings.

It is crucial not to get mislead by this magnification process, not to come to believe what one enjoys hearing but is probably overblown. Frankly, I am doing my job, following my vocation, more or less competently, more or less proficiently, and now and then even excellently. But I am no hero for all this, only someone who has chosen a line of work he loves and which has a certain element of service to it so others feel benefited from what I do.

I thought of this when after our fires here in Southern California I noticed that many involved in fighting the fires came in for a great deal of praise for doing, well, what was their pretty well paid job. They took up their work freely—were not conscripted—and when the occasion arose to do it, they did it competently. They may even be said to be dedicated, no less so that a good doctor, dentist, banker, merchant, or teacher can be. But when those who are being served by such folks see this service to be of considerable benefit to them, they often become flushed with joy and transfer to the professional a very high regard, as if what they received were way beyond the call of duty. No doubt, at times it is but more usually it is merely taken to have been.

In fact, the police officers, fire fighters, and others involved in fighting the fires and other calamities we often encounter in life are indeed doing their job, just as most of them proclaim when all that praise is heaped upon them. I know from my own case that when students tell me how great a lecture was, or how wonderful they found one of my courses, I usually feel no more than a recognition of my professional aptitude and dedication. I never think I did something extraordinary, or at least do so very rarely.

When I was 14 a professional smuggler fetched me from Budapest and guided me all the way to Austria, through some truly harrowing obstacles and hazards. We managed to allude border guards, cut ourselves through barbwires, impersonate Austrian farmers, etc., all with his extremely competent leadership. The five people whom he served as what TIME magazine later—in an article back in the early 80s—insultingly called a “flesh peddler” were of course terribly grateful and impressed with what he did. But he kept his cool, remained matter of fact. It was a profession he took up due to the terrible circumstances brought on by the erection of the Iron Curtain and he got well paid, too. We felt grateful, yes, but he didn't ask for awe.

Excellent or even just competent professional performance in the service industries is mostly well received. Nurses, doctors, teachers, even cabbies are praised to high heaven at times just for doing what they decided to take up as their profession. Unfortunately, sometimes the magnification effect takes hold of people and they begin to suffer from cognitive dissonance—they begin to believe that what is so important to them makes those who delivered to them an essentially routine professional service heroes or saints. But it isn’t usually so.

Those who fought the fires in Southern California, just as those who battled Katrina or the floods in the Midwest are indeed professionals with a job they have willingly assumed. Despite all the media hype, they are best thought of as having done their job proficiently, as conscientious working stiffs, rather than as larger than life human beings. It is unwise, even demeaning to them, to magnify them out of proportion to their own chosen roles.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Life & Property

Tibor R. Machan

When both life & property are threatened, there is much talk about how property is only stuff, easy to replace, so one should be concerned only or primarily with life. There are even those who disparage the right to private property, claiming it is not really a human right at all. Some prominent academics have been calling ownership itself a myth, claiming that no one really owns anything and all wealth belongs to government that’s supposed to manage it for the collective or public good. (See Murphy & Nagel, The Myth of Ownership [2002].)

One might have thought this kind of thinking has gone out of fashion after the demise of the Soviet socialist system in which it was put to the test and failed miserably. No such luck. Latin America today is rife with proponents of socialism, with dictators seeking and being granted absolute power to take over the wealth of various countries from private individuals and companies. Insofar as the wealth consists of such resources as oil, ones that can be harvested with little special skill once they have been discovered and captured, and are abundant for the time being, the resulting socialist and autocratic systems can exist without immediate collapse—even the USSR took some 70 years to go under and it didn’t yet have cheap oil available with which to make up for its otherwise lethargic economic system.

In any case, the close ties between life and property can be well appreciated when one either nearly or actually loses it all, say in a fire, earthquake, or flood. The first thing that comes to light, if one just thinks about it a bit, is how wrong it is to think of property as mere stuff. Instead, property involve a great variety of human creations, natural resources, inventions, and works of art. When property is lost, it is clear that specific and often unique values have vanished from one’s life and, indeed, that one’s life itself has been significantly damaged.

Those who nearly lost it all will experience this directly when they resume their lives among their property and take stock of just how much of what was threatened had meant to them. And I don’t just have in mind all those irreplaceable pictures from old-fashioned photo albums, one’s favorite books and records, the paintings and posters on one’s walls, those precious knickknacks all around the house which have grown, almost imperceptibly, into the props of one’s existence. Even small items, taken nearly for granted, turn out to reveal their importance.

This is especially so when one is a reasonably creative individual whose basement is teeming with unpublished manuscripts, accumulated artifacts one hasn’t yet finished crafting just the way one had meant to, as well as simple utilities and products one has finally managed to be able to afford with the earnings from the labors of one’s life (and some luck, as well). All these are more or less precious treasures most of us own and only those with a dogged misanthropic ideology would turn a blind eye to that fact.

Yes, losing one’s property is usually not so calamitous as losing a limb, organ or, especially, one’s life, but even that isn’t always right. After all, some of us old folks might consider the loss of life a better alternative to losing everything that could be so meaningful to our offspring, where those the only two alternatives we faced.

Now those, of course, who care nothing for life itself will care little for property. Certainly they will not cherish the kind of property that involves human creativity and production. Take, for example, Alan Weisman, the author of the book, World Without Us (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), for whom the totally untouched—perhaps even unseen—wilds matter more than anything human.

Such an outlook is too far removed from reality to be very influential except when it is expressed in the all too human language of emotive prose and poetry. Effectively packaged, nearly any idea, no matter how vile, can attract the loyalty of some. But, as Socrates taught us, for the truth of the matter it isn’t wise to turn to artists—their concern, at their best, is mainly with beauty.

So, property is very much a human institution and a precious one at that. It can be corrupted, of course, as anything human can be, but when rightly understood and incorporated into one’s life, it is a vital force indeed.