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    The law of the spirit

    There’s apparently nothing that can’t be bureaucratized.

    Crabby libertarians like me are always complaining about how licensing and certification procedures are frequently used by those already in a given business as a smokescreen–a way to keep out new competitors in the guise of assessing competence or quality (e.g., the teachers’ unions).

    James Randi’s latest newsletter has an example that’s almost too absurd to be funny. It seems that soothsayers in Salem, Massachusetts, are worried that the current licensing process needs to be tightened because it doesn’t screen out those who can’t actually predict the future.


    City councilors, hoping to crack down on fraudulent fortunetellers, are trying to define exactly how a psychic can become licensed to set up shop in the Witch City. They want candidates to undergo a criminal background check and to either live or run a business in Salem for at least a year.

    But many psychics want the city to go a step further – make sure they’re actually qualified to predict the future.

    The city took up the issue almost a year ago, mainly to prevent fortunetellers from blatantly ripping off consumers by demanding lucrative payments in return for lifting a curse or removing a “black cloud.”

    One woman paid more than $2,000 for readings at a Salem shop, where she was told she had a black aura around her, according to [psychic Barbara] Szafranski.

    “Then one day she came into my shop crying,” Szafranski told city councilors. “I said, ‘You don’t have a black aura. Sit down and I’ll show you your aura on my machine.’ And it was blue and wonderful.”

    FOX News also reported on the story and quoted Szafranski as being a bit more candid about her likely motivations:

    “Anytime you have a fair put up across the street from your business, it’s going to take business from you, Halloween time does not make up for that by bringing more people in,” Szafranski said. “We had a decline in business last year with the psychic fair.”

    Okay, but that doesn’t demonstrate that her aura readings are any more accurate than anyone else’s, does it?

    Szafranski and Martinez last weekend found dead raccoons when they went to open their shops.

    “People are scared,” Szafranski said. “Having a raccoon put in front of your store with blood all over the place is completely Satanic. It was done as a blood ritual. There is a stain in front of my door where it happened.”

    “It’s cruel, it’s disgusting, and it’s negative for the city and for the raccoon,” Day said. “I believe that the same people that did the cars did the raccoon, too. It’s not someone on one side. It’s just someone that wants to cause trouble.”

    “Negative for the raccoon”–I am in love with that locution.

    There does seem to me to be a legitimate legal issue here. One of the main jobs of the government is defending citizens against others who might do them harm, and those who claim to be able to contact the dead or lift evil mumbo-jumbo clouds in exchange for several thousand dollars are, from any rational perspective, committing fraud. If practitioners are going to be licensed, it seems to me that the certification should go the opposite direction from what Salem has in mind, though: You shouldn’t be allowed to set up shop without displaying a placard that explicitly states that no psychic has ever passed a scientifically sound test and that the reading is reliably useful only for entertainment. (Don’t the ones who advertise on television have to post that somewhere?) Determined ninnies would continue to believe what they wish–adults who think they can get a medium to communicate with the spirit of their dead cat are probably unreachable by science anyway–but at least they couldn’t claim not to have been warned.

    2 Responses to “The law of the spirit”

    1. Connie says:

      It all seems so pointless. If someone is really psychic then they would know if they were going to be licensed or not, the psychics complaining would know the outcome of their protests (or their business), etc.

      Why do they need to protect their businesses from future infringements? Wouldn’t they already know the outcome?


    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Yeah, really. Personally, I don’t care whether my dead grandmother has a message for me–why didn’t she speak up while she was alive?–but I’d love to know whether my dermatologist will finally help me get rid of my acne.

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