Sunday, 17 July 2011

Classical Liberalism and Harry Potter



I started reading the Harry Potter books as a child and grew up with them and read them as they came out. In all that time, I wouldn’t have predicted that it would be used a political tool. And this isn’t a bad thing; it’s fairly amusing. Foreign Policy has run their own, as has ThinkProgress. But, as I read both, I realised that the writers merely espoused their own beliefs. So I thought I’d have a go at it from my own classical liberal perspective.

Private organisations have the power to initiate change when the state fails to. In the books and the films, the state not only fails to address aggression, it becomes a puppet apparatus for the Dark Lord. He controls the ministry. Stalin Voldemort introduces government sanctioned programmes which include creating databases of half-bloods,  putting restrictions of the freedom of speech (including adding a ‘trace’ to anyone who utters his name) and includes a de facto government-run press. In contrast, it is a private organisation – the Order of the Phoneix – which persists in fighting the Dark Lord.

Choice is central: In almost all the books, choices of individuals are key. In the first book, Harry chooses to not to be in Slytherin and the hat respects his choice. Even wands’ choices are respected: when Harry picks up his wand he is told that that “wand chooses the wizard.” The result is that when a wand is coerced, it will not serve its owner adequately. The Imperius Curse which allows individuals to control others is an ‘Unforgiveable Curse’ – which would lead to a life sentence in Azkaban.

Meritocracy: Alyssa at ThinkProgress claims that a lesson of Harry Potter is that ‘inherited wealth can be corrupting.’ She gives the example of Draco but ignores the example of Harry himself who is left a large fortune (unbeknown to him). Harry’s first home was in bourgeois Godric’s Hollow: the same area where Dumbledore and even a successful author lived. This is of course leaving aside the fact that Draco’s mother is essential to Harry’s final ploy against Voldemort. Indeed, I would say that meritocracy is at the heart of the Wizarding World. Dumbledore even changes ‘help is available to those who ask for it’ to ‘those who deserve it.’  Both Ron and Harry come from a deprived upbringing, yet J.K Rowling says when they grow old

Harry and Ron utterly revolutionized the Auror Department,” Rowling said. “They are now the experts. It doesn’t matter how old they are or what else they’ve done.”

Indeed, part of the case against Voldemort is that he values blood over ability (his dislike for Muggle-born despite their abilities, for example). While the Ministry is run by the Dark Lord, positions are given based on nepotism and corruption (when Ron is disguised as a worker while infiltrating the Ministry, a Minister threatens his wife lest he fix the water damage in his office).

Entrepreneurship: Rowling also seems to value entrepreneurship: wands are supplied not the by government but by Olivanders, HSBC Gringotts is run by another species, Madam Malkin provides robes – and there are a whole host of other shops from Honydukes to Zonkos. The entrepreneurship of Fred and George allow them to set up their own prank shop. Underlying the availability of all these outlets is economic freedom, voluntary exchange and private property.

The folly of central planning; Voldemort arrogance leads him to believe that he can outmanoeuvre Harry. In contrast, each person fighting Voldemort brings their own bit of dispersed knowledge to help: Hermione’s use of spells, Ron’s realisation of the room of requirement, Harry’s parsletongue. Accepting that knowledge is dispersed allows Harry to question Olivander, learn from the ‘half-blood prince’, seek Griphook’s help. In the first book, Ron plays chess, Harry uses his Quiditch and Hermione uses her knowledge on herbology in getting to Professor Qurriel. In contrast, the politburo Voldemort deatheaters are merely servants, any advice given to him is rejected and often leads to people being killed. 

Individuality: John Stuart Mill valued the individual and his growth against the whims of the majority. In the Deathly Hallows (book), the idea of the ‘greater good’ associated with Dumbledore’s communist dark past and symbolises putting the collective first rather than the individual. The books are littered with tiny examples showing individuality and uniqueness: each person’s patronus has its own character that symbolises the individual, Luna’s eccentric behaviour even helps Harry.

Appeasement in the face of aggression, the Ministry falters and allows the threat of Voldemort to grow; Fudge first ignores that there is a clear and tangible threat as it grows. Voldemort and his followers use this time to recruit, to kill and cause havoc. This means that the state (the Ministry of Magic) cannot respond adequately. If Voldemort is Hitler, then Fudge is undoubtedly Chamberlain. Whats more apparent is that Voldemort hates Muggles and lesser wizard for who they are, not for what they do.  The use of force must be used to fight terror and any form of appeasement will merely spurn Al-Qaeda the Dark Lord.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gringotts is clearly a private bank, too, not HSBC or any of the big (however many it is at the moment) retail cartel.

Anonymous said...

My interpretation of the 'dark forces' is not as Al Qaeda as you crudely suggest.

To me Voldemort et al seem to represent right-wing conservatives who are thoroughly racist ('half bloods', 'mud bloods' etc.).

It is important to consider the situation in which JK Rowling began writing the books; Britain in the early 90s struggling as a single mother.

Mugwump said...

I don't mean to suggest that Rowling was thinking of Al Qaeda when she wrote Harry Potter - not in the slightest. I'm merely writing a set of policies which can be interpreted in Harry Potter. If you read the other two examples I linked to from FP and TP, you'll see thats what they do as well (unless you believe that Harry Potter is literally a metaphor for the current debt-limit talks in the U.S).

I accept your interpretation of racists; and by no means do the Dark Forces mean merely just Al Qaeda, I also referred to Communists (in the context of central planning etc.).

Anonymous said...

Excellent. However, to what extent do you believe the enslavement of 'House elves' poses a problem to this conception of the series?

I would say that it does not pose any great problems as there is, as far as I know no action taken by authority to prevent this, with Hogwarts School which is overseen by the Ministry having a significant number of house elves. Instead action is taken by individuals and collective groups (S.P.E.W). Perhaps indicating that culture is what needs to change as opposed to regulation?

JD said...

Very geeky. I like it. :)

Liam Ryan said...

If the wand picks the wizard, it cannot hold that the wizard chooses the wand ... ?

I don't know why you've put that in "choice is central".

In any case, almost everything is regulated by the Ministry of Magic - including the actual use of magic which is restricted.

Mugwump said...

Hello Liam, sorry for the delayed response. I didn't see until today. In response I would make two points:

1. Nobody is going to compel a wizard to use a wand either, for optimum performance, both sides must voluntarily consent. In that way, it mirrors a normal contract. This does entail giving the wand's weight, but as Olivander believes: they have lives of their own.

2. Regulation isn't necessarily counter to classical liberalism. Mill proposed all sorts of mechanisms to avoid the occurrence of harm (keeping logs of poisons for example). I do not share you dogmatic aversion to regulation: most of the spells that are banned are those which cause direct harm or are regulated for those who are not of age (which again is in line with Mill's harm principle).

MrJoe1987 said...

That has got to be the most "thoroughly" ignorant comment I have read all month. I am a proud right wing conservative and I hold no hatred for people based off of race, religion, ethnicity, etc. I hate people for the unjustified, ridiculous things that they say and do. For example, hypocritical, liberal men and women who find justification in stating that an entire group of people is racist with no possible means of knowing whether that is true are not. You'll notice that I am strictly refering to you and any other person of liberal mindset, blatantly and carelessly popping off at the mouth, and not all liberal men and women in one basket. Racism is a bad thing that we all hate, but crudely judging another group of people and accusing them of the latter isn't exactly a pleasant or mature way to handle any situation, either. Let's try to practice what we preach, shall we?

Moving on, I am just now reading these books and I've noticed many of these things myself. In fact, I agree with you, with the exception that the racism of the evil wizards is more along the lines of a ragged, disoriented group of idiotic wizard KKK members. A group of evil men with unjustified and unreasonable hatred with nothing to gain but the pain and sorrow of their victims.

I personally think it's interesting to see these discussions going on, but I'm more or less trying to see the lightheartedness in the story rather than the political statements of the author.