Libertarian History/Philosophy

The Politics of Potter Revisited

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Nick Gillespie blogged about this initially way back in November 2005, but University of Tennessee law professor Benjamin Barton's theories about the libertarian heart of Harry Potter are being hyped again by his college's P.R. department as we ramp up to the July 21 release of whatever the heck the last novel in the sequence is called. (I'm neither fan nor not-fan…haven't read any of them, saw one of the movies and was a bit bored.) Part of Barton's message about the political message at the heart of J.K. Rowling's fantasy world:

"What would you think of a government that engaged in this list of tyrannical activities: tortured children for lying; designed its prison specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; placed citizens in that prison without a hearing; ordered the death penalty without a trial; allowed the powerful, rich or famous to control policy; selectively prosecuted crimes (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); conducted criminal trials without defense counsel; used truth serum to force confessions; maintained constant surveillance over all citizens; offered no elections and no democratic lawmaking process; and controlled the press?

"You might assume that the above list is the work of some despotic central African nation, but it is actually the product of the Ministry of Magic, the magician's government in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series."

Barton said he thinks the anti-government thread that runs through the Potter novels is significant because the books have great potential to sway public opinion.

While speaking at the libertarian gathering FreedomFest in Vegas over the weekend, a panel on Atlas Shrugged was confronted with the question: in 50 years, will libertarian gatherings be mulling over the continuing libertarian significance of Potter? My firm answer: It remains to be seen, only time will tell, the future is inherently kaleidic and unknowable, etc.

NEXT: Quo Vadimus?

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  1. Barton said he thinks the anti-government thread that runs through the Potter novels is significant because the books have great potential to sway public opinion.

    Maybe, but who exactly in America is really in favor of a government that tortured children for lying; designed its prison specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; placed citizens in that prison without a hearing; ordered the death penalty without a trial; allowed the powerful, rich or famous to control policy; selectively prosecuted crimes (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); conducted criminal trials without defense counsel; used truth serum to force confessions; maintained constant surveillance over all citizens; offered no elections and no democratic lawmaking process; and controlled the press?

  2. I’ll go out on a limb and predict Rowling will never be Rand, billions in sales notwithstanding.

  3. …haven’t read any of them, saw one of the movies and was a bit bored.

    How I envy you.

  4. > Maybe, but who exactly in America is really in favor…

    No one. But hopefully a lot of people will develop an inherent distrust and skepticism in government in general, which might hopefully translate to more libertarian positions when applied to American (and/or British, the rest of the world, etc.) politics.

  5. “…in 50 years, will libertarian gatherings be mulling over the continuing libertarian significance of Potter?”

    No.

    …but they might talk about Tolkien.

  6. If nothing else, the government officials in the Harry Potter series have been presented as inept if not contemptible petty tyrants, and definitely not to be relied upon to solve problems or save the day. Whether that’s a libertarian message or not is debatable, but I think it’s a positive message for the target audience.

  7. What would I think of constant government surveillance?

    Hmm. Well New York City is building one and lots of other websites are talking about it. But over at reason it’s petrificus totalus.

    I would have thought I would first read about the New York City plans AT Reason, even if it is the case that Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote an article in January and appeared on NPR to give her personal libertarian blessing to government surveillance cameras.

    Astonishing.

    P.S. Why do my posts about this topic keep getting deleted? Almost as if, like the Ministry of Magic, you folks didn’t like to entertain criticism about yourself.

  8. “I’ll go out on a limb and predict Rowling will never be Rand, billions in sales notwithstanding.”

    You’re right about that. Rowling’s books are readable

  9. I have read these to my children, and I have picked up on several libertarian threads in the series. My favorite is a figure in the 5th book (I think) named Dolores Umbrage, who is evil, but who casts no deplorable spells nor amasses some great amount of evil power. Rather, she plays the part of the officious bureaucrat, and her true evil is realized by the end of the book. But throughout, she is simply sent by the power structure to ensure codes and laws are followed to the letter. Rowling is clearly displaying the underlying evils of bureaucracy and cookie-cutter central planning. I had no trouble reading this to my children, who are old enough now that they are reading the rest of the series themselves.

    In the same vein, I also took them to see Ratatouille this weekend, and was very pleased with the individualist message the plot contained. I expected no less from Brad Bird, who also wrote The Incredibles, a veritable celebration of individualism. It’s tough when your children bring something like Ant Bully home (with Nicolas Cage explaining to my child that every citizen must sacrifice himself for the “greatness of the colony”…ugghh), and whether or not Rowling is trying to express a liberty-friendly message (which I think she is), you can at least rely on Potter books to not spew collectivist tripe. So, until your kids are old enough for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress , I feel comfortable recommending the Potter series.

  10. The first few books were charming and delightful, but as the series progressed and the characters aged I found it more and more tiresome and didn’t even bother reading the sixth book. Besides, I no more want to think of Harry as a young man than Charlie Brown with 5 O’clock shadow or Calvin with a bad case of acne.

    I doubt Rowling has much of a political agenda or, to the extent she does, it’s at all well thought out or consistent. Yes, the politicians are inept, but Harry’s school administration is wise and caring, proving that Rowling certainly wasn’t basing her stories on British public schools.

  11. Why do my posts about this topic keep getting deleted?

    Don’t know. Are you using a lot of naughty words? Nah, that can’t be it…dhex and Jennifer swear like sailors. I’m flummoxed. It’s hereditary.

    Rowling’s books are readable

    Yeah. By children.

  12. The British have bitched about their civil servants for centuries in their popular culture and haven’t done anything about it yet. It is often portrayed as a problem with the people in the positions, not the structure that creates the positions themselves.

    But…

    One more adult comes up to me, asks if I have read these children’s books and then gives me a sad look when I say no, I will bathe that night in their blood. One actually said, “Not much of a reader, huh?” My wife grabbed my hand and dragged me away before I could build up enough head of steam to strip the flesh from his bones.

    That last book is coming out on my birthday. I vow, on my high speed internet connection, that somehow, even if it takes me years, someone will pay for that.

  13. I’m neither fan nor not-fan…haven’t read any of them, saw one of the movies and was a bit bored.

    Hey!!

    I like the movies…

    I haven’t read the books either.

  14. “””Barton said he thinks the anti-government thread that runs through the Potter novels is significant because the books have great potential to sway public opinion.””””

    Barton is just looking for an audience. I doubt anyone is reading Potter for the politics. I think this is similar to the christian hyperbole that it promotes dark magic, as if that really exists.

  15. I agree with Sugarfree here, and would apply that to the Potter books too. The attitude in the books overwhelmingly seems to be that the problem with the government is the people occupying key positions, and not with any failings in the government itself.

  16. “You might assume that the above list is the work of some despotic central African nation, but it is actually the product of the Ministry of Magic,…”

    Hell, and here I was thinking it was going to say “…actually the product of the Maryland State Assembly”

    Kinda seems like that ’round here most of the time, doggone HOA mentality sucks for a state govt.

  17. I’ve read all the books and loved them. I’ve seen all the movies and found them to be competent narrative abridgements of the books, unlike the Rings films which were works of art unto themselves. The fifth book was a bit of an ordeal, but the sixth book was the payoff, to some degree.

    The Dolores Umbridge character and the Prime Minister Fudge character are straight out of Atlas Shrugged. They are cartoony, self-centered, cynical manipulators with just enough belief in the collectivism that they spout to make them plausible and dangerous.

  18. Yes, the politicians are inept, but Harry’s school administration is wise and caring…

    That’s one of the reasons I don’t like the books. We’re supposed to believe that most of the teachers (especially Dumbledore) care about the kids, while needlessly putting them in potentially lethal danger again and again. Like most books about magic, I don’t think the author (nor most readers) takes the implications of this world to their logical conclusions.

  19. The attitude in the books overwhelmingly seems to be that the problem with the government is the people occupying key positions, and not with any failings in the government itself.

    Each of the 2 MoMs, so far, have been initially shown in a positive light, only to be undermined to the reader. Not exactly a neon sign saying that the system is broken, but it is something in that direction.

  20. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like the books. We’re supposed to believe that most of the teachers (especially Dumbledore) care about the kids, while needlessly putting them in potentially lethal danger again and again. Like most books about magic, I don’t think the author (nor most readers) takes the implications of this world to their logical conclusions.

    Good point. I also found the idea of elite vs. inferior beings (“muggles”) somewhat offensive.

  21. in 50 years, will libertarian gatherings be mulling over the continuing libertarian significance of Potter?

    No. In 50 years none of this will exist, because I will be dead.

  22. I also found the idea of elite vs. inferior beings (“muggles”) somewhat offensive.

    Understandably.

  23. We’re supposed to believe that most of the teachers (especially Dumbledore) care about the kids, while needlessly putting them in potentially lethal danger again and again.

    There’s a little bit of Lemony Snicket adults-as-idiots going on early in the books, but later it becomes clear that the magical world is simply a dangerous one, much more dangerous than the normal world. The adults put the kids in lethal danger at the school because they are preparing the kids for lethal occupations.

    That’s part of the appeal to all ages. For adults, it reminds us of when we shot BB guns and bottle rockets at each other as kids and how kids today are compelled to wear shockproof goggles to play paper football. For kids, it is a compelling adventure for people their age. For them, the adults must be permissive and a bit willfully clueless for the story to work. Otherwise, there is no magical duelling, no quidditch, no dangerous (read: fun) creatures in the husbandry class.

    It would be nothing more than a boring world that happened to have magic. While the Harry Potter series is typically classified as fantasy, it is arguably in the original tradition of science/speculative fiction where what-ifs are explored. In this case, the what-if is a world within a world, but it is also a world where children play a sincere and valuable role in important greater world events. Maybe she put some expensive flowers on C. S. Lewis’s grave.

  24. No. In 50 years none of this will exist, because I will be dead.
    Who brought Captain Bring Down?

  25. No. In 50 years none of this will exist, because I will be dead.

    I’m hoping to still be hangin out, a pain in the ass and chasing red headed women from a wheelchair, myself.

    Not that Potter would matter much at that point either, though.

    For them, the adults must be permissive and a bit willfully clueless for the story to work

    My kids accuse me of that sometimes…

  26. Personally, I found Dolores Umbridge to be as stereotypical and cookie-cutter a villain as they come. Even Voldemort at his most histrionic isn’t as over the top as she is, with the pink and the twee kitten plates and the little-girl voice.

    I’m fascinated to see how Imelda Staunton portrays her in the upcoming film, though. The director has made her look so much like Margaret Thatcher (down to the handbag) that there’s far more reason to suspect a political agenda on THAT front.

  27. I also found the idea of elite vs. inferior beings (“muggles”) somewhat offensive.

    The muggles are only considered inferior by the antagonists. The protagonists consider the magical ones to be merely gifted, a la The Incredibles. In fact, the way that they treat muggles acts as something of an indicator in the books of whether a character is evil or good.

  28. There’s a little bit of Lemony Snicket adults-as-idiots going on early in the books, but later it becomes clear that the magical world is simply a dangerous one, much more dangerous than the normal world. The adults put the kids in lethal danger at the school because they are preparing the kids for lethal occupations.

    No, I don’t buy that. Some of the kids will have lethal occupations, but most of them, like most muggles, will simply exist in this world, doing simple jobs, like most of the people you see in the movie. And if you’re training someone to be in a lethal world (is it really more lethal than the muggles’ world?), there are lots of ways to do it without risking that person’s (or, more importantly in this case, this child’s) safety. The way adults take care of children is dismissed in HP, not because it has to be, but because it makes the story more exciting.

    While the Harry Potter series is typically classified as fantasy, it is arguably in the original tradition of science/speculative fiction where what-ifs are explored.

    Speculative fiction is something I think of as very different from science-fiction. Science fiction has to take the implications of technology as far as is logically possible in order to create a believable world.

    When you’re dealing with magic that’s used casually every day, as it is in HP, nothing needs to make sense. Magic solves a problem when it’s convenient to the story (you can teleport, transform, move, fly, light, disappear, etc.), but magic can’t solve problems when the story needs a conflict.

    This, of course, is a matter of taste. HP is escapist fantasy and it really doesn’t have to make logical sense for it to be entertaining, which, I think, is the author’s overriding motivation, and more power to her.

  29. This is, of course, my cue to post a link to my essay on the fifth book that was on the front page of the Libertarian national paper:

    http://www.cascadepolicy.org/pdf/misc/2003_29.pdf

  30. By the way, I can’t find the original essay online and the link above was unfortunately edited to remove a few choice references such as my calling the Queen of England the world’s greatest welfare mother. I must find a better link.

  31. Interestingly enough, the villain in Salman Rushdie’s “Haron and the Sea of Stories” is also a clerky bureaucrat type, though the archetype of the genre. That phrase, “the banality of evil” became a cliche because it makes an excellent point.

  32. Magic is mostly a hook to get kids to read the books.
    OTH, we might consider magic as allegory for technical proficiency. Many people in our world need geek help to plug in their computers.

  33. “You might assume that the above list is the work of some despotic central African nation, but it is actually the product of the Ministry of Magic, the magician’s government in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.”

    Actually, if you add in ruinous taxation it sounds pretty much like the modern British Parliament.

  34. The attitude in the books overwhelmingly seems to be that the problem with the government is the people occupying key positions, and not with any failings in the government itself.

    Isn’t this just a reflection of popular opinion? Most here understand that government’s shortcomings are just about inevitable, and not a function of corruption and/or malfeasance of individuals in government, but does your average joe?

  35. There’s also the reference in the books about how the best people who you’d want governing something WON’T take the job. Dumbledore prefers to stay at Hogwarts instead of taking the MoM position, though it’s indicated he could have had it. That there seems to me to say that he thinks he’d be more effective outside of the government – a sort of Wal-mart vs. FEMA thing. But it’s a character thing as well – Dumbledore isn’t some awesomely powerful cure-all, he knows his limits. He’s also hands-off and somewhat isolationist to the point of frustration. Like others have pointed out – there are some serious flaws in regards to how adults are portrayed in the books.

    But the criticism is there – the ministry is highly secretive, corrupted by money, and more concerned with appearance than truth and problem-solving.

    In regards to the level of danger – there’s also a higher level of “medicine”. You can lose your arm and get it regrown, you know.

  36. That last book is coming out on my birthday. I vow, on my high speed internet connection, that somehow, even if it takes me years, someone will pay for that.

    Oh sugrafree, you grump! Shall I order you a fresh collection of Joan Didion so you can enjoy a birthday of delicious bitterness?

  37. I’m surprised at how so many here seem to miss an essential point: The fount of evil in the series is power-hunger.

    The chief villain is a “half-blood” orphan who wants to live forever and uses the racist bigotry of the aristocratic “pure-bloods” to manipulate, use, and then discard them for his own ends, which seems to be destruction for its own sake. I believe Voldemort is modeled on Hitler (who may have been part Jewish himself). His only passion is power for the sake of power, which leads, as in real life, to the only use of such power: to amass more of it.

    If there is a political subtext in these books (which BTW are great fun for me) it is the evil of racism and the uses to which it is put. And there are also the points that (a) all is not black-and-white in the real world (which might be a snark at GWB), which point is made by a pure-blood (Sirius Black) and (b) the best all-around student of magic is a mud-blood (Hermione). Dumbledore says it best (I paraphrase): “What shows who we really are is not our gifts, but our choices”. That would seem to put a great deal of responsibility on individuals…as the French say :”after the age of 40 a man is responsible for his own face”, which ought to please libertarians (and free-marketeers — check out the entrepeneural genius of the Weasley twins).

    Other than that, much of what has been discussed here— rather too seriously I think — is clearly satire: the pettifogging, small-minded and self-serving bureaucrats, the sadistic teacher, the cynicism and irresponsibility of the press (Rita Skeeter is a Swiftian gem) are all types that we know too well in reality.

    One thing has struck me in particular about the series: like LOTR, there is no organized religion in any of it. There are no churches, liturgies, rituals, clergy, or appeals to a “higher power” whatever. I don’t know what to make of this, but it might be worth a little mulling over. In all the fundie rabid raving about the occult no one sems to have noticed this.

  38. Old guys who can’t break away from their own nostalgia for the “real art” of their youths. I’ll bet you’re like this about rock and roll too. Like the stuff that was playing when you first lost your virginity. And think Ayn Rand is an all timer, but not Jo Rawlings. The jealousy and closed mindedness I would not have thought to be major characteristics of the libertarian community. But there you are.

  39. Sadly, no.

    J.K. Rowling has stated, on more than one occasion, that her personal hero is Jessica Mitford, aka Decca, the muckraking journalist, onetime member of the Communist Party, and lifelong socialist.

    She even named her daughter after her.

    Rowling is, I’m afraid, some type of socialist.

  40. Maybe, but who exactly in America is really in favor of a government that tortured children for lying; designed its prison specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; placed citizens in that prison without a hearing; ordered the death penalty without a trial; allowed the powerful, rich or famous to control policy; selectively prosecuted crimes (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); conducted criminal trials without defense counsel; used truth serum to force confessions; maintained constant surveillance over all citizens; offered no elections and no democratic lawmaking process; and controlled the press?

    Republicans.

  41. May I disagree with jprfrog?

    LOTR begins and ends in a predestination motif that would make Calvin proud. Do you recall Gandalf telling Bilbo he was “meant” to find the Ring, or when Elrond told Frodo he was “meant” to be the ring bearer? Who do you think those Elves were singing to (and Frodo takes up the song himself at more than one occasion). And, if you read the book Tolkien wanted to be the first, it literally begins in Heaven with Eru Illuvitar summoning his choir of demi-gods to sing creation and history into existence.

    Rowland, on the other hand, beats the “… it is good to be different” lesson into the ground by making every person who disagrees with her overarching point a veritable monster and everyone who validates it a gossamer-winged fairy of virtue. Virtue is a cause for self-righteousness in her books, but righteousness itself can be found only through humility and that through acknowledgement of its source.

    Rowlands characters, ultimately, can point only to themselves, whereas Tolkiens point to the Maia who, ultimately, point to Eru himself.

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