7 things Harry Potter teaches us about libertarianism
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is out in cinemas. The second of the Wizarding World series is set in London and Paris. It stars the adorable Eddie Redmayne as magizoologist Newt Scamander, the mysterious Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, the flamboyant Jude Law as a younger Albus Dumbledore, and the daemonic Johnny Depp as the skillful populist Gellert Grindelwald.
The rise of far-right populism is the core theme of the film. Grindelwald’s main crime is his zealous belief that the one race should naturally dominate another. That wizards should conquer muggles. J.K. Rowling claims that these themes were influenced by recent events, however the same key ideas can be found throughout the Harry Potter saga.
These themes came as no surprise to me. The story of The Boy Who Lived helped shape my political views — and, apparently, not only mine. The series starts as a fairy-tale-like fable about good defeating evil at the end of each book. Gradually, however, the series moves to more “adult” topics, such as racial prejudice, cruelty, the ineffectiveness of the bureaucratic machine, and the role of the media in the modern world. ‘Rowling may do more for libertarianism than anyone since John Stuart Mill’, claims Benjamin H. Barton, Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, in his article titled Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy.
While this might seem a bit of an overstatement, he might actually have a point. Here are seven reasons why:
The Ministry of Magic is the epitome of bureaucracy at its worst
What would you think about a government that tortures mischievous teenagers, maintains a prison with (literally) inhumane wardens, arrests innocent people without a glimpse of a fair trial, serves the rich and well-born lobbyists, spies on benevolent citizens 24/7 and tightly controls the media? You would probably think such atrocities are only possible in some Third World autocracy. It is exactly how the Ministry of Magic acts in Rowling’s magical world.
Harry first encounters Minister Cornelius Fudge when he comes to arrest Harry’s friend Hagrid. Fudge is well aware that Hagrid is not the one responsible for attacks on students but “Ministry’s got to do something”! Guided by the same principle, they threw Harry’s godfather Sirius Black in Azkaban for a murder he did not commit. When Sirius escaped after twelve years and was caught again, the magical authorities sentenced him to the worst punishment imaginable, a dementor’s kiss, without properly investigating the case. In the next book, Barty Crouch Jr. suffers this fate.
Total surveillance — just like the one in the muggle world — doesn’t help the Ministry to catch the criminals but results in absurd situations. Remember when Harry was almost expelled from Hogwarts for witchcraft performed by someone else? Notably, it’s the Minister himself who presides over the trial of an unruly teenager. The system of checks and balances? Who needs this muggle stuff! During the trial, Professor Dumbledore, acting as Harry’s witness, reminds Fudge about the procedural law. “Laws can be changed,” says Fudge savagely. “Of course they can,” says Dumbledore. “And you certainly seem to be making many changes, Cornelius”.
Fudge’s ally Dolores Umbridge is probably the most hated character of the whole series. She establishes prison-like rules in Hogwarts, appoints herself as High Inquisitor, and tortures misbehaving students while turning the loyal ones into henchmen. Adding to this she issues innumerable decrees in a desperate attempt to fully control students’ lives.
If, by the end of The Order of Phoenix, someone is still so naive as to believe that the problem is the people, not the system, Rowling destroys such illusions in The Half-Blood Prince. Half-hearted Fudge is replaced by the strongman Rufus Scrimgeour. While sending innocents to Azkaban (because “Ministry’s got to do something”), he is shameless enough to ask Harry to become his poster boy in order to save the Ministry’s reputation.
Exceptions only prove the rule. The most benevolent Ministry employees, such as Ron’s father Arthur Weasley, have to neutralise enchanted toilets sitting in a tiny room while the rich and noble Lucius Malfoy is chit-chatting with the Minister, probably lobbying for favourable legislation. Who even passes legislation? That’s all we need to know about the division of power in the magical world.
Grassroot activism works
Just as in the muggles world, whenever the government fails miserably, non-state actors come and fix their mistakes. The Order of Phoenix, created by Dumbledore, confronts dark forces more efficiently than all the Ministry bureaucrats put together. When Umbridge refuses to teach the practical side of the Defence Against the Dark Arts, Harry creates a secret society and teaches students to duel. In the end of the book, while fighting against Death Eaters, Dumbledore’s Army passes the exam brilliantly. Self-organisation works, and works well.
It’s not surprising that any bottom-up initiative is frowned upon by the bureaucrats. According to the paranoid Fudge, Professor Dumbledore is spreading rumors about the Dark Lord’s return in order to replace him as Minister. Turning a blind eye to the most dangerous wizard ever regaining his powers, Fudge only worries about the school headmaster’s power and influence. Yet, the wise and accomplished Dumbledore never fancied a career in politics — he had, in fact, been invited a number of times to take the Minister’s position but never agreed.
Different but equal
From his very early childhood, Harry knows how devastating intolerance can be. He is raised by muggles who hate him simply because he’s different. At Hogwarts, he is frustrated by the fact that the magical world also holds gross prejudice against the different ones. Hermione is labelled a “mudblood”, Hagrid is mocked for being a half-giant, Professor Lupin has to quit his job after the school discovers he is a werewolf, and the house elf Dobby, who has saved Harry’s life more than once, is treated as an inferior.
The line between good and evil in Rowling’s world is one of inclusivity. Characters are judged according to their attitude towards the different ones. Villains are villains mainly because they declare an elite based on the purity of their blood. According to the Voldemort’s allies, the world must be governed by the purebred wizards and “mudbloods” can be treated as a scum. “I really don’t think they should let the other sort in, do you? I think they should keep it in the old wizarding families”, says Draco Malfoy straight after meeting Harry. In that very moment, Harry realises the two will never be friends.
Professor Dumbledore, the most powerful good wizard in the world, epitomises tolerance. Again and again, he gives the outcasts a chance — inviting a werewolf, a centaurus and a half-giant to teach at Hogwarts, accepting the repentant Death Eater Severus Snape to the Order of Phoenix, giving even a grumpy old squib like Argus Filch a job he would be good at. “He could find something to value in anyone, however apparently insignificant or wretched”, his lifelong friend Elphias Doge writes in an obituary.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that reading the Harry Potter series reduces prejudice and improves attitudes towards stigmatised groups. The reader learns the lesson. Once, during a Q&A session with 2,000 fans at Carnegie Hall, Rowling confessed that Dumbledore is gay. After a moment of silence, the audience erupted in cheers for several minutes. “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy”, she smiled.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely
If the moral of Harry Potter can be summarised in one sentence it is: don’t give too much power in one person’s hands. The main antagonist, Voldemort, is obsessed by the desire to rule the world single-handedly. In his quest for absolute power, he not only surrounds himself by unprincipled henchmen, he creates horcruxes which literally split the soul and masters dark magic. His cherished dream is the fabled Deathly Hallows, allegedly granting their owner eternal life. Out of the three objects the one which he is particularly taken with is the Elder Wand, the most powerful wand on Earth.
As a young wizard, Dumbledore chased the Deathly Hallows, too, but had to pay too high a price for his power hunger. His friend and accomplice Gellert Grindelwald (amazingly played by Johnny Depp in the new movie) became the darkest wizard of his time, and Dumbledore lost his dear sister’s life. It gave him a sorrow, so when the Elder wand finally ended up in his hands, the old man gives up on his ambitions to rule the world and literally takes the wand to the grave. Harry does the same thing when refusing to become the master of the Elder Wand, throwing away the Resurrection Stone and keeping only the Cloak of Invisibility, the most modest of the three Hallows.
Freedom of choice
The Sorting Hat wants to send Harry to Slytherin. The boy, already aware that Slytherin has given rise to too many dark wizards, begs the Hat to change its mind. In the end, he is placed in Gryffindor. A year later, though, Harry still doubts whether he truly belongs in Gryffindor. Tom Riddle adds insult to injury when the two meet in the Chamber of Secrets. “There are strange likenesses between us, after all,” he says. “Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by Muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike…”
Dumbledore comforts Harry: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”, he claims. The multiple similarities between Harry and his archenemy highlight once more the importance of freedom of choice. The same issue is raised again in The Order of Phoenix when Harry finds out that either Voldemort or himself “must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives”. Voldemort sees the prophecy as inevitable, thus making it self-fulfilled. Harry, in turn, remains sceptical knowing that he is the master of his own fate.
Expelliarmus and the Non-aggression principle
For Harry and his friends, aggressive violence is an absolute taboo, even when used against one’s enemies. Harry’s favourite spell is Expelliarmus, the Disarming Spell, which he uses even when duelling with Voldemort. A keen sense of justice makes Harry stand up for vulnerable individuals time and again. He protects his classmate Neville from Malfoy’s bullying, frees Dobby the house elf from Malfoy’s father, spares Buckbeak the hippogriff from execution, and saves Ginny from the Chamber of Secrets.
Harry would never use force until absolutely necessary, and the whole truth is revealed. Upon facing Sirius Black, a person he believes to be responsible for the murder of Harry’s parents, he stops Snape from killing the escapee. Instead, Harry wants to listen to every side (unlike the dementors sent by the Ministry). The boy is so inherently opposed to violence that he naturally fails to perform an Unforgivable Curse. When outraged, chasing Bellatrix Lestrange, the killer of his godfather, Harry tries to punish her with Cruciatus… and fails. Laughingly, Bellatrix explains: one has to really want to inflict pain to perform the spell. Which is, of course, not Harry.
Bonus: golden standard
Last but not least, the wizards use the ‘real’ money — golden galleons, silver sickles, bronze knuts. The vaults at the Gringotts bank are filled with precious metal, not some pieces of paper authorised by the Ministry of Magic. Even as a big fan of muggle gizmos as Mister Weasley, Ron’s father, would probably laugh out loud if shown our fiat currency.
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The content of this post is covered under fair use. Harry Potter and The Wizarding World are owned by J. K. Rowling, Bloomsbury, Scholastic and Warner Brothers.