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 magicians’ government in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
So begins one of the most interesting articles I have read in a while: “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy” (pdf) by Benjamin Barton (abstract here), an American law professor.* Lib Dems have already discussed Daniel Radcliffe’s liberal leanings, but according to Mr Barton the Harry Potter books themselves have a liberal or even libertarian message. (If they do, it’s a much more effective way of spreading it than writing rather dry blogposts about whether liberalism and democracy work together like yours truly.)
He bases his case on the very negative portrayal of the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter books, especially from the third book onwards (in which we are introduced to Sirius Black, a wizard imprisoned and tortured without trial). Throughout the series the Ministry shows the kind of casual disregard for the public interest and fundamental rights that you would expect of an untrammelled and unaccountable bureaucracy. Indeed, Mr Barton argues that the Ministry of Magic is well described by public choice theory, which assumes politicians and bureaucrats operate purely for their own selfish interests.
Few characters remain involved with the Ministry without becoming corrupted. Of them, Arthur Weasley (Ron’s father) is a fundamentally decent pen-pusher, but because of his decency he never rises in the hierarchy and his office is described as “slightly smaller than a broom cupboard”. Dumbledore, of course, always tries to keep the Ministry at an arm’s length. And according to Ms Rowling herself, even before Voldemort’s rule there is something rotten in the Ministry: “I think you can see in the Ministry even before it’s taken over, there are parallels to regimes we all know and love.”
Mr Barton suggests Ms Rowling’s hatred of bureaucracy dates from her time as a single mother surviving on benefits in Edinburgh: “…in both England and the United States there is no quicker route to hating the government than dealing with the various bureaucracies that handle public assistance.”** This is plausible, but there is perhaps a problem with ascribing a “libertarian mindset” to someone who donated £1 million to the Labour party largely because of their record on alleviating child poverty.
Of course there are alternatives to Mr Barton’s interpretation. Toby Young declares that Ms Rowling is in fact “a closet Tory”:
Hogwarts is, in fact, a microcosm of exactly what old-fashioned Tories would like Britain to be. It’s a rigidly hierarchical society, presided over by a benign, but stern patrician figure – a sort of wizardly version of Harold Macmillan – in which everybody knows their place.
One American blogger goes so far in the other direction as to draw the conclusion that in the Harry Potter series “bureaucrats are heroes”! While that seems a bit bizarre, the comparisons of St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries with the National Health Service and the obnoxiousness of those with inherited wealth (the Malfoys) seem as valid as Mr Barton’s impressively referenced anti-authoritarian message.
So how might we summarise the political message of Harry Potter? He has an independent streak and rebels against unaccountable authority, but he does appreciates the free education provided at Hogwarts. Ms Rowling herself has seen the dark underbelly of British government close up but is a supporter of its more humane side.
That all looks rather Lib Dem to me. Will Cowley Street soon be posting a membership card to Harry Potter, c/o Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?
Update: I am not the first blogger to see liberal messages in Harry Potter, see this excellent post.
*I actually read it in Swedish translation in Neo magazine, a very interesting liberal magazine which knocks the socks off any British equivalents I have read.
**Yes, I am very much aware that Edinburgh is in Scotland, not England; the error is Mr Barton’s….