As anyone with children can tell you, the Harry Potter books by British author J. K. Rowling have taken the world by storm. Now in its fourth installment, this series of stories about the education of a young British wizard at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is wildly popular with children and adults alike. Harry made the cover of Newsweek, prompted the redesign of the New York Times bestseller list (authors of adult books complained that the Potter books were occupying too much room at the top of the list), jolted the publishing industry (Americans buying the books from Amazon.co.uk forced the U.S. publisher to alter its publication schedule), prompted attempts to remove the book from schools (some religious parents objected to the depiction of witchcraft as wholesome), and upset critic Harold Bloom (he didn’t think the books lived up to The Wind in the Willows).
The Potter books are, despite Bloom’s criticism, great fun to read. Rowling is also the best known “welfare to work” story I’ve heard in quite some time. The first book was written (supposedly on napkins) in coffee shops in Britain while the single mother was on welfare—she’s now obviously become quite wealthy. But those aren’t the reasons classical liberals should love these books.
First, for those who have somehow missed the stories, here is the plot in a nutshell. Harry Potter was orphaned as an infant when the evil Lord Voldemort killed Harry’s parents while attempting to use his magical powers to take over the world. Harry then spent his first ten years living with his thoroughly repulsive Muggle (nonmagical) Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley Dursley. Then Harry was whisked away to Hogwarts to begin a seven-year education, although he still spends summers with the Dursleys. Along the way, Harry makes friends with other wizard kids, battles Lord Voldemort, plays an exciting wizard sport called Quidditch for his house team, and learns about the ways of wizards. Telling you more would spoil the books.
Classical liberals should love Harry Potter because there are three strikingly classical liberal features of the wizarding world. The first is its banking and monetary system. Really. Wizards do not use ordinary English fiat currency, instead their money supply is based on precious metals. Gold Galleons, Silver Sickles, and Copper Knuts are the basis of wizarding commercial transactions. And there are lots of those transactions—despite their powers, wizards must buy most of the things they need from the private sector. Wizards keep their money in Gringotts, a private bank run by goblins who are quite ruthless in protecting the money entrusted to their care.
The second classical liberal feature is the extent to which commerce is presented favorably. True, Uncle Vernon’s business career, like everything else about Uncle Vernon, is not exactly gripping stuff. But the most exciting places in the wizarding world are Diagon Alley, the wizard shopping zone in London, and Hogsmeade, the only all-wizard village in England, which is crammed to the gills with fascinating shops. Harry’s friends, George and Fred Weasley, aspire to open a shop themselves, selling wizarding jokes, rather than follow their brother and father into government. Sporting broomsticks are manufactured competitively, and new models are brought out as regularly as new cars are in the Muggle world.
Most important, however, is the role of the government. Wizards don’t have much to do with Muggles, and so most of the British government has little relevance to the lives of wizards—truly a fantasy situation. Nonetheless, there is a Ministry of Magic, headed by a wizard minister. What is amazing—remember these are books by a former welfare mother—is that the ministry does almost nothing. Its primary focus is preventing Muggles from figuring out that there are wizards living among them—allowing the wizards to live in peace. No anti-discrimination laws, no quotas for magical folks—just memory charms to make Muggles who stumble on the wizards forget they are there.
The ministry does do some other things. It runs Hogwarts school, more or less as a charter school with control firmly vested in a board of governors and the headmaster. It helps stage international wizard games and competitions. It investigates and eliminates dangerous magical creatures. It runs a wizarding prison, albeit indirectly by contracting with shadowy beings called “dementors.” When it does anything more, like investigate the thickness of foreign cauldron bottoms, it is held up to ridicule by the book’s characters.
Moreover, it doesn’t do most of these things particularly well. The minister for magic, Cornelius Fudge, is a pompous buffoon, more concerned about preserving his job than the safety of the public. Lower level ministry officials break rules to favor their own interests, including one who sneaks a relative out of prison and so unwittingly aids in the return of Lord Voldemort. Indeed, judging from these books, Rowling seems to have a firm grasp of the basics of public choice theory.
That’s pretty much it. There is no Department of Wizard Welfare, no minimum wage for wizards, no safety commission for magical charms. There is plenty of opportunity for such stuff—Harry’s friend Ron comes from a poor wizard family and must make do with secondhand clothes and wands, but his family doesn’t receive any government assistance. The most recent book comes closest to touching on a potential issue of political correctness: One of Harry’s friends takes up the cause of house elves, magical creatures who live to serve. She campaigns for a living wage and an end to their serfdom, but finds few elves or wizards who are interested.
The bad guys are going to seem familiar to classical liberals too. Lord Voldemort is a ruthless killer, a thoroughly evil wizard who relishes torturing and killing his victims and allies alike. There’s no justification for his behavior, no explanation that he was misunderstood as a boy or mistreated at school. It is Voldemort’s ambition and his ambition alone that leads him to attempt to take over the world. This is a villain classical liberals can love to hate—a power-mad, evil leader whose goal is to reduce the world to slavery.
The heroes are people we can cheer about too. Albus Dumbledore, the powerful wizard headmaster of Hogwarts, is a great guy all around. At the end of the fourth book he gives a speech to the students that ought to make most classical liberals applaud. Telling the students about the return of Lord Voldemort, the evil lord’s killing of a Hogwarts student, and the government’s refusal to acknowledge it, Dumbledore asks the students to stand up to evil as individuals: “Remember [the dead student].* Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to [the student], who was good and kind and brave, because [the student] strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort.”
* The major mystery in the book is who is killed. I won’t spoil it by using the student’s name.
These books are not, however, junior versions of Atlas Shrugged. There is no overriding message of liberty, or anything else that I am aware of, in the books. And perhaps I am reading a bit much into them. After all, the Harry Potter books are first and foremost well-written escapist fantasy about kids being kids. But I think it is important that such popular stories are set in a society that we would recognize as having classical liberal features. All those kids growing up with Harry Potter are, after all, left with a vision of a world in which the government plays a strikingly small role. And that’s quite magical.