Monday, November 21, 2005

J.K. Rowling--Libertarian?


Benjamin Barton has a wonderful essay, "Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy" (forthcoming in Harry Potter and the Law (Jeffrey E. Thomas, ed., Carolina Press, 2006) on J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books (tip of the hat to Volokh). The Rowling series certainly has captured the imagination of an entire generation, as few works have before. Rowling does not venture into fundamental principles as, for example, Ayn Rand had done in her fiction, but it is well worth considering the politics (or anti-politics) of the framework of Rowling's novels. The abstract for Barton's paper states:
This Essay examines what the Harry Potter series...tells us about government and bureaucracy. There are two short answers. The first is that Rowling presents a government ... that is 100% bureaucracy. There is no discernable executive or legislative branch, and no elections. There is a modified judicial function, but it appears to be completely dominated by the bureaucracy, and certainly does not serve as an independent check on governmental excess.

Second, government is controlled by and for the benefit of the self-interested bureaucrat. The most cold-blooded public choice theorist could not present a bleaker portrait of a government captured by special interests and motivated solely by a desire to increase bureaucratic power and influence. Consider this partial list of government activities: a) torturing children for lying; b) utilizing a prison designed and staffed specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; c) placing citizens in that prison without a hearing; d) allows the death penalty without a trial; e) allowing the powerful, rich or famous to control policy and practice; f) selective prosecution (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); g) conducting criminal trials without independent defense counsel; h) using truth serum to force confessions; i) maintaining constant surveillance over all citizens; j) allowing no elections whatsoever and no democratic lawmaking process; k) controlling the press. [my emphasis--Ken]

This partial list of activities brings home just how bleak Rowling's portrait of government is. The critique is even more devastating because the governmental actors and actions in the book look and feel so authentic and familiar... The Ministry itself is made up of various sub-ministries with goofy names ...enforcing silly sounding regulations... These descriptions of government jibe with our own sarcastic views of bureaucracy and bureaucrats: bureaucrats tend to be amusing characters that propagate and enforce laws of limited utility with unwieldy names. When you combine the light-hearted satire with the above list of government activities, however, Rowling's critique of government becomes substantially darker and more powerful.

Furthermore, Rowling eliminates many of the progressive defenses of bureaucracy. The most obvious omission is the elimination of the democratic defense. The first line of attack against public choice theory is always that bureaucrats must answer to elected officials, who must in turn answer to the voters. Rowling eliminates this defense by presenting a wholly unelected government.

A second line of defense is the public-minded bureaucrat. ... Rowling parries this defense by her presentation of successful bureaucrats (who clearly fit the public choice model) and unsuccessful bureaucrats. ...In Rowling's world governmental virtue is disrespected and punished.

Lastly, Rowling even eliminates the free press as a check on government power. ...I end the piece with some speculation about how Rowling came to her bleak vision of government, and the greater societal effects it might have. Speculating about the effects of Rowling's portrait of government is obviously dangerous, but it seems likely that we will see a continuing uptick in distrust of government and libertarianism as the Harry Potter generation reaches adulthood.

There has been a increasing number of posts by libertarians (see Patri Friedman, Brian Doss, Daniel D'Amico, and Natalie Solent, among others, for example) on the anti-state/Harry Potter/J.K. Rowling connection, and with good reason, as Benjamin's paper makes clear.

Just a thought.
Just Ken
CLASSical Liberalism


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I may self-promote, I also wrote a review of Harry Potter from a libertarian perspective, including a link to Eryk Boston's review.

6:08 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home