Harry Potter and Liberty with Benjamin Barton

In this IHS Academic podcast, Professor Benjamin Barton of the University of Tennessee College of Law expands on his article Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy to discuss themes of liberty in the Harry Potter series. Professor Barton sees lots of relevant ideas to public choice theory in the Harry Potter series, and believes the popularity of the series could be beneficial for liberty.

Jeanne Hoffman: Welcome to this Kosmos Online Podcast. I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today I’m talking about Harry Potter and Themes of Liberty with Benjamin Barton, Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee. Professor Barton has written book chapters and articles in governance in the Harry Potter books including Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy. Welcome Professor Barton and thanks for being on our podcast.

Benjamin Barton: Oh it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

JH: First why analyze the action of the fictional government in Harry Potter?

BB: Well first naturally I’m a huge fan. So I’d already read through the first six books and basically I read up to the fourth book. When the fourth book came out is when I got really interested it and the fifth book and sixth book and at the end of the fifth book I started thinking about the theme of libertarianism and the government, because basically the first couple of books are sort of pretty straight forward kids literature. They are just description of the wizard in world and if the government mentioned it’s mentioned in a totally passing fashion.

From the third book forward the books each book gets more complex and a little bit darker and you start to really see a broader world outside of the school and Rowling really starts spending sometime expanding on what the government is like and so each book I became more and more interested in it. But, at the end of the fifth book I thought maybe the government was going to come around. I thought may be the government was going to stop the laying bad actor and was going to get on board with Harry and help out in the fight against Voldemort and the sixth book takes the opposite track. The government gets even worse and then by the time you get to the seventh government, that government is indistinguishable from Nazi Germany basically. I was just really struck by how forceful and how negative her description of wizardry government was.

JH: Could you go into more detail about that evolution of J.K Rowling’s portrayal of government throughout the entire series?

BB: So the third book is sort of me Fudge greatly as Fudges who is then the Minister of Magic and we get our first picture of the government and Fudge is painted as sort of a sympathetic but a little bit goofy character kind of your classic bubbling politician. That being said in the third book you have suspension of civil liberties, you have the death penalty for a state prisoner without any trial, you have a bunch of sides that the government might be a little bit out of control or over reactive. The flip side of that is the how the whole bunch of favoritism for Harry Potter like you see Fudge bend the rules for him there is real boys will be boys attitude with him and the rules violations that Harry is involved in.

In the fourth book now the government starts to get a little bit darker and it particularly at the end of the fourth book Voldemort is back Harry has seen him come back. Harry is told of it but it’s just the case and the government becomes is involved in fact is near campaign against him saying no it is not true and you begin to see that the government has got a lot of sway over the press and that the flip side of the book III. In book III you Harry receiving the fruits of this somewhat crooked government. In book IV you see the other back side of that.

Then book V that was the one where it really goes off the rails when Delores Umbridge comes to run Hogwarts that is the first in my opinion fictionalizing. It is one of the all time great bureaucrats Delores Umbridge, I mean she is such a powerful character, so horrible and obnoxious and yet so recognizable such a clear picture of over the top bureaucrat and the way she runs Hogwarts, the way she treats Harry, the way she bends the law, breaks the law, works through the law, everything to this over leaning ambition and desire to please the Minister and rise to the ranks of the bureaucracy. You really get a picture there I think for the distrust of government and dislike a government. So the fifth book is really that apex in my opinion and sort of the most interesting book.

The sixth book we get open war with Voldemort but the government still doesn’t redeem itself. The government locks people up with a think will look good in press even they know that they are innocent. The government is trying to use they want to use Harry Potter kind of a poster boy for the government even though they treat him so poorly in book V and book IV and then book VII Voldemort’s followers take over the government and you have a picture of the government just completely out of control.

JH: You have written that Rowling’s vision of government accords with public choice critics of government. Could you go into that a bit too?

BB: Sure and so the public choice critic of government is that each government actor is ruled by the same rules that economic theory says apply to anybody so the rational economic actors who are self interested and seek to maximize their own power, pay and leisure time and so the earliest public choice critics assume that bureaucrats would seek to increase their own power and their ethics meant to the public and would act in their own self interest not necessarily in the interest of the public and basically the government created in the books is sort of interesting.

First it is all bureaucracy government like there is a Minister of Magic, but you have never seen an election in any of the books. You do see a transfer of power between Fudge and Scrimgeour in the VI book but again no election. They use the passive voice Fudge was sacked and Scrimgeour gets the job. Each part of the government appears to be just a bureaucracy like there is no legislature and so far there is accord it seems to be a pretty flexible accord. Like at one point Dumbledore is in-charge of it then he gets fired and when Harry appears before it Fudge is in-charge of it and then it appears again in VII book and this time they have got Delores Umbridge in-charge of it so it is not court in any traditional court sets. In fact but it looks like is much more than administrative court. So you have a government that is solely around bureaucrats and the bureaucrats themselves behave very much in the way public choice theory would think.

I talked a little bit about Delores Umbridge but Percy Weasley he is a brother who gets to be super involved in the government is another great example. He sort of sells out his own family and the things that he believes in and stops being friends with Harry solely in an effort sort of curry favor with the government and then Percy’s dad Arthur Weasley is actually the opposite example because he is a good person who tries only hard to do his job and seeks to have government to do good things and he is stuck in the absolute backwater of the government like they describe his office being like a broom closet at the end of the farthest hall and so the good actors in the government were trying hard to make things good get the shaft basically and the people who were trying to climb up the ladder and willing to do anything and everything to climb up the ladder do climb up the ladder.

JH: How does Rowling defend the fictional government from these public choice critics?

BB: So in the essay one of the things I note is that there has been a bunch of criticisms of public choice. So for example one criticism is it is not fair to be so hard on bureaucrats because in so far as we are talking about western style democracy if you are dealing with the democracy you would least have the voters who will check on the bureaucrats; that’s one defense against public choice. A second defense is that they the critics of public choice would say oh that’s not really reflective of why people work in the government and alike and may be reflective of some people that lots of people work in the government because they care about it and they are interested in doing a good job the same way anybody else who is next to me doing that job. Another possible defense against that is, free press and the thing that is sort of interesting about the world of Harry Potter is that all of these things are eviscerated.

There is no democratic oversight as I said the people who try hard in the government and want to do well tend to get shunted to the side and there is no free press. The government itself seems appears to have large control over the press so each of the ways that you might say well you can be concerned about the government but there are these checks in place to make sure the bureaucrats don’t go out of control are actually stripped away in the world of Harry Potter.

JH: Do you see any benefit for those who are liberty minded based on the way Rowling portrays the government and bureaucracies that make it up?

BB: Oh yeah, absolutely, I mean I think well thing is massively popular work of fiction and the movies are really, really popular too. I think the books are actually better than the movies naturally in the books there is much more detail and rich. But, I mean the central theme of the books is the central theme of libertarianism and that self aligns one of the reasons I think who Rowling has the government continuously turn Harry away is to sort of bring that to light you want to see Harry do it on his own and you want Harry not to rely on other people.

So that is one theme I think that will really, really help and just the picture of the government in particular through the VI book the devastating part of the books through VII is that the governments basically run by good people like we don’t think that Fudge is an evil bad person out to destroy Harry the way Voldemort is. We don’t think that Scrimgeour as a bad evil person. We think that they are flawed weak people, but it is clear and I think Rowling makes this clear. They think they are doing the best thing. They really, really think in their hearts that what they are doing is the best thing for the people of the Wizards of England etc and that is a really crushing part of the portrait is that the government so out of control and so unlikeable and yet it is not due to its inexplicable evil or some problem like that.

It is actually sort of more endemic to how government’s like when people get into these positions they tend to behave in this fashion and there is a whole long stretch where Dumbledore talks about how he didn’t want to be in the government. How he refused to be the Minister of Magic and one big reason why is he thought it wasn’t suited for him and this is in direct words or paraphrase that the people who seek power frequently the last people who you would to have power and that’s a potent description of the libertarian philosophy.

JH: You mentioned earlier that you started writing on Harry Potter after book VI so when the final book came out was there anything that changed or altered your views based on what you had been having previously?

BB: I mean theoretically the very end of the book Shacklebolt gets to be the Minister of Magic and he has been hero or character all the way through. So theoretically the government is going to turn it around under him, but all you get from that basically is a description that he gets the charge, you don’t get to see any of the fully functioning government. So that is sort of redemptive but it is not like you get much description of the redemption and actually from the libertarian point of view and also sort of this in terms of the literary point of view that aspect of the VII book is sort of the VII book and the III book are sort of the least interesting government wise, I guess what I mean by that.

Like in the VII book Voldemort and his followers actually physically take over the government and so the government is awful I mean there is ethnic cleansing and there are these trials, show trial, I am not saying that the government isn’t bad in the VII book. What I’m saying about is the government is much less interested in the VII book because it is just run by evil people for evil means and that is the sort of the government that’s always really easy to say: Well but that’s definitely not what our government looks like. The thing that is so hard hitting about the government in the III, IV, V and VI books is it looks so much like our own government it is such a reflection it is so familiar anybody who is familiar with the administrative state in the UK or the US is going to recognize that government and the people who are running that government and the things that those governments do and that is the part that is so interesting in my opinion so devastating.

JH: Thanks so much for joining us Professor Barton.

BB: Absolutely no my pleasure anytime.

JH: And for more interviews on themes of liberty and popular fiction works visit KosmosOnline.org providing career advice and intellectual resources for academics and this is Jeanne Hoffman, signing off.


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