In a March 5, Daily Caller article, Alex Beehler argued that instead of teaching Harry Potter and other “children’s literature” to Princeton undergraduates, students “might be better educated in the responsibilities and opportunities based on a society founded on individual liberty.”
I applaud any effort to reinstate classical liberalism on college campuses, but by removing Harry Potter classes, we would actually be depriving ourselves of one of the best agents for promoting classical liberalism.
Despite author J.K. Rowling’s professed preference for the British Labor Party, the Harry Potter series reads as a distinctly Liberal (and here I use Liberal in the European sense) tract—it firmly rejects the notion that government or an otherwise superior force should be given the power to interfere with the autonomy of the individual, even if its intentions are good. Instead, the series puts its faith in the genius of the unfettered individual.
Consider the letter written by the young Dumbledore to Gindelwald in “Deathly Hallows:”
“Your point about wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD – this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and, yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be basis for our counter-arguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must only use the force that is necessary and no more.”
This is the basic big-government mantra—government should use its power to do good for the people. The government, in all of its wisdom, knows what’s best for society, and itshould have the power to move forward, even if it means stomping on some resistance.
The book makes it painfully clear how we are supposed to feel about this type of thinking. Harry—who represents every adjective that is admirable—vehemently rejects the letter, and it even causes him to question his faith in Dumbledore. The older Dumbledore—the wisest character in the book—is ashamed of his youthful correspondence, calling it both naïve and dangerous. But more damning than either of these two points is the fact that Grindelwald enacts the “Greater Good” theory only to be branded as the second most evil man behind He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Grindelwald’s attempt at governmental subjection of the individual even elicits Nazism parallels from Rowling. The evil wizard’s prison camp bares a sign reading “For the Greater Good,” an eerie reminder of Hitler’s “Work Will Set You Free” sign over the Auschwitz death camp.
The Dumbledore/Grindelwald exchange is a potent example of the series’ fear and distaste of invasive centralized power, but it is by no means the only one. Throughout the fifth book, the Ministry of Magic is just as pernicious as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. In the name of the well-being of the wizarding world, Dolores Umbridge uses governmental power to interfere at Hogwarts, denying students their basic liberties and even going so far as to threaten the torture of Harry and other members of Dumbledore’s Army. Umbridge’s power abuse at Hogwarts is mirrored at the Ministry of Magic where Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge assumes authority to suspend habeas corpus and control the media. All such governmental subjugation of individual liberty is portrayed by Rowling in a very negative light.
Governmental abuse is even worse after He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named overtakes the Ministry in “Deathly Hallows.” Here the reader learns of another pitfall of the big government philosophy: power given to moral and competent leaders does not die with the loved leader. The powers assumed by well-intentioned Minister Rufus Scrimgeour to fight He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named are readily adapted by the Dark Lord when he indirectly takes control of the Ministry. By giving government added power to do good, society runs the risk that it is giving government to do evil in the future.
And even when government is not evil or actively violating individual rights, it is incompetent. The reader is meant to laugh at the bumbling nature of the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and scoff at the fact that Vernon Dursley (one of the most inane characters) places his faith in the hands of government. In the book specifically referenced by Mr. Beehler—“Prisoner of Azkaban”—the government spends its time hunting an innocent man.
So who do wizards turn to instead? Just as the classic liberal would suggest, competency in Harry Potter is found in private individuals and private organizations. It is not the government who fends off the Dark Lord; it is the private society known as the Order of the Phoenix. It is not the government that plumbs the depths of wizarding knowledge; it is individual geniuses such as Dumbledore, Bathilda Bagshot, and Nicolas Flamel. Hagrid reminds us that it is the privately-managed institutions Gringotts and Hogwarts, not the government, that are safest and capable. And while the government is pursuing the wrong man in Azkaban, a number of brilliant individuals are tracking the real culprit (Peter Pettigrew).
Author J.K. Rowling spent her formative years reading the great works of the Western Cannon. Of the many wisdoms in these works, one that readily appears is the genius of the unencumbered individual and the supremacy of private action over governmental administration. Whether consciously or subconsciously, this wisdom has found its way into Harry Potter, and, given the popularity of the series, Harry Potter may now be one of the most powerful advocates for classical liberalism and individual liberty.
Stephen Richer is the Director of Outreach at a Washington, D.C.-based legal think tank.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Alex Beehler, the author of the original piece,”No place for Harry Potter in spring training,” offered this response to the above op-ed:
I appreciate Mr. Richer’s well-reasoned and nuanced favorable interpretation of Harry Porter as a true 19th Century small-government liberal with strong belief in personal responsibility. Would that I have such confidence in Ivy League Children’s Literature professors concluding similiar analyses and instructing accordingly. —Thank you. Alex