Harry Potter Economics
Megan McArdle argues that the Harry Potter “books are chock full of terrible economics.”
There are two ways, I think, that one can present magic: as something that can be done, but only at a price; or as a mysterious force that is poorly understood. So in Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope, women who perform magic must pay the price in blood, their own or that of others.
Those prices provide the scarcity needed to drive the plot forward. In the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, magical power has no obvious cost. But we don’t need to understand the costs of magic, because the main characters can’t perform it. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a deus ex machina in a story; your average fiction writer does not need to explain the operation of the law of gravity, or provide a back story for running out of gas at an (in)convenient moment.
But there have to be generally accepted rules. Characters can’t get out of the predicament the author is sick of by having the car suddenly start running on sand. Similarly, if your characters will be using magic, they must do so by some generally believable system.
Yet in the Potter books, the costs and limits are too often arbitrary.
A patronus charm, for example, is awfully difficult – until Rowling wants a stirring scene in which Harry pulls together an intrepid band of students to Fight the Power, whereupon it becomes simple enough to be taught by an inexperienced fifteen year old. Rowling can only do this because it’s thoroughly unclear how magic power is acquired. It seems hard to credit academic labour, when spells are one or two words; and anyway, if that were the determinant, Hermione Granger would be a better wizard than Harry. But if it’s something akin to athletic skill, why is it taught at rows of desks? And why aren’t students worn out after practicing spells?
The low opportunity cost attached to magic spills over into the thoroughly unbelievable wizard economy. Why are the Weasleys poor? Why would any wizard be? Anything they need, except scarce magical objects, can be obtained by ordering a house elf to do it, or casting a spell, or, in a pinch, making objects like dinner, or a house, assemble themselves. Yet the Weasleys are poor not just by wizard standards, but by ours: they lack things like new clothes and textbooks that should be easily obtainable with a few magic words. Why?
The answer, as with so much of JK Rowling’s work, seems to be “she didn’t think it through”. The details are the great charm of Rowling’s books, and the reason that I have pre-ordered my copy of the seventh novel: the owl grams, the talking portraits, the Weasley twins’ magic tricks. But she seems to pay no attention at all to the big picture, so all the details clash madly with each other. It’s the same reason she writes herself into plot holes that have to be resolved by making characters behave in inexplicable ways.
Rowling created a fantasy universe for kids that turned her into the richest woman in the UK and has children and adults alike lined up in the middle of the night to buy the latest installment, so she must be doing something right. But Megan’s right: internal story logic isn’t Rowling’s strong suit.