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.

As Tom Franck noted years ago, quidditch doesn’t make any sense, either.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Popular Culture, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    Ah, well Rowling writes for the 10-yr old mind. Good and evil are black and white and the world only extends to the edge of the mind’s attention. In that way, Harry Potter makes sense. Ask a 10-yr old about the economics of supply and demand. They demand and someone supplies, like magic. It all happens quite inexplicably. The mind’s attention explains quidditch, it is all exciting, Harry zooming around on his broom with nary a thought to the rest of the team down near the ground wondering why they slogged their way through hours and hours of practice for no hope of glory or even the crowds attention.

  2. Bithead says:

    I like Megan generally, but she’s clearly out of her depth, here. Leave it to somebody who primarily deals in numbers, to demand a balance sheet for a kids’ story line.

    The object here, the whole purpose of the story, and the reason Schoolastic signed this author…was to stir the imagination.

    One’s imagination is the place where such worlds exist, regardless who the author is. But more; for imagination to work, you MUST have some gaps in the particulars, which get filled in with imagination.

    When one uses that imagination, rather than , as with the television storyline, having the entire story and every detail about it’s spelled out for you, that world becomes very real to you because you have helped to create it yourself , rather than having someone describe it to you in their terms. Put another way; The trick to stirring that imagination is not a sharp digital photograph, with all the details revealed, but rather, a watercolor, which the reader can fill in with his own imagination.

    That, it seems to me, the most important aspect of this series being attached to Schoolastic as a publisher. Use of the imagination, is one of the primary reasons for getting kids to read.

    And, (Chuckle) adults, for that matter.