There is danger in replying to a serious-sounding attack on a character in a popular children’s book; perhaps the attack is a send-up of some kind, and the reply puts its author in the position of having failed to get the joke. But Chris Suellentrop’s character assassination of Harry Potter in Slate seems to be in earnest, and Kieran Healy earnestly agrees.

Suellentrop asserts that Harry is merely lucky — in his innate talents, wealth, and family connections — rather than good, and a “glory hog” to boot. Kieran cites his success as an instance of “moral luck.” [Kantians seem to regard it as problematic that (1) some actions turn out well and others badly, due to no particular virtue or fault of the person acting and (2) some people are lucky enough to have capacities for virtuous action that others lack. As Aristotle no doubt said in one of his now-lost works, that’s life in the big city.]

Kieran goes so far as to say that Harry’s rivalry with Draco Malfoy reflects their similarity of character and situation. Both Suellentrop and Healy seem to speak from a deep resentment of the “cool kids” who do so much to make life a misery for everyone else in high school.

But the defining characteristics of the “cool kids” is their relentless drive to differentiate themselves from, and lord it over, the uncool, a drive Harry simply doesn’t share. In his first encounter with Malfoy, Harry is put off by Malfoy’s snobbery. Not only Harry is generous with his inherited wealth, he is delicate in his generosity, sensitive to his friend Ron Weasley’s touchiness about his family’s poverty. He never has a harsh word for the hopelessly incompetent Neville Longbottom or the annoyingly hero-worshipping Colin Creevey. Nor does he exploit their admiration for him to make them his errand-runners and accomplices; contrast Malfoy’s relationship with Crabbe and Goyle.

Even Harry’s luck is hardly unmixed. Yes, he has talent, wealth, and powerful people who love him because of who his parents were. His fame is less obviously an advantage, but count that as luck as well. Against that, he is an orphan almost from birth, and raised in a physically and emotionally abusive home. (One of the criticisms that could be made of the books on a literary — as opposed to moral — plane is that Harry’s level-headedness, maturity, and good humor are not plausible outcomes of the sort of upbringing Rowling describes.) Harry’s envy of Ron’s home life is overwhelming: Ron has parents.

So I can’t agree that Harry Potter is a bad character for kids to admire. He resembles an epic hero far more than he does a “boy’s book” hero: rather than being a mere target for wish-fulfillment projection, he reflects a mix of glory and pain, including pain he brings on himself. You wouldn’t really want to be Harry Potter, any more than you’d really want to be Achilles or Odysseus.

Having defended Harry from his attackers, it is also necessary to defend him from his defenders. Glenn Reynolds likens him to (yes, you guessed it) George W. Bush.


Harry, engaged in a contest he desperately wants to win, shares information he has been improperly given with a rival, to avoid gaining an unfair advantage. (Think the South Carolina primary.) When a judge gives Harry an unfairly high score, Harry protests. (Think Florida.) He intervenes to spare the life of the man whose betrayal led to the deaths of his parents. (Think of the governor who laughed as he told about refusing a condemned prisoner’s plea for mercy — and then lied about having laughed — and who never rejected a death warrant or took more than 15 minutes to decide to sign one.) He tries to give away the fortune he won fair and square to the parents of the rival who died trying for the prize. (Think Harken Energy.)

Yes, there’s a George W. Bush character in the Harry Potter books — a spoiled, self-indulgent rich kid with limited talent but an important father, who avoids hard work and personal danger, never misses a chance to kick a rival when he’s down or to make fun of the suffering of those he dislikes, and allies with a faction devoted to maintaining inherited privilege. Why, his last name even means “bad faith.”

How appropriate.


More Harry Potter action here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: