Libertarianism and J.K. Rowling

A libertarian treatise written on a government grant by a welfare mother?

I doubt that the libertarian reading of the Harry Potter books is the best reading.

Rowling, it seems to me, is rather like Dickens as Orwell explicates him: a believer that human problems are fundamentally moral, stemming from bad behavior by individuals and to be solved by improvements in individual behavior, rather than social or political in the sense that changing external conditions is the key to fixing things. Rowling’s satiric wrath is directed at cruelty, bigotry, and stupidity, and it doesn’t much matter to her whether the cruel stupid bigots are bureaucrats like Dolores Umbridge or suburban Tory salesmen like Vernon Dursley. (Certainly a libertarian ought to have esteem for business, something Rowling signally lacks.)

But whatever we make of the content of the books, the conditions under which they came to be written form about the strongest anti-libertarian case imaginable.

Rowling was, famously, on welfare when she began to write. That is, in libertarian terms, she was the beneficiary of a fundamentally unjust action, amounting to nothing better than legalized theft. She should have been required to go out and find herself a decent job scrubbing floors, rather than living on the dole like a lazy, greedy parasite.

Worse, the book project was supported by Scottish Arts Council. In American terms, it was written on an NEA grant. It is a libertarian article of faith that the government should not be in the business of supporting the arts. Obviously, if Rowling had possessed any genuine literary talent, she could have found a commercial publisher to give her an advance or a bank to lend her money against future royalties.

Of course, “for example” is not the name of an argument. The fact that Ms. Rowling’s welfare checks and Arts Coucil grants paid for themselves ten thousand times over doesn’t prove that income support payments for the poor or subsidies for the arts do good rather than harm on balance. But under the circumstances I would think that libertarians ought to be just a little bit hesitant about claiming her as their own.

Personally, I’ve always wondered whether a Dutch Arts Council, had it existed in the 1880s, might have prevented Van Gogh’s suicide and given the world another few billions of dollars’ worth of Van Goghs.

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: