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Prospect Harry Potter Roundup

By Taylor Marvin

The final Harry Potter movie’s coming out, and that’s all the excuse I need to spend way to much time analyzing the Harry Potter universe. There’s a lot of interesting questions about life in the wizarding world, especially from an economic and sociological perspective. Here’s some of the most obvious:

1. How many wizards live in the UK?

This is actually pretty straightforward. We know that Hogwarts is roughly evenly divided between the four houses — inter-house athletics wouldn’t be fair otherwise — and we can estimate average house size by the number of people in Harry’s dormitory. In all seven books, only four other people are mentioned rooming with Harry: Ron, Neville, Seamus Finnigan and Dean Thomas. This implies that there are approximately 10 male and female Gryffindors in Harry’s year, and Hogwarts houses 280 students. This seems like way too low of a number, and J. K. Rowling has said in interviews that Hogwarts has a student body of 1,000 students. This doesn’t seem believable — it’s difficult to believe that we could get through 7 books without learning of other Gryffindor students Harry’s age, and a student body of 1,000 implies that Harry’s Gryffindor class of 1998 is less than 1/3 of the Hogwarts’ average class size. This seems implausible, but because we know very little about how often wizarding children are born to Muggle parents it is possible that Harry’s class is just abnormally small.

From the size of Hogwarts we can reasonably estimate the wizarding population of the UK and Ireland. In the 1991 the combined population of the UK and Ireland was 62.5 million people, of which roughly 10% were between 11 and 18.

This implies a wizarding population of 10,000, or 2,800 for a conservative estimate of Hogwarts population. At most 0.0175% of the general population is magical, giving a world wizarding population of 1,180,000. Worldwide there are 5,742 Muggles for every wizard.

However, there’s a lot of big assumptions here. First off, it’s possible that Hogwarts isn’t the only magical school in the British Isles. However, it seems implausible that the subject of another wizarding school in the UK or Ireland would never come up in 7 books, especially in Goblet of Fire. Also, it’s established that Professor Dumbledore is the most respected wizard in contemporary Britain, which implies that Hogwarts is an extremely prestigious school. If there were other magical schools to compete for students there would necessarily be some sort of vetting process to ensure that Hogwarts got the best students, which we don’t see — many Hogwarts students (notably Crabbe and Goyle) appear unintelligent and display no magical talent. This is strong evidence that Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in the British Isles, and our 10,000 high-end estimate holds.

This figure also assumes that the wizarding population shares the same broad age distribution as Muggle society. The UK displays an interesting population contraction caused by a temporarily lower birthrate in the mid-1970s, as seen in the above population pyramid. There’s no indication that the wizarding world suffered from the same birthrate fall (though if they didn’t it would lower, not raise our wizarding population estimate because school age wizards would be a higher percent of the population). Similarly, we have good reason to suspect that something strange is going on in wizarding demographics. It’s repeatedly established in the books that the population of pure-blooded wizards — those born to magical families, not Muggles — are falling. Yet dispute the fact racist wizarding families desperately want more pure-blood wizards born they have extremely low birthrates — Malfoy and Blaise Zabini are only children, and Crabbe and Goyle are implied to be as well. So what’s going on here? Presumably wizards have access to magical contraceptive techniques, but the fact that even wealthy pure-blood families exhibit very low birthrates implies wizarding demographics are somehow different than ours. Similarly, if the number of pure-blood wizards is falling and the number of wizards born to Muggles is constant — a reasonable, though unsupported, assumption — the total number of wizards must be declining. This implies a population pyramid much more top heavy than the general UK, and a higher total number of wizards.

2. Who was worse: Voldemort or Osama Bin Laden?

A lot of people have been noticing parallels between Osama Bin Laden and Voldemort:

Al Qaeda killed 3,000 people on 9/11, and thousands more in terror attacks in Africa and the Middle East. How many people did Voldemort kill?

This is difficult to say. We do know that the number of wizards killed by Voldemort and his forces is relatively low, both in absolute and relative terms. Voldemort’s pro-wizard racism motivated him to restrict inflicting magical casualties, and his methods of destruction were extremely limited. Almost all wizards killed by Death Eaters are described as being magically executed one at a time — there’s a limit to how many people you could actually kill this way. Similarly, wizards and magic in general isn’t actually that good at killing people. In The Prisoner of Azkaban wizards discuss in awed tones how Sirius Black killed 13 people with a single curse. This isn’t impressive by Muggle standards: we manage to kill dozens of people with single curses/bombs all the time.

How about Muggle casualties? The books establish that Voldemort and his supporters took special pleasure in killing Muggles, and mass Muggle attacks were generally attributed to freak natural disasters by the general public. This actually suggests fairly low Muggle casualties. Bridge collapses and freak hurricanes rarely kill large numbers of people, suggesting that during Voldemort’s time in power Muggle casualties were limited to the mid-hundreds per year. Despite Voldemort’s evil, he didn’t actually kill that many people. Osama was much worse.

3. Could the Muggle military have defeated Voldemort?

If the Minister of Magic had desperately come to the Muggle Minister for help against Voldemort, how useful would the UK military have been against Voldemort’s forces?

Despite all their ability to use magic, the wizards of Harry Potter are actually a lot less capable than modern Muggles at many simple tasks:

Wizard: “I have this document I want to send my friend in another country. I’ll send it to him by writing it out and tying it to a bird’s leg. It will get there in a few weeks, unless the owl gets lost/hurt/tired/captured by someone intercepting my letters.”

Muggle: “Sorry what was that? I was just sending an email. I’m going to go watch tv now and travel in comfort, which apparently you wizards don’t do.*”

*See Apparition, the Knight Bus, Portkeys, Floo Powder, flying on broomsticks, demon flying creatures.

The limits of magic compared to Muggle technology apply to military technology as well. Despite the fear it inspires, Avada Kedava, wizards’ main killing spell, isn’t actually that effective a weapon. It only targets one person at a time and seems to only function at close quarters range. It can be blocked or deflected by stone walls, suits of armor or frail vases, suggesting that it would be completeley defeated by basic Muggle vehicle armor and at least partially by modern infantry body armor. Similarly, other curses and hexes seem to be compleltely limited to short-range anti-personal use. While a group of Death Eaters would be a formidable opponent, their actual destructive power would be much less than than of a well-equipped British Army unit. The same goes for Voldemort’s magical allies. While a giant might be a dangerous foe to an isolated wizard, it’s hard to believe one would be much of a challenge for the Royal Air Force.

Forget the wand. Try a missile.

Forget the wand. Try a missile.

Similarly, on close inspection the defensive abilities of Voldemort and his Death Eaters are less impressive than they first appeared. While characters in the Harry Potter universe are able to magically deflect most physical threats, this ability isn’t effortless — it’s implied that using magic to block physical dangers requires concentration, effort, and awareness of the incoming threat. While Voldemort and his followers would be able to block individual Muggle projectiles, this ability could likely be overwhelmed by high numbers of projectiles. It seems unlikely that Voldemort would be able to magically protect himself against a sustained arial or artillery bombardment — eventually he would be overcome by the thousands of individual pieces of incoming shrapnel. This weakness applies to his magical soldiers as well. It’s hard to see Inferi, or zombie-like magically reanimated corpses, as a dangerous threat to a modern Muggle military. It’s never suggested that they are particularly difficult to physically destroy, and their debilitating fear of fire seems to a pretty glaring weakness against an opponent armed with, um, firearms.

Voldemort’s main advantage in a battle against Muggle military forces would be his ability to apparate — even if Muggle firepower could potentially harm him, he could just apparate out of harm’s way. However, there is good reason to suggest that apparition could be detectable by modern Muggle technology. As Hermione explains in Goblet of Fire, magic affect electronic technology. “All those substitues for magic Muggles use — electricity, computers, and radar — they all go haywire around Hogwarts,” she explains, because “there’s too much magic in the air.” It’s clear what she’s hinting at: magic significantly disrupts the electromagnetic spectrum. If Muggles knew what to look for, it’s likely that they could detect the significant EM disruption caused by disapparition and track a fleeing wizard by searching for the similar disruption caused by his reappearance.

Voldemort’s horcruxes would be a problem for a Muggle military. The Half-Blood Prince makes it explicitly clear that horcruxes are difficult to destroy even by magical standards. Horcruxes are impervious to most physical damage, and are only truly destroyed if they are disrupted beyond magical repair — in the books horcruxes are only destroyed by basilisk venom and cursed fire. However, this does imply that horcruxes are physical bodies, and could likely be destroyed by breaking them apart at the atomic level. Humans have several options to do this. An extremely powerful laser could likely destroy a horcrux, as could a nuclear explosion. If these options fail a horcrux could always be launched on a rocket and flown into the sun. If Muggles could manage to find Voldemort’s six horcruxes, we could destroy them.

4. How does the wizarding economy function?

This is an interesting question. The books establish that wizards can effortlessly produce most consumer goods — Hogwarts students practice conjuring physical items out of thin air, and are able to transfigure almost anything. There are exceptions to this, however: Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration states that wizards are unable to magically produce money or food. This doesn’t make a lot of sense — if Hermione can conjure birds to bombard Ron (we know the birds are physical and not apparitions because they painfully hit him) there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason why she can’t conjure steaks for dinner. But let’s accept this limit. How does an economy function when food seems to be the only good a consumer can’t produce themselves?

We know that most wizards have jobs, are paid in gold, and spend most of their income. Wizards shop for clothing and other consumer goods at shops, and the wizarding economy seems to function fairly well. This requires that wizards choose to buy consumer goods rather than produce them themselves. This seems bizarre — the Weasley’s are so poor that their children wear worn and holed clothing, so there must be an important reason Mrs. Weasely doesn’t simply transfigure her children some new clothing. We know that this is magically possible: J.K. Rowling is explicit about what items can’t be magically produced, and clothing isn’t one of these exceptions. The only reasonable explanation for this inconsistency is that most wizards are capable of magically producing consumer goods but choose to buy them instead. Maybe it’s possible to produce most goods like robes or parchment, but it’s difficult to do right. Possibly producing quality clothing requires so much magical skill it’s become a specialized profession, and despite Mrs. Weasley’s formidable powers even she can’t produce acceptable new clothing for her family. If this holds, despite magic the wizarding economy is very similar to ours.

This is an interesting question because the abundance of the wizarding world is likely similar to our future. It’s a good bet that this century advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence will completely revolutionize the process of production and create the greatest change in economics and human society since the Industrial Revolution. Just as the advent of industrial robotics has increasingly cut humans out of manufacturing jobs, the development of truly capable artificial intelligence will likely have the same effect on knowledge-based professions like engineering and law. This change will be extremely difficult to adapt to — what will the unemployment rate be when a consumer can buy a product designed by an evolutionary algorithm and produced at home on a 3D printer? How will market pricing work when the marginal cost of most products is zero? It’s not like Harry Potter provides any key insights into this future, but this is an interesting parallel.

Similarly, how does taxation work in the wizarding world? We’ve established that the Ministry of Magic provides expensive pubic services: free education at Hogwarts, a universal healthcare system through St. Mungo’s Hospital, and a court system. All these services require funding. Additionally, the wizarding government seems to be an abnormally large portion of society. At most the wizarding population of the UK and Ireland is 10,000, and by descriptions of the Ministry the wizarding government seems to employ at least a five hundred people. That is a huge government as a proportion of general society — for comparison, US federal, state, and local government employs roughly 20,000 people out of a population of 300 million. This must require a large tax base, which is puzzling because we never see any indication of wizards paying any form of tax. By the series’ own magical rules the government can’t magically produce money, and because the wizarding monetary system is on the gold standard the government presumably can’t run a large debt. The fact that wizards are on the gold standard is also interesting. Because the Ministry is unable to use an expansionary monetary policy to combat recessions the wizarding economy must be extremely volatile, a trait worsened by the fact that credit doesn’t seem to be widely available in wizards’ gold currency-based economy. Voldemort’s rise must have been accompanied by a severe recession and the loss of a good percentage of wizard businesses.

I’m sure I got a lot wrong here. Go at it in the comments.

Note: More Prospect ridiculous pop-culture analysis: The Economics of Alien Invasion- Battle Los Angeles Edition.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Enchantments in the Potter Universe seem to wear out. especially quick and dirty ones. Perhapse the problem with counjoured food is that it just does not remain in existence long enough to be used as a source of nourishment. Indeed we eventually learn that Hogwarts has kitchens, and food is only transported by magic, not created by it.

    Long term magtic items seem to need special ingreedients, and require individual craftsmanship, which would suggest a substantial cottage industry. So the wizarding world still has a largely pre industrial economy where most poeple are involved in some form of primary production, and mass production is extremly rare. Consider for instance that the Ministery of Magic seems to employ wizards to basically act like photocopiers, and churn out pamphlets.

    I suspect that it is also necesary to keep in mind that wizarding world isn’t entirely isolated. Chances are that their economy is entierly dependent on the wider muggle economy, and would collapse without the external support.

    April 16, 2012

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