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March 07, 2009

The Five Principal Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration

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Re-reading of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire*, I found myself considering that classic fan question: If wizards can use magic, how is it the Weasley's are poor? Megan McArdle hits most of the obvious economic highlights/plotholes of the J.K. Rowlings' oeuvre, dismisses the "I am expecting too much from a children's book" defence (quite right, too) and throws in some class war smears for good measure.

McArdle is not alone. Ilias Yocaris has considered the anarcho-capitalism of the wizarding world; worth the read a self-parodying Le Monde editorial. Daniel Levy and Avichai Snir, by contrast, have put together a less than edifying sounding round up of the political economy of Harry Potter (perhaps the full text of "Popular Perceptions and Political Economy in the Contrived World of Harry Potter " is a better read).

An intractable problem? Far from it. Rowling, perhaps conscious of fan concerns, provides an answer. Stephen Morris explains in reply to a discussion of Harry Potter and monetary policy**.

In her article, Ms McArdle asked a question that has puzzled many of us: "Why are the Weasleys poor?" Well, now we know. It's because of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration. In addition, some of the other apparently irrational behaviour that upset Ms McArdle has become more explicable now we know the real motivations of the actors. We can't blame Ms McArdle for not knowing all this. After all, the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration weren't revealed (or invented?) until the final book. However, it does serve to illustrate the danger of believing that our set of assumptions is complete. It is sometimes said that, if someone from medieval times were to suddenly find themselves in the modern world, it would appear to them to be magical. Looking at our electric lighting and heating, our medieval time traveller might be tempted to ask the question: "Why is anyone in this magical world cold or sitting in the dark?" Once again, our medieval friend's assumption set is not complete. He or she would not know about the Law of Conservation of Energy, that the magical electricity must be transformed from other kinds of energy.

Beyond Hogwarts provides a handy summary of and conjectures concerning the Five Principal Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration. A more general discussion of magic in Harry Potter may be found at Wikipedia.

* In connection with a project I am working on.
** Good to see The Economist doing a good job again, if only in the comments.

Related economics: It is not so easy to make money from the Potter franchise as one might expect.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at March 7, 2009 07:47 AM