Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why Are the Weasleys Poor?

The WeasleysNow that I've finished the Harry Potter series (and liked it very much, thank you), I've been stumbling around looking for reviews and commentary. I think the most thought provoking was a rather snippy piece written by Megan McArdle, an economist who complains that the economy of the wizardly world just doesn't make any sense. For instance she asks

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?
While I have no doubt that a sufficiently motivated Potter fan could come up with a plausible theory of wizardly economics, I'm sure that the real answer is that Rowlings never really put much thought into it.1 Indeed, I think that many high fantasy works are going to suffer the sin of having unrealistic economies. Be that as it may, I thought it might be fun to briefly consider the economies of few fantasy worlds to see if we can answer of the question of the Weasleys poverty in their contexts and to address the question of how we can have a system of economics in a fantasy setting that allows for the existence of a family such as the Weasleys.

Middle Earth
J.R.R. Tolkien's high fantasy opus, set in the world of Middle Earth, has a very simple interaction between magic and the economy of his world: there really isn't any. Magic is utterly scare. There are only a handful of beings (none of them truly human) who can work magic and what magical artifacts exist, such as Sting and The One Ring, are quite utterly and literally priceless. As such, the basic feudal economy of his world isn't particularly impacted by the existence of magic since the majority of people will never encounter it.2

In Middle-Earth the Weasleys are probably poor for the simple fact that they are peasants. They don't have any magical ability and neither do they have any access to magical artifacts. If one of them stumbles across an artifact, it's unlikely that he'd be able to sell it for a fair price (assuming he'd want to part with it in the first place) since only a king could afford it -- and a king might well simply take it.

Lawrence Watt-Evan's Ethshar novels are set in a high-magic world which takes its inspiration from fantasy roleplaying. In the Ethshar universe there are a multitude of distinct magic styles ranging from Wizardry as the most powerful sort all the way down to such minor crafts as rhythmic dancing and Science (yes, Science).

Each type of magic has advantages and limitations. By way of example Wizardry is extraordinarily powerful and can do nearly anything that can be done with the other forms of magic, but it is also dangerous, complex, and often expensive. Warlockry, to offer a counterexample, is simple and powerful, albeit limited to telekinetic effects, but it has the drawback that warlocks are eventually compelled to fly off to a mysterious location in the north where they are never heard from again thus making warlocks reluctant to overuse their power.

Depending on the type of magician, magic can be used to provide both goods and services. Because of the inherent risks and limitations, however, magical items and services tend to come with a premium costs which allows for competition by tradesmen and craftsman who can provide lower quality goods and services at a far more reasonable price.

Magic is strictly segregated into guilds. Practicing magic outside of a guild is a capital offense (to say nothing of being nearly impossible to manage without the necessary training or induction) which prevents magicians from proliferating to the point where anyone can practice it (which would undercut the demand for magical goods and services). More over, the quality of training one receives is directly correlated to the quality of the master that one apprentices under. An apprentice wizard will only have access to his master's list of spells, for example. If his master only has a dozen spells, the demand for the apprentice's services will be limited once he becomes a master in his own right (although he can attempt to swap spells with other wizards in an effort to expand his catalog). His repertoire will also be limited by his innate talent -- it doesn't do you much good to know a high level spell if you can't safely cast it.

Finally, the Wizard guild deliberately limits the influence of magic in the world. Mages are, for instance, prohibited from holding political office. Any magician, or group of magicians, who attempts to usurp too much power or authority is destroyed. The gods of the world also set certain basic limits on how much influence magic users can have over the world and its economies.

In Ethshar, the Weasleys may be poor because they don't practice magic. It is also possible that they are poor because the style of magic that they practice isn't in high demand. Finally it is possible that they are magicians but that they simply aren't very talented at what they do and, thus, can't command a lucrative price for their goods or their services.

Steven Brust's Dragaera cycle is set in a world with two major sentient races: Dragaerans and Easterners (both of whom consider themselves "human", although the Easterners are much closer to our world's description of humanity). There are also two major styles of magic which are largely divided along species lines.

Easterners (and a handful of Dragaerans) practice something called "witchcraft". Witchcraft utilizes the psychic energy of the practitioner and requires complex rituals. Because it utilizes the energy of the practitioner, spells tend to be fairly subtle in effect. Becoming a witch takes long years of apprenticeship and requires the acquisition of a familiar (with whom the witch has a psychic link). As a consequence of this, demand for witchcraft is limited to specialized requests.

Dragaerans (and a handful of Easterners) practice something called "sorcery". Sorcery takes the form of magical power collected in an artifact called the Imperial Orb. A practitioner will basically grab a portion of the communal energy and shape it. The shaping of the energy can take numerous forms such as teleportation, healing (even to the point of reviving the dead), and various physical manipulations.

All Dragaeran citizens have a link to the orb that allows them to do this but the ability to shape the energy is based on skill. Some "spells" are so basic as to be effectively ubiquitous (such as teleportation) while others require decades or even centuries of study (Dragaerans have very long lifespans).3 Those who dedicate themselves to spellcraft can earn the distinction of being considered to be Wizards.

Sorcery is not typically used to produce artifacts (although there are a few exceptions). Consequently, the main impact that sorcery has in the world is in the form of services rather than goods. In those cases where a spell is common, such as teleportation or telepathy, the effect is to displace the mundane competition: there are no taxis in Dragaera. In the cases where a spell requires specialized training, there may be competition depending on the relative costs.4

In addition to the two major types of magic there is a type of magic that utilizes the direct manipulation of chaos. This form of magic is extremely powerful but also dangerous and, thus, forbidden. Because of the degree of training required to master it and because of its illegality and rarity, it doesn't have any apparent impact on the Dragaeran economy (although one can theorized that there might be sufficient demand to allow for the creation of a small black market).

Finally, a species known as the Serioli are known to produce a sort of magical weapon called a Morganti blade. Morganti blades are semi-sentient weapons that have the capacity to destroy souls. Given that reincarnation is known to be real beyond a shadow of a doubt, the possession and use of Morganti weaponry is forbidden on pain of death. There is, however, a definite black market for the weapons albeit not one that directly competes with the legitimate weapon's market.

In Draegara the Weasley's may be poor because they are Easterners and don't have access to sorcery putting them at a competitive disadvantage with Dragaerans. They may not even be witches but, if they are, the demand for their talents is probably not enough to offset their expenses.

Conversely, if the Weasley's can use sorcery, their poverty may be accounted for by the fact that the only spells they know are so common as to be worthless meaning that they can afford neither luxury goods nor those services that are beyond their personal level of training. They probably have a higher standard of living than their Easterner neighbors but they aren't living high on the hog.

It is possible that the Weasleys could supplement their income if they could learn chaos magic or if they were willing to deal with black market Morganti weapons. The former would be dangerous, illegal and require specialized knowledge that would be difficult to acquire and the latter would be a high-risk/high-reward occupation that would require them to become part of the criminal underground.

The Land of Oz
The Land of Oz represents a high magic world. Magic creatures and artifacts are utterly common but magical power is tightly concentrated in the hands of a few individuals (e.g., the cardinal witches).

Although L. Frank Baum didn't elaborate on the economics of Oz (unless there were some oblique references to the Gold Standard), we can deduce that the ubiquity of magical goods would hamper competition from mundane goods, however, magical services would be neigh well impossible to obtain.

In this case, the Weasleys are poor because they aren't part of the select circle of magic practioners and are limited to making their living either trading in magical artifacts (which are so common as to have low value) or by providing non-magical services to their neighbors. If one of the Weasleys did, however, learn magic he would, in all probability, be able to live like a king.

Finally we have Xanth. In the world of Xanth, magic is even more ubiquitous than in Oz and everyone, furthermore, is a magic users. However, every magic user is unique, usually limited to a single effect (which might be called a spell). Some people are gifted with very powerful magics, such as the ability to transform people into animals, while others are limited to minor effects such as being able to make a spot of color appear on a wall and some people have talents that are more approximately resemble curses.

Because every birth introduces new and potentially disruptive magics into the world, it would follow that the economy of Xanth would be subject to constant perturbation. We could, for instance, imagine someone being born with the ability to duplicate any item thus automatically devaluing any goods that he has access to, including whatever might be used as currency. In addition to the economic disruptions, the rise of new talents can be socially destabilizing. Xanth has a history of wars where powerful magicians have taken on (and occasionally overthrown) the established order.

In Xanth, the Weasleys may be poor because they have fairly worthless talents. They might also be poor because the local economy has collapsed due to the influence of a person with an economically disruptive talent. It may also be the case that the Weasleys are having the misfortune of living through a time of war and chaos.

If one postulates the existence of magic, one needs to be aware that such an existence would have an impact on the economy of the world it exists in. If magic is common, easy to master, and sufficiently powerful, we encounter the paradox of the Weasleys.

In order to avoid the paradox is seems that that there are a number of options:
  • Magic is so rare that the average person has no access to it
  • It is dangerous to use
  • It is expensive to use
  • There are practical limitations to its use
  • There are legal or social restrictions on the use of magic
  • There are limitations to its power
  • It requires intensive skill and training to use
There is at least one other option of course and that is to play it straight. Posit a world where magic is ubiquitous, easy to use and powerful. A world where anyone can conjure up whatever they desired and where anyone could deploy vast amounts of power at will.

Such a world would not have Weasleys in it; however, it does not follow that everyone would be happy and prosperous, either. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine what a world would be like. I doubt that one would have anything analogous to our own social instutitions. I suspect that the world would, in fact, be a vast and dangerous anarchy. A Hobbsian nightmare magnified and made surreal.

I don't think that that story has been written but I think that I would love to read it.

1 I have a similar complaint about the game of Quidditch. The fact that snagging the Golden Snitch is worth a whopping hundred points would seem to make the rest of the game an exercise in pointlessness in the vast majority of cases.

2 There's a certain irony to the fact that Lord of the Rings was a major source of inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons given that the D&D world is so thoroughly saturated with magic that all but the very rarest of items sell for less than the equivalent price of a cheap gas grill (factoring in the massive devaluation of gold and other coins).

3 My favorite manifestation of the Orb's power is that it acts as a clock. Anyone with a link to the Orb can easily tell what time it is. I'm a bit disappointed that the Orb can not, however, be used for voicemail.

4 One might draw a parallel to IT professionals in our world. Anyone could, theoretically, program an application but relatively few people have the knowledge. This disparity of knowledge gives IT professionals the ability to market their talents, often for a very good price.


magidin said...

Well, magic in the Harry Potter world is not exactly free: potions require ingredients, many of them dangerous to obtain or scarce. Transmogrification is described as both rare and difficult, and with limitations. Charms are very limited, and they seem to involve mostly physical changes to already existing objects. And conjuration of objects (say, money) is also difficult and limited; Hermione even mentions four "exceptions", things that cannot be conjured up; food is explicitly one of them (ad hoc rule, sure, but still there). And note that wizards seem to use "hard" currency only, no paper money. House elves are not necessarily time-efficient. Order him to get you some money, he'll go and do it... but may not come back for a while. While McArdle has some valid points, I think she glosses over those details.

Also, are the Weasleys really poor "by our standars"? They clearly have more than enough food to feed a large family, and even long-term guests such as Hermione or Harry who might drop in for most of the summer, for one thing.

My impression is that while not well-off, they are certainly not poor either. Ron seems to suffer more from being the fifth son, and why buy new textbooks or familiars when we have perfectly good ones lying around that nobody is using?

kyle said...

The Weasleys are poor because they are simply "enlightened" (or perhaps just innocent) enough that money and power is not the aim of their magic. Perhaps there is no reason that they could not be wealthy, other than the fact that they simply don't think to pursue it. Their drive seems to be innocent wonder rather than a lust to acquire power or wealth.

Andrew Lias said...

I think that you both make good points. Never the less, my goal wasn't to write a critique of McArdle's article so much as to use it as a jumping off point to discuss the economics of fantasy worlds in general.

That said, whether or not the Weasley's are poor, the books do make it clear that there is income disparity in the Wisardly world. One could just as easily ask why the Malfoy's are rich. The truth is that she doesn't give us a clear enough look at that world outside of the setting of Hoggwarts to give a good answer to that question; we are required to make guesses and inferences.

I don't really think that's a problem with the stories given that Rowlings' goal with the books wasn't world building so much as character studies. The world that she creates is interesting but it's intended to be a backdrop and that's how she deploys it. I love the books and the fact that she's not as meticulous in the fleshing out of the milieu as, say, Lawrence Watt-Evans is with his stories just isn't that important to me.

magidin said...

I would say that the Weasly-Malfoy dicotomy certainly has an income component, but for the most part it is a reflection of class disparity (probably some of those deeply ingrained British things we benighted non-brits don't understand, and that are part of the fabric of their "public" school system). The Weaslys are clearly yeomen: they have their own land, they come from large families, their members are easygoing, but the father is (nothing but) a mid-level civil servant. The Malfoys are aristocrats: they trace bloodlines, they are very much aware and deeply jealous of their image, their influence, their circle of acquaintances. Aristocrats are not necessarily rich, and yeomen are not necessarily poor, but they are to some degree archetypical as well: yeomen will be frugal, aristocrats will spend lavishly on what people see (clothes, cars/brooms, etc). In that sense, Rowlings is probably doing as you surmise: not so much creating a world for permanent habitation and exploration but as a backdrop, and showing that many of the social issues that bedevil the muggle world are also there in the wizarding world, if in a transmogrified guise.

Andrew Lias said...

I think that's a fair assessment, Arturo.

Eric said...

Arthur Weasley is a government employee; that alone should suffice to explain their comparative poverty. In that light, they're actually less likely to be poor in the Lord of the Rings universe, as "government employee" usually means you work for the King (or Sheriff, or Steward, or...), and therefore are closer to the only decent source of money in the land. ("Decent" here being defined as, "you don't have to sweat to get it.")

Andrew Lias said...

A point of clarification: when I ask why are the Weasleys poor in, say, Middle Earth, it's not my intention that this question should be taken to literally mean a transplanted family of red-heads, etc, etc.

The real question I am asking is, "How can poverty exist in the context of this particular fantasy world," while using the Weasleys as a convenient Everyfamily.

Natalie said...

While Arthur Weasley is arguably just plain naive, I'm not sure that extends to the Weasleys in general -- the kids all seem to have bright futures. OTOH, one bumbling patriarch would certainly be enough to result in a household like that... it's true, midrange civil servants aren't exactly made of Galleons.

Really, when thinking about the Weasleys vs. the Malfoys, it's all of the above: yeomanry vs. inherited aristocratic wealth, civil service vs. being a governor of the most exclusive wizard school in England (which may not even be Lucius Malfoy's only job), and a family of seven children vs. just one, quite apart from any issues like an alleged orientation towards innocent wonder. :-)

CharlesTheBold said...

Someone mentioned that wizards can order elves around, but the Weasleys have no elves. Elves are slaves but apparently are permanently attached to families and inherited; that may make the difference. Or the Weasleys may be too kind or moral to exploit elves (though Ron seems oblivious of the issues)

By the way, aren't the Weasleys distant cousins of the Malfoys?. Since there are relatively few wizards and they tend to marry each other, it's likely that everybody in the wizard world is related to everybody else.

Anonymous said...

did it ever occur to you that perhaps the financial part of wizardry is a dull topic therefore no one cares to go into detail. i'm sure jk can prattle off millions of details about that part of her world if she so chose. and if you ever cared to really read the books you would happen to come apon the several paragraphs (not sure which book) in which hermione explains that you can't REALLY make things materialize. food that appears at the table, the ingrediants were already in the cabinet, molly simply put everything together in one wave of her wand. tea kettles that appear out of nowhere really were somewhere all along. therefore making money appear in your bank account would be stealing. b/c that money had to come from somewhere. the weasleys do not have the finer things in life b/c they have seven children plus harry and hermione to take care of and feed. but i wouldn't necessarily call them poor. they do tend to struggle at times, but what family doesn't?
and finally. it's jk's book, do you know what that woman WENT through before it was published? quit questioning it.

Anonymous said...

There are times when I regret writing this essay, not because I don't stand behind what I wrote but because no one seems to appreciate that that essay isn't about Harry Potter.

As I said, I'm sure that there's plausible explanations for the economics of the Potter universe and that her fans are perfectly capable of explaining away any imperfections in her work.

I remind convinced that she really didn't care to detail the economy of universe for the simple reason that it wasn't that germane to the plot, but that's hardly a blistering criticism of her books. In point of fact, I loved them and stayed up late, multiple times, so that I could get the next edition at the midnight release. The notion that I'm hostile to J.K. Rowling is just plain silly.

The point of the essay was to talk about the economics of fantasy worlds in general. The mention of Harry Potter was simply supposed to be the hook. Unfortunately, it's a hook that's so bright and shiny that it's successfully distracted everyone away from the bulk of what I wrote.

I consider this my own damned fault. I failed in the cardinal duty of all writers: to speak clearly to my audience. At most I should have simply linked to Megan McArdle's article and then proceeded immediately to the body of the essay.

I shall have to accept my error and learn from it.

Konrad said...

Everyone seems to be forgetting that while Mr. Weasley is a mere civil servant, Mr. Malfoy has a very shady history with the Dark Lord. The Malfoys are, initially, willing to sacrifice their lives and devote all of their energy to supporting evil. They obviously are maintaining a lavish lifestyle and have been rewarded by Voldemort in the past. I believe that their close association with Voldemort has definitely had a severe impact on their economic status.

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