The U-Bend #12: Mad About SPEW

by Andrew Lee and Robert Lanto

“Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!”

-Dobby the House Elf (Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets)

There comes a time when the choices we make have a greater impact than anyone has ever expected. Hermione Granger, for example, has constantly and insistently asked for the liberation of all House Elves from their owners. However, while it may seem ideal to release all the house elves from captivity, there are severe economic consequences for any such liberation. While one situation may be advantageous to all involved in the magical community, the other outcome would be disastrous for house elves in general.

House elves have proven to be some of the most resourceful beings in the magical community. Capable of learning basic spells and charms (including apparation), mechanical skills (bludger tampering) and possessing great strength to complete almost any task given to them, a house elf could be a very useful member of society. However, the house elf is generally considered one of the most ‘enslaved’ species of beings within the magical community. Often found working as nothing more than a maid or servant to their master, the house elf is treated nothing more than a beast of burden. Through years of ‘enslavement’ or possibly a general apathy for changing their ways, house elves seem to enjoy the work their masters give them. Some house elves seem to resent not working, so the question is do house elves have the capacity to think for themselves.

Since a house elf is not a beast (see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for more information), the house elf has the capacity to think for him/her self. The greatest example is Dobby who independently tried to warn Harry of the coming danger during his second year at Hogwarts. However, it appears that more often than not, house elves generally take orders and prefer not to think on their own. Those, like Dobby, currently seem to be the exception to the rule, yet Dobby still works at Hogwarts under the supervision of a new master (possibly Mr. Filch or Dumbledore). The question isn’t whether or not a house elf wants to be free, but whether or not they can live free. Should a group like SPEW succeed in liberating all the house elves, would the have the capability to live on their own devices?

The answer is yes. In theory, years of housekeeping and doing other ‘menial’ tasks have taught house elves everything they should need to know to live on their own. Owning a home, doing laundry, cooking and cleaning are all part of a house elf’s routine. Instead of using these skills to aid their master, the house elf would simply use them to take care of themselves. Sure, a house elf may have to be taught a few concepts (property ownership for example), but a house elf can survive on its own. Kreacher must have lived alone at Grimmauld Place for quite a long time and he survived.

So, what are the outcomes of house elf liberation? Well, besides social reform (which we’ll probably address some other time) there will be a major shift in the wizarding economy. Blitzy the house elf (our example elf) may be free but what’s next? From home ownership to finding a job, there will be a new area in the wizarding economy: the house elf market. But, will the outlook always be rosy?

The first possible outcome any liberation is that (in theory) a house elf should demand payment for services rendered. Even in this great age of magical devices, some wizards don’t have the time to tidy the house or perform other household tasks. That’s where the house elf would generally come in, to assist their master in completing these tasks leaving more time for leisure. This leads to the first problem: reduced earnings. With extra funds now diverted to the house elf, wizarding families will have less to spend on themselves. This would be great if the house elf choose to spend that money, but house elves have a general tendency to not want anything for themselves. So should house elves get paid (and refuse to spend these savings) we could see a general downturn in the wizarding economy. When I pay Blitzy the house elf 5 Galleons for services rendered, that’s 5 Galleons less for spending at Quality Quidditch Supplies. If the house elf places all their money into Gringots vaults, it is possible that large sums of money will never be spent, only to sit within the vault until the end of time.

Now should the house elf spend the money, it is possible that the wizarding economy will see a general increase in production to cater to the new house elf market. Since a house elf is physically different from human witches and wizards, this new market of house elf goods could come into play overnight. Perhaps, Blitzy will finally want to buy a home or own that dream broomstick for traveling between Diagon Alley and “master’s” home? If house elves spend their money to own the things they never dreamed possible, the benefits for everyone will be enormous. To cater specifically to the house elf market would be interesting, at the start of ‘liberation’ the growth would be enormous. After a while though, when everything has calmed down, would house elves still be a worthwhile group to sell to? There is nothing that really differentiates them from wizards; so to sell to them would be just as difficult.

However, what if elves don’t want to be servants anymore? Then they could find jobs elsewhere like ‘wizarding’ construction or guards. This leads to another problem. Given a house elf’s generally high level of productivity (a side effect of constant enslavement), it is possible that they could upset the balance of the wizarding specialization. If Joseph the wand-maker can only produce three wands an hour while Blitzy the house elf can make four (at the same wages), why should anyone hire/keep Joseph? Sure, Joseph could learn a new skill but it takes time. Think about it, if Harry’s light frame makes him an excellent choice for a Quidditch seeker, wouldn’t all the professional teams start fighting over Quidditch playing house elves?

But, what if a master doesn’t want to pay? Maybe the master can simply buy some goods that would make the house elf useless (magical stirring spoons, some sort of mystical clothing washer). Then house elves could be out of work. They could turn to the Ministry of Magic for assistance, however with no pay to begin with, a house elf cannot draw upon any sort of unemployment insurance. There is nothing worse than for a large number of house elves to turn to Butterbeer. Sure, it may benefit the Butterbeer company for the short term, but the consequence is many drunken, unemployed house elves. In that case, the house elves lose out even more. Don’t forget (in theory), an enslaved house elf gets a free room and food (although the quality of both are suspect). A liberated house elf should/must now pay for these items. If they cannot even afford these basic items, how are they supposed to survive?

Also, what if the house elf doesn’t fully understand the idea of payment. Dobby certainly understands getting paid for work, but doesn’t take full advantage of what he was offered. If masters pay their house elves pittances, then the idea of equal rights for house elves has failed. Exploiting cheap labor is almost as bad as not paying for it all. In this case, the house elf doesn’t earn enough to take advantage of the house elf goods market and the master still has less to spend on their own interests. If all the money Blitzy makes goes to pay master for a room and some food, what was really accomplished?

To conclude: in theory, house elf liberation seems like an ideal cause with little or no setbacks. However, if you look more deeply at the economic and social (someday we may talk about the social part) impact, any such liberation can wreak havok across the magical community. Sure, the idea of Blitzy being the star Seeker of the Puddlemere United Quidditch team seems ideal but you must also accept that it is possible to have Blitzy being the blitzed out butterbeer drinker as well. So, if you can look at both sides and say to yourself: is house elf liberation still worth it?

(Editor’s Note: Andrew and Robert have asked me to tell all you readers that they are NOT pro-slavery! Obviously, this article is strickly related to the Harry Potter universe. A pro-SPEW article will be coming out very soon, in fact.)

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