Totalitarianism in the wizarding world
Warning: Spoilers for pretty much all of Harry Potter (book) canon
It is accepted as given by Harry Potter fans that underage witches and wizards – those under 17 – are not allowed to use magic outside of Hogwarts. It is not, however, until much later in the series when we find out why exactly this is: underage witches and wizards have something called the Trace, which alerts the Ministry whenever an underage witch or wizard uses magic illegally. It is, however, illegal to place the Trace on any witch or wizard who is of age, and the Trace itself breaks when the individual turns 17. There are several plot holes in this idea – but that is a post for another time. What I wish to talk about in this post is the terrifying consequences that the Trace has for the wizarding world – and the seemingly totalitarian power it allows the Ministry of Magic to possess.
Firstly, there is the simple fact of the name: the Trace. It is linguistically and literally the means by which the Ministry keeps tabs on underage witches and wizards. Not only that, but it is placed upon people against their will and knowledge. It is never explained exactly how the Trace is placed upon witches and wizards, but it would seem that it is placed upon them at birth. It could be innate – something which infants are born with – but as the Trace exists for purely legal reasons, innateness would require the existence of the Ministry of Magic as it stands, fully-formed, in the books, from the moment that magic first appeared, which isn’t very believable. Furthermore, the Harry Potter Lexicon lists the Trace under the list of spells – although no incantation is given for it – suggesting that it requires some form of intervention from outside the individual.
Yet putting aside the very nature of the Trace itself, it seems to give the Ministry scary levels of knowledge of what is going on in the lives of underage witches and wizards. We know that it knows if the person themselves has performed magic, but in Deathly Hallows, Moody explains that it also lets the Ministry know if someone in proximity of the individual has performed magic, something we see in action in Chamber of Secrets when the Ministry blame Dobby’s magic on Harry because it was cast in Privet Drive. Not only that, but the Trace is incredibly specific – when Harry is expelled from Hogwarts for using the Patronus Charm, the Ministry knows the exact time when the charm was cast, and that it was performed in the presence of a Muggle, which is, in fact, the issue that the Ministry takes to Harry’s use of the Patronus Charm.
Finally, the Trace allows the Ministry to know when Marge was blown up, and to both sort it out and have Fudge overtake Harry before he gets to the Leaky Cauldron – when Harry himself didn’t even know where he was going when he left Privet Drive, much less that he would end up at the Leaky Cauldron.
With all that taken into account, the Trace seems to give the Ministry totalitarian power over underage witches and wizards.