Economic Literacy in Fiction

5 September 2006 at 2:19 pm 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

I blogged previously about the silly and boring political economy of the Star Trek universe (quoting Tim Cavanaugh’s brilliant line about Captain Kirk as “an interstellar Gen. Tommy Franks”). For those nerdy, libertarian sci-fi fans out there I offer now this analysis of the economic organization of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

Speaking of high culture, what about that community in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village? It’s a small town in the wilderness, completely cut off from the social division of labor, and yet the inhabitants have decent (19th-century) technology — buildings, tools, clothing, etc. (If you’ve seen the film, you know that the inhabitants actually have more advanced technological knowledge than they pretend to have, but still….) There is specialization within the village, and a little private property, but no evidence of money, prices, or exchange. How do they survive? Don’t these villagers know that trade is better than autarky? How do they solve the calculation problem? I can willingly suspend my disbelief only so far.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Donald A. Coffin  |  5 September 2006 at 5:07 pm

    The same is true, in a lot of ways, about almost all science fiction (indeed, about almost all fiction)–the depiction of how people go about earning what they earn and supporting their consumption standard is almost never at the center of the work. I defy anyone to make sense of the economics of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Heinlein was better, but only marginally. But do we read or watch these things for what they have to say about economics anyway? (For another television example, see Friends. Or Seinfeld.)

  • 2. Hine Te Po  |  5 September 2006 at 6:52 pm

    Science fiction is simply that – a fictional presentation of a future state. An economy in a science fictional world need only conform to the fictional laws of that particular world. Thus, in a fictional universe, inhabited by fictional characters – where space travel is the norm – the existence of an irrational economy – is to be expected. Simple logic really.

  • 3. nicolai foss  |  16 March 2009 at 7:04 am

    Peter, Re the puzzle re The Village: I think the answer may be that there is a massive amount of money outside of the village that in actuality supports the village. Notice at the end of the movie how the rangers that look after the wild life reservation come from a company called “Walker”. It is also indicated that a Walker family foundation has been instrumental in setting up the wildlige reservation. The name of the leading Elder is also Walker. Thus, the highly inefficient autartic village survives because of a long purse outside the village.

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  16 March 2009 at 11:17 am

    Yes, I caught that part. (“If you’ve seen the film, you know that the inhabitants actually have more advanced technological knowledge than they pretend to have.”) That explains the initial investment, and perhaps continuing cash inflows. But what about the allocation of resources within the village? There aren’t any relative prices, right? The Misesian calculation problem’s still there. (Or perhaps you’re saying they’re rich enough that they can afford to be inefficient.)

    Some enterprising grad student needs to write a dissertation on this.

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