LTUE Notes: Building Different Economies

Today’s selection of notes from LTUE comes from the panel “Building Different Economies” which in the booklet description was actually called “Building Different Economies/Politics.” The latter title turned out to be more accurate, which makes sense—it turns out economy and government are intimately related. The panelists were L. E. Modesitt, Robison Wells, and Dan Willis. David Farland was listed on the schedule, but I don’t remember him being there. The subjects covered in this panel were all over the place, so pardon if my notes seem a bit jumbled.

Pet peeves

  • There has never been a city in the middle of the desert, with one exception. I didn’t catch the name of the city, but it’s a city on the Sinai peninsula that is on a crossroads between caravan routes.
  • In dystopian fiction, the isolated group of people in a contained area. Most of the time they wouldn’t be able to feed themselves.

Other notes

There is no civilization without taxation. There must be a give and take between the taxation level and what the people get out of it.

The complexity of a society depends on its density. A society that is spread out across a large area will have less conflict and require fewer rules. Dense cities always require more rules.

There will be no trade until there is an agricultural surplus. One person must supply enough food for themselves and several others. The others can then focus their time on making stuff instead of getting food.

There must be a certain amount of political cohesion before you have a society that can support technology. Advanced technology requires three things: agricultural surplus, a transportation network, and educated people to maintain the system. The Greeks had many incredible advances in science but couldn’t take advantage of them because they were never unified. Example: The Antikythera mechanism which was an ancient mechanical computer designed to compute astrological positions. It was created around 1 BC and nothing similar came around until 1300 years later.

Three political systems that can truly support advanced civilization and technology: democratic systems, oligarchy, and constitutional empire. (It seems like there was another one that I didn’t catch as I was taking notes.)

On magic: Magic must have value in society. We are a tool using society, and magic is a tool. Questions to ask: How does the magic user make a living? How does he live day to day?

5 comments so far

  1. Ing | Thursday, 23 February 2012, 9:46 pm |

    I took the link because I’d never heard of the Antikythera Mechanism before, even though I’m a fan of ancient Greece…and HOLY CRAP! That is one of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen or heard of. Absolutely inspiring.

    And what would a possible fourth system be… Plutocracy? (That’s kind of what the US has now.) Mercantilism?

    I think the city-state system like ancient Greece had is underrated that way. After all, a lack of unity didn’t prevent them from doing brilliant technical and mental things; it did lead eventually to their being overrun by more organized invaders, but that’s not inevitable (eventually every system always does get overrun or simply fall apart in the long term). And consider that the Renaissance was centered in an Italy that was very much a fractured collection of city-states (although the progressive/prosperous ones probably were oligarchies, so maybe our brilliant novelists were right after all).

    Interesting stuff.

  2. Ing | Thursday, 23 February 2012, 9:50 pm |

    I meant not simply “inevitable,” but that not being unified shouldn’t preclude an advanced technological society. Lack of unity actually could be a powerful spur toward advanced thinking and innovation.

  3. Ben | Monday, 27 February 2012, 10:44 am |

    I think the problem they were pointing out with the lack of unity in ancient Greece was that the technological advances couldn’t be taken advantage of by the entire society, and they couldn’t be supported for very long. The Antikythera mechanism is a good example. Some genius invented it, but they never made a duplicate, and it was eventually forgotten about. So the atmosphere of ancient Greece was conducive to brilliance and innovation, but the results were difficult to reproduce, share, and maintain for very long.

    The fourth political system wasn’t mercantilism. That whole discussion was spurred by a question about whether it was realistic to have mega-corporations that controlled countries and governments. The answer was basically no, because that kind of system would turn to tyranny and result in revolution. A stable, advanced civilization requires a mixture of independent commercial entities and government. I didn’t put all that in my notes, but I remembered more of it after seeing your comments.

  4. Ing | Monday, 27 February 2012, 12:40 pm |

    Hmmm… Good point about Greece. That their ancient brilliance survives as much as it does is probably due more to other people (primarily the Romans) being highly impressed by it than to any systematic Greek effort.

    Still, I think that for writing purposes especially, that type of competitive, jumbled society would be a completely plausible home for advanced technology (after all, in the Classical Age, they were possibly the most intellectually and technically advanced society of their time). And it could be really fun to explore what happens when a fractured-but-brilliant society like that meets an antagonistic one that’s more unified.

    If long-term stability is a precondition for what you’re inventing, then maybe the Ancient Greek model isn’t what you want. But then again, where is the bar set for “long term”? Hellenic culture flourished independently from about 400 BC – 200 AD, and remained healthy for another couple hundred years under Roman rule. Also, internal peacefulness should not be confused with stability. Fractured as the place was, ancient Greece ruled itself for longer than the US has been a country.

    ANYWAY…this could just my Greek partisanship showing through…but I don’t think so. I’m right, and they’re wrong. :)

    As for megacorporations controlling countries and governments being an implausible basis for a fictional society, I absolutely disagree. The esteemed panelists were wrong to dismiss it.

    For one thing, setting limits like that goes against the very nature of fiction. Who’s to say what is or isn’t realistic? If it didn’t have some kind of plausibility, the corporate government scenario wouldn’t be popping up in books and movies all the time; and even if it’s not very plausible, there’s no denying it has a powerful imaginative pull.

    For another thing, calling it unrealistic because it would result in tyranny and revolt is…unrealistic. Tyranny and revolt happen all the time in all sorts of governments (even democratic ones), so even if a corporate government makes them inevitable, it’s no different in that respect than any other system. And why would it necessarily turn to tyranny? If they had a line of reasoning to support that conclusion, I’d like to hear it.

    I think it’d be plausible — and awesome — to have a fictional government that’s set up like a corporate franchise. Central government is corporate HQ, and each state is like a regional franchise with smaller locally owned franchises being equivalent to counties, cities, neighborhoods. There could be smaller competing businesses and organizations of all sorts; they would just all pay their dues to the Big HQ for the right to operate and compete. (Hmmm…that’s sounding more and more like our current system.)

    Eh, anyway… Not trying to be combative…just annoyingly contrary. :) This stuff really gets me going. Fun to think about.

  5. Ben | Monday, 27 February 2012, 12:49 pm |

    Part of the trouble with panels like this is you only get 50 minutes. They generally take the first half our or so discussing prepared questions, then they open it up to the audience. You get to ask a question, and they answer it however they deem fit, and that’s it. And you can’t necessarily guarantee that they even know what they’re talking about. Most of them are pretty smart in general, but who’s to say how authoritative their statements really are?

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