The Importance of Economy in Fiction
Economy is a social construct. That is something that only has relevance or importance because an entire group of people has made it so. Let’s look at money first. A dollar (or your local counterpart only has worth because your entire society has given it some agreed upon value. It is really just paper though, with no intrinsic value of its own. It is only worth something because we all agree to let it be worth something. I can trade a dollar for anything at the dollar store, for one of my kids to do a chore, or for a candy bar at the grocery store. This is because we all have agreed to worth of a dollar. We may not have sat and hashed it out, but that is what money is.
As a further example, there are also many things money cannot buy. I cannot buy a car with a dollar. I cannot hire a babysitter for three hours for one dollar. I cannot purchase anything at the jewelry store for one dollar. So our shared agreements dictate both what a dollar is worth, and what it is not worth. Though money may seem mathematical, and certainly we can calculate interest rates and earnings, in the end it really has a worth in the first place because of our shared agreement of worth.
Many societies have a class or caste system based on economics as well. A caste system is very rigid, only rarely allowing movement between castes. A class system is more permeable allowing movement. The Horatio Alger stories where someone who is born poor is able to claw their way to the top (or at least the middle) through hard work and dedication is an example of how this impacts fiction. Often times, different characters in books are empowered or challenged by the class or caste they are in.
Again, though, this is an agreed upon structuring by society. Your story might take place in a society where wealth of money is treasured above all else, and the class system is rigidly structured, allowing for little movement. Begging may be illegal, with folks born poor being oppressed, jailed, maybe even physically abused, exploited and perhaps even executed. Think about what this would take. Everyone in society would have to agree with this for one reason or another. Police would have to be empowered by their government to jail or abuse the poor. The rich would have to not see at as their responsibility to help the poor and unfortunate. The bystanders would have to stand by, and not intervene. The poor themselves would have to accept this treatment.
This may sound a bit crazy, but think of the Holocaust. Hitler only had power, because people gave it to him. In research experiments conducted later, it was found that people tended to follow authority, especially when the people were absolved of responsibility by that authority. So Hitler just needed to establish himself as an authority, and his insane ideas were taken as truth. Think of it this way, what if every single man woman and child in Germany had said, “no thanks.” That is an overly simplistic solution, but the idea behind it is that Hitler had the power to do what he did, only because a large number of people gave it to him.
This is important, because in fictional worlds, things other than money may have worth too. In a world or time where water is scarce, an economy would develop around water. People need water in order to survive. In a time or place where food is scarce, it might be treated differently. My kids, after eating a meal, often throw some food away that they did not eat. Some of my kids are picky and only like to eat certain things. How would this change if food were to become scarce? Food, water, shelter, warmth, and perhaps some other basic needs, such as sex and procreation might be worth less in a society of abundance, but worth quite a bit more in a society experiencing shortages.
Western society shows they value knowledge by paying people with college degrees more than people without them. We give those people honorary titles, such as “doctor.” Sometimes this gets complex when values intersect. In the United States, we show that we value families by giving people time often when they experience the birth of a child. We show that we value work as well, because we give far less time off than other countries do. So there is a value, enjoy your baby, but don’t take too long before you return to work, or we will stop paying you the money that you can trade for food, clothing and shelter for your family.
We can look at one more example. In the United States, people often complain that teachers get laid off and paid poorly, while athletes and actors make millions or billions of dollars. I can see some of you nodding your head. But why is that? Well, the government pays teachers, and we often vote in spending limits for the governments. Why? Well, there is only so much money to go around. People spend that money on tickets to sporting events, to see movies, and to buy the products that these people advertise. I am sure you are the person that never falls for that, but everyone thinks they are the person that never falls for that, but advertising brings in billions of dollars every year. It would not bring in billions, if it did not work. So what if in your fictional world, teachers were the celebrities? People bought products based on the advertisement and recommendation of teachers. Parents bought passes to get their children in with their favorite teachers, and the most popular teachers made millions as the wealthiest parents paid large sums of money to have their children instructed by such teachers. What would such a society look like? What events would get a society of people in such a condition?
Other things may have an economy too. The value of art, performance, a particular vocation, a powerful resource, knowledge, human contact, children and family, and many other things can vary greatly in your fictional world. Even the value of race, gender, or other psychical features can have some value. They can all have an integral part in your world.
A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together.