What’s wrong with the economics of sci-fi?

Does Emperor Shaddam IV look like he cares about economic growth?
He who controls the spice, controls the universe!

Economist David Berri has an article in Time criticizing the depiction of economics in science fiction. In particular, he argues that sic-fi stories frequently depict technologically advanced galactic empires despite the fact that, in the real world, autocracy sniffles economic growth. Historically, empires have seized private wealth, making citizens more reluctant to invest in technology and innovation. By contrast, inclusive governments, such as democracies, allow people to reap the rewards of their investments, thereby encouraging investment in technologies that stimulate economic growth.

I know something about both political economy and science fiction, and unfortunately Berri gets both wrong.

First, the economics. Berri relies heavily upon Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail (which I’ve read). Acemoglu and Robinson argue that in closed political systems economic elites often use political power to stifle technological developments that threaten their vested interests. For example, an oil tycoon will probably try to block progress in renewable energy technologies. By contrast, inclusive political institutions give capitalists and investors a political voice. Institutions can place constraints on elites to reduce the risk of expropriation and encourage “creative destruction.” In other words, despite the oil lobby, the government cannot arbitrarily prevent renewable energy companies from profiting off their work.

This distinction is crucial. Acemoglu and Robinson don’t make an argument about democracy per se, but rather about constrained government. In general, democracies are more inclusive than other types of governments, but empires and authoritarian regimes vary drastically in their political arrangements. 20th century China’s history provides a telling example. Maoists not only prohibited private enterprise, but also arrested and attacked anybody labeled a “capitalist.” Since Mao’s death in 1976, China has progressively implemented laws and institutional changes to protect property rights and contracts. China’s political system is far from inclusive, but it has expanded to allow capitalists to join the Communist Party.

As for the science fiction, I think Berri simply goes about his analysis the wrong way. He uses the political economy literature as a measuring stick for a fictional world. This defeats the point of science fiction. Of course Dune deviates from our world. The spaceship pilots use drugs (spice) to travel faster than light and Paul has psychedelic prescience powers. If you read Dune and think it accurately predicts our future, then I have a magic 8-ball to sell you. Rather, as I argue in an article about Tolkien’s Middle-earth in a Mythlore article, the important question is whether the story has an internally consistent logic. Politics and economics in a sci-fi subcreation might work differently from our own, but good world-building should be able to explain why.

In this case, I think there’s a relatively simple explanation. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Frank Herbert’s Dune both depict galactic empires in a state of relative stagnation or decline. In Dune, it’s quite clear that Emperor Shaddam IV is not trying to promote technological innovation. The Great Convention actually banned “thinking machines” after the Butlerian Jihad and society seems to fear technological progress. Presumably, the main technological developments in the Dune universe came before the galaxy’s descent into quasi-feudalism. A better analogy might be our own Dark Ages; Western Europe didn’t completely abandon Roman technology, as evidenced by the use of arches in castles and churches.

How do I work this thing again?
How do I work this thing again?

We actually saw this process play out in Star Wars. Fans often complain that the technology in the Prequel films looks more advanced than what we saw in the Original Trilogy. This is by design. Lucas deliberately depicted the Republic in The Phantom Menace as an advanced society, with pristine starships and armies of battle droids. The last of the Republic’s glory days. When the Empire takes over, the galaxy enters the “Dark Times.” Starships look run down and droids are covered in dirt, as if inhabitants couldn’t afford to maintain their technology. Control panels have more knobs and CRT screens and fewer holographic displays. Notably, the only major technological innovation we see under the Empire was the Death Star, a product of the Empire’s military research rather than of private investment.

Now, what I’d really like to know is how the Federation economy works if there’s no money in 24th century Star Trek

4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with the economics of sci-fi?

  1. Nice analysis. Have you read Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series? It has an interesting take on human expansion within the galaxy that includes a democratic political system that is thinly ‘in charge’ but with actual power in the hands of a major corporation. There’s a tension between political and corporate power as to which has primacy. I’d be interested in your opinion on how it stacks up to the Dune and Foundation ’empires’ .


    1. Thanks! I haven’t read any of Donaldson’s work, but it sounds interesting. I think many people assume that democracy is inherently superior to other forms of government and that the trend towards democratization is irreversible (Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument). Yet, for a variety of reasons, politics at the interstellar level adds many different complications that we don’t have on Earth. I find it hard to imagine that an interstellar government could ever establish a “strong state” in which the government has control over all planets within the empire. Without drastic technological breakthroughs, travel and communication over such distances would be much slower. That’s why if you look closely the empire in Dune is actually quite weak and decentralized. It’s really the noble houses that have control, and they generally exercise control at the planetary level.


  2. Interesting and insightful post. Your explanation of why the original Star Wars films make sense chronologically hadn’t occurred to me… Duh! A lot of people also think Star Wars predicts the future, when it clearly says it takes place “a long time ago”.

    I’m interested in what you think about the empire (autocratic alliance) in the Firefly world. That universe does show that distance from the government core is associated with lawlessness and frontierism.

    And let’s not even get started about Star Trek. How gold press ladinum (sp?) is worth anything in a world with replicators and holodecks is baffling. Probably worth a follow up blog post…


    1. Thanks for your comments. Interesting you ask about Firefly/Serenity. I just finished writing an essay for a book about that. I think the Serenity government is pretty realistic from what we know. It seems like property rights, contracts, and private enterprise are protected in the core worlds under the Alliance. In fact, the private sector seems pretty powerful. But the government – like the U.S. – also has a strong military-industrial complex which every once in a while messes things up. It also makes sense that the central government can’t or won’t expend the resources to control every world. It seems that it basically lets local elites rule them and extract whatever resources they can.

      I love Star Trek, but I agree, the holodeck and replicators basically undermine any sense of reality. I think it could be interesting for a future Trek TV show to explore the effects of those technologies on people. The TNG episode “Hollow Pursuits” did this a bit in showing a character addicted to holodeck fantasies. We don’t really have any real-world models to draw upon when thinking about how people would behave if they were materially satisfied and empowered in the way that Trek technology would allow.

      Liked by 1 person

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