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.
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…