Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Alayna is an absolutely amazing wife. For a combined Father’s day/Anniversary present she got me a pre-order of the new game Total War: Warhammer (which comes out on the 24th). This is a game that I (and a lot of other people) have been waiting for someone, anyone, to make for around fifteen years. I still play a few video games, but I don’t generally play that many (I don’t have time to play that many…). I actually still haven’t gotten around to finishing Pillars of Eternity (though it is an awesome game). However, like I said, this is a game that I’ve been waiting for fifteen years to see someone make. I’m a little bit excited about it. Anyway, on a completely different note, something that I’ve been thinking about lately is American Christian attitudes towards money (on the individual level) and economics (on the societal level). I often see attitudes in the Christian church that do little to reflect the actual teachings of scripture. In general, these attitudes tend to follow the two common secular attitudes towards general economics: Capitalist Christians and Socialist Christians. Now, I should point out first that when I speak of Capitalism I mean primarily the economic structures that you see in America, not the economic structures that you find in Columbia or Niger. Similarly, when I speak of Socialism I mean primarily the economic structures that you see in Austria, Germany, or Canada, not the economic structures that we saw in Society Russia or Maoist China. A good argument can be made that extreme Communism is a form of Socialism. However, a good argument can also be made that the oppressive ‘free’ markets of South America and Central Africa are a form of Capitalism. So, for a good comparison conservative Capitalism and Socialism should be compared to one another and extreme Capitalism and Socialism should be compared to one another: that is that Soviet Russia should be compared to Columbia and Canada should be compared to the US.

That being said, I don’t honestly think that either Capitalism or Socialism effectively presents a biblical attitude towards economics. It is true that Adam Smith’s original theory (Capitalism) did make some use of the Christian concept of providence in the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the market. However, even in his original theory this comes across more as a statement that ‘God is in control so we don’t need that many rules’ (and in laissez-faire capitalism this tends to turn into ‘we don’t need any rules’). However, this seems to be a muted and generally empty conception of Providence, which must be combined with Sovereignty to have any meaningful content. Christian versions of Capitalist theory generally faik to acknowledge that the world is the Lord’s and all that is in it, but attempts to rely on the idea that God guides the unknowable forces of the free market. Instead of actually living in a world that is seen as meaningfully God’s, with all of the responsibilities (social and theological) that come with that understanding, it tends to adopt a Capitalist assumption that economic growth is essentially good (that is in Aristotelian terms that goodness is a necessary component of economic growth such that if it is not good it cannot be called economic growth, this would be opposed to an accidental and contingent goodness of economic growth which accepts that economic growth is good when it stems from good motives and is used for good ends). In extreme forms of Capitalism this assumption is used to justify over oppression and subjugation of vulnerable people groups. However, even in less extreme forms of Capitalism the assumption is present and generally leads to the rejection of regulations that are necessary to effectively guide the market according to God’s principles. For instance, consider the economic laws of the Old Testament such as the Sabbatical Years or the Year of Jubilee, the requirements against the charging of interest, etc. These laws existed to ensure that the economic growth of the nation of Israel protected and provided for even the weakest among them. The economic oppression and subjugation of the weak members of Jewish society was not acceptable under the Old Testament law, and throughout the Prophets this very economic oppression and subjugation is one of their primary condemnations of Israel.

However, on the other hand, Socialist theories tend to attempt to take regulation into the hands of man. They tend to reject the concept of the invisible hand of the market and the concept of providence that goes with it. However, this equally rejects the sovereignty of God. Scripture absolutely supported the equitable provision of opportunities, and this is consistently seen in the Law through the emphasis that the land could not be permanently bought or sold. Every Israelite family had the opportunity to develop their own land and thus prosper economically. However, scripture no where supports the intentional redivision of resources in order to provide equal income. What the Israelites did with their land was on them. Those who cared for their land well and prospered tended to have more and those who neglected their land fell into debt and sometimes had to sell themselves into indentured servitude (I use this term because it more accurately described the strictures of the law than ‘slavery,’ which has specific connotations in America that do not reflect the Mosaic Law). However, even in these cases their masters were to treat them well, and every fifty years slaves were freed and their original land was returned so that the family could start over. So, the idea that a universal $15 minimum wage is a moral necessity simply doesn’t see biblical support, nor does the excessive taxation of the wealthy in order to provide welfare services to those who could work, but don’t. However, the taxation of those who can and do work in order to provide for those who legitimately can’t (i.e. the seriously handicapped or very vulnerable) absolutely sees biblical support. As does the argument that the government has a responsibility to care for the poor (in fact, in the Old Testament it is most commonly the King, Judge, or Ruler who is expected to enforce the laws that provide for the legitimately poor, and it is the wealthy who are expected to leave some of their income in order to supply this provision).

Ultimately, Christian Capitalists tend to fall into the trap of ignoring the impact of greed upon the economic structures of the nation while Christian Socialists tend to fall into the trap of ignoring the impact laziness upon the economic structures of the nation. This is very general and the issue is significantly more complicated, but this seems to be an apt, if very general, description. So, here is my question for you: is there a third option? Some Confucian scholars have pointed to several area in the Far East (specifically Singapore and Japan) that are in the process of developing ‘Communitarian Capitalism,’ which stands starkly against the individualistic and often greed-focused liberalism of Laissez-Faire Capitalism, but stands equally against the thoroughly State-Led nature of Socialism and accepts the general idea of a free market that is, to some degree, self-directing. However, this is effectively experimental and, for Christians, likely falls into some of the same traps as I outlined above. If there is a third option, what significant underlying assumptions would it be founded upon?

As always, write me a story of 1000+ words that gives your take on the issue.

What is Money?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how to build a fantasy economy. You’ll remember that my thesis in this post was the the primary concern in building a fantasy economy was determining how the citizens of your world view money. Is it something physical that you can hold in your hands and provides specific use and value, or is it something abstract that is measured in numbers and little more? This is important and will have a direct input on the second issue that you need to determine: What does money look like? While it is a purely practical issue that is largely dependent on the answer to the first question, from the perspective of a writer knowing what money looks like and how to use it is important.

Throughout history many, many things have been used as currency. In many ancient cultures goods were used directly as currency (i.e. I’ll give you three strips of tanned hide for that little wheel of cheese). However, later cultures used a wide variety of materials as currency. Gold, silver, jade, gemstones, and salt have all been used as currency. The ancient Spartans even used iron bars as currency in order to encourage a rejection of materialism (who wants to lug around a ton of iron?).  So, there are a wide array of options concerning what you want to use as money. However, remember that a cultures currency says something about the culture itself. For instance, if a culture in your world uses iron as currency, then they probably aren’t big on material possessions.

How your culture views money will help determine what they use as money. For instance, cultures that see money as directly connected to the physical goods will likely use some physical object of intrinsic value as money. One of the major things to remember here is that rarity and usefulness create value, so to be useful as money a material must be common enough to create a supply and rare enough to be valuable. In Europe silver and gold worked well for this, during the Roman empire salt was preferred. Determining this means knowing what your cultures have available. If gold is so common that you can find it laying around on the ground, then for all it’s beauty, its probably not great to use as money. If you can go into the backyard and pick up a hundred dollars, then it isn’t really worth much. On the other hand, even if sand is rare in your culture, it probably wouldn’t make good money because it isn’t really all that useful. So, for physical money the first step is to figure out what is valuable in your culture, and then how common it is.

Standardized currency may have relative value. For instance, a ten dollar bill certainly isn’t worth ten dollars (objectively), we simply agree as a culture that it represents that value. Paper and coin money made with low value materials tend to represent the beginning of a shift from a physical view of money to an abstract view of money. While money still has a physical presence, that presence doesn’t have much actual value. It is a representative presence that replaces the actual value of physical money. So, a culture that uses this kind of relative currency is probably fairly advanced (culturally at least, remember that the Chinese were using paper money as early as the 11th century) and beginning to view money as an abstract concept rather than as a physical reality. These cultures may use paper money, small coins, letters of credit, etc. The key is that the physical representative is worth significantly less than what it represents.

Cultures that have a purely abstract view of money may not have any physical representation of that money. For instance, money in these cultures may exist in electronic form (i.e. credit/debit cards) that is accessed through a computerized system such as magnetic cards, chips implanted in the hand, or even cybernetic hardware/software connected directly to the brain. These cultures probably also have a strong concept of credit/debit, as this tends to go hand in hand with abstract views of money, but they may not. A culture with an abstract view of money may avoid basing itself on debt as this comes with obvious drawbacks.

So, deciding what you culture uses as money is an important decision that should reflect the culture you are trying to build, and inevitably will say something about your culture. The question is whether this will be congruent with the culture that you are trying to build, or stand out as something that just doesn’t fit.

What Should a Fantasy Economy Look Like?

Stack Of CashMost of us don’t know a lot about money. We might know how to spend money, we might even be able to handle our own finances well (… well, you might: I kind of suck at it), but I find relatively few authors who double as economists and really understand how money works in the broad strokes. This is true for modern authors as well as for fantasy and science fiction authors. However, modern authors have the advantage of never having to create their own economic systems… fantasy and science fiction authors don’t. So, one question that you need to answer in your writing is: How does money work?

There are a lot of lesser questions involved in this, and I’m probably going to take a few posts to treat them, or at least the one’s that I actually understand. However, the single most important question, and the question that most of us would never think to ask (I actually just realized this myself… I’ve been listening to a course on Chinese history that deals heavily with their economics), is: how do the people of your world think about money?

turkey_market_goodsGenerally there are two ways that a culture conceives of money. Either money is an abstract entity that does not necessarily have a physical existence (the American economy is a good example of this), or money is tied directly to some physical product. Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin give us good examples of each of these concepts in a fantasy setting in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series (Midnight Tides  and following) and the Song of Ice and Fire series.

Until fairly recently (historically speaking up until the past two hundred years or so) money has generally been thought of as physical wealth. For instance, trade was done in goods (i.e. gold, silver, food-stuffs, etc), and bartering was fairly common. While many nations had ‘money’ it was often restricted to mercantile classes, and other population groups would trade in goods (essentially a barter system). Even government taxes where historically paid in goods (for example, China didn’t begin collecting taxes in money until the 14th-15th century, and even then taxes were paid in silver). Thus wealth was an inherently physical entity. This physicality of wealth placed certain controls on how property changed hands (for instance, you couldn’t sell 100 bushels of wheat if you couldn’t transport 100 bushels of wheat), and on how money moved (The dominant currencies in China were silver and copper, although they did experiment with paper money in the 11th and again in the 15th centuries, but there was only so much silver and copper available, and thus wealth was limited). The concepts of debt and credit existed, but they did not dominate the civilizations, they were a relatively minor part of the economic system.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Martin effectively expresses this kind of system in his Song of Ice and Fire series especially well in the debt of the crown to the Lannisters. The debt of the crown is measured physically, and, because it is essentially unpayable, the Lannisters are able to use that physical debt to manipulate the crown.

Many modern economies have an abstract concept of wealth. Money is not an inherently physical entity, and thus spending and value also become abstract. Instead of directly selling goods or services the majority of people are employed by large corporate entities that pay a set wage and demand varying services in exchange. Both the wage and the services demanded are variable, but they are no longer truly dependent on one another. The abstract concept of wealth also means that debt and credit take on a much greater place in society. Debt becomes expected, instead of an extreme, and the amount of debt, and the manner in which it is handled, determines how much credit an individual is allowed. The more debt you have, the less credit is available, and the worse you handle the debt you do have, the less credit is available. This is important because credit becomes the primary source of purchasing power in an abstract economy. Instead of physical goods and wealth, an amount of credit is afforded to an individual depending on what how the individual can be expected to handle the debt that the individual accrues.

Erikson effectively embodies this abstract notion of wealth in his Letherii empire. By giving the Letherii empire an abstract concept of wealth, Erikson is able to build a believable society built on the concept of debt and credit in a fantasy setting. This is quite an achievement, but it also helps the reader to understand the importance of how we think about money in the first place, and of how we then act on those thought.