What can economists learn from science fiction?

Economics and science fiction are two things that you would not typically associate with each other. One is an academic discipline, and the other is a creative discipline. At a glance, there few sci-fi books that deal directly with economics – there are sci-fi books that tackle politics, sociology, religion and war, but books which look at economics are less prevalent. Is this because economics is too dry? It is too serious? Too heavily based in the real world? Is economics too reliant on data, which does not lend itself to being expressed via prose?

Recently I attended a lecture entitled ‘What can economics learn from science fiction?’, in which Cambridge economists Ha-Joon Chang argued that economics and science fiction are related. This lecture was to mark the opening of the Political Economy Research Centre (PERC) at Goldsmiths’ College in London, and featured a lively debate on issues relevant to both economics and science fiction. A podcast of the talk can be found here.

Chang argued that economics, especially neo-classical economics, is very similar to science fiction. This is because neo-classical economics - the current dominant form of economics, sometimes called free market economics - is not a science based on imperially proven laws like physics, but is instead based on the unempirical behavior of human beings. Both economics and science fiction are related to natural sciences but are not scientific themselves. Chang also argues that economists can learn a lot from science fiction, as economists lack imagination, something sci-fi writers have in abundance.

Science fiction is about imagining possible futures based on changes in institutions, technology, politics and society, and about how these changes lead to changes in individuals. He also said that individuals are shaped by the society they inhabit and that society’s technology, which sci-fi writers also explore. Changes in technology change how people live their lives; the example which Chang gave was that people in agrarian economies have a lax approach to time keeping, whereas people in industrial economies are very precise time keepers. Science fiction writers explore economic changes by looking at the type of individuals that would be produced by these changes; for example, in Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, technology has liberated humanity from scarcity, and the effect of this is the removal of hierarchy and institutions, and greater personal freedom. Banks's novels explore how social liberalism is linked to resource scarcity.

The ways in which changes in the economy will affect how people behave in the future is important ground for economists to explore. Economists and sci-fi writers can change the emphasis of the structure of the economy in the present to see how the future will be different, and then make a comment about whether this type of change should be encouraged or discouraged. An example of this from sci-fi was Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, an imagined society where our economic needs are met and there is no social, political or class conflict. However, by exploring this world and the people who are produced by it, we see that despite appearing utopian, we would not want to live in it.

Another example is Mad Max, which like many post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, looks at the idea of the neo-classical rational individual set free by the collapse of society. In the world of Mad Max, the people have total economic and personal freedom with no state involvement; neo-classical economists suggest that this should bring about a perfect society, but the world of Mad Max is far from perfect. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi says when individual selfishness is set free the overall structure of society suffers, a comment on neo-classic economics. Mad Max also makes the point that total freedom of individuals from governments and institutions can only be brought about by the collapse of society.

Sci-fi writers can also learn from economists, Chang argued that better understanding of economics would lead to better world building. In David Brin's novel Glory Season, the inhabitants of the planet Stratos have adopted an isolationist and self-sufficient political ideology (similar to Juche in North Korea), which has had the effect of holding their economic development at an early industrial level; they have some railways, but still rely heavily on sailing ships. However, there also seems to be modern broadcasting technology, which is inconsistent. Another example is the Galactic Empire in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels: the expire exists to provide the capital world of Trantor with food and raw materials for its 40 billion inhabitants, but it is not clear what the capital exports in return, except for political tyranny. The same can be said of Suzanne Collins's ‘Hunger Games’ novels.

Chang also argued that there was a lot which science fiction writers and economists could learn from each other, as much of the work in both disciplines operates with the same underlying assumptions. Both could learn that the inevitable progress of science and capitalism is unlikely to solve all of our social and economic problems. A Star Trek-like future where scientific progress has eliminated social strife and the need for work is very unlikely; what is far more likely is a future like Alien, where there are still poorly-paid jobs in bad conditions, or Gattaca, where the benefits of technology progress are hoarded by a minority who are preselected by technology based on their genes and background. Faith in progress as a social leveler is naive – the economies of the future are likely to be as oppressive as the economies of today, and perhaps more so.

The main thrust of Chang's argument is one that I very much agree with: that science fiction and economics are closely related and they can learn a lot from each other. I certainly agree that a better understand of economics will help sci-fi writers to create more believable worlds. I also agree that science fiction is a useful tool that economists can use to see how changes in the economy might affect individuals in the future. The two disciplines are related and hopefully both will benefit from a mutually cooperative relationship in the future.