This Sunday, I'm scheduled to be on a panel at Westercon
, a local SF convention, with the title:
" Economics, SF's Weak Spot
So many SF worlds, only two main economic systems. What else might we come up with as theories of value and exchange?"
Presumably the two systems referred to are market exchange and centrally planned socialism. Even within those classifications there is quite a wide range of possibilities. The Yugoslav system, for example, was nominally socialist but looked rather more like a market economy in which the firms, instead of being sole proprietorships, partnerships, or joint stock companies, were worker co-ops. The market socialism proposed by Abba Lerner and Oskar Lange in the course of the calculation controversy of the early 20th century was a system in which the means of production belonged to the state, but the state instructed the managers to play the game of pretending to be profit maximizing capitalists in order to take advantage of the decentralized control mechanism of the market. And the system of institutions I sketched in my first book
was not what most supporters of the market imagine such to be, since even what are traditionally seen as government functions, such as defining and enforcing law, were entirely private. And that one has showed up, occasionally, in other people's speculative fiction.
Suppose, however, we are willing to lump all of those into two piles. Are there other interesting alternatives, real or fictional, worth including in speculative fiction? What are they?
One that occurred to me is not only a real historical institution and one that appears in fiction, it is also one that plays a central role in science fiction fandom itself, as well as elsewhere in the modern world. I will be participating in three panels at Westercon, as well as giving a demonstration on how to make cuirboulli, hardened leather armor, an interesting period technology. My efforts will not be entirely unrewarded. I will probably get a free convention registration for myself, I may get one for my wife, I will almost certainly get access to the green room, the lounge that SF conventions traditionally provide for their panelists and speakers, which includes not only a certain amount of free food, something there is usually quite a lot of at cons, but also a chance to interact with some of the more interesting people present.
But none of that is really a market exchange, a payment for service in the ordinary sense of the terms. I get the same reward whether I am on one panel or six, whether I am the organizers' favorite panelist or deemed barely worth inviting. And, as suggested by the way I just described the rewards, I don't actually know what I'm getting, since the terms are determined by custom not contract. What I am participating in is not a system of explicit exchange but a gift economy.
Most summers, although not, as it happens, this summer, my family spends about a week at the Pennsic War, the largest event put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation organization in which we are long term participants. Over the course of that week I teach eight or ten classes on topics relevant to the hobby. Teaching classes is one of the ways I make my living, but it would never occur to me to charge for these ones, or to the people running the Pennsic University to offer to pay me for them. I don't even charge for handouts, which under the rules I am entitled to do. Their cost isn't very large, and it simply feels more appropriate to give them away, to include them within the (medieval) virtue of generosity.
During the same period of time I will spend about six nights, from dark to midnight or so, running a bardic circle, designed to create the illusion of a group of medieval people sitting around a campfire entertaining each other. Hosting it involves being prepared to present period, or at least period feeling, poems and stories to fill in as much of the three hours or so of the circle as is not filled by pieces presented by other people present, as well as maintaining a conversation that supports the illusion, offering around period nibbles, being a host.
And one other element. If you present a piece that really impresses me, both as a good and entertaining story and as a good job of maintaining the illusion, you will leave with a silver arm ring of my construction. The silver is real and the rings reasonably heavy; the construction of new rings to replace the ones I have given away the previous years is one of the projects I engage in earlier in the summer. The pieces are modeled on the arm rings given away by Norse rulers to reward entertainers. Ideally I would like to average one a night, but I don't think I have ever been that lucky.
This again is a gift economy and was recognized as such, in that context and others, by its medieval participants. It is a pattern that has been observed in many other societies. The basic rule is that, instead of exchanging value for value on pre-agreed terms, you give something to someone in the expectation that, although he has no legal obligation to reciprocate, he has a social obligation to. If he doesn't, he will lose status, be seen as a skinflint, almost a cheat. The Elder Edda, a collection of Norse poetry probably dating from the 9th century, contains one poem, Havamal, that is a collection of verses of advice attributed to the god Odin. One of my favorite lines is:
"No man is so wealthy that he objects to receiving a gift in exchange for his gift."
They knew what they were doing.
They did. I'm not sure I do. Looking at the institution as an economist, it feels like a much clumsier way of coordinating human activity than an explicit market. Looking at it as a participant, on the other hand, it makes sense, feels right. A few days ago, wandering the web, I came across a comment by someone who at some point had received
one of my arm rings. She referred to it as "one of my most treasured possessions."
She wouldn't have if she had bought it.
So that is one example of an economic system, a way of coordinating human activity, that doesn't fit neatly into either the socialist or market category, even though the transactions are entirely volunary. Other examples?