One of my favorite thought experiments in writing is trying to conceive of new ways to handle an economic system, especially in isolated places with limited trade. Logistics don’t really interest me per se, but I like to worldbuild in ways that could conceivably reflect on our own world.
In my last major setting, I established a system based somewhat on communism with limited competition within the same trade. This setting (which wanders somewhere between fantasy and science-fiction) focuses on the events of a small city in the middle of a desert with a population of a few thousand, almost entirely people between the ages of 16 and 40 (literally almost no children or elderly). Thanks to the magical ability to break down matter and recreate it in a different form and access to underground wells, the city has the ability to acquire almost any basic resource its citizens might need. How does one go about creating incentives to work in a setting where scarcity is a myth?
Well, first one can define “work” to mean many things. In this setting, you get paid to be a student, paid to clean up litter, paid to tell a story, paid to grow a nice garden, paid to create art… you can even get paid to purchase a gift for someone (although that’s more of a discount).
In fact, you can make money doing almost anything, as long as you do something. Every citizen’s activity is recorded and shared on a computer network, subjected to a complex system of value modifiers which factor for context and need, producing a result wherein an active person generally maintains enough wealth to live in relative comfort. Not luxury — imagine a college dorm, or a cheap apartment building. People live in groups, sharing resources. A private home, regular purchases of unnecessary-but-fun items, now that takes a little extra effort. That’s where jobs come in.
The city government regulates businesses within the city, discouraging competition within a single trade. You and your neighbor can both own a restaurant, but they have to serve different kinds of food. In the event that two people want to provide the same service, they’re encouraged to team up. Co-ownership profits are split, while apprentices and employees receive less but are compensated for learning the trade. Artistic creations get more leeway as long as there’s a noticeable difference between creators. Generally it works out, since the government provides a means for potential competitors to meet and discuss possibilities before conflict can ever occur.
The obvious problem is the accumulation of wealth. What happens when you’ve got a lot of it, but aren’t buying anything? Beyond how pointless it is to horde wealth–the government won’t let you exploit it, and gains nothing by hording wealth either–certain checks and balances are built into the system to cap how much wealth a person can obtain. Beyond that point, that citizen will start getting encouragement to spend their wealth, preferably in ways which benefit the entire city — even if the benefit is as indirect as “getting your house expanded so that if you move out, someone else will get to enjoy a bigger home someday.” This helps to keep wealth circulating throughout the city and provides a perfunctory excuse to expand it, gradually increasing the quality of life for its residents.
There are ways to break the system, but there are few enough citizens that anyone purposefully trying to do this would be discovered quickly — and probably killed with sheep.
Next time, I’ll see about blathering a bit on the economic system in my current setting. It’s based on barter and socialism, therefore it can only have come from Hell itself!