The economics of magic
I am perhaps four fifths of the way through the fourth of the Malazan books – House of Chains – and there is a moment in this book in which a character muses about how he’d like to do away with magic altogether. Magic courses through these books in what are referred to as ‘warrens’ and he imagines destroying these warrens and putting an end to magic once and for all. His reason is simple: magic, he believes, has been a huge barrier to progress. Take magic out of the picture, and watch humanity flourish.
Which made me think about how in the fantasy genre we’re so often presented with these ancient civilizations which nevertheless have never moved beyond the medieval economic or social structures, let alone achieved the sort of technology that we take for granted. The Malazan books are a good example of this, because the timeline is so extraordinarily vast – the various races having spanned several hundred thousand years of at least somewhat recorded history (there are immortals who have lived this long as well, which certainly changes the way that history is viewed in these books). And yet society has not advanced in any meaningful way, at least not technologically.
In any case there are two questions I’m interested in. First – how does magic effect socio-economic progress and the advancement of technology in society? (Both in the purely fantastical societies we read about in genre fiction and in those fictional settings where magic is infused with our own ‘real’ world.) And second, how do the rules of economics apply to magic itself? (In this older piece by Megan McArdle she discusses the importance of having costs associated with doing magic – rules, scarcity, etc. – and levels a fairly sensible critique against the Harry Potter books.)
Your thoughts on this are much appreciated.