The economics of magic

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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22 Responses

  1. Ryan Davidson says:

    One could make the argument that the abolution of “magic” was indeed what led to rapid technological progress in the real world. The ancient Mesopotanians were technologically on about par with the Romans, two thousand years later. Agriculture, cities, masonry, rudimentary plumbing, etc. Chinese technological progress was essentially stagnant over the vast sweep of their history, and there are still plenty of places both there and in Africa where people live lives largely indistinguishable from their earliest ancestors.

    So what happened in Europe?

    At some point, Europeans stopped believing either that 1) the world was full of capricious gods who would punish anyone who interfered with their particular realms, or 2) that the world was irrational and/or illusory and thus not a fitting subject for rational examination. I.e., sometime around the late Renaissance, Europe stopped believing in magic. That’s about the first time in human history when people lived in a significantly different world than their great-great-grandparents did.

    Still, this is something that has bugged me about just about every fantasy series I’ve read. It’d be one thing if the world was truly a pre-modern one, full of pre-modern assumptions, attitudes, and social structures. For a truly hide-bound, patriarchical, authoritarian, traditional society, this might be plausible. But most fantasy authors simply plug modern assumptions, including individual autonomy, popular sovereignty, and materialistic empiricism, into pre-modern technological settings and simply expect us to ignore the inconsistencies and implied stagnation.

    Well, ideas have consequences, and it’s a failing of imagination that fantasy authors don’t explore that more thoroughly.Report

    • Kevin in reply to Ryan Davidson says:

      @Ryan Davidson,

      “At some point, Europeans stopped believing either that 1) the world was full of capricious gods who would punish anyone who interfered with their particular realms, or 2) that the world was irrational and/or illusory and thus not a fitting subject for rational examination. I.e., sometime around the late Renaissance, Europe stopped believing in magic. That’s about the first time in human history when people lived in a significantly different world than their great-great-grandparents did.”

      I can see this as part of it, but isn’t there the key difference that within fantasy literature magic is usually an actual fact of existence rather than an incorrect superstition?

      It seems to me that, depending on how many people are able to use magic, what the magic is capable of doing, what the costs of using it are, etc. that magic depresses technology simply for the fact that it provides the same end results that technology does, negating any real pressure for innovation. If you can go to a cleric and get your disease cured, injuries repaired, etc. for a small offering to their god, why would anyone take the time and effort to invest in advanced medicine?

      Obviously it varies depending on how far reaching the access is to magical services, and doesn’t really accoutn for everything (especially why there are so many medieval style villages), but it does seem within the realm of possibility that if people have access, by magical means, to some version of the benefits we associate with modern technology then they would develop the corresponding mental attitudes we have developed about individual autonomy and the like.Report

      • Ryan Davidson in reply to Kevin says:

        @Kevin, Actually, I don’t think so. Most fantasy authors–Tolkien being a notable exception–treat magic as technology. Harry Potter is the perfect example of this. They’re basically just positing a few more laws to physics which through technique can be manipulated. Why some people can do magic and others can’t is usually based on some physical property (if it isn’t outright arbitrary) rather than anything moral. So why a society so capable of manipulating unusual examples of physics is somehow incapable of applying that same careful study to the “normal” world has never been satisfactorily explained in any book that I’ve read. You’d think that basic engineering would be a lot less difficult and a lot more useful compared to most implementations of magic of which I’m aware (at least in worlds where people who can’t do magic still know that it exists).Report

  2. Jason Kuznicki says:

    [H]ow does magic effect socio-economic progress and the advancement of technology in society?

    Most authors appear to think that magic encourages monarchy and dictatorship as forms of government.

    This seems especially the case in Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker books, which are parallels to early America, sort of, but with Cromwell and his gang still control of England, while the Stuarts rule the American east coast. Likewise in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in which autocracy seems directly enabled by magic. Tolkien’s societies are almost all absolute monarchies, whether good or bad. (The Shire, the least-governed of all Tolkien’s realms, is also the least involved in magic.)

    Whether by conscious choice or slavish imitation, nearly all other authors have followed Tolkien’s lead. But wouldn’t a magical liberal republic be a lot more interesting? David Eddings’ dreck aside, mind you.Report

    • Plinko in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki,

      I don’t think magic informs Tolkein’s construction of his societies at all. Most of the elven societies seem to be more oligarchic (presence of Kings notwithstanding) – lots of councils and group decisions in the Silmarillion and LoTR -and they have the most access to various types of magic of any group outside of the Istari and Sauron. None of the men have any magical powers at all save maybe access to an artifact or two from the Elves or Istari or maybe stolen from Sauron, yet their societies are all engaged in some kind of Dark Age regional/tribal monarchies.
      In fact, Middle Earth is a world where the magic is dying off and leaving. Almost no magic happens at all in LoTR that is not centered on an artifact from the end of the Second Age (ending with Isildur slaying Sauron and taking, then losing the One Ring). Gandalf is a wizard but his power is mainly in his ability to manipulate people, not in casting fireball spells at orcs, even after his rebirth as Gandalf the White.Report

  3. Aaron says:

    The Malazan books do actually deal with this more explicitly, in Midnight Tides, which largely take place on a continent where (for various reasons) magic has not developed at the pace of the rest of the world. It’s something I’ve always thought was interesting as well. If you can create a gateway from A to B to carry your stuff over short distances, then what’s the point in developing a steam engine to do it?

    One of the things that I find fascinating about history is the way environment and resources play such a huge factor in a societies development: the lack of sophisticated metallurgy in the Americas, for example. Or smaller factors: the technology of the yew longbow becoming such a large factor in the Hundred Years’ War.

    As in many things, I think Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell gets around this very nicely. Magic fades out right before the modern age would have gotten going, anyways, and is presented as being difficult/arcane at any rate. The contrast with the not-very-magical English developing technology with the extremely magical Faeries’ powerful magic but almost completely lawless and crumbling society is a nod in this direction, I think.

    Finally, just as I think it’s difficult for science fiction to present a believably different alien that can interact with a human society (as opposed to simply not recognizing and/or living wholly parallel lives with them) is the same kind of quandry as how magic can present an internally consistant world featuring non-trivial useage of powerful magic with a society in anyway recognizable as developmentally human. I think the Malazan books (and Bakker’s books) do a good job of this by shifting their focus from the more explicitly medieval settings of George R.R. Martin and the lesser crop of Brooks, Eddings, et cetera, to a much more Roman/Greek setting. Explicitly polytheist, colonial and, as Ryan mentioned, a world where the same technology had been spinning in place for a long, long time. Tolkein, I think, really side steps the whole issue. His world is largely pre-medieval, I think, and also features far less explicit magic in it than many. No spell casting, magic users (Sauron, Gandalf, Sauroman and Elrond) being a very limited set of the over all world. There are some magic items (the ring, obviously, but some swords, the lembas bread), but largely the people in the world are moving between the feet of a handful of demi-gods.Report

  4. North says:

    E.D. I think the question is incomplete. In order to have any idea of the impact of magic on a society we’d need to know more about it.
    -What can magic do and what does it demand in return from its users?
    The more ubiquitous and the “cheaper” it is the more it would supplant technology.
    -What is the ease of its use? The easier it is to use the less human the people in its world would become (and they’d become more fairy like).
    -How egalitarian is it; is it a learned skill or an inborn trait? I would think that magic that is restricted only to an accident of birth or specific blood lines would greatly encourage autocracies and dictatorships.Report

  5. Simon K says:

    Obviously magic and technology are partial substitutes. If magic is costless, technology is pointless – if you can teleport yourself from place to place with no cost, most technology is just irrelevant. But most magical worlds in fiction seem to make magic quite costly – only rare individuals can perform it, it often imposes greater physical costs than doing the same thing without magic, it Destroys the Fabric of Reality, and so on. Its odd then that magical worlds usually seem to be technologically backward – since magic is expensive and rare you’d expect someone somewhere to start inventing horse bridles, wheels, engines, etc.

    Of course its often the elite who have control of the magic, or some special guild, so obviously that creates a powerful interest in controlling the appearance of any kind of technology, since it would compete with magic and erode their economic and political power. The idea of Gandalf teleporting into the shire and smashing looms is quite amusing – probably Tolkein would have approved.

    Interestingly magic seems to be an individual or small group affair, whereas advanced technology requires social organization on a grand scale. Building a freeway or a microprocessor requires the coordination of tens of thousands of people with highly specialized and different skills across vast distances. Summoning fairies or teleporting yourself seem to require much less coordination. Possibly that creates a path dependency – since most of the requirements of fighting and farming can be supplied by magic, the social order required for any more advanced technology to appear never comes into being.

    I actually think Rowling’s take on magic economics is kind of interesting, although probably accidentally so. Rather than making magic personally expensive, she sets up Harry Potter’s world so that while its quite easy for and individual to do magic – no harder than plumbing or driving a car anyway – it imposes enormous externalities on other wizards by potentially alerting muggles to their existence, plus a lot of magic is socially destructive by its nature (the unforgivable curses and so on). So the magical world is basically run by a vast totalitarian bureaucracy whose purposes is to use magic to prevent the use of magic from getting out of control or coming to muggle attention. As you’d expect its full of inefficiencies and failures of process.Report

  6. Jivatman says:

    Through the history of art, I believe, two different movements can be identified spanning poetry, painting, and music.

    On one hand, classicism. On the other hand, romanticism.

    With classicism there is a respect for, particularly in particular, ancient Greece, and the Roman Republic.

    Classicism is associated with, above all, respect for reason. It is associated with formal structures. In music – Bach and Mozart being the penultimate of the classical style. In painting and sculpture, and emphasis on realism and accurate reproductions of life. The Renaissance was a classical revival, and of course, much of it’s painting and sculpture was such.

    The Enlightenment was also classical, the founding of America look back at the last successful Republics and their laws, Greece and Rome. Through Jefferson and others, the largest influence on America’s architecture was Andrea Palladio, a Renaissance architect who revived ancient architecture with modern techniques and forms.

    Classicism is openly derisive of the Middle ages/Dark Ages. (Middle ages meaning in between the rise of great civilizations, Dark Ages being even more openly derisive, employing traditional light v. darkness terminology. I think in modern day, with some exceptions, sci-fi is largely classicist, the best example though, is star-trek, with high technology and a equal and democratic and Utopian future and form of government.

    Romanticism goes in the opposite direction, respecting the medieval times above others. Romanticism is derisive of modernism. It’s not derisive of classical antiquity, but when respected, it’s because of it’s romantic qualities rather than reason, technology, or law. It draws strongly upon epic poetry, folk music and folklore (brothers Grimm).

    In art, impressionism is the emotional impression of a scene, rather than an accurate reproduction. In music, orchestras were large, and rather than having a strict formal structure, painted a scene with music, and created feelings of sadness, grandeur, etc. The Ring Saga, (ride of the Valkyrie) of course, is one of the most famous romantic music, not only for it’s style, but for drawing heavily upon folklore and helping set the stage for the modern fantasy genre. Interesting to note that arguable the most popular Rock singer, Led Zeppelin, was extremely romanticist, with picaresque, medievalist imagery.

    In literature, it’ also very wide, with dark writers such as Poe, Hawthorne, or Melville, to poets as optimistic as Wordsworth and Emerson.

    Romanticism Nationalism is famous, too. About this, first let me say that I don’t believe nationalism/patriotism is necessarily evil. It’s a sort of natural affection people have, somewhat like their family, to like their nation. I personally think that pride in one’s country can and has driven people to great achievements, and that the success of Europe is because of competition between countries that are somewhat geographically isolated in peninsulas.

    Nazism was romantically nationalist, yes, but a distorted scientific mindset was equally justification for it’s evil. Let’s not forget, Eugenics was an extraordinary popular around the world, especially the united states, and elimination of the mentally/physically handicapped, etc, is based on genetic principles.

    It would be foolish to deny Germany’s scientific achievements both during and prior to the war, in so many fields, and producing some of the greatest geniuses of all time. After WWII, both the U.S. and USSR scrambled to acquire the Nazi scientists, many of whom would be critical in the atomic bomb, space programs, others.

    Misused, science can just as well be the servant of moloch as romanticism. Properly use, each can bring us to the heights of humanity.

    Let me add another point that is interesting to note, between the two movements of classicism and romanticism, as it relates to Astrology, which, I think, may not work but is a beautiful symbolic language

    Romanticism is associated with Leo, Classicism is associated with the opposite sign Aquarius.

    Leo is the fixed fire sign,.Fire signs are associated with being upbeat, outgoing, creative, optimistic, inspiring, idealistic. Fixed signs are associated with persistence, stability, reliability.

    Above people have pointed out the association of Fantasy with monarchy. Leo is associated with monarchy, because it is the ruler of the sun, and is the king. (long have the two been associated). It strives to be noticed through the creativity of the individual (thus the association with acting). It’s also associated with love of honor, being noble, ect. The heros of epic myths are associated with leo, and often wrestle a lion. Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Orion, Hercules or Samson, often wrestle a lion. The fifth house is associated with recreation, children, playing.

    Aquarius is a cardinal air sign. Air signs are associated strongly with objectivity, rationality, communication/abstract ideas. No air signs are animals, a cue to the civilized nature. Cardinal signs are associated with change, and beginnings. Aquarius is concerned with equality, and fairness, a strong social conscience. It is strongly associated with science and progress, much because of their overall association with progressing.
    Association with a strong sense of people and groups (11th house is groups).

    I thus associate Aquarius with the democratic and classicist movement.

    So how does this go with your post? Well, first, magic’s inhibition of progress, second, the points above about fantasy and monarchy, as well as some other considerations. Cheerio.Report

  7. Mark says:

    This post actually hits upon the premise for a book that I’m currently writing. I won’t get into the plot – this is neither the time nor place, but in the book I looked at this very question.

    Thinking about magic, I see certain limitations: 1. magic, at least at a high level, is usually only able to be practiced by a few and this is an artifact of biology or another immutable condition rather than skill or education; 2. it takes the presence, time and labor of a magician to perform any given magic; 3. there is some limit as to the amount of magic available for some give task/spell or a limit to how much magic a given magician can use. This is just distilled from a lifetime misspent reading fantasy and I guess magic need not be so. Nonetheless, I think it’s a fair distillation.

    At the beginning, magic would have an edge – even without refinement, a magician would have access to more power and more uses than low-level technology. However, eventually, population growth outpaces the supply of magicians. Or think of automation – we can make thousands of cars per hour on a technological assembly line. How many flying carpets could be made per hour? Technology has the advantage that every can make it, everyone can use it and it only requires tool that are eventually able to be mass produced. Magic would top out.

    I came to these thoughts after reflecting on one of the more annoying things about fantasy literature – the constant decline of the civilizations. In all fantasy, there was in the past some great and powerful stuff, but now everything is a shadow of what it once was. Nobody researched? Nobody tried to improve their magical skills? They should have learned and refined the knowledge. At least, that’s what the whole of human history teaches us. It’s time we had fantasy that acknowledges the human desire to progress and innovate.Report

    • North in reply to Mark says:

      Very interesting thoughts. A brief comment on the past glorious now fallen civilization point though. Typically when discussing these past fallen civilizations in fantasy the peoples in question fell not because of stagnation or lack of advancement but rather A) their reach exceeded their grasp and they unleashed calamity in their pursuit of advancement (think Robert Jordan in the Wheel of Time) or B) a powerful or malignant force overcame them via either force or deceit and actively caused their downfall (Tolkein is of course the old master of this with Melkor and Sauron).Report

  8. Kaleberg says:

    Dr. Who once said “Any magic sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from technology.” He does have a point, but we rarely encounter sufficiently advanced magic in most fantasy stories.

    Being of a scientific bent and something of an empiricist I always find magic, as described by most authors, as rather annoying. I’m usually willing to roll along with it for the sake of the story, but stories with magic usually follow the same set of rules: (1) Magic is an attribute of the magician, and cannot be simply transferred or acquired. (2) Magic is generally old and unchanging, and often the older the magic, the more powerful.

    I think these rules were chosen to contrast with technology, in reaction to the rise of science, technology and science fiction in particular. Sure, some people might be smarter, or more comfortable with technology, but just about anyone can innovate at some level, whether it is discovering a new knitting pattern or a new particle. My girlfriend loves technology because there is no way your viscera can tell whether a man or woman pulled the trigger on that .45. That’s why they called it the great equalizer.

    Technology can also be transferred. You don’t have to be a genius to use a rifle, a chain saw or an automobile, and you can get a fair bit of benefit with relatively little training. Compare the knowledge required to build an automobile from raw materials as compared to the knowledge require for driving one.

    More importantly, newer technologies are quite often better than the older ones. The Romans built stadiums and harbors out of concrete, but we build 1,000 foot skyscrapers from concrete and rebar. Our concrete is better, and not just in the abstract. Consider the typical scene in a magic novel with the protagonist poring over older and older and more obscure manuscripts in search of the proper sign or spell, and compare it with a science and engineering novel where the protagonist contacts a researcher for an as yet unpublished method or material. No wonder magical societies are conservative. Anything new is, by the laws of magic, inferior to things old.

    As I said, I roll with it, but it annoys me. Now and then we get a glimpse of a more proper magic. Early in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the television show, Willow was a computer hacker, not a witch, and spells could be invoked by scanning. Surely she would cobble together a sandboxed PC, or Mac, if properly induced by Apple, to try millions of spells to find the one to use on the nine headed Medusa that has taken over the high school cafeteria. That would have been great, but instead, Willow found her magical side and started reading older and older books instead of hanging out at Slashdot and 4chan.

    I will admit being please with Butcher’s Alera books. The magic there is old, but it was never immutable. In fact, the protagonist’s great strength is that he was born with no magical abilities whatever in a world full of magic.

    I doubt I’ll see too much magic as science. Magic, as it appears in our fantasies, is intentionally different from technology and for rather sad reasons.Report

    • Aaron in reply to Kaleberg says:

      @Kaleberg, I’d just like to point out that that was Arthur C. Clarke, not Dr. Who. Anyways, continue!Report

    • Kevin in reply to Kaleberg says:


      All in all, seems pretty accurate. Only one quibble – in a lot of books magic is transferable by means of magical artifacts. You may not be able to use magic yourself, but if you can get your hands on a magical stave that can create fireballs and you can use it usually just by learning the magic phrase that activates it.

      And in the same vein, just as it takes a lot less skill and knowledge to be able to drive a car than to build one, it takes a lot less skill to put on a ring that makes you invisible than it does to craft said ring.Report

      • North in reply to Kevin says:

        Well yes there are a lot of parallels. Lets face it, literature is the shadow cast by our imaginations shining through reality. So magic is obviously just a reflection of technology shown in a mirror darkly.Report

      • Plinko in reply to Kevin says:

        @Kevin, Actually, that’s not a quibble, that’s a pretty major view, that humans using ‘magic’ is actually tapping into some other universe and/or beseeching the assitance of gods/demons/higher beings that have those abilities as part of their nature, think of Djinn and demonologists seeking the patronage of beings with powers that are magical to people but ordinary to them.

        That falls into the basic assertion of Tolkein’s that fantasy/faerie is primarly about the intersection of regular human and the magical/fantastical realm that is bound by different rules (see ‘On Fairy Stories’). In Tolkein, no humans have any magical abilities at all. Sauron, Saruman and Gandalf are members of races created earlier than the Elves that had considerably more God-given domain over the world. Melkor is, in essence, Satan – an original fallen angel (can’t remember the name of them from the beginning of the Silmarillion) from the very first of creations of Middle-Earth’s God Equivalent. Tom Bombadil is of the same race as Sauron.

        That doesn’t detract too far from the original thesis that the existence of magic would be a major damper on technological, and thus economic progress, but for different reasons. Magic wouldn’t be out there as what wise men pursued to overcome scarcity, it would be the avenue of power for keeping the human population under the thumb of those races that could use their powers to terrorize and enslave.
        The Age of Men begins at the end of LoTR because with Sauron and Saruman defeated and Gandalf and the eldest of the Elves departing West, there is no one with Great Powers to tyrranize them.Report