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One of the most trafficked posts on this blog is a brief discussion of “Varieties of Capitalism” theory, pointing out how some capitalist economies feature a set of institutions that foster a more dynamic economy and radical innovation, and others have institutions that foster a more sedate, “managed” economy featuring more incremental innovation. (As far as I can surmise from web traffic stats, some comparative-politics professor at San Francisco State University must have noticed the post and included it in a course syllabus. I’m flattered!)

But in the years since I left grad school, the field has marched on. Apparently, scholars have identified at least one other “variety” of capitalism that fills in a bunch of empirical gaps of prior theory. This is the dependent market economy (DME), whose distinguishing feature is that it relies heavily on the foreign investment of outsiders for capital—typically transnational corporations. In this post, I’ll briefly discuss the key features of the DME that would be useful for worldbuilders.

The first economies to be designated as DMEs were found in Eastern and Central Europe, countries that had formerly been dominated by the Soviet Union. They featured an unusual combination of factors: a populace that was reasonably well educated and technically skilled, yet still had low wages, and where the countries’ economic institutions had been totally wiped away and could be built afresh according to the preferences of anyone with enough clout. These were the transnational corporations, who are always on the lookout for skilled, cheap labor. They used the lure of their massive investment to induce the former Warsaw Pact countries to establish institutions that were favorable to company interests—and turned these countries into favored sites for the assembly of “semistandardized industrial goods.”

What are the features of the DME, and the institutions that develop there?

  • A population that had reasonable technical skill—but not too much, or they could develop their own indigenous industries and not be dependent on outside investment.
  • Low wages.
  • A massively disproportionate level of foreign direct investment that dominates the economy, usually because of the lack of domestic capital. (For example, in 2007 Hungary and the Czech Republic both had FDI equal roughly half of their entire gross domestic product.)
  • Governance that is largely controlled by transnational corporate hierarchies, so local company subsidiaries take orders from the parent companies back home. (They also receive funding from back home, rather than relying on local banks or the stock market.)
  • Weak labor laws and no national labor unions.
  • On the other hand, individual companies typically treat their workers well in relative terms, because they don’t want their supply chains disrupted; so management and labor tend to work closely together, company by company. (But companies try to avoid simply paying higher wages, which defeats the point of the exercise!)
  • Little investment in worker training or a public education system, and the education system’s reorientation to the specific skill needs of the transnational companies, because companies don’t want to spend a lot of money or make it easy for their workers to leave, and because the DME is not meant to develop new technology—only to implement the technologies developed elsewhere.
  • Sectors of the economy where the country has a clear comparative advantage, such as the assembly of automobiles or electronics, are dominated by foreign ownership. The same is often true of the banking system, which needs a lot of capital. Meanwhile, less competitive segments of the economy remain in domestic hands, but languish. If left unchecked, this division could lead to tensions between wealthier and poorer worker groups in society.

We thus have another model for what an economy could look like, and why it would look that way. True, few worldbuilders will be working with a direct analogue to something like the collapse of the Iron Curtain; but if you’re thoughtful, you can extract useful principles from the foregoing for use in your work.

There are additional types of economies—chiefly the typical “dependency” economy (or supply region) that is exploited for basic commodities; the “patrimonialist” society with high corruption, patron-client networks, informal arrangements, and pervasive insecurity; and the incoherent mishmash that borrows features from several other economies which don’t necessarily work well in combination. I hope to explore some of these more in later writing.


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Wealth for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)