Recently I attended a wonderful seminar on “Capitalism and the Future of Democracy” with the Tikvah Fund. One of the main themes of the class was about how societies and economic systems could not simply exist on their own, but needed justification. Back in premodern times, all over the world, the pursuit of wealth was seen as morally corrosive, commerce was viewed with skepticism if not outright contempt, and governments saw it as their duty to guide economic behavior with a heavy hand. Then came John Locke, who argued that ownership of property was a God-given right, an individual accumulating wealth actually facilitated the welfare of the whole society, and the best thing that governments could do is to uphold property rights and otherwise get out of the way. Thanks in part to that claim, a revolution in thinking about commerce swept across Europe.
Now, many are agitating about growing inequality. Whether or not inequality is a problem (I think it is, though not always for the same reasons as others) and whether it should be solved by government intervention (I think most proposed remedies are worse than the disease), it is surely the case that ideas about economic justice are creating social currents that work against the “natural” direction of our current economic systems. Wealth will have to be justified if it is to be perpetuated.
I came away from that seminar with ideas for another long-term project, now that my dissertation is done. (More on that when I actually decide to launch into the thing…) But a larger point, which is useful for fiction writers as well as those seeking to change the political world, is that legitimacy is a powerful force. New ideas can change notions of what behavior is legitimate, or which institutions are legitimate, or how that legitimacy is to be established and maintained. Before you can overthrow the king and replace him with the glorious people’s assembly, you need to believe that kings are not divine and that people have the right to govern themselves. This is not an obvious belief, and how such beliefs get spread in a society could be a powerful story in itself.