Worldbuilding, National Beliefs, and Punishment


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The political and social institutions in a country are, in part, designed to reflect the country’s beliefs or governing philosophy. This is intuitive: you design your government (in part) the way you think will work best, so its design depends on what you think will work best. Sometimes this can be an unconscious process, as when the spread of mass production helped condition an entire generation to believe that fascism was better than democracy. At other times, this can be explicit. For example, Spain’s colonies in South America rebelled, in part, because of the galvanizing influence of the American Revolution and its great experiment of republican democracy. Later, in the mid-20th century, Latin American generals lost faith in democracy’s ability to run their countries, and decided to do the job themselves—launching coups against the elected governments and claiming the right to rule based on technocratic skill.

When we do worldbuilding and design our world’s countries, we should keep in mind the deep influence of ideas. Mind you, it’s easy to go overboard, and have every facet of a country be the pure expression of some philosophical system or other. Just remember that politics and history have their say too. But ideas still matter.

We can see this very clearly, for example, with how societies punish their lawbreakers. In the United States, most people tend to believe that prison is an appropriate punishment, and flogging is not. In Singapore, by contrast, criminals often accept caning as a way to reduce their prison sentence. In the ancient Biblical penal system (and in most penal systems of stateless societies), prisons were virtually unheard-of; most crimes were punished by fines of money or involuntary servitude, with some crimes resulting in flogging or the death penalty. Why?

In part, the differences are due to historical or practical factors. In particular, prisons are expensive and waste good labor. Still, we can learn a lot about the impact of ideas by looking at how the American prison system is justified philosophically.

The first thing we notice is that there is no single justification offered, and that many of the justifications conflict with each other. California Rule of Court 4.410, to take one example, lists eight objectives of the penal system:

(1) Protecting society;

(2) Punishing the defendant;

(3) Encouraging the defendant to lead a law-abiding life in the future and deterring him or her from future offenses;

(4) Deterring others from criminal conduct by demonstrating its consequences;

(5) Preventing the defendant from committing new crimes by isolating him or her for the period of incarceration;

(6) Securing restitution for the victims of crime;

(7) Achieving uniformity in sentencing; and

(8) Increasing public safety by reducing recidivism through community-based corrections programs and evidence-based practices.

Punishment and deterrence are not the same thing. To punish an offender, we decide how “bad” the offense was and then inflict a penalty commensurate with its “badness.” In part, this is to demonstrate that the offense was bad—that it merited a certain level of punishment. But to deter, we might have to inflict a penalty that is much worse than the offense. If it is hard to catch criminals, a proportionate punishment will not deter others.

For example, suppose that if you are caught stealing money, you have to pay back double what you stole—returning what you took and paying a further penalty. This makes sense from a punishment perspective: you stole from someone else, so your penalty is to lose the same amount as you took. Yet that punishment may not deter other criminals, if it is difficult to catch thieves. If only 10% of thefts are solved, for example, other criminals will figure that they will likely not be caught, and that it’s worth the risk.

If a society’s goal is to punish alone, it may view the lack of deterrence as an acceptable cost to keep punishments fair to the individual criminal. But if the society is worried about the overall level of crime, it might make the penalties harsher to deter other would-be thieves. For example, you might have to return five cattle for every one you stole. Or, as in early-modern England, you might be hanged. (Today, we would be horrified if someone were executed for stealing a sheep. On the other hand, in America the typical prison sentence for tax evasion is longer than for manslaughter.)

Such disproportionate punishments are unfair to the criminal, in one sense—it’s not her fault that most criminals escape punishment. A society that puts the highest value on individual rights might hesitate to use harsh “Beckerian” penalties. On the other hand, a society that prioritizes the collective good may be more apt to use harsh penalties if it thinks that the crime level will be kept lower that way.

Similarly, consider the tension between “encouraging the defendant to lead a law-abiding life,” and “isolating” the defendant by locking him in prison. If prison can be used to rehabilitate its inmates, then we ought to free an inmate as soon as his rehabilitation is complete. On the other hand, if someone is a hard criminal who will not change, and who will simply keep hurting people if able, it would make sense to keep her in prison forever, regardless of the particular crime for which she was convicted. So which is it? Do we as a society believe that criminals can be made better, or that they are irredeemable? Based on that difference, a society will tend to favor one approach over the other.

(In the real world, America isn’t sure what it believes—and everyone pays the price. The recidivism rate of the prison system—how often inmates are convicted of new crimes after their release—is over 75% in five years. Our prisons are not designed to rehabilitate people, in the main, but to dehumanize them. A more rational system would spend far more effort on rehabilitation, and society would benefit for it. Yet we also fail to treat many crimes with the seriousness that they merit, so that many dangerous criminals are released too early to harm again. Some would-be reformers focus on decarceration, which is easy, without spending much time thinking about reducing recidivism, which is hard. The result is more suffering, not less.)


Now, suppose that you were an Evil Overlord. You believe that individual freedom or moral worth is unimportant, and the main purpose of punishment is twofold: keep yourself in power, and keep society functioning smoothly enough to keep the taxes flowing. How might your “justice” system work?

The worst crime would be treason, which would be punished with death by slow torture. The traitor’s family and friends might also be tortured to death, if you go for that sort of thing. Theft would be next, especially theft from a tax collector. By contrast, the seriousness of murder would depend on who is doing the murdering. If one of your nobles decides to kidnap a peasant girl, use her, and leave her body in a shallow grave, little harm done. But if her peasant father decides to kill the noble in response, that would be a threat to the entire social order and must be met with harsh penalties.

Individual guilt would matter, but not much. The appearance of swift punishment is more important. Forced confessions would be commonplace, collective punishment might be used if worthwhile, and penalties would be harsh. Slave labor might be common, being a nice bonus to help the state turn a profit on its criminals.


We could keep going, but you get the point. We could go through a similar exercise thinking about other things besides punishment: property rights, the relative positions of men and women in society, attitudes towards work and wealth, and so on.

Sometimes this process goes in reverse. If society’s institutions happen to be a certain way, due to historical accident or material necessity or whatever, some people will develop justifications for why those institutions represent the pinnacle of moral achievement, no matter how cruel. (See under “chattel slavery in the American South,” for example.)

So in your worldbuilding, spend some time thinking about the impact of ideas on societies, and of societies on ideas.


(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 Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)


New Release! Telling the Stories of Women Veterans


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My micropress, Lagrange Books, has just published a new book by Ron Farina, Out of the Shadows: Voices of American Women Soldiers. You can read the blog post there for the official announcement, but for the purposes of my personal blog, let me just say how very proud I am of Ron’s book.

Ron spent many, many hours talking to these incredible women about their experiences. He then wrote nine harrowing stories, and the two of us pored over each word, making sure that Ron had captured the essences of the veterans in the best way he could. Out of the Shadows is the product of the hard work of Ron, our brilliant cover designers at Deranged Doctor Design, skillful editors, our sponsor the Arenberg Foundation (and particularly the indefatigable Col. Roger Housen), and more.

For me, this project was especially meaningful because of my own family’s connection to the military. Both of my grandfathers served (in World War II and Korea respectively), and other family members served in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The tremendous sacrifices that we ask of our servicemen and women are easy to glibly acknowledge with a “Thank you for your service”; but it is harder to truly understand what they mean, and the obligations that they place on us in return. I hope that Ron’s writing helps to redress the balance, at least a little bit.

Group Identities in Politics: Ethnic Groups


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Let’s take a break from economics (see prior posts) and start to tackle an even thornier subject: group identities, and how they matter in politics.

That our identities matter is obvious, as a quick look around the contemporary scene shows. But as worldbuilders, we need to ask a few questions:

  • How does a group identity form?
  • How is a group identity maintained and perpetuated?
  • How and when does a group identity shift over time?
  • When does a group identity become politically salient?
  • What happens when groups come into conflict?

Now, this is a massively tricky field that a lot of people have grappled with for millennia. Any answers we settle on are going to be incomplete, and that’s okay. Remember: all models are wrong, but some are useful. For our purposes, “useful” means that a model helps us develop story conflicts and keep them organized.

One thing to keep in mind: in the most fundamental sense, “groups” don’t do anything. Only individuals do. On the other hand, the cumulative influences of the many individuals of one’s group can structure the choices available to the individual, so that we can talk about group action and mean something real. Still, the individual always has the option of flipping over the table and walking away, so to speak.

Any “group” tendency has to act on the individual level to mean anything. That is particularly true when we talk about politics. Groups don’t magically decide to take political positions or engage in political conflict; particular individuals within the group actively choose to do so and to convince or force others in the group to follow along. That also matters for fiction; we generally tell stories about people, not groups of people.

With that as our basis, let’s talk about ethnic groups.

There’s lots of possible definitions for “ethnic group,” and different theories for how such groups form and dissolve. But since we are not trying to explain the whole world, but to develop a useful tool for worldbuilding, let’s narrow our focus to three such lenses—which we will call primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist.

In a primordialist lens, an ethnic group is based on some real, immutable basis. A people exists because its members share ties of blood, deep history, and culture. Try as you might, you can never truly escape your ethnic group; it is a part of you. Similarly, you can never truly join another ethnic group, because even if you interact with it or even marry one of its members, you lack the deep heritage that they share with each other, and that you share with the ethnic group of your birth. In a fictional story, this might be an even more powerful force: ethnic groups might make up entirely different species, or have different magical talents, or whatever. In a primordialist viewpoint, ethnic identity is pretty much a given.

In an instrumentalist lens, by contrast, ethnic groups are constantly changing and adapting to the world and their own changing needs. People within the ethnic group are always reinterpreting its traditions, its practices, its relations with other groups, the boundaries between in-group and out-group. Tribal societies usually espoused an ancient blood identity in mythic terms, but pragmatically incorporated other bloodlines as a matter of course through adoption or marriage ties. In the instrumentalist viewpoint, the focus shifts from ancient history to modern practice: how the ethnic group is reproduced across generations, how it maintains or modifies its cultural practices, how it defines itself and distinguishes itself from others.

The constructivist lens shifts its focus again—not to what the group thinks of itself, but what others think of it. Constructivists recognize that at the extreme, some ethnic groups may coalesce from previously unrelated peoples who are thrown together by circumstance and kept together by the attitudes of those around them. Consider the category “Black.” Africa is a massive continent, and the peoples living there have a long history of national enmities and bloody wars, as peoples tend to do. Yet when African slaves were brought to the Americas, their previous identities suddenly became less important than the fact that the surrounding white freemen considered them all to be in the same group. Over time, Blacks began to see themselves in the same terms, by necessity: if others were going to relate to them as a particular identity, they needed to grapple with what that meant and to adapt to the needs of their circumstances.

“White” too has shifted in constructivist terms. Once, Irish and Italians were considered “lower races” by “white” Americans. Today, they are not. The difference was not in how these groups see themselves, but in how the majority society’s views of them changed. Similarly, many non-whites today think of Jews as white, even though most Jews would tend to resist such a label. But even if we reject thinking of ourselves as white, Jews need to be aware of the consequences of such a label and how it changes the way that others view us. (Asian-Americans, meanwhile, appear to be the “new Jews” in many respects, and are starting to awaken to what that means in political terms.)

A much more ancient example would be the Apiru of the Ancient Near East. Originally “Apiru” showed up in Mesopotamian texts as a reference to indigent, landless laborers or mercenaries. Over time, the term apparently took on an ethnic meaning. One might suppose that the existing landless class started to see itself as a group, the same way that the surrounding properties classes did, and to act accordingly. Ultimately, the Apiru became a feared enemy of the existing political order; in Middle Bronze Age Canaan, Apiru frequently conquered city states and massacred their political elites, and the cities’ Egyptian overlords were unable to stop them.

(Some have speculated that the Apiru are the historical basis for the Israelite people, though there is little evidence linking the two other than the claimed etymological link between Apiru and Ivri, Hebrew. I think the argument weak, based on my review of the debate. But I digress.)

Importantly, ethnic group identities can be constructed or altered through government action. (And so can other forms of group identity, which I hope to discuss later.) For example, American Indian tribes once had fluid criteria for membership, and frequently welcomed European settlers who were trying to escape the oppressive political or economic systems of their day; but today, the tribes are largely defined by reference to blood quantum, a racialist categorization not adopted by the tribes of their own choice, but imposed by the United States government. Similarly, British colonial officials in Africa would frequently mash together several local groups into artificial “tribes” and appoint leaders over them, the better to control them administratively.

In real life, all of these lenses and more are operating at once, in a confused tangle of forces pulling us in many directions as we navigate our own identities. In fiction, you can find it useful to think of them separately, and then to purposefully layer them on top of each other if it helps your story.

(EDIT: apparently this is not the first time I’ve written about this topic. A similar post from 2018 covers some of the same ground, but not all; but also touches on how group identities can be activated in political terms, which I hope to flesh out in a future post.)


(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 Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

Building an Economy: Capital


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Last post, we briefly noted that economies need capital to generate wealth and resources. Sometimes this amounts to a circular definition: we use money to make money. Moreover, money is infinitely flexible: we can use money profitably in a number of ways. If you have a moneymaking venture, and opportunities shift, you can easily shift your money in response. And it doesn’t have to be money; other forms of capital are also flexible and easily repurposed, like a computer, or a college degree in English.

But some kinds of capital are very specific: an aluminum-smelting furnace is designed to do one thing, smelt aluminum. You can’t use an aluminum smelter to bake bread, or dig a hole, or weave cloth. The smelter is capital, but it is a form of capital that cannot be repurposed; and if you tried to sell it, you’re likely to get back a fraction of its original cost. That changes things a great deal. If you invest in capital that is inflexible—whether because it has only a few use cases, or literally cannot be moved once it’s built—you’re committed. You will resist changes that make your capital worthless, and you will likely continue trying to pursue the original venture even after it stops making sense.

This has effects in the economy narrowly, but also in politics. Michael Hiscox argues that if the prevailing technology of capital in a society is flexible, capital can readily shift between uses and the important distinction is between people with lots of capital and those with little. As a result, you would tend to see broad political coalitions based on class: capital against labor, or haves versus have-nots. Policies favoring particular industries would be of little importance in the political system, since failing industries will simply have capital shift out of them with little drama; more important would be how to allocate the economy’s gains in general.

On the other hand, if capital is largely specific and inflexible—for example, large factories built around a single product that cannot be retooled easily, or large sources of natural resources like oil—then it will be difficult to shift between industries, and the economy will see a wide variety of industry-based interest groups. In such a setting, the workers in these industries would tend to be allies of their bosses; if the factory closes down, both groups suffer. And each industry will fight fiercely to defend its position, to push policies that favor it, to defeat policies that threaten it, and to squelch potential disruptor industries.

In the real world, economies tend to feature a mix of flexible and inflexible capital, which complicates things. (Some oligarchs’ wealth might be based on flexible capital, for example, and others’ on inflexible capital, which would potentially put them in conflict.) And it gets even more complicated once you factor in other types of resources—particularly land and labor, which we will discuss in future posts. (But we’ll be going nice and slowly, not least because I’m still figuring out the best way to present all of these factors, and build them into a workable model!).

Still, just the difference caused by flexible versus inflexible capital is already a powerful tool for story conflict. Not bad, eh?


(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 Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

Building an Economy: The Struggle Between Urban and Rural


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As Trotsky noted, much of politics is about “who and whom?” In other words, which social group gets to benefit at which other group’s expense? This plays out vividly in the conflict between rural farmers and city workers—and governments often take the side of the city. This clash of interests can be a fantastic engine for fictional conflict, in your stories and your worldbuilding.

(This post is largely based on Robert Bates, Markets and States in Tropical Africa, with some flavor from Charles Tilly, James C. Scott, and David Graeber.)

We said before that cities play important roles in generating wealth and projecting state power, but that their size is limited by their access to food (or more abstractly, the energy surplus of the society). This also means that city dwellers and farmers have precisely opposite interests with regard to the market price of food: farmers are selling food and would like a high price for their crops, but city dwellers must buy food and want a low price.

Another limiting factor is capital, the fuel not for people’s lives but for their ability to produce goods and infrastructure. (This often takes the form of money, but remember that money is simply a convenient representation of other things people need—natural resources, machines, human labor, et cetera.) This presents a problem for state rulers in a dangerous world: if they want to develop modern industries and manufacturing in a country that is presently agrarian, where do they get the capital from? Often, the best available source of capital is the rural farmers—who might be individually poor, but still collectively have the largest available source of capital: their crops.

Worse, keeping the cities happy is often far more important to states than is keeping rural provinces. The reason is simple: the state officials are in the cities. If the state antagonizes a bunch of farmers a hundred miles away, they can do little to the state officials; but if the state antagonizes a bunch of city dwellers, the city dwellers will riot and perhaps lynch state workers or even overthrow the government entirely.

Thus, states trying to build up their cities must somehow balance off three competing priorities:

  • keep food prices low;
  • extract capital from the rural populace and use it to develop city industries (or perhaps to build a military, or other purposes); and
  • don’t leave farmers so poor that the food supply dries up.

In ancient times, this was done straightforwardly. Taxes were levied on food directly, which the government then distributed to its own personnel and to associated artisans; and people were also drafted for terms of forced labor (“corvée labor”), their own bodies providing the capital that the state needed. (The Bible, for example, attests to people being drafted for three months out of every twelve during the period of King Solomon’s great building projects.) If taxes became too burdensome, the people would resist, but as long as the state didn’t push the populace to the breaking point they could access a fair amount of resources with little trouble.

In more modern times, states had some fancier tools available. Robert Bates writes of postcolonial African states, which were able to make use of a preexisting colonial institution, the monopsony—a single buyer which farmers were obligated to sell all of their cash crops to at a given price. (As opposed to a monopoly, a single seller of a good.) This allowed states to extract foodstuffs from the rural populace at artificially low prices, which could then be sold to urban workers or exported for cash. (To do so, they often had to ban export of crops as well when the world market price was higher than what they were paying.) This meant that urban workers could pay low prices for their food, and the state had lots of capital available for economic development (or other, less useful purposes).

But how to sustain the farmers if you’re paying dirt-cheap prices for their goods? The answer was to subsidize farming inputs, such as machinery, fuel, and access to cheap credit. This had the additional advantage to the state that you could direct the subsidies to chiefly benefit your own supporters, often wealthy members of the government who entered farming specifically to soak up all the subsidies they could. In practice, therefore, a regime of subsidized inputs and too-low output prices would squeeze the peasants while benefiting large farms owned by elites.

(Meanwhile, farmers often resisted by shifting some of their crop production to goods not covered by the monopsony, and by selling some of their goods on the black market. Bates estimates that no more than 30% to 40% of agricultural production was captured by the monopsonies, on average.)

Such systems in real life often performed worse than expected, because the states’ programs of economic development were poorly run, frequently corrupt, and prone to pursue prestige industries such as heavy manufacturing that were impossible to sustain with the countries’ given level of technology, human capital, and infrastructure. But that is a story for another post. For now, the point is to highlight the conflicting interests between urban and rural populations—and how the state, trying to augment its own power and economic resources, will favor the city over the countryside.


(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 Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

Building an Economy: Types of Cities


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Part of worldbuilding is deciding on the map of your territory, whatever that looks like. (A vast empire sprawling across continents, or a tiny province nestled in the hills, or a series of star systems?) And part of that process involves deciding where the cities are. As my last post indicates, cities play a vital role in the economy—but they can also play a key role in politics directly. We’ll discuss that aspect in more detail in future posts, but for now, the key point is that cities can be built for several different purposes—and which purpose a given city was built for will explain where it is located geographically.

So this post will inventory those purposes, to set the stage for our future discussions of cities in politics.

(The concepts here are largely taken from Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations, as discussed in the previous post; Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, which we’ll discuss more in the future; and my hazy memories of Fernand Braudel.)

First, we should define our terms. A city, as I’m using the term, is a large settlement of people, most of whom are not producing food. This distinguishes a city from a village, which might feature a few specialists like a blacksmith or cartwright, but will mostly consist of farmers or ranchers. By contrast, a city depends on the efficient production of food by others, and its transport to the city, often from the surrounding rural areas.

A society’s capacity to support cities will depend on the size of its energy surplus and its ability to efficiently transport and distribute food. Tilly notes that during the Middle Ages, perhaps 10% of the European populace lived in cities because agriculture and especially transportation could not support more. An oxcart of grain could travel perhaps a few hundred kilometers before the oxen had eaten more than they carried. The most efficient transport was over water, either by sea or on the rivers. It was not uncommon for waterfront warehouses to be filled to bursting with grain that could not find a buyer, while a few hundred miles inland villages were starving.

By contrast, today over 80% of the North American population lives in urban regions, and over 56% of the world’s population. We commonly transport food across the globe, and many people have never even seen a farm, much less worked on one.

So why do people live in cities, and why do they get built in the first place? For our purposes, we’ll focus on the following:

  • commercial cities,
  • industrial cities (loosely defined), and
  • administrative/garrison cities.

And of course, once a city exists and starts to grow, it often takes on aspects of the other roles as well.

Commercial Cities

Cities that naturally emerge to facilitate commerce and trade are the most common, the most “natural,” and the most easily sustained. The simplest model for a commercial city would be one that grows up in the middle of a collection of rural villages; all the villagers from the different villages converge in the center to trade with each other, and somebody has the bright idea to build houses there and set up permanent establishments to more efficiently cater to the villagers. It grows over time as more industries set up, and eventually could start trading with other more distant cities as well; eventually its size reaches the limit of what its food supply can support, but its wealth might continue to grow if more valuable industries develop.

The Platonic ideal of a commercial city springs up on its own, as a result of people freely coming to the city and setting up shop. People are attracted by the prospect of working in a trade, or markets for their goods produced back at the farm, or even finding a spouse. If economic prospects in the city dim, it will lose population as people head for greener pastures.

The biggest commercial cities are at the intersection of trade routes and along the coast or rivers (the highways of the old world), especially where a river reaches the sea or several rivers intersect—or even better, if they don’t actually intersect, but pass close enough together that one can transport goods overland from one river to the other, passing through the city in the process. Think of Paris, Lyon, London, Amsterdam, the great Italian cities, and the like.

Conversely, if the trade routes shift, the city might find itself cut off from much of its commerce. For example, when the railroads were laid down across the United States, they largely ran along flat terrain since trains could not climb slopes of more than a few degrees. Communities that had previously lived in hilly regions near small rivers found themselves sucked inexorably into the lowlands as trade patterns shifted, and many towns and cities dried up as a result.

Industrial Cities

By “industrial,” I mean a city whose main purpose is to provide a place for people to live while they work at their jobs. This could include “factory towns” or “company towns,” essentially the dormitories of a major company’s factory workers; mining camps, where a bunch of individuals collect together as they work in the surrounding areas; or even “college towns,” where a college or university is placed in the middle of nowhere and a town grows up around it to support it.

Naturally, the industrial city will be placed convenient to the site of the work, be it a factory, a region rich in raw materials, or the like. It will have to have access to a food supply, but will pay for it with the proceeds of its production, rather than as a hub for trade in general. In some cases, the industrial city itself is a center for food production (making it an edge case for our definition of “city” above), but differs from a large village due to its size and that it mainly produces for export.

Industrial cities are common in supply regions that disproportionately produce materials for export (see previous post). Over time, industrial cities may develop elements of the commercial city as well, which might form the basis of more durable prosperity; but if such development is limited, the industrial city will rise and fall with the fortunes of its industry.

Sometimes, industrial cities will emerge spontaneously, especially of the mining-town variety. Other times, these cities will be built at the initiative of the cornerstone company or industry, which invests heavily in the city as a part of its production base and might even import workers from elsewhere. Sometimes, industrial cities can be built by governments trying to encourage particular industries or patterns of development, and sometimes they are populated by force—with slaves, or serfs, or other captive peoples carried off from their homes.

Administrative/Garrison Cities

These cities have little or no commercial basis, at least not initially; they are typically created and supported by governments, to project government power and authority.

Garrison cities are bases for military units; some might be in the heartland, where they can be easily supplied, but others might be placed on the frontier for defensive or offensive purposes. Often they are walled, or might be actual castles or fortresses. Such garrisons must be provisioned at great expense if they are outside the normal trade routes; sometimes they even grow their own food. A garrison would feature the soldiers themselves, plus their families and whatever camp followers or support specialists would be necessary, such as smiths or doctors. Depending on the garrison, other civilians might live there as well to sell services to the soldiers, hoping to drain the cash of a captive populace of bored young men (or women?) with little else to do.

(Some garrison towns might play host not to state military units, but to strong mercenary units.)

Administrative cities might overlap with garrisons, but are generally placed in the heartland. Their main function is to collect taxes, or otherwise enforce the laws. They act as nerve centers for the bureaucracy, often including the state security services if these are different from the military. While garrisons are placed where military necessity dictates, administrative cities are placed where the people are, the better to control them. People living in an administrative city are usually state functionaries, or those selling services to them. (Think of Washington DC, for example.)

Such cities produce few or no economic goods and rely on tax revenue, and when the state stops supporting them they wither away (unless they have developed a commercial or productive basis in the meanwhile). The exception is when a garrison city, or an administrative city hosting a police force, simply takes food from surrounding regions at swordpoint to support itself once the tax money dries up.

Cities and Power

As we noted above, cities can play multiple roles at once, and many do once they have existed long enough. But the initial location of a city is determined by its starting role; and once it takes root, it influences economic, political, and strategic changes around it. Cities are critical tools for the development of economic and political power, so where you put your cities will condition the conflicts that break out in your stories.


(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 Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

Building an Economy: Cities and the Wealth of Nations


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Suppose you’re writing a story that involves trade between cities, or maybe between a city and a rural area. Maybe your protagonist is a merchant, or a farmer selling goods in the marketplace, or the Lord Mayor. So you’d better have at least some concept for how a city economy works, and how cities interact with their surrounding regions. There is much to say about the topic, of course; Fernand Braudel (for one) wrote three massive books on cities and capitalist economies. But you’re not writing an economics textbook; you just want a simple yet powerful model to sketch out some background for your story. If so, you’re in luck. I love simple and powerful models, and here’s a good one.

Writing in the 1980s, the pioneering student of cities Jane Jacobs produced a short, scintillating book that should have been like a torpedo into the waterline of conventional economics, Cities and the Wealth of Nations. She argued that most national economic policy was wrongheaded, because it focused on economic activity at the national level, rather than at the level of the fundamental unit of economic activity: the city. Globalized supply chains of the type we are familiar with, on the other hand, don’t tend to produce regional prosperity, because they don’t generate complementary webs of economic activity in the places that feature nodes of the supply chain.

Needless to say, Jacobs’ work has not been popular among the business class or conventional economists. And many of her arguments get complicated by the radical decentralization of the internet. Still, especially for authors writing about pre-internet societies, Jacobs’ work provides a useful set of tools for understanding complex economic effects. If you want to feature economic change as a major contributor to your plot, read on.


Jacobs argued that the main way that a city can generate sustainable prosperity is by developing local industries that produce things that the city formerly imported. This allows the city to internalize the profits that formerly went to the trade partners. But more importantly, it allows the city to develop webs of technical expertise and complementary industries, which it can then build on to grow related industries and replace more complex imports, and so on.

Meanwhile, the city does not import any less than it once did; it may in fact import more as it grows wealthier. But it does import different things than before (including innovative goods produced by other cities), raising its material standard of living. Imports thus play three roles: they are consumed; they are the earnings of successful economic development, and thus stimulate that development; and they are candidates for local replacement. (This makes them different, and more economically potent, than simply throwing money at a city in order to magically produce economic growth.)

(This echoes our discussion of energy surpluses as the spur to material and cultural development.)

As the city replaces imports, it exerts five kinds of forces on surrounding regions:

  • Enlarged markets for new goods from rural regions or other cities;
  • Increasing numbers and kinds of jobs in the import-replacing city;
  • Displacement of former city industries into surrounding rural areas;
  • New uses of technology, especially to increase rural productivity; and
  • Growth of city capital.

When these five forces are in balance, they tend to make the surrounding region more prosperous as well, anchoring a general growth in wealth and human flourishing. That is, a balanced city turns its hinterland into a city region. A city region benefits from the increased economic activity of the city, but is not distorted by it; it still produces more for its own use than for export to the city. But the availability of city markets for rural goods, city jobs for people who lack employment at home, and new industries spilling out from the city, along with new productive technology and the money to pay for its use, make the city region thrive.

The five forces often do not act equally, however. When one or two of the forces acts with disproportionate power on a given region, the region becomes distorted in characteristic ways.

A stagnant region, for example, features widespread poverty, a sluggish economy, and a low level of technology. If a nearby city becomes more prosperous, the stagnant region does not benefit. It cannot produce much that the city needs, and for whatever reason cannot support the industries that are being displaced from the city. What does happen is that the most productive and adventurous people living in the stagnant region pull up stakes, and move to the city to work. The stagnant region, already in a desperate state, becomes hollowed out as its workers leave. If workers send remittances home, that can help improve the standard of living of those still there; but only by funding current consumption. Such remittances don’t tend to generate local industries and economic growth, because the stagnant region cannot support new businesses or work the way that the city can.

In a clearance region, on the other hand, new technology makes production more efficient, displacing some of the existing workforce, but few or no new jobs are forthcoming. Many people are driven from the land or from their previous jobs, and they suffer as a result. The ones who are able to stay, on the other hand, benefit from the new technology and their improved productivity. For example, in the 1970s, India, seeking to improve conditions for the rural poor, sponsored the development of a bicycle-powered spinning wheel. Using it, a villager could produce as much yarn as twelve workers using traditional spinning wheels. However, the other eleven villagers, who had spent their whole lives spinning wool, had no other work to do; the new spinning wheel simply made them destitute, even as the first worker benefited. So India could not dare to encourage the use of the labor-saving device it sponsored.

If growing city capital and growing city markets combine in an unbalanced search for raw materials, a region can be transformed into a supply region, where economic activity is dominated by the extraction and transport of raw materials for export (like timber, iron, or coal). Without new local industries to balance out the economic effects of the city’s inexorable need for raw materials, most workers in the supply region will depend on supplying the one thing that the city wants. Extractive activity doesn’t tend to generate new webs of productive or commercial expertise in the supply region; the region instead goes through unproductive booms and busts as its main resource becomes more or less valuable. This is the “banana republic,” the “oil town,” where momentary wealth goes into expensive imports from the outside world that do not generate sustainable prosperity in the region itself. (Partly due to the “Dutch Disease” or “Resource Curse,” which I hope to discuss in a later post.) If the supply region is particularly unfortunate, its populace may even be enslaved by the armies of the cities that need its resources. The Congo Free State was a particularly tragic example.

Finally, some regions are lucky enough (or so they think) to attract an economic transplant. These are large factories belonging to huge companies trying to create a regional, national, or even global supply chain. However, transplant factories are not integrated into the local economy, but are like self-contained bubbles of productive capital, parachuted from the sky. Unlike factories that emerge organically in a city or city region, the transplant factory might employ local workers but does not depend on local support industries and so does not generate complementary economic activity or technological development. Specialized equipment and the technicians who get it working are flown in from the company’s home base; production inputs might come from another country, or several other countries; and the local workers don’t tend to learn transferable skills. Even though local governments often compete furiously to attract such transplants, they rarely end up generating broad growth as the governments hope.


Now, Jacobs’ theory predated the internet, and even when it was written it had detractors. But for authors’ purposes, it gives a handy set of conceptual tools we can use. Five major forces that productive cities exert on other cities or regions; four examples of what happens to regions when those forces are out of balance. Easy to wrap your head around, but rich enough to generate lots of story texture.

Plus, material for new stories. (How many fantasy stories spend a lot of time on the trade between cities? I’d sure like some more.)


(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 Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

Building an Economy: Energy


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In my quest to give worldbuilders powerful tools to make their stories cooler, I’ve hesitated for a long time to tackle the subject of wealth and economics. Economics matters for politics quite a lot, and authors who want grist for compelling conflicts can find an embarrassment of riches here, so to speak. But how the heck do you turn such a complex subject into a useful model?

However, my recent post on the vicious internal politics of the Russian economy proved illuminating. I now think that the correct approach is not to try and jam all of political economy into a single model. Instead, we’re going to lay out several distinct lenses that you can pick and choose between, to organize your worldbuilding the way you want it. No one lens will tell the whole story, and we’re not going to try. But each lens will highlight a specific set of conflicts that can play out in economic behavior. In your own stories, you can focus on a single lens that clarifies the conflict you want to write about, or layer several lenses on top of each other if you’re feeling ambitious.

(This is similar to how we discussed empires in a previous post.)

We begin with the most fundamental level of economic analysis: energy.

(The following is largely based off of ecologist Joseph Tainter’s massively useful book The Collapse of Complex Societies. It also takes some from Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization.)

By “energy,” I don’t just mean electricity or oil, although these are important. “Energy” includes any accessible way to turn a resource into work. The most fundamental energy source is food. If we don’t eat, we die. So, much of our activity is organized around producing calories and other nutrients that we can then consume. We invest the energy source of human labor and transform it into calories, which then are turned into more human labor to produce more calories.

Let’s say that it takes a full day’s work for a man to get enough food to feed himself. If so, the man would be in a desperate state: no clothing, no shelter, no leisure activities other than collapsing at the end of the day in total exhaustion. All activity would be directed toward getting food. A group of people in such a state would have a low level of culture, hardly worthy of the term.

Now, suppose that this group developed some way to get food more efficiently. It could be a new division of labor between male hunters and female foragers that raises the productivity of each; it could be finding a new, energy-dense food like tree nuts or buffalo. In either case, suddenly the group has a new surplus of food production. People have a few hours in their day to do something other than produce food. Or, the work of one person can now feed more than one person; so not everyone needs to gather food, and some people can devote their time to other kinds of work.

Note that the availability of an energy surplus presents options for how to benefit from it. Perhaps everyone gets to work a little less hard, but then devotes the rest of their time to leisure. The society that results would have about the same low level of material wealth, but might develop a rich culture of games and storytelling. Perhaps everyone spends less time gathering food, but they also develop different arts and crafts with the rest of their time; people might make better clothing and live in more comfortable shelters, and accumulate various prestige goods. Perhaps most people keep gathering food as before, but the surplus food goes to feed a small class of artisans who do useful work for the group: blacksmiths, potters, tanners. And perhaps another class of functionaries who do rather less work: chiefs, priests, poets, or professional warriors.

The development of a group and its culture depends on the availability of an energy surplus, its source, and its size. Possibilities for cultural development are very different if the average person works 12 hours a day to produce enough food for everyone, compared to 11 hours, or 3. How a culture responds to the availability of an energy surplus will dramatically influence its future development. Perhaps everyone will benefit, or perhaps some people will benefit from the surplus and others will work as before. And the manner in which they work and benefit could vary widely.

But back to the source of the surplus. A surplus can be generated in three main ways:

  • exploiting a new energy source;
  • using existing energy sources more efficiently or productively; or
  • allocating the surplus unequally between persons.

Suppose a farmer is working a small farm with hand tools. It’s grueling work and long. But then she gets the idea of yoking a donkey to a plow. Suddenly, she controls a new source of energy than just human labor: animal labor. The animal can do a lot of the work, and the farmer needs to work less hard, or can produce more food. And the animal eats food that people would not. The energy surplus grows.

Then, benefiting from the strength of her donkey, the farmer develops a new and heavier plow that can produce more food with the same effort. The energy surplus grows again.

Then she realizes that if animals can be made to work for a larger energy surplus, so can people. Slavery is born: slaves are made to work for more of their day than their owners would have, and the surplus is captured by the owners. The benefits of the energy surplus are divided unevenly. It gets even worse if the slaves are fed less than free people would eat; the energy surplus grows and the slavers benefit, but the slaves may waste away and die. The slavers would have to capture new slaves, perhaps by raiding other groups, perhaps by enslaving unfortunates within their own group.


For most of human history, the main energy inputs were human labor and animal labor. Firewood too; the chemical energy from fire was used in cooking food and keeping us warm, and later for other things as well. The invention of the sail turned wind into an important energy source, which made ocean transport much easier. But then the gear was invented: suddenly, kinetic energy from other sources could be transformed into useful work. The windmill and watermill were able to replace labor that was previously done by animals. Then came the steam engine, and suddenly coal became a useful energy source. Then the combustion engine and the battery, then nuclear power, and so on. Each new energy source brought benefits with it, but also brought political changes—in part because the people who controlled that energy were different.

In our time, the computer has revolutionized all of society. In this model it is not a new energy source, but allows us to use existing energy sources more productively. It also changes the allocation of our energy surplus, as unskilled labor becomes displaced and technical expertise becomes massively more productive than at any previous time in human history. The rise of robotics is already having similar effects, and those effects will grow as robots replace more and more human labor. We now must ask what we will do, as a society, with all the available human capacity that is no longer needed for its former employment.


This discussion was quite brief, but you can already see how it provides a powerful way to think of economic conflict in your stories. We can add another layer and ask what happens when energy surpluses suddenly shrink. Suddenly, societal arrangements that worked with a given level of energy become unsustainable. If you want to know what happens next, check out Tainter’s book. (The title is a spoiler, though!)


(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 Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)

The Empire in “Star Wars: A New Hope” as a Failing State


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Writing a revisionist interpretation of the political structure of the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, that rejects the official canon (as it developed across the many reimaginings of George Lucas), seems like one of the more self-indulgent things for me to do—but here we are.

Continue reading

Interest Groups, Winning Coalitions, and an Autocrat’s Economy


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I just read a fascinating discussion of the inefficiencies of the Russian economy, and how they make political sense if not economic. Kamil Galeev, a fellow at the Wilson Center, looks at major Russian industries and divides them into three categories: “extractive” industries such as oil and gas; metallurgy; and machinery. He then notes that Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of KGB alumni typically control the oil and gas companies and other extractive primary-commodity exporters; the old 1990s oligarchs (not the main supporters of Putin, but holdovers who are grudgingly tolerated) control the metallurgy companies; and “nerds” with little political power control the machinery companies.

The reason for this, Galeev argues, is the same reason that mafias tend to control basic industries like avocado growing and olive oil: mafias are specialists in violence, not in running complex companies. They lack the expertise to manage anything technical, so they don’t try.

Similarly, members of Putin’s winning coalition have no expertise in running companies, so they were installed in the extractive companies—dead simple to run, easy to siphon money out of. The earlier cohort of oligarchs from the 1990s were run out of the oil and gas sector, but allowed to remain in control of metallurgy—a somewhat more complex area, that apparently is beyond the skills of Putin’s circle. The truly technical area of machinery manufacture, meanwhile, are run by the “nerds”: people with technical chops and little political pull. They are tolerated because the metallurgy and oil and gas sectors need a functioning machinery sector, but only so far.

As Galeev reports, when the ruble falls, the extractive exporters actually benefit, because they earn more rubles from the same amount of dollars. (Assuming that exports keep going, which obviously is less the case today.) But the machinery companies, dependent on Western technology and inputs, lose money. And in the case Galeev notes, when a mining-machine company tried raising the prices for its equipment in response, the Putin stooge who was buying the equipment instead started shifting his orders to a Czech company. But to do so, he first had to transfer the Russian technology to the Czechs so they could duplicate the machines!

This seems illogical. The mining firm is unlikely to save money by ordering at Czech prices, and ends up reducing Russia’s self-sufficiency in the process. But in the context of domestic power disputes, it makes sense: to pay higher prices to a “nerd” would mean to increase the power of the “nerd.” Putin’s winning coalition would rather harm the interests of Russia and of their own companies in order to preserve their own relative position in the power hierarchy.

This is an excellent example of concepts I discussed more abstractly in my worldbuilding handbook, Beyond Kings and Princesses. In particular, it ties into the discussion of selectorate theory and how rulers reward their supporters for keeping them in power. Other examples that come to mind are how many African countries, newly independent in the 1960s, tried putting in place industrial programs to build urban manufacturing industries by extracting resources from the rural farmers. In general, regimes are very much willing to wreck their national economies if by doing so they can improve their internal power position, and that of their cronies. I hope to expand on this topic in Volume Two.

What can we as authors take from this? First, always remember that for a tyrannical regime, relative power almost always matters more than absolute benefit. This shows up in domestic politics as well as foreign affairs. Second, it’s worth thinking about how to classify different parts of a country’s economy, in a way that helps you usefully organize the parts for your story needs. If you can come up with a relevant model that breaks the economy into two or three chunks, based on factors important to your story, it can clarify your thinking immensely.


(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 Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)