The Uses of Fiction

This month’s featured article at EconLog is by Matthew Rousu on economic lessons from The Hunger Games.  The article is a very good read.  However, in an EconLog post promoting the article, a commentator objected:

Oh come on, please don’t use a fictional place to prove a point. I enjoyed the Hunger Games books and movies as a revolution to knock off the bad guys. But the economics in that society make no sense. The author can make any society as rich or poor as he/she wishes, regardless of how real societies evolve. Do I really need to point this out?

This commentator is right that an author can make a book say pretty much anything they want, but fiction can still be a useful way of looking at society and learning economics.  You can re-read my posts on the economic lessons of Mass Effect beginning here.  I also recommend Josh Hall’s Homer Economicus.  Thomas Piketty does this in his book Capital in the 21st Century.  We could also cite any number of allegorical works, such as Animal Farm, Aesop’s Fables, Dr. Suess, The Giver, the list goes on!

The practice of using parables to make points is literally ancient, going back to at least Socrates.  Fiction can be a powerful tool for helping to think about society and economics in an easy manner.

Of course, what makes things difficult is keeping the comparison apt.  In Rousu’s article, he uses real world examples to make his case.  He relates actions in the book to actions in the real world that had similar outcomes.  If I wanted to write a fictional story about how communism makes everybody happy and well off, that would be significantly harder to relate to real life, as there are no examples to pick from.

I love fiction.  I love science fiction.  I love stories.  And I love economics.  When I can combine my loves, it makes for a good day.

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