One problem many authors have in building a logical science fiction (or fantasy) world is that they don’t know *stuff about economics. And so they come up with worlds that readers cannot believe in— like a fantasy-world I once read, in which a nation existed that had absolutely no agriculture and got their food by trade alone. (Why would their trading partners send them food when they could starve them out and just take stuff?)
A core item to think about in building a fictional economic/trade system is that of money/currency. In the Star Trek universe we have ‘credits’ in the Federation which we are to suppose are just like dollars, but more futuristic. But what is the dollar, anyway?
The US dollar is an example of fiat currency. That is, it’s money because the government says it’s money. Right now, the dollar works as money. Our government is fairly stable and does not print vast amounts of paper money to get itself out of debt. So the dollar is a solid currency at the moment. In the Weimar Republic in Germany after World War One, the socialist government went wild printing money— to the point there was massive inflation, people had to bring wheelbarrows of paper money to buy a loaf of bread, and in fact some of the German inflation money my grandparents brought over actual were lower-amount bills that had ‘One Million Marks’ overprinted on it.
Now, imagine space travel into that. A Terran space ship goes to planet Arleroshi and wants to buy some goods, and brings out a sheaf of US dollar bills. Will the Arleroshi people accept that? Will they know the difference between the US dollar and Weimar Republic inflation money? The US government, stuck on Terra, can’t exactly arrest people on other planets for not accepting dollars the way they would arrest a US grocery for refusing US dollars and making customers pay in yen or euros or gold or silver coins.
The US dollar will only become useful off-world if off-world people can trade it for goods they want. If there is a regular interplanetary currency exchange so that the Arleroshi people can trade the US dollars they receive in trade for Arleroshi money or some other currency they can use, they will accept US dollars. If the US dollars mainly remain pretty pieces of paper to them, they won’t want them.
I think all trade, both in primitive or advanced societies, comes down to barter. One person has fine cows and wants a metal plowshare, another one has several metal plowshares but needs a good milch cow. A swap is arranged.
The original money was coins stamped out of silver or gold, and it ‘worked’ because silver and gold were popular and valued commodities than many people wanted. The cow-seller, would swap cows for gold and silver coins even if he didn’t particularly want silver or gold, because he knew he could swap the silver and gold for stuff he did want.
A futuristic society may trade on multiple worlds and trade in robots and starship parts, but the basic principle is the same— a currency, whether a fiat currency or a gold-backed one, only works if you can use it to get the stuff you want. A complex modern economic kind of hides the ‘barter’ aspect of our economic life from us. We don’t think that we go to work to swap our labor for the US fiat currency, which we then swap at the grocer’s for grass-fed beef, cauliflower, cacao nibs, coffee and Kerrygold butter. We get hung up on ‘money’ and don’t think of it as a barter-assistance device to keep us from having to find a Kerrygold butter seller that wants our labor in accounting or flower-arranging.
In our worldbuilding work, we need to keep that barter factor in mind. If we have a fiat currency in our worlds, people have to have confidence in its buying power, and not suddenly suspect that the currency is no more useful than German inflation money. (A sudden loss of faith in a fiat currency, tragic as it is for people when it happens in real-world countries, is a nifty plot device for dystopian or apocalyptic fiction.)
May your trades be in non-inflated currency,
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