The captivating Amy Sturgis

This week I had the privilege of enjoying a lecture by Amy Sturgis at IHS’s summer conference Liberty and Society. Amy’s talk was awesome! Both fun and fascinating.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Amy traces the ideals of classical liberalism throughout fantasy fiction. Why would an economist like me enjoy work like Amy’s? As Pete and I explain briefly in our paper on Hayek’s Sensory Order; in lieu of neuroscience and similar to McCloskey’s perspective, literature can provide a window into the ideas, cultures and beliefs of its readers and writers. Secondly, (as I briefly allude in my recent appreciation paper of Boettke forthcoming in the Journal of Private Enterprise), many of the hypothetical worlds of the economist at times look akin to science fiction – and this can be a good thing.
Amy’s current research is centered around an interesting puzzle. As strange as it sounds, dystopian fiction used to have loveable heroes and happy endings. In recent years, young adult fiction has experienced a dystopic boom, but these newly-imagined, depressed worlds are populated with comparably depressed characters and sad endings. Apparently the emo kids have taken over the genre – so what gives?
I wasn’t aware of the pessimistic turn in young adult dystopic fiction, but I have long thought that dystopia was a special sub category of science fiction. I took a science fiction fantasy literature class in undergrad. We relied upon the following definition of science fiction – fantasy literature in which the fantastical elements of the plot are explained and accounted for with the scientific technologies of the time. According to this definition, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is the archetype of the genre. She brings her monster to life with electricity, just as electricity brought power and life to Shelley’s early industrialized surroundings.
This framework may help make sense of Amy’s puzzle, especially in light of Brian Caplan’s work on economic biases. Why has the genre become so fatalistic? In short, social science (economics in particular) is more complicated to understand than are the physical sciences.
After I began to study economics I thought back upon two of my favorite novels with confusion. Economics taught me that technologies do not inevitably progress with time, but they instead require an institutional environment that promotes economic freedom and entrepreneurial discovery. So it seemed odd that Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, both socialist dystopias, contained advanced technologies.
Two exceptions to this anomaly support the case for this framework (dystopia as social science fiction) they also allude to an answer to Amy’s puzzle. In Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Hazlett’s Time Will Run Back, technology declines under socialism and society retrogresses to an almost primitive state. Why were these authors outside the trend? They knew good economics!
To fully explain Amy’s puzzle would require demonstrating that the authors and audiences of today’s young adult dystopias are systematically more ignorant or biased of economic insights than in the past. My first impressions are that while nerdy guys used to be the bulk of sci-fi authors and readers, today more young women are driving the genre. Caplan has found that the former think more like economists than the latter.

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