Taanstafl and Other Abstractions
That there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch is something many of the regulars here would consider to be self evident, possibly at the level of the inalienable rights.
Those who believe that the world, or “government”, or “the man” – or any other vague entity which does not map directly to any specific individual have rather more difficulty understanding this. And since by failing to understand something so simple, they fail to understand the way existence itself works, you get really bad fiction from people who think they’re owed awards.
It’s the same kind of thinking that says the government can just print money to get out of debt (this may be why economies in so much recent fantasy and science fiction stink on ice. The people writing them don’t have a clue how it works. Heck, I only have a vagueish notion of the deeper complexities of it, but I am aware of the basics – and more than that, I’m aware of the principles – the very scientific principles – that underlie the whole deal.
It’s pretty much a function of how many layers of abstraction we’ve managed to wrap around something. The abstractions are more powerful and flexible than the real things, but the human mind is really good at reifying abstractions and forgetting that the real thing is under the handy abstraction.
Take the once nearly universal notion of animating spirits (no, I do not mean that nice glass of something alcoholic you enjoy). We Western humans still do that, we just use different names and anthropomorphize everything instead of treating it as a mystical thing. Heck the folk that think they can get anything free do the same thing, only their animating spirits are things like “progress” and “wokedness”, not to mention whichever Balkanized interest group is the current victim du jour.
By attributing everything to the group rather than the individual, they’re reifying a nebulous collection of humans based on some characteristic and then expecting every human with that characteristic to act as an avatar of the group with all the traits they’ve assigned to it. Strangely enough, it used to be a really bad thing to do this, particularly when the traits in question included dark brown skin or specific religions. How times change…
Anyway, it happens because we’re human. Humans are a group-oriented species. Whether you call the group a herd or a pack or something else doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that wherever you’ve got people, they’re going to sort themselves into groups then distinguish their groups by the things that aren’t the same as that other group over there. Then they’re going to start thinking of that group as if it was a physical thing.
In some ways this is a good thing: without the abstraction of the group as a physical entity you wouldn’t have the mental framework to understand a hefty chunk of modern life, and you wouldn’t be able to have the legal framework for things like corporations – which would make commerce rather… challenging.
In others, though… It’s really easy to forget what lies under the abstraction, and that way lies big problems. Take money. It’s a pretty high-level abstraction even at the level of precious metal coins (and we’re several levels beyond that now, what with paper money, credit cards, and online transactions where the only changes that actually happen are to bits in a number of computer databases). Those coins, due to the rarity of the metals used, made a decent proxy for the combination of time and energy investment that sits underneath any physical transfer of goods. If you raise cattle, you have the time that it takes for them to grow, the time and energy involved in protecting them from predators, and in colder climates, the effort (again, time and energy) of keeping them from freezing and starving when the ground is buried under snow, not to mention the time and energy involved in keeping yourself alive while raising them and getting them to market. Summing all of that up as being worth more or less than a piece of precious metal is a pretty hefty bit of mental gymnastics, when you look at it that way.
Now, just imagine where you can take that in your fictional societies (I swear, one day I’ll write the universe where blood is the basis of currency – yes, vampires are in charge). And roll your eyes (preferably not so hard they fall out) when someone tries to tell you that there is such a thing as a free lunch.
There isn’t. You’ll pay for it – and you’ll pay more if you don’t pay up front.