Where Are All the Factories?

My wife and I recently watched a few seasons of Stargate Atlantis on Netflix. (Go ahead, say it.) Something that always bugs me about the show and many like it is the incredibly unrealistic way in which alien societies are portrayed.

There are countless episodes where the team finds a new planet with a thriving civilization. No matter what period of development the people are in, they always have a vast array of highly produced goods. Villages have houses with uniform, manufactured bricks, panes of glass, ornate wood and metal work, produce and meat, cooking utensils, tools, textiles, weapons, and on and on. These items require an expansive division of labor, a high degree of specialization, and a very deep or “round about” capital structure. Yet there is rarely any indication of these things. Most societies only have raw materials, like land and some farms or pastures, and consumer goods. It’s seems these societies magically convert raw materials into serviceable items with none of the complex, multi-layered in-between processes required in the real world.

It’s possible the writers cannot portray these features due to constrained budgets. After all, we see the same set re-purposed with a few small tweaks to represent several different villages. When the plot-line isn’t about the structure of society, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot to show the way it works. But often the plot is built around the way the society works.

One episode had cities that followed orders from a computer screen, and structured their way of life to fit exactly what they were told, a la Sim City. They’d switch from making furniture to steam engines overnight. Somehow the invisible capital, labor and knowledge markets seamlessly switch course, and no major shortages or surpluses result. The childish absurdity of this is hard to fathom.

If it’s not because of budget, perhaps the simplistic portrayals are a reflection of the economic ignorance of the writers. It’s sad that so many intelligent people are utterly unaware of how the market works. It’s sad that so few have tried to contemplate the incredible complex dance of unplanned coordination required to produce a single, simple consumer item. Yet the fact that so many can be so ignorant of the workings of the market is also one of the things that makes true capitalism so great.

These writers are showing the world as they experience it. A huge marketplace of end-products, available everywhere you look in dizzying array. Their experience is one in which they have access to the products of the free market, without having to understand or even be aware of the incredible process that took raw materials, capital, ideas, and labor, and transformed them. No one has to be an economist or an expert in any field or industry to participate in a capitalist system; indeed to meaningfully contribute to that system through their actions.

As much as I’d love Hollywood writers and everyone else to understand the full-fledged spontaneous beauty of the market, I’m even more excited that they don’t have to in order for the market to serve them.