Economics Doesn't Believe in Magic

On a writing forum an author asked for users to think of what societies would do with the magic system he designed. Here’s a short rewrite of his setup:

Every person gets a magical talisman when they turn sixteen and visit the magical super-talisman granting object. The talismans can do any wonderful thing the person requests, but a powerful effect will be tempered by limitations on use and frequency. So Alice might get a talisman that can light a candle flame at any time, but Bob’s magic fireball might be only usable once a year after he sacrifice a chicken. Talismans can be bought, sold, or stolen, but they’ll eventually stop working when the person who requested them dies. The world’s technology is roughly contempraneous with the early rennaisance.

Later, the author talked about how he wanted to have “clockwork guilds” that powered their creations with magical ever-turning keys, etc.:

That being said, my intention to begin with was to make talismans mundane, even to the reader, to reflect the fact that they’re old hat for the people in the [world], and balance the system around making talismans more useful in the long run for everyday tasks rather than slaying monsters. The sense of “magic” would come finding information about the mysterious surrounding polities (which have their own talismans), and the origins of the [super talisman granting objects].

I didn’t think the world would turn out like that. At all. And it hangs on this:

Talismans can be bought, sold, or stolen

This makes talismans into commodities, subject to all the usual rules of economics. This applies to all kinds of settings where magical is at all reliable (though sometimes it looks like labor rather than magical items).

The common individual will never own a talisman, and the nobility will own millions. Individuals will be given very specific direction, on pain of death, as to what talisman they will be requesting and giving to the nobility. The age of granting is not 16, it is the youngest someone can reliably repeat their noble’s order for a talisman. It’s even younger in a failing state when the nobles get desperate.

The nobility will be incredibly powerful, because they’ll have a super-powerful once-per-decade talisman for each hour of the day. Nobility will be immortal, if the talismans can affect longevity at all, otherwise hereditary.

The talismans the nobility request, however, will be so trivial they can be tested instantly, probably a mood ring. Think of old monarchies making alliances: they’d either explicitly swap family members as hostages or implicitly by marrying them off. The sending family would keep the hostage’s talisman as a way to check in that that they’re alive and in good health (or maybe even spy a bit).

Nobles will live like dragons on hoards of talismans. There will be a lot done to ensure that their guards are loyal (eg. talismans to detect and punish theft). Because they’ll want use of more talismans than they can hold, they’ll rarely leave. But they might lend out a large part of their hoard to their armies to go siege another noble for their hoard. Perhaps offensive talismans will be more powerful than defensive talismans, much like nowadays artillery is more powerful than castles, so nobody builds them. But a hoard of talismans is so dang useful... well, the political situation hangs on the technological. If a defense outpowers offense, castles. If not, endless total war.

Fertility, reliable food, and maybe medicine (but not medical talismans used on peons) are important to the nobles because they keep the talismans working. They’ll have telegrams, too. It’s hard now to imagine life when major news moved at about 4 mph (see The Discovery of France for an exploration of this), but it took a lot of time for major news (death of the king, war, etc.) to pass by rider and minor news could take much longer. This society will just require some kids to get talismans that can be used as telegrams.

Actually, why not an assassination talisman? A noble orders a talisman that, when used, kills a specific named person to bump off a rival. Even if it’s only useful once ever, that’s fine, you get to kill that pesky rival without an invasion and then your guard puts the requester to death. Why waste fifty years of grain on that peon when it could go to the peon who requested the talisman that keeps your fingernails manicured?

More of a crapsack world than the early Renaissance was, really.

The author argued that if requester feared theft they could request talismans that only worked for them or when freely given, but I think that’s misapplying contemporary mores onto a very different world. The monarchy used to rule by the grace of god, and talismans let them go that one step further. When I say “noble”, don’t think “prince”, think “living deity”. Nobody would be told they can restrict their talisman to themself, or allowed to live if they tried it.

Story Time

You’re a child growing up in the city not too far from the capital. Your whole society worships one god, Phil. Phil is a loving, wonderful god, not like the scummy, wretched gods of faraway states. Your parents worship Phil devoutly. They bring you up to love and respect Phil. They tell you stories of when Phil visited the local cathedral (I mean, Phil laid the capstone three hundred years ago, but his latest visit) and bestowed blessings on the people: Phil cured a blind child, gifted wonderful crafts, and righteously slew a murderer with magical fire. This visitation was one of the highest moments in their entire life.

You are looking forward to your talisman ceremony more than any kid has ever looked forward to a bar mitzvah or christening or thread ceremony because Phil is so obvious, so real. You can still see the scorch marks on the wall of the cathedral! It’s a few feet to the left of the gallows where they hang the wicked children who fail in their talisman ceremony and have to be ritually sacrificed lest the entire town be tainted by their curse.

The ceremony is a mystery - I mean, everyone knows that afterwards you’ll get your adult name and be of majority and you’ll go to heaven after you die (which won’t be for a while, Phil’s looking out for you). But what happens in the talisman ceremony? Nobody talks about it, but you know you and the other kids your age will go to the church where the priest (who performs minor miracles by the grace of Phil, peace be upon him) will lead the ceremony.

Finally the big day comes - for the first time you get to wear the robes all adults wear to church. Your father saved up months to buy the cloth and you’ve seen your mom working late into the night to sew them. They’re obviously not blessed yet, but you’re excited just to be wearing them - maybe you run down to the town’s mirror to admire yourself, careful not to get them dirty. But still, you arrive early to the cathedral, can’t be late for the big day. After the week’s usual ceremony you and your friends are all called up on stage and everyone makes a big fuss over you. Then you head downstairs, and the priest tells you that it’s time to make your prayer to Phil for adulthood.

Flavio, that annoyingly preachy devout kid, gets to go first (and the rest of you go in The Order of Asch, which just means most-devoted first, for some reason). He reads the words over a talisman and after the priest listens and receives the talisman, he bestows the blessing of Phil and Flavio glows with a miraculous, unearthly light! His robes are marked by the light, recording his blessing for all to see at church every week. Flavio is sent upstairs to be received by the congregation, who will see proof of his devotion to Phil - why, you can already hear their cheering!

Now it’s your turn, and you receive a scroll to read, asking for - I don’t know, something about manicuring fingernails? It’s confusing, and for a moment you think of not reading it aloud. But there’s the promise of adulthood: you’ll get to own property, set up your trade, get married, raise children... or there’s the gallows. And your parents and priest prepared you for this, you know it doesn’t matter what it says, this is how Phil works in mysterious ways and you prove your devotion by reading. Your whole childhood has been leading up to this moment and your adult life is just within reach! What do you do for your god Phil?


Really, it’s silly that nobody built a wall around the super-talisman granter to charge admission. (Or even sat on the road to rob people on their way home.) A talisman is a valuable commodity. People want and take valuable things from each other - not just by trade but by trickery and force. It doesn’t matter that they’re powered by magic, this is how commodities work.

The society the author envisioned has talismans for practical tasks like lighting candles and turning clockwork, and it has mercantile guilds, and emerging democratic notions. It has clever clockpunk and spunky heroines and taverns bursting with quest hooks.

Phil the living god has five thousand soldiers willing to die for him, each carrying their own magic missile talisman. Phil also has magical artillery and magical supply lines.

How long, in days, does it take before Phil has conquers Questville? (Hint: it’s the number of days it takes to march from Phil’s castle.)

An Alternate Setup

Talismans are such a fun idea and we want magical clockpunk worlds that it’s easy to forget they’re a commodity. Let’s imagine another magical world:

Imagine a world in which every 16 year old is given $1,000,000 by visiting a super-talisman in a specific place. They can request the form it’ll take: maybe gold bullion, dollars, a check, a jewel, etc. There may be trade-offs: maybe they end up getting $100,400 dollars once per year for ten years (or whatever, I’m not doing the Net Present Value calculation), or maybe their jewel is unpolished and needs finishing, whatever - the magical granter balances it so everyone gets exactly $1,000,000 worth of value. In other places with other super-talismans maybe you can only get specific money-related things like an +1 point on your checking account’s interest rate or -5% to your credit card’s rate. Through some magical handwavey process (capitalism), even these limited bonuses can be transferred to other people.

Now let’s imagine how society incorporates this phenomenon, and keep in mind that the value of these compounds: if I have ten people’s million dollars, I can offer you more for your “$1M over 10 years” and have a tighter profit margin (or just hire more guys to take it from you).

What percentage of these 16 year-olds have their million dollars ten years later? A year later? A week later? The society will extract that from them, fast, whether it looks voluntary (“throw yourself an adulthood party!”, “buy your guild apprenticeship”, “make the down payment on your house”, “you get to pay off your childhood debt today”) or mandatory (“it’s a tribute to Phil”, “your money or your life”, “we’re going to borrow your kid for a week and take them to the super-talisman”). People don’t just leave valuable things in other people’s hands, especially not in the hands of inexperienced kids.

The talisman system has 90% the same problems as this setup (that 10% is the “it stops working when you’re dead”). Getting talismans compounds how easy it is to get more talismans. In a low-tech low-institutional-trust world, this looks like warfare, religion, theft. No matter what, institutions and norms appear to justify and encode these practices.

Extra credit assignment:[2018-10-09: Ah, someone has done the work.]{.marginnote .update} in our world, every 16 year old is given this commodity in the form of their future labor as soon they are no longer considered restricted child labor. Explain how society has commodified and extracted this talisman with an eye towards our stunning inequality in wealth. Project textbooks: On The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, Samuelson’s Economics.

(If you’re super curious, here’s the original discussion.)