Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is an interesting book, amazingly easy for non-economists to read. There are several ideas Piketty discusses which are of interest to our work as Ars Magica players and authors. In the next series of posts, I’ll examine these insights.
Piketty notes that in populations where family size is small, inheritance plays an increasingly significant role in wealth transfer. Conversely, if populations have large numbers of surviving children, those children tend to disperse, because they cannot depend on the capital passed down by their ancestors to maintain them. The Order, oddly, does not behave this way: it has a ridiculously low birthrate, and yet it has virtually no useful mechanism of inheritance. Why is this?
Well, first, it’s because Ars is, if not written by Americans, written for Americans, and it buys into their myths of the frontier. Characters go and carve out a chunk of wilderness: taming it. That genre convention assumes that inheritance is not viable. When I mention Americans here, I’m not wanting to be particularly controversial. My point is simply that English myths tend to have heroes who have been dispossessed form their patrimony and are fighting for its return. Scottish and Irish folk heroes tend to have lives framed in terms of resistance to invasion. Australian heroes tend to focus on class: they have no money and take it from the rich, not for redistribution, but simply because the rich, in some sense, deserve it.
In some of my work I’ve looked at the inheritance problem, and I’ve sidestepped it a few ways. House Tremere acts as the heir to Tremere magi, not their children. This means the mechanism of the House sucks wealth away from new player characters. House Criamon don’t care about wealth. House Jerbiton did care, but has lost a lot of its wealth due to its indolence (that is, the ancestors did not save anything) and the fall of Constantinople.
Let’s try a concrete example: the Order has approximately 1 000 members. Let’s assume the average magus lives for 100 years and that the population of the Order is stable. Let’s ignore redcaps and Lartans. That means that about 10 magi die each year. That’s very rough, but arguable. Even if only half of these magi have talismans, that means that in the two decades from 1200 to 1220, they left one hundred talismans behind. This is sufficient to crash the magic item economy, and to create a pool of capital that can be used to change the world. The Virtue mechanism works poorly if rejigged to allow inheritance. In contrast, the Covenants mechanism can be used, relatively simply, to model this form of succession, because it allows the purchase of items of greater value.
I’d argue that the Order’s population is stable: Piketty notes that in populations which are growing rapidly, social change occurs rapidly. Roles are only inherited in societies where the population and technology level are stable, and the Tribunal system seems to have perpetuated for centuries. By chance, we see something Piketty mentions in Transylvania, where redcaphood is being redefined by inheritance pressures.