The Volokh Conspiracy

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Science Fiction

The Economics and Politics of Star Trek

Akiva Malamet has interesting posts on these topics at the Econlib site.



At the Econlib site, political philosophy graduate student and UnPopulist editor Akiva Malamet has two insightful new pieces on the economics and politics of Star Trek.

The first is "Star Trek: Just Short of Utopia." Here's an excerpt:

Star Trek is often seen as utopian science fiction, but a close look shows that the world of the Federation is not as peaceful and inclusive as it first appears. Following Gene Roddenberry's dream of a future society lacking prejudice and focused on inclusion, social and legal equality, and egalitarian post-scarcity economics, Trek is well-known for its strong moral compass and its progressive, even leftist values.

It is a world I appreciate and admire, as a die-hard Trekkie who holds many similar commitments. And yet the United Federation of Planets doesn't truly resolve deep differences and divergent interests among different beings. Rather, it obscures them with cultural uniformity, propounding a quasi secular humanist, even anti-religious philosophy, coupled with a near-complete transcendence of material constraints. This allows the Federation to sidestep the kind of conflicts that real differences, both in beliefs and in material endowments, create. By contrast, the staunchly economic perspective of the Ferengi makes them better able  to cope with hard tradeoffs and ensure genuine respect for diversity, despite their many ethical and social deficiencies. Yet the discussion cannot end there; in the final analysis, we need a synthesis that incorporates the moral ideals of the Federation together with the Ferengi's pragmatism to find a balance of the wisdom embodied in the Star Trek universe.

The second is entitled "Star Trek: Markets on the Edge," and takes a closer look at economic issues in the Trek universe:

In the Federation, most goods and services are produced via replication. The need for production and trade via the division of labour is greatly diminished (though there is demand for luxury artisanal, non-replicated goods….). Thus, the Federation seems to have overcome much of the knowledge problem around satisfying dynamic, subjective preferences and efficiently allocating scarce resources with competing uses. It is an economy of abundance beyond even the dreams of most economists or sci-fi writers. This is coupled with egalitarian values and the self-important assurance that the Federation is populated by virtual saints only interested in self-actualization and universal brotherhood.

By contrast however, outside (and sometimes within!) the Federation's utopian core of planets, people often fight over insufficient replicators, scarce machinery, food, medicine, and other resources. Supply ships are vital for bringing scarce items to distant worlds, and for transporting goods that can't be replicated, such as dilithium and rare medicines….

Notably, while replicators can recreate almost anything, it appears that replicators themselves cannot be easily reproduced. Trek never tells us if creating replicators is costly. Yet it is apparent that replicators cannot be provided easily for all. Contrary to Jean-Luc Picard's assertion that "…the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives" the Federation has not overcome self-interest, greed, or other constraints of human nature. It has simply changed the transaction costs of conflict by exploiting technology that severely reduces scarcity. When scarcity returns, so does conflict over resources.

Job allocation adds further support to the view that the Federation relies on advanced technology more than it does a sci-fi version of the New Soviet Man or Rawlsian ideal theory. It is unclear how the Federation incentivizes people to take on jobs that are less desirable or whose social importance is less well-understood….

As they say, read the whole thing!

I made similar points about Star Trek's treatment of political and economic issues in a 2016 article for Learn Liberty. Like Malamet, I praised the franchise for its commitment to ethnic tolerance and diversity, but also expressed reservations about the Federation's seeming intolerance for ideological diversity:

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry stressed the virtues of tolerance and cooperation across racial, ethnic, and national lines. In the original 1960s series, the bridge crew of the Enterprise includes an Asian, a Russian (included at the height of the Cold War), and a black African, at a time when such diversity in casting was unusual. The inclusion of a black female bridge officer was considered such an important breakthrough for racial equality that Martin Luther King persuaded Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura, to stay on the show when she was thinking of quitting.

Star Trek also featured the first interracial kiss on an American network TV show, and—in the 1990s—one of the first lesbian kisses.

The Federation… seems to successfully incorporate a wide range of cultures and lifestyles, and offers a combination of material abundance and toleration….

The uncritical acceptance of socialism may be a manifestation of the Federation's more general troubling ideological homogeneity. Especially among the human characters, there seems to be remarkably little disagreement over ideological and religious issues. With one important exception (discussed below), few human characters oppose the official Federation ideology, and those few are generally portrayed as fools, villains, or both.

The Federation is a collection of racially and ethnically diverse people who all think alike, at least when it comes to the big issues. The series' creators likely intended this as an indication of humanity's future convergence toward the "truth." But it is also subject to a more sinister interpretation: just as socialism tends to stifle independent economic initiative, it also undermines independent thought….

Even more than Malamet, I was troubled by Star Trek's largely uncritical embrace of socialism, and relative neglect of the value of economic incentives:

[A]t least from a libertarian perspective, the otherwise appealing ideological vision of Star Trek is compromised by its commitment to socialism.

The Federation isn't just socialist in the hyperbolic sense in which some conservatives like to denounce anyone to the left of them as socialist. It's socialist in the literal sense that the government has near-total control over the economy and the means of production.

Especially by the period portrayed in The Next Generation, the government seems to control all major economic enterprises, and there do not seem to be any significant private businesses controlled by humans in Federation territory. Star Fleet characters, such as Captain Picard, boast that the Federation has no currency and that humans are no longer motivated by material gain and do not engage in capitalist economic transactions…..

The problem here is not just that Star Trek embraces socialism: it's that it does so without giving any serious consideration to the issue. For example, real-world socialist states have almost always resulted in poverty and massive political oppression, piling up body counts in the tens of millions.

But Star Trek gives no hint that this might be a danger, or any explanation of how the Federation avoided it. Unlike on many other issues, where the producers of the series recognize that there are multiple legitimate perspectives on a political issue, they seem almost totally oblivious to the downsides of socialism.

Elsewhere in our respective pieces, Malamet and I both explain why the existence of replicators and other incredibly advanced tech doesn't vitiate the problems associated with socialism. He and I may be the only two commentators to call attention to the importance of the fact that there is no way to replicate a replicator, and therefore these devices turn out to be important scarce goods in the Star Trek universe.

We also both highlight ways in which Deep Space 9—my favorite among the many Star Trek series—takes a more critical view of the Federation than previous movies and series' did, including both its ideological and religious homogeneity, and some aspects of its political economy.

Since I published my piece in 2016, there have been several new Star Trek series, most notably Discovery, Picard, and Strange New Worlds. Malamet largely ignores these new series. But all three take a more critical perspective on the Federation than earlier franchise products have. Discovery and Picard both have severe flaws, sometimes to the point of becoming sprawling, incoherent messes. But Strange New Worlds is much better. It takes a highly critical perspective on on several aspects of Federation ideology and society, most notably its hostility to genetic engineering. I hope to have more to say about it in the future.

Skeptical readers may wonder why we should even care about the politics and economics of a fictional universe. The most obvious answer is because it's fun! I give some additional reasons in this 2011 article, emphasizing that science fiction and other aspects of popular culture can influence the broader political discourse.