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Is “Star Trek” Socialist?

Captain Jean-Luc Picard once said on one of those we’re low on location budget so let’s move over to the 20th century earth sets on the…

Is “Star Trek” Socialist?

Captain Jean-Luc Picard once said on one of those we’re low on location budget so let’s move over to the 20th century earth sets on the other side of the Paramount lot episodes, “I’m afraid you would find the economics of the 23rd century rather difficult to understand.” That’s probably true of most people alive today.

All economics, even Marxism, is based in the concept of scarcity. Every single resource you can think of, no matter how much of it we currently think we have, is finite. There’s only so much beachfront property, for example. On the other hand, the number of people — well, men, actually — who want to have condos on the beach so that they can ogle girls in bikinis is practically unlimited. Compared to the number of people who want to live at the beach, property there is scarce. Economics studies how people make choices when faced with the very real problem that everything is relatively scarce.

Even Karl Marx believed in the concept of scarcity, he just believed the value of a good or service consisted solely of the value of the labor required to transform raw goods into finished products. But the reason labor itself was valuable was because of scarcity. There is, after all, a finite number of laborers, meaning that the production of goods has to be allocated through the labor available to produce them.

What makes Star Trek’s economics fundamentally different, and, in many ways, fundamentally incomprehensible to us, is that scarcity is no longer a factor. In that universe, there is an invention called the “replicator“ which can transform matter at the atomic level. Put in a rock, or, more likely, some gray carbon goo, and out pops bacon and eggs. Or a cup of Earl Grey — hot.

The invention of the replicator in the Star Trek universe means that essentially no good is scarce. Practically any physical good can be obtained at negligible cost, either through replicators, or through construction by artificially intelligent robots using replicator-produced, prefabricated parts.

So imagine a universe in which your food, clothing, vehicle, home, and practically every other tangible good is essentially free, and in which energy can be obtained for free through your home’s antimatter reactor.

Now, the reason we all have to drag ourselves out of bed Monday through Friday is to obtain the money we need to trade in exchange for goods and services. If we could have all those things for free, would we actually work?

Probably not.

Still, we couldn't just sit on our bums all day without going stir crazy. Even constant sex with the “Kate Upton“ program in the rec room holodeck would get old after a while. As hard as that might be to believe. Human beings, in short, would still have needs.

But, as Abraham Maslow tells us, there is a hierarchy of needs. Once we’ve taken care of physical needs, we still have social needs, and self-actualization needs. So, even if you didn't have to work to survive, you would probably “work” at a hobby, doing things you love to do.

Would you even be paid for working? If so, what would you buy with that payment — in whatever form it would take — that you can’t already obtain for free?

In such a world, I’d be perfectly happy to teach classes in computer science, economics, history and all sorts of other things that fascinate me. At other times, I would want to go to school and learn more about them.

Surely, the economics of such a society would be hard to envision. For instance, how would the service economy work? If you were hit by an aircar, would you pay for a lawyer? Or would there be people for whom litigation was a pleasure and would take your case for free because they loved being in a courtroom? What sort of payment would you receive for damages, if you won?

There would, of course, still be scarce things. Book collectors might still wish to obtain signed first editions of John Grisham novels. But that opens up a whole new can of worms, too. How would they obtain them? There would have to be some medium of exchange, but without money, what would it be? And what would you use that medium of exchange for if most things were already free? If you owned a first edition Grisham, what would I have to give you in order to obtain it for myself, if you already have everything else you want?

The replicator moves the debate well outside the capitalist-Marxist paradigm into something largely unknown. I think a lot of trial and error would have to be done to come up with rational answers to these questions.

Interestingly, Star Trek also includes a voraciously capitalist alien race — known as the Ferengi — that makes an interesting case in this context. I mean, they’re completely amoral free-marketers. They have a whole society ruled by the Sacred Rules of Acquisition — their holiest text.

But, they have replicators as well, and as many Kate Upton holo-wives as they could want. So why all the unregulated capitalism? Well, in their case, it appears to be a cultural deal. They don’t want all that “gold pressed latinum” to ease them in their old age. They are already fantastically rich simply because they have replicator technology.

But the number of latinum bars one has is a good way to keep score. The higher the number of gold-pressed latinum bars one has, the higher their social status. If they've managed to obtain the latinum by hoodwinking someone else for it, then their status is increased even more.

“Wealth” in the Ferengi sense has negligible economic value, but immense social value. It serves a cultural purpose even if it no longer marks extreme differences in economic status. Indeed, the ownership of “riches” has a significant place in how the Ferengi organize their political structure, since obtaining riches is taken by their culture to be a prime indication of good judgment and fitness to lead. So, even the Ferengi are not quite what they appear on the surface.

So, Star Trek‘s economics aren't as Marxist as many people seem to think. Without scarcity, there’s no Marxism at all. Apart from everything else, there’s no proletariat. So, then, it follows that there’s no real economic class division. Without that, Star Trek can’t be used as an example of a fully-functioning socialist society.

Oh, yeah, and Star Trek‘s not real.