The Economic Fallacies of Star Trek

I’ve seen every major Star Trek movie and watched every episode of every series (save the original) at least twice. I played a text-based Star Trek online role-playing game for the better parts of three years in high school. (The game required me to log at least 20 hours per week or face potential punishment.) In this game I was required to know the ins and outs of starship specs, Starfleet military protocols, interspecies cultural/social rituals, etc. So, while not a full-on Trekkie, I have as good a grasp on the universe as just about anyone.

Star Trek is a treasure for sci-fi fans. Its massive universe–both in terms of parsecs and episodes–allowed it to explore a huge number of philosophical, moral, and economic themes. With the exception of Voyager, a majority of the franchise’s episodes left me thinking for hours afterwards. However, its economics–and indeed, the core economic tenet that underpins the entire show–are deeply flawed.

First, some context about the ST universe. According to its lore, Earth is a founding member of the United Federation of Planets, which is basically the European Union if it actually did stuff and had a viable military. (Also, there are Vulcans.) Earth specifically is essentially a technocratic utopia. While its citizens have some say in planetary governance, experts run the show.

It’s a utopia because of two major factors. First, after World War III nearly ended humanity, we finally learned from our errors and decided to unite in harmony. Second, resources and technology are so abundant that no one wants for anything. Quoting Captain Jean-Luc Picard, “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

There’s a lot to unpack there. First, resource abundance has removed the need for currency. Second, that the acquisition of currency is in Picard’s past/our current day a foundational human goal in and of itself. Finally, that such abundance has reduced motivations for conflict and caused humans to focus more on charity and self-betterment.

The final portion of that quote is justifiable. Given massive material abundance, it follows that violence will be reduced and the stakes of conflicts will lessen. We see this today; as societies become more prosperous, the things they fight about go from literal life-or-death (think cavemen fighting over the remains of an animal) to the trivial (arguing about whether a president was right to dump food into a pond). In the ST universe, replicators allow anything up to the size of a storage container to be created out of thin air given a modicum of energy input. Boom, global starvation is gone, and you’ve now lost the underlying cause of a huge fraction of past wars. So far, so good. Transporter technology can beam a human or a large amount of resources across a planet instantaneously. So now there’s no need for highly-contested shipping lanes; and anyways, most of the cargo being transported could be replicated. Thus you don’t need a global hegemon–think the modern-day US–establishing military dominance and risking its citizens lives to protect other countries and oceans. I could keep going, but in sum, I will grant that many of the universe’s inventions would indeed likely reduce violent conflict, although certainly not eliminate it entirely (as Star Trek clearly admits).

The core economic fallacies are twofold. First, that Star Trek is indeed post-scarcitySecond, that a society can eliminate currency without a proper substitute. The bad econ of the show is rooted in a common misconception of what money actually is. In Star Trek, and in the minds of many people, money is a tangible object that we chase for its own sake. Think of Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko or the show’s Ferengi race; beings who worship money as if it has any sort of inherent value. Money is wealth.

Image result for star trek ferengi
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But that’s not what money–whether US dollars or gold-pressed latinum–is. Money is a signal and a tool.  The flow of money shows where goods or services are needed, in what quantity, and to what extent. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but it accomplishes this core function quite effectively.

But if 24th-century Earth is post-scarcity, what’s the need for resource signals? Well, it’s not really post-scarcity, even if the show’s writers acted like it was. Resources don’t have to be tangible. Even if humanity was so prosperous that no citizen had any material want, there’s still the issue of time, both on the individual and aggregate level. On the individual level, how do you decide who does what? How do you induce people to do menial but crucial work? Everyone wants to be a starship captain. But who takes the boring office jobs at Starfleet headquarters? Or worse yet, who fetches the captain’s coffee or tends bar? Throughout Star Trek we’re told of this post-currency utopia and simultaneously shown examples of people who have to do boring and/or strenuous jobs.

On the aggregate level, what if not currency dictates what non-replicatable resources (starships, bases, etc.) are created in what quantity? The show depicts several major wars and hundreds of battles, and it’s clear that no race–even the semi-autonomous Borg–has infinite ships. Who’s making those ships? Where are all of the inputs coming from? Wouldn’t those engineers, technicians, and people responsible for the various inputs rather be relaxing at a beach or spending time with their families? Star Trek‘s implied answer is that a command-and-control structure dictates things rather than currency. (I will give them the benefit of the doubt and not assume that everyone magically, of their own free will, glides into occupations that maintain security and prosperity.)

And this is the rub: every positive right to something implies a duty. Your right to security from Klingon invaders implies my duty to build a fleet of Sovereign-class battlecruisers that can repel that attack. Your right to healthcare implies my duty to spend countless hours learning medicine and treating you. Currency allows these exchanges to be voluntary; Star Trek removes all major individual autonomy and assumes that we should–and will–do as we’re told.

But let’s be even more charitable to the writers. Let’s assume that the show had actors/humans doing a lot of these jobs because they didn’t want to piss off SAG, and that really, the show was implying that most of these non-glamorous tasks were automated. What then?

You still need money! Even if every single material and non-material need is provided for, including defense, there are still rivalrous goods; only one family can live right next to Starfleet HQ; only so many people can fit on that space-yacht cruise to Rigel, etc. The vast majority of things and services still won’t be able to be distributed perfectly evenly. And humans will still have varying preferences. So your options are still currency exchange (i.e. deciding if a trip to Saturn is worth three tickets to see your favorite cellist) or command-and-control. What’s the better option? Now, in an age of near-total automation, you could validly argue for some sort of system where currency is distributed equally–perhaps a universal basic income–but that’s still money.

Indeed, Star Trek‘s entire economic vision is belied by the fact that they had to create an interstellar currency (gold-pressed latinum) to allow for believable interactions with other species. Simple barter may work with your family or close-knit social circle, but at some point you need an objective marker to denote and prioritize preferences and rivalrous goods.

Star Trek is valuable in better understanding our humanity. As an economics lesson, though, it does far more harm than good.

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