Star Trek Economics – A Lesson in World Building

Promo photo found on Wikipedia

This morning my wife, Marie, and I were talking economics over breakfast.  This was not the stereotypical husband/wife economics discussion, which usually seems to be about how high the bills are and which one of them is going to sell a kidney to pay those bills.  No, we were actually talking “economics” when out of the blue Marie asks, “And what about those people on Star Trek: they never get paychecks, never pay bills, never have to buy stuff, never get fired.  How do they do that?”

The remainder of this post is a distillation of our discussion of that topic, and it seems relevant to this blog because it is a valuable lesson in world building.  

It seems to me that the Human society of Star Trek is the utopian concept of socialism: everyone willingly does their job and does it well, without having to be “motivated” (much) by their superiors.  No one complains about not getting enough of anything, no one hoards anything, and no one seems to suffer from the rampant greed that has plagued human society since its inception.  Why is that?

I am convinced that the key to the whole societal model is… the replicator.

Because of replicators, anyone can walk up to a hole in the wall and say, Computer, make me a bowl of chicken soup.”, or “Computer, give me a new pair of pants, size 34-36.”,  or “Computer, I need a new table, glass, about this high by this big around…” and they get whatever they want, whenever they want it.   In all my decades of watching Star Trek I never once heard the computer respond with, “I’m sorry, your account is overdrawn; request denied.”

I am forced to wonder if everyone would have been so happy to put their lives on the line battling sentient tar slicks, fearsome alligator men and planet eating star beasts, if they were on an allotment system: so many credits per week for the work they did, if they run through their allotment by gorging on chocolate parfaits, then they do without until the next payday.

The ideal model of socialism is a wonderful thing.  The problem is that people stink at making it work.  Ants do it well.  Bees do it well.  Humans mess it up because the ones who are in charge of dispersing the stuff decide they are more important than the rest and therefore deserve more stuff.  That means the society runs out of stuff before everyone gets a share, so the lowly ones end up feeling abused and resentful.  Eventually the abused ones rise up to take their fair share of the communal stuff by force.

If this society had a machine that could and would make anything they wanted any time they wanted, in any amount they wanted, Socialism might just work.  Until then, pride and greed will always shoot it down.

I think the lesson to be learned here is that without the replicators (and a sufficient store of molecular goo in the belly of the starship for them to work with) the utopian society represented by these shows would not have been believable.  People are greedy.  The only way to eliminate greed and envy is to find a way to provide everyone anything they want.  Gene Rodenberry managed to do that.

Addendum

I just found this discussion of the ancient Inca Empire and it’s commerce-less society. A real-life example of a society where no one bought or sold anything.  Check it out!

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31 Comments

  1. I always fear that if we had a replicator that gave us anything we wanted then one of those other human conditions known as laziness might take hold in a segment of the population. There will be people who won’t work because their replicator gives them everything they could ever need. We will have to replace them with robot workers I guess,

    1. True, Stu. Unfortunately I suspect that humankind is more likely to become the Borg than they are The Federation. To start with we are becoming so dependent on the Internet and cell phones that we go bonkers if cut off from The Collective for more than a few minutes. Then there are all the Medical Improvements that we’re developing including mechanical hearts, robotic artificial limbs, electronic replacements for ears and eyes…

      I can easily see a time coming when a newborn is given an ID number and a cell phone implanted on the skull where it can feed sound into the auditory canal and pick up vibrations from the voice box. Once the mind control chip (http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1880784,00.html) is developed a bit more communications can become controlled directly by the brain instead of voice. Once the single-line cell phone becomes a node in the planetary chat room – we are the collective.

      And you KNOW that if we ever go out among the stars we will be forcing our life styles onto everyone we meet – we can’t move into the next state without trying to convert the locals to doing things our way! :-O

      We are (becoming) Borg, Resistance Is Futile! (unless you run away and live on a remote mountainside – like me) 🙂

      1. Yes,I’ve lived a life in mountains and yet I’m sure that there s a way out.People with vested interests have been controlling us and I see an uprising as we are more suited to a universal mind. New generation will surely end the years of apathy and bring in positive changes in our world.
        So let’s work it out, we can’t avoid it anyway.
        Hi everyone, there is plenty of room on all the mountains but we’ll make them worse if we all run into them.
        So let’s remember that we have to use the power that we all have within and we have to listen to our soul. Let’s get united humans. Bring in the inevitable!

  2. A lot of the characters focused on in Star Trek aren’t just explorers, they’re military interacting in their own little world. When they have to interact with the civilian sector, they pay for stuff. I’m sure they’ve got direct deposit and a debiting system working pretty well by then. I’m sure the replicator takes a load off a lot of minds, but they’ve also pointed out that the equipment requires a lot of power to run. That energy is coming from somewhere. Also, there are apparently plenty of limits to what can be replicated or Ferengi wouldn’t be so concerned with the acquisition of wealth.

    I don’t think Star Trek is as socialist as you think.

  3. Bees do it well? Ants do it well? I have to disagree here.

    Bees routinely chase drones out of the hive to die in the cold every winter, thereby reducing the number of mouths to feed from their stored up supplies, and ants enslave aphids and herd them like sheep, while “milking” them like cows (after a fashion).

    I love Star Trek, but I’ve never thought of their world as being a hive mind. The replicator is cool until you think about what it must be using to make new stuff … then it kinda grosses me out. *smile*

    That said, I did enjoy your post and wish you the happiest of holiday seasons.

  4. The Star Trek Universe is a socialist utopia, it’s true, and I have to agree with you on the idea that the replicator is an important part of what makes it work so well. Candace’s fears are valid – and you make an excellent point with using the welfare system to exemplify them.

    But with the freedom from the responsibilities of HAVING to work comes the freedom to pursue other interests, such as exploring the galaxy and “discovering new life and new civilizations.”

    Gene Roddenberry chose to share a vision of humanity where we rise above our fallibilities as a race and become enlightened, so to speak. I think what’s important to realize is that he had faith in humanity, despite its shortcomings. We might be on the fast track to becoming Borg, but there’s always hope, and that’s the most important thing that I take away from his vision.

    1. I agree, Marie, about this being Roddenberry’s vision for humanity. And perhaps we will get there; there were some references to the fact than humankind had to sink pretty low before it wised up and gained enlightenment. Thanks you for your input.

  5. The Federation didn’t have money at all. Which causes a few angst moments when interacting with other civilisations that do (Deep Space Nine deals with that a bit).

    And on Voyager the crew were on replicator rations which indicates that resources were finite… 🙂

    1. I’ve wondered about the few instances where a Federation crew went to a planet and “bought” something (even a drink in a bar): what did they use for currency? If they replicated local money, would that not be forgery? Hmmm… I remember Quark tallying up bills for the station staff and Federation visitors on a PDA, but can’t recall an exchange of currency. Except at the Dabo tables – and what they used there looked more like chips than coins.

      And yes, the “goo” stored in the belly of the ship was made from broken down waste of all sorts; sewage, food scraps, broken toys, etc. So as long as consumption does not exceed waste by very much, a ship has what it needs to keep going. I suppose if they run low they could just beam in some space junk and break that down. I’m not real clear on whether the replicator can build atoms, thereby constructing whatever materials it needs from electrons, protons and neutrons, or if it worked at a molecular level using elemental atoms as building blocks. If that is the case it could run out of components to make some things. I’ll have to dig out my Enterprise Service Manual and check on that.

      Thanks for joining in, Michael!

      1. I think that the ships had a supply of tradable income – most trade in Star Trek was resource for resource or technology for resources…

        My memory might not be good but in most cases when crew “bought” something on away missions they charged the cost back to the ship..

  6. I think some people would go crazy w/o purpose, so I think some would opt to pursue their passions anyway. They’d still need people to do some work in a utopian society, so there would have to be some incentive somewhere. If all the work falls to a few, seems resentments would build up again.

    There were promotions, etc …, & there were still power struggles w/in Starfleet — so there had to be incentives some place.

    1. I know I would, Mary!

      The good folks on Star Trek did take a lot of time to pursue self-improvement and enlightenment, but they also had jobs: contributing something useful to the whole. I have read a couple of books that portrayed a a society devoted to releasing themselves from work to pursue leisure. Most ended badly.

      As you say, some members of society have to keep things running. That opens the door to resentment – or megalomania. As you say, even Starfleet had a few “ambitious” individuals. Thanks for joining in.

  7. I think the pessimism for Socialism is unnecessary. You could easily say Capitalism doesn’t work because of greed and pride and the fact that thousands die daily in horrific conditions because of this. I think since this has been part of our lives, all our life, so we numb ourselves to this reality.

    You could say capitalism wouldn’t work without jobs for everyone, since people would steal and kill out of greed. This is true to an extent, but Capitalism still exists. I do not think a replicator is required for Socialism, just like free capital isn’t required for Capitalism. Both would be great, but not requirements.

    The failed attempts of Socialism were due to mismanagement of resources, not the failure to produce infinite amounts on demand. Today we have supercomputers, a global communication network and great knowledge of resource management. Back that up with an egalitarian constitution, declare all the worlds resources shared and we’re half way there. The hard part is getting the rich to change their ways and share when capital equals such great power.

    1. And you’d be right, as we’ve seen recently: when people allow their greed to overpower any sense of right and wrong, capitalism falls apart as well. If the members of of any society have no compassion for others society degrades, regardless of it’s structure. Except, of course, for a society based on the concept of anarchy: the strongest rules.

      My pessimism is not so much directed toward socialism as it is at humanity. A society where everyone contributes equally and everyone benefits equally would be a great system but is not especially well suited to humankind at this point in our evolution because people are, by nature, insecure and greedy. Once we as a species can get past the idea that we have to have plenty laid up for ourselves before we will consider giving anything to anyone else, we might have a shot at it. Some individuals get that, but as a species, we’re not there.

      Thank you for joining in, Jack, I appreciate your perspective.

  8. First, you know that any time I see anything with Star Trek in it I’m there; sneak! lol

    Second, sorry to break the socialism bubble, but of course they had a monetary system. I refer you to the first Star Trek movie where, when they popped McCoy on board, they had to reactivate his status and his monetary status.

    I next refer you to the concept of all the bars and locales; those folks had to pay for all that stuff. Remember Trouble with Tribbles? Uhura had to buy one from Jones. Remember Deep Space Nine and Quark’s all-consumable quest for gold pressed latinum? Remember Next Generation when the woman Picard kept running into and having his brief affairs with was actually a historical artifacts thief who was trying to sell things to the highest bidder?

    Yes, they had a monetary system. It’s just that there were a lot of things that were free, like the educational system, so that those who wanted to improve themselves could, and those that didn’t went to work, earned their money, and probably went home to watch their version of TV. lol

    Oh yeah, your CommentLuv isn’t working either. 😉

    1. Hey Mitch! Thanks for dropping by and joining in on this discussion.

      We have established that The Federation had some means of trading with the “locals” when they visited various planets and space stations. Perhaps their Federation Express (sic) credit card. There are multiple references to using “credits” to purchase things from outside races, such as your mention of Uhura buying the Tribble from Harry Mudd. In The Search for Spock McCoy wanted to hire a ship to take him back to the Genesis planet and was warned that this would be very expensive, requiring a great many credits. They did not say from whom he would lease the ship. The point I was trying to make is that I’ve ever seen a cash transaction between Star Fleet members or, for that matter, between strictly Federation citizens. I never heard any Star Fleet member refer to their pay scale or a pay day or that they felt they deserved a raise.

      You mention Vash, the “archeologist” that Picard first met on Risa as they searched for the Tox Uthat. She was motivated by potential for profit and was seeking payment. She was human, and presumably a Federation citizen. But, she was a thief. Therefore not a GOOD citizen of the Federation, in fact she would have been considered an aberration at least and possibly a criminal had she succeeded.

      Deep Space 9 was a multicultural outpost. Quark, being a Feregi (and not part of the Federation) definitely had a monetary system. Ferengi made the pursuit of profit their religion, the basis of their government and the precept by with they justified their very existence. There were several instances made in TNG and DS9 that humans did not use currency and that the pursuit of wealth had become abhorrent to humanity – for the most part. Obviously there were rogue members of the species who were exceptions. This often was the cause of consternation and tension between the two races.

      In the Voyager episode, “Dark Frontier” Tom Paris explains that the use of currency among humans faded out when the New World Economy arose in the late 22nd century. The Federation was founded in 2161, so that seems to fall in line.
      But my favorite reference is in The Voyage Home where Kirk and Spock are having pizza with a 20th century marine biologist, Dr. Jillian Somethingorother. When the bill comes, Kirk cannot pay and Dr. Jillian says, “Let me guess; in the 23rd century you don’t use money?” To which Kirk replied, “Well, no… we don’t!”

      How the economy of The Federation worked I have no idea, but it did seem that (most) humans were no longer working for a wage, were not concerned about wealth, or acquiring possessions. Now… as to McCoy and reinstating his pay scale – you’ve got me there; I don’t recall that at all, but do not doubt you. I will pull that movie out and watch it again this afternoon (thanks for the excuse) just for my own education.

      CommentLuv isn’t even supposed to be turned on ’cause it’s busted. It updated recently and must have reactivated itself when I saved the settings. I keep thinking I’ll find a solution, so I haven’t deleted the files. Thanks for the heads up, I’ll go turn it off again.

  9. The ‘Star Trek’-style of economies that you refer to in this blog post are often known as gift- or resource-based economies. Real world examples of this are not Western-based (certainly not socialism) but certainly existed until recent times in pluralistic or communalistic societies in the Pacific (except for Yap, of course).

    1. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

      I was just reading a book on the Mayan civilization (South America) and the fact that across their entire civilization, they had no system of currency and no market places. They bought and sold nothing, and yet they were the most advanced civilization on the planet at that time. Fascinating.

  10. Hi,

    I suggest that your wife (and yourself for that matter) take a look at Sam Dolgoff’s “The Anarchist Collectives.” It’s about the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939. It might answer some of her questions as to how a moneyless society functions, courtesy of the spanish anarcho-syndicalist. Here’s some excerpts:

    “Medical care and medicines are free. Even postage stamps are free. There is no rent. Housing, building repairs, water, gas, electricity-all are supplied gratis, not only to the collectivists but also to the ‘individualists.'”

    “Some collectives did in fact abolish money. They had no system of exchange, not even coupons. For example, a resident of Magdalena de Pulpis, when asked, ‘How do you organize without money? Do you use barter, a coupon book, or anything else?,’ replied, ‘Nothing. Everyone works and everyone has the right to what he needs free of charge. He simply goes to the store where provisions and all other necessities are supplied. Everything is distributed free with only a notation of what he took.”

    George Orwell also had some pointed things to say about anarcho-syndicalist Spain in his memoirs Homage to Catalonia:

    “Many of the normal motives of civilized life-snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.-had simply ceased to exist.”

    “Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift boy.”

    “There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’s shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly exclaiming that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes.”

    Then there’s Anton Beevor’s The Spanish Civil War:

    “In most anarchist collectives money was abolished. ‘Here in Fraga,’ the local paper proclaimed in blazing pride, ‘you can throw bank notes into the street and no one will take any notice. Rockefeller, if you were to Fraga with your entire bank account you would not be able to buy a cup of coffee. Money, your God and your servant has been abolished and the people are happy.”

    “Foreigners who gave a tip had it returned politely with an explanation of why the practice corrupted both the giver and the receiver.”

    Orwell identified a tendency to mistake State Capitalism or statism with socialism. Anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism are by definition forms of libertarian socialism, not some winner-take-all survivalism. I’m just sayin’.

    Below is an 8 minute segment from a UK documentary that shows real anarchy in action.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUig0lFHDDw

    Here’s a 95 minute documentary called Living Utopia on Spanish anarchism. About an hour into it they describe the abolition of money and reduction of the work day from 8 hours to 4 hours in order to reduce unemployment. “Enjoy it.” — Capt. Picard.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPl_Y3Qdb7Y

    1. This is the type of world I would want to live in. Where a man or woman says I want to be a doctor. Not to get rich. To help people and to be the best I can be. Where people work to better themselves and mankind. Not this mess we live in today. There will always be greed, envey, and jealousy and these are our down falls.

  11. I’m wondering if I can spring my son out of school for the day to watch the new Star Trek movie as according to this post it would be an educational experience for him.

    1. LOL Well, Laura, I’m not sure the board of education would approve of that, unless they too are Trekkies, in which case they might want to go along.

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