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.
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!