Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Is Star Trek Left-Wing?

Matthew, Kevin, and Kelly know that I, being a radical free-market libertarian, have more than a couple qualms with Star Trek when it comes to economics and government. They’ve been taunting me for weeks to write a response to the question of whether Star Trek is left-wing/liberal/completely unrealistic when it comes to those issues.

First things first: I usually reject the terminology left-wing and right-wing. I believe certain policy ideas can either bring people up (making them freer to make their own decisions), or down (restricting their freedom in their own lives). However, since the current political parlance is such that “left-wing” and “liberal” generally means bigger government, and “right-wing” and “conservative” mean smaller government, that’s how I’m going to use the terms in this essay. (Believe me, I disagree with those definitions, especially in practice, but they are what they are.)

Having been raised with a healthy appreciation for capitalism, I was confused by the economy in the Star Trek universe for the first time at age 13 when I saw Star Trek: First Contact. The film is great--possibly my favorite Trek flick--but my spidey senses tingled when I heard my hero Captain Picard explain the economics of his time to Lily Sloane:
"The economics of the future are 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."
Somewhat different, indeed.

Sounds pretty noble, huh? It is, but it also reveals a complete disregard for human nature, particularly in terms of how we are motivated by incentives. Yes, bettering oneself is an incentive, but there’s no objective measure for it. I might choose to better myself by beginning a business and using the profits to buy a HDTV, or I could choose to better myself by sitting on the beach for the rest of my life reading books. Or, someone might choose to better herself by stealing from someone else.

There has to be something beyond the ideal for self-betterment to drive people to pursue productive ends. That something is money, the material manifestation of productivity.

Star Trek is more than a little inconsistent on the subject of money. In the Original Series we heard about credits and prices. How else would the bartender negotiate the purchase of the tribbles without something to give Cyrano Jones? And in Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi bar-owner Quark—a member of that race of shortsighted businesspeople who are always ripping people off—would have set up shop on Ferenginar long ago were he not getting paid in gold-pressed latinum. Quark wouldn’t accept gold-pressed latinum in exchange for his goods and services unless he could spend it somewhere else, so it's not some mini-economy he's set up on his own. And spending his riches wouldn't be hard considering there are all sorts of merchants on the Promenade and coming in and out of the station.

So despite Picard’s directness, money clearly exists and still has a motivating influence on people in the 24th century. It may not be Earth or Federation currency, but trade with other peoples means some money is in play and has some standard of worth that most people agree on.

Which brings us to the question of the Federation’s high standard of living (and my effort to not make a liar out of my favorite captain). Life on Earth has been described as "paradise," where want, disease, racism and war have been vanquished. Helping secure the population's material wants and needs, there's this little piece of technology called the replicator that can make everything from your lunch to a wedding gift for your favorite transporter chief.

With the replicator–and the transporter–we’ve cracked the code of matter and energy, and determined they’re interchangeable. To make matter, like your dinner, energy is needed. And to make energy, you need matter in the form of dilithium crystals or some other energy source.

Because you can’t make something from nothing, there must be some sort of economy behind the energy trade. Someone has to identify the energy, collect it, transport it, and transform it into a useful form. If useful energy were ubiquitous, people could have whatever they want. Anyone would be able to live in Paris (causing the Federation president’s view of the Eiffel Tower from his office to become obscured by 1,000 story condominium towers, and thus making it a quite undesirable place to be).

But the law of supply and demand is still in effect in the 24th century, thank God.

In their analysis of the Economy of the Federation, Ex Astris Scientia puts it simply:

Building a Sovereign-class starship consumes far more energy, material and man power than a Type-6 shuttlecraft. This must be accounted for in some way.
The Federation may not have money in the 24th century, but the existence of trade, commerce, and productivity mean that wealth is still somehow gained, lost, and accounted. 95% of all transactions in Star Trek are out in the open, which means free trade is not an underground activity. This means a market economy–to some high degree–exists in the Star Trek universe. This doesn’t contradict the statement that Star Trek’s economy is left-wing, but doesn’t confirm it either.

So the economy of Star Trek is a toss-up. We clearly don't know enough to tell if it's based on the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes and other left-wingers, but we do know there is some sort of exchange of currency for goods. (We do know, however, that Marx's ideas aren't in play. The state doesn't command and control the interstellar economy.)

Government in Star Trek is another question. The government of Earth in the 24th century is united, and belongs to interstellar United Federation of Planets. It’s reminiscent of the concept of the “new world order."

My ideal government would be one decentralized to the highest degree possible. Ideally, that would mean individual self-government as that is the lowest level at which power over a person lies.

A United Earth government, therefore, runs contrary to my ideal, and, using the definition I’ve written above, could be considered left-wing. It may be democratic, but it’s a one-size-fits-all approach to governance.

I’ve always thought it strange that all of the major races in Star Trek have united world governments. The Romulans have the Senate, the Klingons have the High Council, and the Cardassians have the Central Command (and, later, the Dominion). Sure, there have been splinter groups and rebels, but by and large, united world government is the rule in Star Trek. Heck, it’s even a condition for Federation membership.

Beyond its massive interstellar scope, there's no real way to tell whether the government of the Federation itself is ideologically left-wing. (The Federation is also anti-war, which, I suppose considering the current definition, is left-wing.) We really don't know much about government's role in this universe. We've heard civilians talk about transporter credits, but that's about it when it comes to the day to day. What natural rights does this government recognize and protect? What rights has it invented? How much meddling does it do in the economy? What issues would Earth's prime minister or the Federation president campaign on in an election? Sticking to the canon of the Star Trek TV shows and movies (and not the books), we just don't know.

All told, it’s silly to try to fit a show based in the future onto a point of a 21st century political-economic spectrum. Although I’m sure the writers have unique political agendas, Star Trek is meant to discuss issues beyond economics and government. Like I wrote in my recent essay on Why I Love Star Trek, it speaks to me on topics such as friendship and existentialism.

Some of the best Star Trek speaks to contemporary human issues and controversies (war, inter-racial relations, morality), but that’s a mark of relatable storytelling rather than any specific political agenda.

Star Trek isn’t left-wing, but it isn’t right-wing either. It’s often na├»ve, but mostly politically agnostic, which is exactly as it should be.

1. Would removing financial reward lead to paucity of motivation in the future?

Kelly: Richard, this is where I fundamentally disagree with you. You say: "There has to be something beyond the ideal for self-betterment to drive people to pursue productive ends. That something is money, the material manifestation of productivity." Do I care about money? Sure, but only so far as it helps me live reasonably comfortably. If you take about my concerns about keeping a roof over my head and take that as a given, I would stop caring about money, but that wouldn't reduce my motivation to succeed in the slightest. I work hard, I'm ambitious, completely apart from desire for material goods. I don't go into work in the morning thinking about how much money I'll make that day. If they stopped paying me, assuming my basic needs were met, I would still work every bit as hard as I do now. I don't think that if you took away all money, again assuming needs were met, that everyone would just go sit on the beach and read.

Matthew: Whether or not the Federation has bums is not really investigated much. Pre-Voyager Tom Paris is an outlier, and I suppose he has enough seedy companions to shoot pool with, but I wonder how shiftless he truly is. I also wonder where he lives given his shitfless and unproductive status (see my discussion below).

In the main, though, I have to agree with Kelly on this one. If scarcity were eliminated tomorrow, would I take a long vacation? Probably. But I'd get bored after a while. I'd write books, compose music, paint paintings, investigate the endless possibilities of existence. Also, clearly, someone in this society still builds buildings, makes plumbing work, and so on and so forth. Are these procedures automated? Are they done by holograms? Or do people engage in a profession in order to obtain those things which are still scarce in such a society, such as real estate? It's an open question, but not unresolvable I think.

Richard: I once read that a fulfilling job must have three things: Sufficient complexity, autonomy, and a connection between effort and reward. There must be something tangible for people to receive for doing a good, productive job. If you're in Starfleet I suppose another pip on your collar might do the trick, but most people aren't. Kelly says the only reason she cares about money is because it helps her live comfortably. Well, don't you someday want to live more comfortably? Does that forward-looking contribute to your level and degree of ambitiousness?

Tom Paris may be a bad-boy outlier in Star Trek, but you two may be outliers of another sort today. However, I believe were you not to be paid from tomorrow and all your current needs and wants were met, you would not work as hard. One tough day and you wouldn't come back. Why would you need to?

The point is Matthew's: Scarcity still exists in the Star Trek universe in some form or fashion. Therefore, there must be some way to account for it and permit access. That means there is some sort of money.

If that doesn't convince you, well, then this is more of a philosophical question now, so I suggest we get drunk sometime and take it on. Before that, though, look up the term praxeology.

Matthew: Jake still wants to get into the exclusive Pennington School. It seems like this is a motivation absent any monetary dimension, especially given the career choice in question (Writers? Bah!).

Richard: We can't all live charmed lives like Jake Sisko.

Kevin:   I agree with Kelly on this one.  Look at it this way.  If my salary is the fair market valuation of my job, wouldn't it be efficient to do the least required to keep from getting fired?  I don't do that of course.  I like being not only adequate but overtly good at my job.  I derive benefit, just not one that can be turned into a commodity.

I also don't think it's entirely accurate to say there is no scarcity in the Federation.  There is just no scarcity of necessities.  For those of you out there who don't know, my day job involves working very closely with some really impoverished people, and I can say this with a fair degree of certainty.  Not having a steady, dependable stream of the basics fucks with your head hardcore.  No two ways about it.  The mode you have to go into to handle that precludes a certain amount of serenity.  Objects of art or food that is grown and not replicated are things that are valued in the Star Trek universe and that would remain scarce even with replicators.  And they are things people expend considerable energy in obtaining.  They just don't have to worry about starvation or homelessness.  There are still things to strive for.  Civilizations of the past valued different things than we do.  I have no trouble imagining a society that could be motivated by goals other than material wealth.  Maybe the guy who didn't learn how to play an instrument or take up archaeology is the bum of his day.

2. There's a high standard of living in the Federation, and most citizens don't appear to have any use to money. Couldn't this mean technology has helped a socialist or even communist government succeed in its utopian goals to make everyone feel happy and fulfilled?

Kelly: Yes! I hope so, anyway. We know there is still government, and I think the point made in Star Trek, that I agree with, is that you need a united planetary government to have the resources to make interplanetary space travel possible. Virgin Galactic may be able to take rich folks to the moon, but it seems to me that travel to somewhere far enough away to find sentient alien life will require cooperation on a large scale, at least at first. I like the idea of everything on earth being collectively owned, and I don't think there's anything in canonical Trek that disproves that idea. One wonders about Chateau Picard and Sisko's restaurant, but they could still work in this system.

Matthew: On the other hand, there's nothing canonical that indicates collective ownership exists, at least on the small scale. Robert Picard isn't portrayed as being forced to take in boarders or produce wine for the state, nor the same for Sisko's cajun restaurant.

I think there is still implicit scarcity of some goods in Star Trek. There is no scarcity of energy, at least by TNG era Trek, in which searching for dilithium is no longer a plot-animating device (presumably, the recrystallization of dilithium introduced in Star Trek IV solved this problem). Thus, since energy is unlimited and matter-energy conversion is commonplace, there is no scarcity of basic resources. But as you mentioned above, there would still be scarcity of overwhelmingly complicated constructs like a Galaxy Class vessel, and, this is the big thing I would argue, there is scarcity of real estate. How and why does Joseph Sisko get his sweet restaurant location? How did Harry get that kick-butt San Francisco apartment? These types of locations are still limited, so there must be some means of apportioning them to Federation citizens, and certainly trading between citizens.

So how would this be achieved? Do we have any clear implications in canon? Well, it's tenuous, but hear me out. In "Family", Picard's friend Louis approaches him with a job offer, to chair the Atlantis Project. These jobs seem to be a matter of competition, people want them, there are promotions to be had, and the like. Well, how would someone be induced to take such a job? Presumably, they'd have to live at least somewhat close. So I would think that the organization would provide either a place of residence with a sweet-ass view, or whatever means of exchange are used to obtain the rights to such a residence.

How is this means of exchange determined in a post-scarcity society? Although a strict barter system is at least theoretically possible, the practical issues involved in trading services in such a specialized labor pool creates probably insurmountable difficulties (as it would today). Well, Richard, I'm afraid the obvious answer is some sort of bureaucratically determined "social contribution" index. Maybe it's the "credits" we hear about at various points. I suppose the value of such credits might be determined by the users and not by a governing body, but it's difficult to see how. Kelly and I batted around the idea of a Facebook-style social approbation scheme, in which the person or organization who got more "Likes" would use these to sue for control of a building or resource, but that seems far-fetched.

The notion that credits are used even in the 24th century is supported by some DS9 references. Quark intimates that he does not accept Federation credits. I think this implies that the credits represent specialized labor within the system, and thus are worthless to someone outside of the system.

This is all tenuous and not completely supported by canon. And it only applies to Earth and Earth-level Federation worlds. But I think it holds some water.

Richard: If scarcity were absent and could somehow regenerate its energy sources, why did the Voyager have so much trouble with running out of supplies, resources throughout the series? Why would they have needed those resources (i.e. minerals, elements) at all?

Matthew: Voyager's problem was rarely dilithium. It was usually something else such as deuterium (though why an isotope of the most common element in the universe would be hard to come by is difficult to understand). I think the Voyager conundrum is answered by 1. They were far away from the lack of scarcity, thus things could break down or be in shorter supply; 2. The writers needed to manufacture drama.

Richard: (All the rules go out of the window when drama's involved.) I simply disagree that the Star Trek universe is post-scarcity and that material goods don't motivate characters. There's only one Willie Mays rookie card (available)!

Kevin:  I would agree that there doesn't appear to be collective ownership in the Federation.  I would argue there is a slightly stronger case for centralized production, as the only mines are Federation mines, scientists all work for the Federation, etc.  Pure private ownership of resource production only seems referenced, at least later on, in non-Federation worlds, like the Tigan mines on New Syndey and whatnot.  I think that's a little more plausible in an intra-galactic society.  Distances and investment cost would seem to be prohibitive to all but a collective effort.

3. Are any details about the government or economy illuminated in the books?

Matthew: The Voyager relaunch novels indicate that there are holographic waiters. This says something about menial labor on Earth in this minimal-scarcity economic structure. But anything from a novel is quasi-canonical at best. Personally, I'd like to write a novel which expounds on my ideas of Non-Starfleet life on 24th century Earth. But unfortunately, I live in an economy of scarcity (called graduate school).

Richard: If left active long enough to become sentient, holographic waiters (and plasma conduit scrubbers) become slaves that carbon units can just deactivate. Are they property of individuals or of the state?

Kevin: Articles of the Federation is pretty good, and seems to set up a modern-Western style democracy, with planets as states.  The Federation Council is unicameral and the legislature seems to have broader authority than it's American Congressional analogue.  And for any West Wing fans out there, it is LOADED with in jokes and references.

4. Do you think Star Trek's economy and government matter? 

Matthew: I think they matter, like principles of economy and government would matter in any fictional work. They indicate the worldview of the writers, producers, actors, etc. I assume, had some pronouncement run too far afield of an actor's own views, they would have balked at it. But that doesn't seem the case.

I think it matters all the more in something like Star Trek. As we've all intimated, this is a worldview, not just an ephemeral entertainment. This is some place we all want to live. So it's important for us to figure out the implications and where we stand on them.

Kelly: I didn't realize until I watched Battlestar and a few episodes of Babylon 5 just how little government we see in Star Trek. We don't see Riker and Geordi discussing voting absentee. There's no real campaigning (at least on earth; Bajor is a bit different). I think that the political/economics viewpoints is important, but Roddenberry seems to have set it as a given, not something to be worked out on-screen. So it matters as backdrop, but we're never told how to get to where the Federation is, except by surviving World War III.

5. United world governments: Good or Bad?

Matthew: Richard is right that united world government is a prerequisite for Federation membership. But I think he is wrong to insist that this is necessarily antithetical to his Libertarian ideals. Couldn't a world government be one of Laissez Faire post-scarcity capitalism? Anarcho-Syndicalism? Totalitarianism? It seems like it could be anything, I think the implication is that the society is not divided by sectarian concerns such as tribe, religion, and the like. Which I think would be a pretty good thing. Our world needs to outgrow petty grievances such as these.

Richard: First, don't capitalize libertarian. It becomes the Libertarian Party in that case, and, well, that's not doing anything. Second, a world-government isn't necessarily antithetical to libertarianism, but provides a greater chance for concentrated power away from the individual. Most libertarians would see this as an unwanted element (but would like to see everyone getting along as they obviously do in Trek, respecting everyone's rights, trading, free-loving).

Kevin:  The way Star Trek universe conceives of a unified government, I don't think it assaults freedoms at all.  It's not about centralizing authority, it's about acknowledging that most of the bases on which we drew borders were stupid.  In the grand scope of history, how many of our freedoms have been restricted in the name of security or in wartime with one of those neighboring countries.  Without petty differences to divide us, one government is all we need.

Kelly: I always got the impression in Star Trek that the united world government, at least on earth, had a lot less interest in the daily lives of citizens than our current governments do. That could just be because we only see earth's government when there's some crisis to deal with.  Like Kevin says, I think it's not so much a matter of united world government itself being good or bad, but rather that it's the effect of good things happening. If we could really trust that people would act the way they largely do in the 24th Century, I'd be a libertarian too!

6. How does a Federation Citizen pay for goods outside of the Federation?

Matthew: Something that always vexed me on DS9 was the fact that Starfleet crew members went to Quark's or "the replimat" or "the holosuites." Why? Why wouldn't they just eat and drink for free in their quarters? Why not install a Starfleet holodeck? OK, fine, let's say they want to be social.How the hell do they pay for their goods and services? Quark doesn't accept Federation Credits, whatever those are. So something valuable to Quark must be exchanged here. But what was Harry Kim going to pay Quark for his Lobi Crystals?

I can think of a few possibilities. One is that Quark is required to provide a certain quota of gratis services to Starfleet personnel, as "rent." I don't think this is really supported in the filmed teleplays, however. No one is ever mentioned as exceeding their tab or quota. Another possibility is that Starfleet can pay, if the situation dictates, an allowance of latinum to its officers. Presumably, Starfleet would acquire the latinum from non-Federation worlds for the sale of goods and services, and then keep it in a pool to be requisitioned if need be (i.e. an assignment on a latinum-currency world or station). But this is problematic. It doesn't seem to fit very well with the overall Federation economic philosophy, at least insofar as it is expressed in the snippets we have.

Kevin:  My theory was that replicator patterns could be proprietary and that would get people to Quark in addition to fresh food which is frequently cited as better than replicated. How they pay for it is beyond me.  I put in the same category as how every system can fail except for dramatic lights and gravity.  I let it go so I can enjoy myself.


Richard: We've extrapolated a lot of interesting theories, but I don't think anyone's convinced anyone else. That's fine! The Star Trek economy and government structure is extremely undefined and, in keeping with the optimistic view of Trek, we've examined it through the lenses of our own world views. Stay tuned for more in-depth analyses of individual episodes that touch on these issues.


  1. VOY, "Dark Frontier."

    "When the new world economy took shape in the late 22nd century and money went the way of the dinosaur..."

    This means that whatever "credits" refer to, it is apparently not a means of exchange between earth citizens. Unless Tom simply means gold or specie-based currency.

  2. This is brilliant. Richard and I had a very brief version of this conversation over Sam Adams once. If I may make a couple of points:

    - The central governments of the planets in the federation are able to leverage enormous resources, which means they are probably pretty highly ordered. Even if warp drive makes long-distance travel easier, these planets have to build and equip not only a monstrous amount of ships, but also all types of research and supply stations. If it's due to replication technology making resources more plentiful (and essentially costless), then you'd have to assume that that replication technology also eliminated scarcity, which would probably make capitalism impossible. In any case, the activities of Starfleet alone (and its analogs on other planets) implies an extremely active and powerful government.

    - Marx didn't call for state control of the economy. Marx didn't advocate an activist state: that was a later, progressive/social democratic ideal. Marx theorized that the contradictions of capitalism and the nature of social relations would lead to capitalism's destruction. And just as capitalism was an improvement over feudalism, so the subsequent state would be superior to capitalism: a classless society where the means of production are owned in common (not by the state). State domination of the economy was a later theoretical addition, when the socialist Internationals came together and blended different types of socialism, including "pragmatic" parliamentary versions.

    - In "Time's Arrow", Deanna Troi laughs at the idea of scarcity when Mark Twain (!?) laments the likely condition of the poor and indigent in the future. The absence of scarcity could mean the economy of the future works at perfect efficiency, but then we'd have to figure out Picard's speech about the disappearance of consumption to the unfrozen rich 80s guy (I know he was from the late 21st century or whatever, but he was basically a rich 80s guy). While Picard never specifically mentions consumption, his belittling of the pursuit of wealth and material possessions at least implies casual consumption is not important.

    -This the nerdiest discussion I've ever had on the internet.

    Thanks guys!

  3. VOY, "Someone To Watch Over Me"
    Tom Paris to the Doctor, when making a bet: "Put Your Latinum where your mouth is"

  4. It's pretty obvious to me that the Federation is the modern-version of a European-like Democratic-Socialist liberal/progressive state, and in fact, there is an actual movement whose people call themselves "Star-Trek-Socialists" (I'm one of them).
    I'm NOT saying that you can necessarily match up those ideals with the Federation, but in general, it looks like that's where the idea came from (ESPECIALLY their views on suicide and human rights - VERYYYY left-wing) , and that is one of the main reasons I LOVE Star Trek (particularly Voyager). I'm a Star Trek-Socialist and proud! :-)

  5. There is nothing "radical" about being for "free markets". All capitalism is fascist, destructive, unethical, exploitative and inherently conformist, as of circa 2012.

  6. Human "nature" is contingent, which this article writer fundamentally overlooks. There is, simply put, no such thing as HUMAN NATURE. It's your typical Randian defense of capitalism.

  7. Capitalism is inherently evil. Read some Soddy, Herman Daly or heck even Einstein wrote on economics. Most who support capitalism don't understand how money is created, and how profit must, by its very nature, create a corresponding debt and so poverty elsewhere. Hell, we have a whole branch of thermoeconomists who prove that capitalism obeys energy conservation laws, but nobody's reading their papers. Google Positive Money to see an activist group which explains this well. Star Trek, of course, is hippie utopianism, but it's utopianism which unconsciously senses something horrible at the heart of capitalism. Of course Marx recognised and deliniated this years ago. Marx being one of the orriginations of communism, which Star Trek is a wishy washy version of.