The Political Economy of Star Trek
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
Star Trek, in case you don't know, is a science fiction show on television that takes place in the future. The original Star Trek ran during the 1960s, and the show was later revived in several series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, the current one called "Enterprise" after the space ship, which is under the authority of Starfleet Command. There have also been several movies starring the crews of the television series. The star ship's mission is to explore new worlds, trekking where no Earthling has gone before.
Star trek crews are multi-racial and multi-species, with beings from several different planetary systems. The original Star Trek had Spock, a Vulcan, and Enterprise now has the female Vulcan, T'Pol, and a non-earthling doctor. The captains have been human beings from earth, including a female captain in Voyager . The earth is the capital planet of the United Federation of Planets, which is sometimes at war with enemy species.
In the Star Trek saga, Earthian cultural customs continue into the future. People still get married. Children are raised by their parents. Humanoids, except for Ferengi females, still wear clothes. Religion still exists.
Among the amazing scientific advances are the ability to travel and communicate faster than light (at warp speed), the ability to beam a person to another location with a transporter, and a universal translator that enables the crew to communicate with beings in other planets. Almost all of the non-Earth species encountered are humanoid, shaped and sized like human beings, with some alteration, usually as odd facial features. Star Trek is really about people.
The most fantastic scientific phenomenon is the ability to travel through time into the past or the future, a feat that challenges not just the laws of physics but perhaps even logic, as it raises the question of how one can exist in two different timelines at the same time. This feat is not something that the Trek ships can do at will; it is an accomplishment of the future beyond Star Trek's time, of some civilizations, and an occasional disturbance of the space-time continuum.
In such a future world, would the fundamental laws of economics have changed? From what I have observed watching the show, the principles of economics have endured. Even though the crew can create food with replicators, scarcity still exists. Their energy source is not infinite, and the crew occasionally has to replenish its materials. The concept of trade is present, as the Enterprise sometimes engages in an exchange with those in another ship or a planet.
Death still exists, and it looks like the human lifespan has not fundamentally changed. So time is still a scarce resource, along with materials. The ship is organized along military lines, the captain being in charge. The internal economy of a Star Trek ship is like a typical firm, the rule being from each according to their abilities and to each according to his needs and rank, not much different from today's naval vessels and space stations.
Back on earth and the other planets of the Federation, I recall some allusion to Federation people no longer needing money, although the mercenary Ferengi used money. Evidently, the Trek crew members are not paid beyond their consumption in the ship. Little is said about the economy of the Federation, but since there seems to be general prosperity, it is evidently a market economy, which would necessarily have to use money.
Even if goods such as food, clothing, and electronic gadgets can be cheaply replicated, land will always be scarce. The future earth is no bigger than today's planet, and the most desired locations have to be rationed. The fundamental physical law still applies, that two bodies cannot be at the same place at the same time. Scarce land will still have a rent.
Since the peoples of the earth are no longer at war with one another, this implies not just religious tolerance, but a lack of economic conflicts. The only way to assure an equitable and prosperous economy is to have free-market money and the use of rent for public finances instead of taxing labor and capital. Such economic science fiction would make a good story!
It seems that everyone on earth speaks English. The invented languages of the Klingons, who eventually make peace with the Federation, and of the Vulcans, have actually been compiled into dictionaries. Even with universal translators, there would need to be some official federation languages in which documents are inscribed. Vulcans, being logical beings, would advocate a neutral and simple universal language, most likely one which earth has now had for over 100 years, namely, Esperanto. Surely the Federation uses Esperanto as its universal language, which is automatically translated into English for the television audience!
A thrilling story and saga requires conflict. We get plenty of conflict in Star Trek, including violence, as various alien species such as the Romulans are constantly at war. What are these wars about? Almost all the fighting is over turf, protecting and expanding territory. The wars in Star Trek, just like today's wars on earth, are about land and the control of other beings. The Star Trek ships often enter into spatial areas claimed by some empire or planet, and they are ordered to get out. (The plot is often that a crew member has gotten stuck in some moon or has been captured, and the ship can't leave until they get him back.) Probably the worst enemy is the Borg, a totalitarian empire which seeks to assimilate all other beings.
So even in the vastness of space, territory is a scarce resource that is the greatest source of conflict. In today's world, even when the conflict is not violent, land remains a source of political conflict, and policies that are not in accord with the natural laws of lead to social disharmony. The key to social peace will always be to transform the military and political struggle for land into a market where users pay land rent rather than fight for land.
If rent is to be used for public revenue and shared equitably, how would the Federation justly deal with a planet whose resources are superior vis-a-vis planets with few natural resources? Should land rent be shared equally throughout the galaxy, or does justice only require that the natural rent be shared by the inhabitants of a planet? For example, if earth has more per-capita rent than the Vulcan world, should earthlings pay rent to Vulcan to equalize it? This challenging question has implications for sharing rent on earth, as we can ask, does it make a difference that rent today is in one planet with one humanoid species? Such economic and moral issues could be sources of juicy episodes; the economic frontier has barely been explored in Star Trek.
Public revenue need not be governmental; indeed, competitive private communities such as land trusts, civic associations, and proprietary communities, offer more choice and better service. I envision the political economy of a future earth at peace as a system where people all live in voluntary civic associations and entrepreneurial communities. The federation government is elected bottom up as community councils elect successive higher-level representatives, since it would not work well for the federation council to be directly elected by the whole mass of citizens. A free market, public revenue from rent rather than taxes, and voluntary governance with small-group voting, that is the prescription for a planet at peace.
Two basic themes of Star Trek are the value of individuality and racial harmony. Each person's heritage, values, and personality are respected. While this is relatively easy to achieve in the organizational order of a ship, to do this on a galactic scale requires universal liberty where each person, regardless of species, has an equal right to do whatever does not coercively harm others.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2003 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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