So, what kind of economy exists in the 24th Century? Blogger Willow Yang takes a closer look at Star Trek’s depiction of an advanced economy and arrives at some interesting conclusions.
An interesting discussion surrounding Star Trek is the speculation over what socioeconomic system the Federation has. Is the Federation communist, as some have suggested?
In order to address this, we will first need to establish a definition for communism. I find that the vast majority of people these days don’t actually know what the term means, and are often either conflating it with totalitarianism and/or authoritarianism, or are simply using it as an ad hominem attack against those they don’t like.
Communism, to borrow an excerpt from Wikipedia, is a “philosophical, social, political and economic ideology and movement whose ultimate goal is the establishment of a communist society, namely a socioeconomic order structured upon the ideas of common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state.” I guess something like this might resemble the utopia (or dystopia, depending on your point of view) described in John Lennon’s Imagine, where there are no more possessions, no more countries, and everyone’s holding hands singing kumbaya.
Are the Soviet Union, China, or North Korea actually communist under this defintion? Nope. As far as I’m aware, there has never been an instance of true communism being successfully implemented throughout human history.
So, is the Federation communist?
Well, I do have to start out by saying that I have only watched The Original Series, The Next Generation, most of Deep Space 9, and bits of Voyager thus far, and there is a fair amount of information that’s still missing, along with various inconsistencies and contradictions throughout the franchise. Furthermore, most of the information we’ve been provided are centered on humans, and it’s unclear whether all members of the Federation adhere to the same system.
Both TNG and DS9 has explicitly stated on several occasions that money has been eliminated on Earth. One such instance occurred in TNG’s Season 1 finale, The Neutral Zone. In that episode, the crew came across three humans from the 20th century that had been placed in cryogenic suspension. One of them, upon being re-awakened, asked Picard about the fortune that he had acquired prior to being frozen, to which the latter responded: “This is the twenty fourth century. Material needs no longer exist.”
Then, there’s the Season 6 premiere, the 2nd half of Time’s Arrow, where Troi has a conversation with Samuel Clemens (who’s better known, of course, by his pen name, Mark Twain).
Clemens: So there’re a privileged few who serve on these ships, living in luxury and wanting for nothing. But what about everyone else? What about the poor? You ignore them.
Troi: Poverty was eliminated on Earth a long time ago, and a lot of other things disappeared with it. Hopelessness, despair, cruelty.
Clemens: Young lady, I come from a time when men achieve power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor, where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace and power is an end unto itself. And you’re telling me that isn’t how it is anymore?
Troi: That’s right.
With advanced technology, most notably the replicators, essential items such as food, clothing, and medicine are readily available to everyone in the population (although it is unclear how the energy used to generate these goods is being supplied). In other words, they have been added to the list of public goods, resources that are both non-excludable and non-rivalrous (or, as some prefer to put it, they’ve been “socialized”).Furthermore, it is evident that Star Trek has an unfavourable view of unbridled capitalism, as evidenced by its generally negative depiction of Ferengi culture, which is presented as being regressive and antithetical to twenty-fourth century human values.
However, while the Federation does have some elements that resemble communism, I do not think that it can be considered a truly communist society. There is still private property – Robert Picard has his vineyard; Joseph Sisko has his restaurant – and of course, there is definitely a state/government in place.
If the Federation isn’t communist, what economic system does it have? My speculation – because again, there isn’t enough information to know for certain – is that it most closely resembles a futuristic version of the social democracies seen in some northern European nations. Now, many people, including a prominent US senator, whose recent fashion choices have turned them into an Internet meme, often seem to mix social democracy with democratic socialism. In simple terms, social democracy advocates for a regulated and ethical form of capitalism whereas democratic socialism advocates for the abolishment of capitalism altogether.
In the post-scarcity world of the Federation, poverty has been eliminated. There is a baseline of living standards, with healthcare, education, food, clothing, and probably all other essential goods and services having been de-commodified. However, private property and businesses do still exist, it is conceivable that non-essential luxury items and services (like, say, artisanal wine or real, non-replicator food) are still being treated as commodities, and there is reward for individual effort and innovation.
How is individuality affected in a society like this?
If individuality is expressed predominantly through social class and consumerism, then from that perspective, it would be diminished in a world where economic inequality has been greatly reduced.However, as we can see in the Star Trek universe, one’s material wealth is certainly not the only component of individuality. Indeed, it can be argued that there are many people in our current society that are being held back from pursuing their interests and passions due to economic pressures, and if you were to remove that obstacle, personal freedom will be greatly increased. Miles O’Brien revealed at one point that his father actually wanted him to pursue a musical career rather than engineering. What upside-down alternate universe are we in where parents are pressuring their children to go into the arts instead of the sciences because they are no longer concerned about them ending up homeless?
Rather than being limited to what is most economical and safe, people in a post-scarcity society are allowed to study what they are actually interested in and get jobs that they are actually passionate about. Of course, that does not mean an equality of outcomes; there is clearly going to be people who are better at something than others due to the natural diversity that exists in the population. Certainly not everyone is going to command a starship or become President of the Federation. However, everyone has their basic needs taken care of and nobody is being held back by fear or a lack of opportunity.
I will conclude with some musings on the idea of a society where humans have lost the desire for wealth accumulation.
How can a system like this function? It has been argued that competition and greed are good motivators for people to strive and innovate. So what motivates Joseph Sisko to continue on running his restaurant if he doesn’t need to work to make a living? Is it because he simply enjoys doing it? What motivates McCoy or Beverly Crusher or Bashir to become doctors if it isn’t for the handsome wages? Is it just because they want to help others, because they want to partake in new scientific discoveries that will better humanity?
Why do people want to get into Starfleet? Is it just the desire to be part of a great expedition to “explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before”?
As Picard stated in The Neutral Zone: “The challenge…is to improve yourself. To enrich yourself.” Or, as Data told Lal in The Offspring: “I have asked myself that many times as I have struggled to be more human. Until I realised it is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are, Lal. It does not matter that we will never reach our ultimate goal. The effort yields its own rewards.”
Of course, there’s the counterargument that we are inherently lazy and everyone will just sit on their buttocks all day and do nothing if they’re being handed freebies. Thus, whether you believe a society like this can function or not likely depends on your beliefs about human nature. Are we selfish or are we cooperative? Are we greedy or are we altruistic? Are we lazy or do we crave purpose?
And from that perspective, Star Trek is a strong believer in humanity.
Live long and prosper,