Star Trek is held in low esteem by the American Right for portraying a Socialist space utopia. Certainly there is a vast, far reaching central government, and Captain Picard often waxes – especially where time travel gives him the opportunity to speak to present-day people – about how humanity has evolved beyond self interest. Those interested in personal gain are portrayed in a less than flattering light. Our era with hundreds of national governments is reflected on smugly as “the age of confusion”. But should Star Trek be totally thrown out for its political philosophy? I believe there’s more to redeem it than to condemn it.
Even admitting that “evolving past self-interest” is nonsense, the economics of Star Trek, given the technology, are not so far-fetched. Replicator technology would enable the utopia of the Star Trek universe by eliminating physical scarcity of most things. Even energy scarcity isn’t something one has to worry about except in extreme circumstances, thanks to antimatter-powered warp cores.
Granted, this point is (so far as I’m aware) never emphasized. But if marginal costs fall sufficiently across the board, the entire price system could plausibly become more costly than its benefits. Harold Demsetz argues near the end of his paper, “The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights“:
Attention is sometimes called to the fact that emerging technical developments will make the use of markets or governments more economic than they now are. There are surely many instances where this is true. However, our analysis suggests that technological developments can operate in the opposite direction. . . . Markets or their government alternatives should come into greater prominence only if technical developments lower the costs of these institutional arrangements more than they reduce the costs of producing[.]
Replicators and warp cores will clearly reduce raw costs of production more than they reduce the costs of government or the market mechanism. One could imagine a story where after hundreds of years, the question of allocation by the price mechanism becomes outmoded, and the economics of scarcity fall into disuse.
Nevertheless, despite the negative portrayal of capitalists, there is a more fundamental theme: individualism. Though Starfleet might fairly be called a Socialist utopia, it is not always a perfect one. One of the most common themes in each of the series is the captain’s deliberate defiance of a direct order, thereby saving the day. Successwise, captains have a vastly better track record than Starfleet, illustrating well the knowledge problem of centralized government. Naturally, though Starfleet never does back off the regulations and directives, it’s apparently fine to violate them so long as things work out in the end.
Star Trek is in fact rather schizophrenic in its attitude towards its utopia. Generally it’s good and enlightened, though often misinformed, having to be corrected by intrepid Enterprise captains. Occasionally though, Starfleet embodies every problem of tyrannical government, making the captains not only occasional rulebreakers with exceptionally good judgement, but outright traitor-heroes. The story of Insurrection, for example, puts Starfleet barely short of genocide, forcibly relocating an eternally youthful race to another planet where they would eventually die. The crew of the Enterprise, infected with the planet’s youthful vigor, reneges against Starfleet and saves the Ba’ku. And there is never a bit of moral ambiguity in their decision.
These themes come to the forefront in Voyager, where the crew has to make its way without the benefit – or the burden – of a nearby Starfleet. If Picard’s driving ideology is altruism, Janeway’s is explicit individualism. How many times throughout the Seven of Nine rehabilitation subplot did Janeway lecture Seven on the virtues of individuality? She’s even been known to directly lecture the Borg Collective on the evils of collective consciousness. She called them a race “as close to pure evil as any race we’ve ever encountered,” referring unambiguously to the forcible and imperial suppression of individuality.
So Star Trek promotes a Socialist utopia with a strongly individualist culture? Star Trek has always had a moralizing component to it. Though their stereotype of Capitalists could be called unfair, their utopia doesn’t necessarily do injustice to economics, thanks to the replicator. So despite a political structure that would translate disastrously into our present world, the strong individualist themes of the show commend it far past its unfair stereotypes condemn it.