The Political Philosophy of Star Trek
Jul23
Culture & Current Events6

The Political Philosophy of Star Trek

Individualism, Not Socialism

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.

6 Comments

  • 1

    David Pontoppidan

    Jul 24, 2009 at 8:18 | Reply

    I like this. However, you must remember that both trade and private property exist in the Star Trek universe and within the Federation, although in post-capitalistic ways of transaction and commerce. Star Trek is therefore not socialist by traditional definitions. I prefer to think of it as somewhat anarchistic.

    But as a fellow friend of ours would say, it is only logical to assume that market-based systems would evolve and change drastically as technology improved the ways in which we live.

    Above all else, Star Trek is about what it means to be human, and about moral questions. I was reminded of that tonight watching ‘Generations’, where Kirk gives up Paradise and provides the ultimate sacrifice to “make a difference”.

  • 2

    Joseph Sileo

    Jul 25, 2009 at 4:01 | Reply

    It could be argued that scarcity wasn’t eliminated but transferred. For example it takes a great deal of energy to operate a replicator. It is shown in Voyager that resources were rationed because they were far away from their normal source of energy. A Market Economy immediately formed both aboard the ship,where crew members would use Holodeck time, replicator rations, and work details as currency, and between Voyager and other civilizations, where technology and other resources were traded. ST: Voyager is actually a great example of the natural emergence of a market economy. The reason the other series appeared to be Socialist Utopias was because matter was in infinite supply because they had the technology to convert energy into matter. The technology was also present to harness huge quantities of energy with little effort. (matter antimatter reactions)

    Eventually as with all systems you get diminishing returns, so I would imagine with time scarcity would rear its ugly head.

  • 3

    Joseph Sileo

    Jul 25, 2009 at 4:03 | Reply

    But who knows, technology could progress to the point where we can capture all forms of energy and all forms of matter, and convert the two. At that point wouldn’t we have a perpetual motion system?

  • 4

    Alexander Duncan

    Mar 18, 2013 at 15:25 | Reply

    I think the problem you attribute to Star Trek is really a problem that you have invented yourself, i.e., the typification of Star Trek as “socialist.” If anything, Star Trek is technocratic, and technocracy is neither socialist nor capitalist – it represents thinking of another order altogether. Thus, of course there are elements of altruism and individualism in Star Trek, just as there are in human life. It has nothing to do with socialist political ideology at all.

  • 6

    Jim Osborne

    Sep 05, 2013 at 6:00 | Reply

    Star Trek portrays a Socialist decentralized management model WHICH would allow more individuality and choices regarding career and education. That also allows for a smaller government which reduces gridlock (look at the us congress) and by getting rid of personal wealth resources are redistributed so that everyone has at least their basic needs and medical and education met. You confuse propaganda of the USSR and our own ideology from the cold war, when you eliminate poverty, a lot of things would go with it: hopelessness, and dispair, cuelty, and exploitation. Marx envisioned a workers revolution occurring in an already industrialized country due to extreme disparity of wages, and lack of benefits compared with management

    The former ceo of Exxon got a 450 million retirement package while they managed to wriggle out of fiscal responsibility caused by the Exxon Valdez and damage continues today and the citizens of Alaska ended up being shafted. People’s wages since 1980 have barely managed to stave off inflation while upper management reaps huge payouts. With the death of unions goes fair wages and health benefits and even retirement wait til you see all the fees for managing your 401k

    Socialist, yes, but they get rid of the social problems we’ve ignored for the last 237 years. And replication technology in their universe occurred sometime after 2269. (I checked)

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD student in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, web development, and folk music.

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