THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 541, October 18, 2009
"There is no genuinly forward-looking
science fiction left in mainstream America."
The Economics of Star Trek
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
In one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 Captain Sisko describes Earth as "paradise." It is a paradise in which there is no such thing as money, and people don't get paid for doing things. In the same episode we see Sisko's father's restaurant, but the workings of his business remain mysterious. The problem is that without the price system and money serving as a unit of account it is impossible to rationally allocate resources and capital goods in particular to their most valued uses. The difficulty lies in the fact that the price system is an emergent property of the market, arising as a result of entrepreneurial competition for capital, though, of course, there is nothing magical to it: we can clearly identify the source from which that property emerges, viz., the recognition by the individual members of society of the benefits of social cooperation and division of labor, and can even trace its evolution from a tiny two or three-person market to one in which social cooperation has become worldwide. As Joseph Salerno writes,
In other words, the market is unified and quickened by its ever
changing price system; indeed, as Ludwig von Mises points out, "The
market process is coherent and indivisible. It is an indissoluble
intertwinement of actions and reactions, of moves and countermoves."
Because one cannot add and subtract heterogeneous goods and for various other reasons, it becomes impossible to calculate profit and loss and therefore run any business whatsoever. Now it may be argued that the Trek replication technology has done away with the scarcity of most of the goods. Even then, however, labor, land, energy sources, the replicators themselves, which, I assume, differ in capacity and power (you can't replicate a spaceship on the DS9 machines), and who knows what else still remain scarce. And it is a reasonable guess that in the restaurant the food is cooked rather than replicated, unless the replicators also come in different qualities, and high-quality boxes are unavailable to the average man. Further, unless his food is priced, it must be rationed, and Sisko's old man must decide which "customer" gets what and how much, lest some guy simply walks into the kitchen with a big bag and takes everything that was prepared for the day (for without private property rights, what could stop him?). The puzzles multiply without end, e.g., what determines the size of the business? Did the owner have to petition the government for cooks and replicators and equipment, as well as for the space in the building in which the restaurant is located? How would the government know whether to honor his request, that is, whether by honoring it no even more urgent consumer wants will be unsatisfied? Then there is the incentives problem. Maybe Sisko's dad likes to cook and make people happy. But somehow I suspect that such works of charity will be utterly exhausting if performed day in and day out. And what about his dishwasher? Does he, too, experience no disutility of labor? At any rate, charity is a consumer goodresources are channeled into charities after they have been earned. Therefore, mass production cannot be based on charity but only on self-interest. Monetary profits are a sign that you are satisfying consumer wants better than your less alert competitors:
Similarly, we never see Quark, who owns a bar on the space station, get paid for dispensing his drinks; at least, I don't recall ever seeing that. For a guy obsessed with latinum (now there's your sound moneylatinum-standard; and in another episode we learn that gold is worthless compared to latinum) this is a problem, especially given that the Federation military employees on the station don't receive any wages. Once again, the necessary obscurity of how Quark's business worked (because it obviously cannot work) seems rather annoying. So the conundrum remains. And even for the Ferengi, all business and consumer transactions appear to be performed with cash, that is, actual bars of latinum. They apparently have no stock market (the litmus test for whether a society is capitalist or socialist), no electronic asset transfers, no banking system (banks have two distinct roles, often unfortunately confused under the present fiat money regime: they are (1) warehouses storing valuable property, such as gold coins, a function called deposit banking; and (2) intermediaries between lenders and borrowers, called loan banking), no insurance companies, nothing. There are no big corporations, no brand names, no advertising (on the absence of any kind of commercial mass media see below), no private retail outlets, no Internet shopping. There aren't even latinum coins, for goodness' sake! And if not the Ferengi, then who else?
Note that the Ferengi are, of course, the classic stereotype of the Jews, as propounded by Nazi and Soviet propaganda: ugly; crass, materialistic, and base; grasping and scheming; and treacherous. But, in the case of Quark, not entirely without redeeming qualities, particularly when he cooperates with the ruling regime on the station. That is, quite despite his perverse nature, there exists within Quark's ignoble little soul a weak aspiration to be like the far more noble humans. What a grotesque and utterly false parody of a typical businessman (and Jews, to boot) within a system of natural liberty and free enterprise! In the unhampered market economy the "superior men," the better-off, the elite or the society's "natural aristocracy," are drawn into service to the common man. Entrepreneurs become rich because the masses, the "poor," rush to outbid each other on the products offered to them for sale. If they fail to satisfy the consumers' wants, they will forfeit their wealth and their vocation as entrepreneurs and be demoted into the rank of laborers. Personal wealth in a free society is thus a consequence of previous success in serving consumers. Making an analogy between voting and spending money on goods and services, Mises explains:
In another episode Nog needs to acquire a part for the Defiant (apparently, that, either, could not be replicated), and, rather than simply buying the part with non-existent money on the non-existent market from a non-existent private supplier working in the spacecraft industry (picture "Spacezone" or "Toyota Spaceships, Inc."), engages in a ridiculous series of barter trades. No matter how well-concealed the Star Trek economy is from the viewers, sometimes the silliness of the setup shines through. In the movie Star Trek: First Contact Picard finally confesses that there is no money in the Federation economy, if such there be. "We work to better ourselves and the course of humanity," he says. Of course, entrepreneurs are the chief benefactors of humanity, up there with inventors and scientists. We have already mentioned the insurmountable problems of the lack of a unit of account. Yet even this is normally considered only the second function of money. The first function is, of course, medium of exchange. The dual problem of the double coincidence of wants and of indivisibility of goods makes barter economy impossible beyond a very primitive level. Lastly, the third function of money is "store of value." Instead of keeping "stuff" for production and consumption that you speculate you might need in the future, all you need to keep is the highly liquid money. I can imagine poor Starfleet bureaucrats trying to store up socks and umbrellas and force field generators in some giant space warehouse.
In the Soviet Union there was a class of crimes called "economic"; in particular, "profiteering," "speculation," and "sabotage." It was not realized that seeking psychic profit is a corollary of the axiom of human action, namely that people act to satisfy their wants, that they act for the sake of future expected utility. Monetary profits are just an instance of that primordial and universal drive on the part of humans to seek happiness (or satisfaction or contentment or peace). Profit-seeking is a characteristic not of capitalism but of human nature. The Federation's contempt for the Ferengi therefore makes little sense; in fact, we are scarcely capable of imagining beings possessing intelligence and will who fail to act in their own self-interest. As for speculation, this "crime" reflects the equally universal fact of the uncertainty of the future. Everyone is a speculator, trying to foresee the future and adjust his behavior in accordance with what he believes it to be. The more correct your forecast is, the greater your chance of success in whatever you are doing. The uncertainty of the future means that people don't always profit; and thus the other side of the possibility of profit is the possibility of loss. The economic meaning of speculation is entrepreneurship; that is, seeking underpriced factors of production, which, upon being combined into a final good, will, in the estimation of the entrepreneur, yield a future profit and thereby create a state of affairs in which the consumers, generally speaking, are satisfied to a greater degree than they were before. Surely, this is as innocuous as apple pie. Finally, sabotage means failure to use resources according to the central plan. It means, basically, privatizing government property. As such, it is most laudable conduct in a socialist country and not a crime at all by any standard of decency. Yet I have no doubt that such actions are punished severely in Star Trek.
Now it is obvious that the variety of goods and services available on DS9 is extremely limited. The personnel seem to be, as one, ascetic workaholics. I've never seen any character go shopping. I suppose that these guys are supplied with government-made standard-issue everything. This can't be a lot of fun, don't you think? Also, don't misunderstand me, I love classical music, but is that all that the Federation citizens are allowed to listen to (I am referring to ST: The Next Generation, in particular)? In other words, instead of a highly developed commercial culture expected of a sophisticated multi-planet division of labor, we get almost complete conformity and uniformity. To put it another way, the characters "have no life"; they are totally devoted to the welfare of the "collective," the collective being, of course, their superior officers. I could never understand why the Federation was so contrasted with the Borg. The Borg are very much like the Federation, only perhaps with slightly less individual freedom. (Maybe the difference is that, unlike the Borg captives, the Federation serfs love the Big Brother.)
It is also peculiar, and telling, in a science fiction show, that we never see any non-government scientists. All space-related and medical scientific work is apparently done within Starfleet. Not once do we see a private person owning a "runabout" or a starship. Every means of transportation is owned by the state monopoly. All starships look the same both from the outside and from the inside, and what do you expect when the spaceship industry is socializedthere is only a single brand of ship, and if you don't like it, complain to your local... who? (There is Federation presidency but seemingly no legislative or judicial body.) The only exception to this rule may be Sisko's girlfriend Kasidy Yates who operated a merchant ship. But then DS9 was the most interesting and fun of all the Star Trek shows and by the end seemed to relax its totalitarian moorings. Further, when we see Earth, we observe no spaceships around it. Compare this arguably pitiful situation to the three Star Wars prequels or to Firefly or to Fifth Element: in them the skies around major civilization centers are teeming with ships, flying cars, and what have you.
Two more pieces of evidence: first, there appears to be no interspecies division of labor or trade. The humans, the Cardassians, the Romulans are isolated from each other economically. Free trade, of course, eliminates most economic pretexts for warif you destroy your trading partners or the economy of the country you are attacking, you only harm yourself; no wonder there is endless conflict in the Trek universe! Second, monolithic world governments and empires that rule vast expanses of space are standard. Suppose that the Bajorans entered the Federation. Would they want to be told what to do by some Federation bureaucrat a thousand light years away? It might at first glance seem that the "Prime Directive" will prevent interference, but (1) the directive itself is absurd, because it outlaws free association, and (2) it says nothing about the political system of the Federation. (The Prime Directive states that no contact or "interference with the natural development of any primitive society," where "primitive" means "pre-warp," could be made by anyone within the Federation. Aside from the arbitrariness of "natural" development (what is natural?), if I want to go make contact with or live among the primitive tribes of South America or the Australian aborigines, I don't have to ask anyone's permission. I just pack my gear and go. And if I tell them about my culture, give them Coca-Cola and jeans, and invite them to visit Buenos Aires or Melbourne, no one will arrest me. Not in Star Trek. Here no one is allowed to touch these alien cultures. And why not? I understand not giving people highly advanced weaponry when they are not "ready" for it, that is, when they have not yet developed the means to control those who would use them for destructive ends. But other than that, it should be a free for all.) Similarly, would a Bajoran farmer want to be told what to plant and what not to plant by the Bajoran state even a thousand miles away? I understand that the show needs to simplify things to stay compelling. The Klingons are warriors (but if every Klingon is a bloodlusted maniac, how is their economic and technological progress achieved?), the Cardassians are cruel militarists, etc. But this at the expense of a believable society.
Sometimes we see one character showing to another a bottle of wine or some such commodity made on another planet and pointing out how lucky he was to have gotten it, how rare the bottle is, etc. Go to West Point Market in Akron, Ohio (only one among numerous such stores in the US) and enjoy the sight of what seem like many hundreds of different alcoholic beverages from all over the world. That's just one small manifestation of the glory of (more-or-less) free international trade. And don't even get me started on synthehol! "Synthetic scotch, synthetic commanders."
In Star Trek people communicate across vast distances by "subspace relays," another government-owned enterprise. There are no private competitors. Nor are there private TV or radio stations or what would be their 24th century equivalents. There is no Internet. (I concede, however, that the Holodeck does put the modern computer games to shame.) Encrypted messages are permitted for the Starfleet brass only; whenever a private person uses encryption, it is always for some "evil"/"selfish" purpose. Don't you try to escape the constant surveillance.
Starfleet is the military arm of the Federation. Yet the distinction between the two is blurred. The Federation elite is composed of the starship captains and admirals. I would go as far as say that no private citizen can hope for status or recognition unless he works for the state. The politically correct casts on DS9 and Voyager, for example, seem at first glance to reflect the shows' purported egalitarianism. But, just as in the USSR, some, such as Sisko and Janeway, are more equal than others. They are the main protagonists, and most of the action revolves around them. They expect obedience from their staff, and it is granted to them. And they are the socialist "consciences" of the showsstaying far above the Ferengi's selfishness, the Klingons' bizarre obsession with what they imagine to be "honor," the Cardassians's ruthlessness, and even their own crew's petty concerns.
In a two-part episode Sisko, Dax and Bashir are accidentally transported into the past at the time of "Bell Riots" on Earth in the year 2024. According to the synopsis of the episode, this was a "pivotal moment in history, which led to sweeping social reforms." (http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/series/DS9/episode/68196.html) It appears there was no one at the time standing athwart history yelling "Stop!" In his book Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas against the West Stephen Koch writes that one of the purposes of Soviet subversion in the US was to Stalinize its entertainment industry and glamour culture. If this were the 1930s or the time at which the New Deal was being implemented, I'd have thought that maybe the commies picked Star Trek as their main target, glamour culture though it hardly is.
Finally, all traces of religion in the Trek universe, with one exception, are absent, most likely because of the perfectly crude view that "science" wars with "religion" and that by the 24th century, surely, science will have progressed so much as to destroy religion completely. The exception, the Bajorans' "prophets," too, was in DS9, a half-hearted attempt to make a sterile world more complex. (Even here, the Bajorans were less developed and therefore less "rational" than the Federation bureaucrats, so faith was OK for them.) When the show did venture into theology, the results were not encouraging. Q, for instance, is nothing at all like God. God does not toy with people for amusement. In one Voyager episode it was shown that Q's race was bored to death, and therefore one Q commits suicide. (This is similar to the plot of Scott Adams's God's Debris, in which the only thing an omniscient God does not know and wants to find out is whether he can put himself back together after blowing himself up into the universe.) The idea here is that God, being omniscient, is bored to death. Is this true? Of course not! God is perfect and infinite. He loves His perfection and He comprehends it (Himself) fully. His "time" or, rather, atemporal eternity is thereby spent in contemplation and enjoyment of His own perfection. He is not bored; He is perfectly fulfilled and happy in Himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is indeed true that no human can give or add anything to God. It is God who wants to communicate his goodness to creatures. Remember that God's actions are not necessitated. They are not voluntary. The methodologies of physics and praxeology are useless in theological reasoning. Rather, they are animated by overflowing love. God acts due to His self-giving, so that the cause of goodnesswhich is God Himselfmay be served through and in us creatures. Goodness diffuses itself; in other words, it is the nature of love to give itself away. And it is because of His overflowing goodness that God created the world. Nor is Q infinite, one, necessary, loving, etc. Seven of Nine's idea of perfection is some kind of moleculecrazy! (She wants perfection? How about a cube? It's nice and symmetrical; just try to find any flaw in that.) Neelix's "Great Forest" of his concept of the afterlife turns out to be non-existent. Not even natural happiness after death is tolerated in Voyager. (Contrast with how well this was exploited in the movie Gladiator.) The beliefs about the next life of the Vhnori people are shown to be equally unfounded. These despite that it is, of course, impossible today to use personal non-accounts as evidence against the immortality of the soul, given all the research into near-death experiences. And in the movie Star Trek: Generations the happiness of the Nexus turns out to be the happiness of playing a computer game: an illusion. Some "heaven" that is.
It seems beyond doubt that the economic system of the Trek Federation is socialism of the most extreme variant, in which there is not even a market in consumer goods, which, oddly enough, has resulted not in social suicide but in unprecedented, if not clearly shown to the viewers, prosperity. Maybe the creators still feel that socialism is "inevitable," that you "can't turn back the clock," but that its emergence may have to, unfortunately, be postponed until the 24th century. Superstitious nonsense, all of it. History is made by human actions and choices which emanate from humans themselves, not by any external "forces" acting on human beings that cleverly and ineluctably guide them toward a predestined outcome. And even if there were such forces (God's providence, perhaps?), they sure wouldn't lead us to communism. Look, when we are in heaven, united with God within the communion of saints, contemplating His essence as spirits, then we won't need private property or the stock market, though we will still "own ourselves." Until that happens, we are bound to this world and its economic realities.
Another, unrelated, oddity of the Trek universe, is personal relations, I hesitate to call them sexual or romantic or marital, because this sort of thing was absurdly awkward on the show anyway, possibly because of the Stakhanovite and repressed nature of the Trek socialist men and women, between the members of different races. I mean, Commander Data and what's-her-name? Come on, is this hunk of junk an orgasmotron of some kind? Odo and a human girl? The guy is a blob of goo! I am sure that he, being an intellectual creature, can love, but a "passionate night"? Wouldn't he lack the physical organs and the psychic prerequisites to engage in sex? And don't tell me Odo could shapeshift. The guy couldn't even get his face right. Making the highly complex external and internal organs would be far beyond his capabilities. Who do these writers think we are? (Nerds?)
OK, enough of the fun. Again, in the newer Star Trek the race of Ferengi (of whom Quark is one) represents the despicable and unreconstructed businessmen and entrepreneurs, as contrasted with the vague and seemingly unchanging Federation utopia. I now bring your attention to their comical "rules of acquisition" which include #34: "War is good for business." and #35: "Peace is good for business."
These properly understood maxims should alert us right away that big corporations and Wall Street magnates are not as a class interested in the preservation of peace and free competition. It is extremely rare to see any prominent businessman take a principled position in favor of liberty, although, of course, many have contributed to the cause financially. It can happen that economic liberalization will benefit a company. It can also happen that an imposition of suffocating regulations or taxes will benefit a company, especially if its costs of dealing with them are smaller than they are for its competitors. It can easily happen that a monopoly privilege will benefit a company. The Ford corporation, for example, would much rather sell 10,000 cars for $1,000,000 each than 1,000,000 cars for $10,000 each. If it could gain from the state a legal monopoly on car-making, it would be overjoyed. In short, businessmen are not in business of reforming the world. They are out, correctly, to make a buck (and, hopefully, to enjoy their work). And most of them deal with state policies as a given. As Mises writes,
If there is peace, businesses that cater to the buying public, producing houses and dresses and mangos and books and millions of other things that make us happy, will enjoy an advantage. But if there is war, businesses that serve the government, such as the arms industry, will benefit in the same way. (More precisely, businesses that will correctly anticipate a war will profit.) At the same time I strongly suspect that the influence on policy of the "merchants of death" is highly overrated. The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on the military not because it wants to please the contractors who manufacture weapons. It does so in order to have the means to channel its influence over the rest of the world, and it is supported in this endeavor by hordes of "conservatives" who exalt destructive power. Change the ideology, and the government-connected arms dealers will swiftly go out of business.
It is true, of course, that examples of companies using the government to cartelize their industry, to drive competitors out of business, or to raise the costs of entry of new entrepreneurs or professionals are not unheard of. Conspiracies do happen, as do honest mistakes. But companies should not be blamed if they follow through on their incentives to use big government to their advantage. The problem is not the company; in fact, our moral intuitions are often powerless here, because the harm done is unseen and diffused and legally authorized. The problem is the big government.
Any short-term change will be good for business if it is foreseen and acted on and bad for business if its significance is missed. So if a businessman, in his capacity as a citizen, wants to advocate free markets, then glory and honor be to him. But the business class as such is far from such concerns and, I think, rightly so. It is only a correct, commonly accepted ideology exalting peace, private property, and freedom that can ensure that self-interested actions of entrepreneurs will be directed into socially beneficial projects. Otherwise, even war can be good for business for some, though it may impoverish the nation or the world as a whole.
We see now how poorly the Star Trek writers understand economics. The characters live impoverished lives, yet it does not make them virtuous like some saintly monks but boring. If the shows were not produced by private enterprise and were not, in addition, hugely popular, I would argue that they are a complete waste of scarce resources. Fortunately, Star Trek does not practice what it preaches.
Koch, Stephen. Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas against the West. New York, NY: Free Press, 1993.
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action. 4th ed. San Francisco, CA: Fox & Wilkes, 1996.
Salerno, Joseph T. (1990). Postscript: Why a Socialist Economy is "Impossible." Retrieved 8/13/07, from http://www.mises.org/econcalc/POST.asp.
"Past Tense, Part I," Star Trek: DS9, Retrieved 8/13/07, from http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/series/DS9/episode/68196.html.
"Past Tense, Part II," Star Trek: DS9, Retrieved 8/13/07, from http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/series/DS9/episode/68198.html.
First published at lewrockwell.com