A Critical Hopeful Look at whether the economics of Star Trek’s Federation are possible.
In Star Trek, by the 24th Century the Federation has evolved beyond money. People do things not for the acquisition of belongings or wealth, but for the betterment of themselves and others.
But why? Are the theorized economics of the United Federation of Planets based on the naïve belief that in the future everyone will become an altruistic communist? Because the likelihood of that happening without an overhaul of the entire genetic makeup of living organisms is slim to none in my opinion. But, in the interest of preserving (and possibly bolstering) what little faith in humanity I have, I am going to try my absolute hardest to bury my cynicism and prove that we have the potential to evolve beyond greed and that the Star Trek Federation isn’t built purely on wishful thinking.
How have we evolved economically?
In lieu of genetic evolution that can take millenniums, Star Trek encourages us to believe in a cultural evolution that takes a world-shattering event to initiate; however, in our society if you look hard enough, you can see it has already begun. The American economy has started to show signs of moving away from the concept of “owning,” and has been moving towards the concept of “sharing” and “renting” since platforms such as Napster and Netflix entered the scene. The idea of trading total ownership of something for flexibility and a reduced cost appeals to the Millennials fear of commitment, as well as the slowly recovering state of the economy.
The Star Trek Federation strongly represents an economic utopia that has evolved over 2 centuries.
This admittedly socialist idea may have landed you on a government list (Paging Senator McCarthy, Senator Joseph McCarthy!) as little as 40 years ago, and yet concepts such as free eBooks, communal farming, food co-ops, thrift stores, and more are slowly chipping away at our subconscious need to have. In Star Trek: The New Generation, or TNG (which ran through the economic boom in the late 80’s/early 90’s), we are introduced to the Ferengi, a shamelessly obvious replication of the stereotypical 80’s businessman; misogynist, merciless, and mercantilist beyond redemption. Possibly in conscious opposition to the savage, self-serving nature of the time period, TNG used the Ferengi to illustrate the Federations economic superiority, due to its evolution past currency, and thus moving past personal greed. The Ferengi are among many other non-Federation civilizations that still use currency, but they are decidedly the most vile. When presented with an unattractive extreme, the natural response is to oppose it, which is what the Federation did when presented with the greedy Ferengi and the militaristic Romulans.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is portrayed as a pyramid with the largest, most basic of needs at the bottom (shelter, food, etc.) and the need for self-actualization at the top.
Improving life for everyone via self-actualization and mental/philosophical gain would primarily be realized through a system of thought-bartering or trade that doesn’t rely on the belief of “getting your money’s worth” or coming out on top, or squaring the deal. Instead, the system would only function on the idea that giving is as good as gaining to the person sharing the knowledge. In the Federation, people with ideas would share them to improve life for everyone as a main goal, not just as a by-product of gaining ideas to improve themselves. I believe this is what makes the moneyless economy of Star Trek feel so foreign; the concepts of improving yourself and improving everyone in the minds of the Federation are so intertwined there is really no use in trying to tell them apart. This is so fundamentally opposed to the capitalist ideal that many modern day theorists dismiss the theory without considering it. I’ll admit, before writing this article I was one of those who didn’t believe it was possible to move past the human urge to own things, but now after really looking into it, I realize such a society would be possible, but it would take a lot to get there: in my opinion, it would require a catastrophic event that permanently changes the mentality of the involved individuals, such as the Earth-Romulan War that preceded the creation of the Federation. The Romulans attack left the planet in ruins after a period of “total war,” which ended only because continuing to fight would result in mutual destruction for both humanity and the Romulans.
The Star Trek Federation is described as representing the values of universal liberty, equality, justice, peace, and cooperation.
The physical destruction of society on Earth in the 22nd century during the war necessitated the world to be rebuilt from its foundations, both physically and culturally. Humanity approached the Andorians, Vulcans, and Tellarites to create the United Federation of Planets, and together they set out on a mission of equality and peace. After centuries and centuries of war and needless deaths, the Federation aspired to create a utopia, and for all intents and purposes, they were successful. Sadly, I believe a similar event of mass destruction would be needed to separate humanity from the possession-centric culture we’ve created and existed in since the extinction of hunter-gatherers: a rebirth.
Strive for a cultural revolution to achieve economic utopia, with or without replicators.
This cultural shift evolved maybe in part by the maturation and evolution of civilization, but it was made infinitely easier by the introduction of the replicator. The replicator is the technology to end all technology in the Star Trek universe, capable of creating nearly anything out of pure energy, provided it is inanimate matter and the molecular structure is on file (with the exception of antimatter, dilithium, latinum [the Ferengi use gold-pressed latinum as currency]). The Star Trek Federation, being what it is, provided replicators to the people to help them help themselves in the creation of this classless utopia, whereas the Ferengi charged exorbitant prices for the use of their replicators, maintaining their culture of economic gain through exploitation. Now, with the ability to get whatever you want whenever you want, what more could you want?
Picard’s theory is that humanity will then want to acquire nonmaterial assets, such as knowledge or skills. When ones basic needs are met through the replicator, they are free, according to Maslow, to self-actualize, and realize their potential, like the Greek philosophers or Buddhist monks. Naturally, it follows that a society of enlightened, self-actualized individuals will understand the benefits of equality and then endure to improve life for everyone.
Thanks to Dave Wall, Memory-Alpha, Charlie Jane Anders, and Michael and Denise Okuda for their vast oceans of Trek knowledge, including about the economics of Star Trek, and to Paramount Pictures for the featured image.