Star Trek Economics

What Kelley L. Ross and Captain Ed have is a failure of the imagination when examining the economics of Star Trek:

Politically and economically, it operates outside of the realm of science fiction and into fantasy. Nothing in its universe explains how human society manages to build the massive ships that comprise Star Fleet, nor the brilliant technology that enables them. Who builds these things — and how and why? It’s all well and good to say that money no longer exists, but people have to be compensated in some manner — otherwise, the Star Trek society is based on benevolent slavery. The reference to “Imagine” is particularly appropriate; this view of human nature seems particularly flaccid, where all creative impulses have been subordinated and all enterprise has been discouraged, pun particularly intended.

Nonetheless, I think a little thought about the implications of the technologies that exist in the Star Trek universe indicates that the economy doesn’t have to be anything like the fascist state Ross envisions. In fact, it seems likely to be far superior to our own.

Neither person is considering a future of abundance in which scarcity is no longer the issue; in which the needs and material desires or essentially everyone can be easily satisfied. Remember this is a society in which matter replicators and instantaneous transport around the planet are daily facts of life. I don’t know if this technology is really possible (My gut says that replicators are possible, transporters not; but I could be wrong about that.) but if we start from the assumption that these are possible, classical economics and right-wing theories about human motivation fall apart. Instead we find ourselves living in a pure leisure economy. A far more insightful consideration of what might happen in these circumstances can be found in James P. Hogan’s Voyage from Yesteryear. Some of the later robot novels of Isaac Asimov also approach this concept from different directions.

But the fact is, we don’t even have to look at science fiction to imagine the transition from a market-based, scarcity economy to an abundance society. In software and media, we’re watching it now. The Internet, the Web, open source, Napster, Gnutella, BitTorrent, VOIP, Skype, and similar technologies are pulling the rug out from under the classical economics of information. Information is no longer scarce. The natural price of information is rapidly heading toward zero. In fact, it probably always was pretty close to zero. It was just that there was enough cost associated with the distribution of information that we didn’t realize that. Probably there’s enough friction left in the system to keep the cost of information from truly hitting zero, but I’m not sure. Certainly the media and software economy today looks a lot different than it did twenty years ago. Rapid, free distribution of content is accelerating. The transition isn’t finished yet, but I think we can all see where we’re heading: a world where information is no longer scarce; a world where there is more high-quality information than anyone has time to consume in a lifetime. In such a society the issue is no longer how do we accumulate more information, but how do we choose?

Now back to Star Trek, in particular back to replicators. In this world, physical goods are no longer scarce. Anyone can have as much of anything at any time as they like: food, shelter, toys, etc. You name it: they can make it. This is going to look a lot more like the world of today’s free software and free-as-in-beer music than the scarcity limited economy we live with today. (Again: I’m not sure this tech is actually feasible, but in the science-fiction world of Star Trek we assume that it is and reason from there.) We do have some experience with non-supply-constrained societies, and we know that people don’t just stop working or striving; but instead they strive for different things. Eric Raymond discusses this in the Homesteading the Noosphere.

The simplest way is the command hierarchy. In command hierarchies, scarce goods are allocated by one central authority and backed up by force. Command hierarchies scale very poorly[Mal]; they become increasingly brutal and inefficient as they get larger. For this reason, command hierarchies above the size of an extended family are almost always parasites on a larger economy of a different type. In command hierarchies, social status is primarily determined by access to coercive power.

Our society is predominantly an exchange economy. This is a sophisticated adaptation to scarcity that, unlike the command model, scales quite well. Allocation of scarce goods is done in a decentralized way through trade and voluntary cooperation (and in fact, the dominating effect of competitive desire is to produce cooperative behavior). In an exchange economy, social status is primarily determined by having control of things (not necessarily material things) to use or trade.

Most people have implicit mental models for both of the above, and how they interact with each other. Government, the military, and organized crime (for example) are command hierarchies parasitic on the broader exchange economy we call `the free market’. There’s a third model, however, that is radically different from either and not generally recognized except by anthropologists; the gift culture.

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy.

Considered this way, Picard’s claim that “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force” doesn’t seem so striking. It’s also not surprising that someone whose only experience is in command hierarchies and exchange economies might miss this possibility. If you think the only possibilities are a command hierarchy and an exchange economy, then when you see something like the Federation that is clearly not an exchange economy (especially something not very well spelled out) you may well jump to the conclusion that it is must a command hierarchy; i.e. fascistic. That 99% of what we see of the Federation is Starfleet, the small subset that actually is a command hierarchy, only enhances this conclusion.*

Is everything free and abundant in the Star Trek universe? No. There are a few basic ingredients and advanced materials that can’t be replicated. Dilithium and warp plasma seem to have value. So does gold-pressed latinum (whatever that is). Advanced medicines are also a frequent source of tension when the Enterprise gets delayed while trying to deliver medicines to one plague-infested planet or another. Land may be worth something, but probably not as much as today. After all, transporters reduce the significance of location, and there’s a whole galaxy’s worth of planets just waiting to be colonized.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that most things someone would want (certainly anything a 20th century person would think to ask for) are freely and easily available; and if that is the society we’re imagining, then the next thing we have to do away with is the notion that “people have to be compensated in some manner”, or at the very least the notion that they have to be compensated in material goods or coupons which they can exchange for material goods. Initial design is probably still worth something (as it is today in software) even if replication of that design comes for free. Compensation may still exist, but it is likely to take the form of peer recognition, self-esteem, the satisfaction of a job well done, an exciting life exploring strange new worlds, and other internal motivators that fall somewhat higher on the hierarchy of needs than does the mere struggle for sufficient sustenance and security.

Again, I don’t know that this will or can happen in real life, but I do find it a pretty hopeful vision for the future; and that optimism is one of the things that’s so attractive about Star Trek.

Ross does have a valid point that the series spend far too little time examining the Federation itself, outside of StarFleet. That’s a common failing of TV and movie sci-fi. Motion media tend to focus on the more visual, space opera possibilities and less on more cerebral considerations like the organization of a society or an economy. Those subjects are usually the province of literary science fiction.

7 Responses to “Star Trek Economics”

  1. Ben Says:

    And let’s not forget the holodeck.

    With holodeck simulations, even location (as in prime beach real estate) is not scarce, because any location that can be found or imagined can be programmed.

  2. Dave C. Says:

    I always figured that the characters who chose to join the “command hierarchy” of Starfleet did so because, in the face of having absolutely every material need (or whim) met instantly, they needed structure in their lives and goals that would challenge them.

  3. Gee Says:

    After reading the other articles, everyone seems to be glossing over one thing of value:

    Art and artisans are everywhere. Authenticity is prized. Handmade stuff has value. Which is exactly what you’d expect from a “leisure economy” or “gift economy”, where status hinges on originality and individual expression.

    There are multiple episodes where plots revolve around replicated output being distinguishable from authentic articles by some instrument. In other words, the kidnappers want the REAL Jewel of McGuffin, not a replicated one, and they have the instruments that can detect fakes.

    There’s also a famous Klingon sword in orbit somewhere (Sword of Kalith?), whose authenticity lead to strife.

    And if you have a chance, read Heinlein’s “For Us The Living”. It was the first novel he wrote, but it was unpublished for years. It’s not his best work overall, but it does have significant explanations of “alternative economies” not based on scarcity. I don’t necessarily buy the arguments made, I’m just saying if you want economics in SF, you can find it.

  4. Lorenzo Gatti Says:

    To expand on Dave C.’s comment, reputation (as an artist, professional etc.), success and influence (at any scale from getting laid to ruling the Federation), organizational rank (with privileges and command responsibilities) and the like are the only eternally scarce resource, since someone is always going to give orders, and every skill has its highest and lowest percentiles.
    Therefore social achievements are the main important purpose in the life of most Star Trek universe characters (with the exception of the plentiful fanatics and villains).
    As a case in point, only the most gifted Starfleet cadets rise to become commanders of large ships (cf. the beginning episodes of the “Enterprise” series): Starfleet careers are not about making money but about proving one’s worth by being as useful as possible.
    There is no reason to believe other “economic” sectors to be different: if wealth is so irrelevant that any kind of enterprise is not really for profit, the main remaining motivation is doing a good job at helping people. It is completely reasonable that this kind of society would consider greed as a perversion, naturally gravitating towards the mentioned gift culture.

  5. John Cowan Says:

    Ben, I don’t think your point about the holodeck is well-taken: holodeck-produced goods aren’t normally consumable off the ‘deck, so you couldn’t put a Real World factory there, though it is suitable for providing some kinds of services. In any case, even holodecks take up space. Location remains relevant, though the ST universe does have a lot more of it.

    As for transporters vs. replicators, they are in fact the same technology: scan something down to the atomic level (in defiance, alas, of the uncertainty principle), transmit a full description as bits or qubits, reconstruct the original somewhere else (again, Heisenberg turns over in his grave, but Einstein’s corpse is already in steady revolution, so why not?). Arthur C. Clarke worked out more of the implications, including personal immortality and the possibility of building truly permanent structures, in The City and the Stars.

    Transporters do the reconstruction once and in real time, replicators many times and on demand, but the only reason actual people can’t come popping out of the replicator is legal/ethical (it did happen once or twice on Trek Classic). Transporter travel must also be bounded by the speed of light and not truly instantaneous, or the Federation wouldn’t bother with starships — they’d just beam from one solar system to another.

  6. Cerebreal Thinking Says:

    There are a few points that make the warm and fuzziness of Star Trek into something more brutal.

    Rarely do you see any evidence of packratting inside the Federation. To me that also seems odd. Additionally, you don’t see people living the high life that often either. Not everyone has holodecks in their quarters/houses (who wouldn’t?) Replicators range from simplistic to extravagant therefore one must conclude that credits are used to acquire such technologies. But if that were the case, why couldn’t people reverse engineer better ones by using lesser ones (ie: replicate the parts of a better unit using a older unit and pirate the firmware?). Something never comes from nothing. And if everyone has nothing, how can they acquire something? Who sets the scale of how quickly they acquire “something?” What would be the salary of Capt. Picard and would he really have been able to keep his position static even after all the major damage/destruction of ships in his command?

    From a cost benefit analysis, there are no lack of competent starship captains especially with Starfleet’s training program. (Obviously power/prestige is alive and well in the 24th century). But no one would give him a 3rd starship after destroying the USS Stargazer and USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D). Even in the navy of the 20-21st century, driving a vessel aground would kick you off the bridge faster than jumping over the rail.

    And in ST:E – there are bunches of people out there risking their lives for one would assume are “fiscal” means. For example Eng. Meyweather’s family owns a transport shuttling materials between different star systems that take years. But we’ll just assume they haven’t reached the economic utopia ST:TOS in ST:E.

  7. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    But Picard doesn’t destroy the NCC-1701-D. Riker does that. In fact, an ongoing subtext of the series is Riker’s colossal incompetence. More than once Riker loses control of the ship to hostile forces, only to have Picard retake it. It’s no wonder Riker never gets a ship of his own.

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