The Economic Lessons of Star Trek’s Money-Free Society
A few years ago Manu Saadia, a longtime Star Trek fan, went looking for a book about the economics of Star Trek. When he couldn’t find one, he decided to write his own. The result, Trekonomics, has drawn praise from economists such as Brad DeLong and Joshua Gans. Saadia says that Star Trek is one of the few science fiction universes that grapple with the idea that money may someday become obsolete.
“It’s made clear and emphasized several times in the course of the show that the Federation does not have money,” Saadia says in Episode 205 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “You have Captain Picard saying, ‘We’ve overcome hunger and greed, and we’re no longer interested in the accumulation of things.’”
Saadia is fascinated by the idea of a society in which material wealth has become so abundant that possessing it no longer holds any appeal. In such a world the only way to gain status would be by cultivating talent and intellect.
“What really makes sense in the Star Trek universe and Star Trek society is to compete for reputation,” he says. “What is not abundant in Star Trek’s universe is the captain’s chair.”
He points to technologies like GPS and the internet as models for how we can set ourselves on the path to a Star Trek future.
“If we decide as a society to make more of these crucial things available to all as public goods, we’re probably going to be well on our way to improving the condition of everybody on Earth,” he says.
But he also warns that technology alone won’t create a post-scarcity future. If we’re not careful we could end up like the greedy Ferengi, who charge money for the use of their replicators rather than making them available to everyone.
“This is not something that will be solved by more gizmos or more iPhones,” Saadia says. “This is something that has to be dealt with on a political level, and we have to face that.”
Listen to our complete interview with Manu Saadia in Episode 205 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Manu Saadia on Isaac Asimov:
“In 1941 he publishes his first story about robots and his great idea and insight is that the robots are not going to be our enemies or our doom as a society, the way robots were usually portrayed, as Frankensteins. The robots will liberate us, and so Asimov is trying to figure out a world where human labor is no longer necessary for survival. And that is something you see throughout Star Trek, much more so in The Next Generation than in the original series. In The Next Generation you have these incredible machines that will make anything for you on the spot and on demand—the replicators—and in a way the replicator is a metaphor for universal automation the way it is described in Asimov’s robot stories.”
Manu Saadia on Star Trek characters:
“They are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption. … You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature—the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art, and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to. … I usually say that they’re all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on the show, said it was really hard for the writers, because it’s a workplace drama, but there’s no drama.”
Manu Saadia on the Ferengi:
“I love the Ferengi because they are sort of a parody of the 1990s or 2000s American acquisitive businessman. … The Ferengi are really ignoble, really awful people, and they’re really funny as a result. But they do change over time. When you watch the whole arc of the Ferengi in Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi, just by contact with the Federation, become more like the Federation, they become Keynesian social democrats, by the end. Suddenly you have the right to have unions and strikes, and there’s health care for everybody. … I always thought that this story of the Ferengi becoming more humanitarian just by contact with the Federation was a metaphor for all of us becoming better by watching Star Trek.”
Manu Saadia on the Borg:
“The Borg are such great villains because they’re so similar to the Federation, when you think about it. The Borg have perfect allocation of goods, and supply and demand, and everybody is connected to everybody in the beehive, and they just seem to be extremely efficient. They’re also the other society in Star Trek that could be characterized as ‘post-scarcity.’ Any Borg drone never wants or needs anything, it’s always provided by the Collective. So it is the mirror image—and the dangerous image, almost—of what a society that is both redistributive and satiated could look like. It’s almost as if the writers tried to incorporate the criticism of the society they propose.”