A Guide to Star Trek economics

By Greg Stevens on September 4th, 2013

In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise, is asked how much it cost to build his impressive space-faring vessel. “The economics of the future are somewhat different,” he replies. “You see, money doesn’t exist in the twenty-fourth century … The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

Less eloquently, Captain Kirk implies the same conclusion in a comment to Commander Spock in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, after they have travelled back in time to the twentieth century: “They’re still using money,” he says. “We need to get some.”

Across the Star Trek franchise, from the original series and movies to the various spin-offs and reincarnations, the precise nature of twenty-fourth century economics is never quite pinned down. In some speeches, characters wax eloquent about the fact that in the future basic needs like food and shelter are “not an issue”, so that people do not have to work for money.

Yet in other stories, plots revolve around debt, the cost of repairs and gambling. There are times when “Starfleet credits” are mentioned, and of course alien cultures that they encounter have their own currencies and rules. So how exactly does the economy in the twenty-fourth century world of Star Trek operate?

There is a relatively mundane way to interpret the famous line “money doesn’t exist in the twenty-fourth century”: humanity has simply gotten rid of currency, but still has some kind of electronic accounting system: a digital cash-equivalent.

The idea of a cashless society, in the sense that all transactions are electronic, has been a common one in science fiction since at least the 1970s. Robert Heinlein foresaw it in I Will Fear No Evil (1970), and John Brunner wrote about it in The Shockwave Rider (1975). In both William Gibson’s Count Zero (1986) and Pat Cadigan’s Fools (1992), cash still exists in a technical sense, but only criminals use it.

In Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, a utopian society claims that they have done away with money, and instead people pay for things with an electronically-measured unit called a “wirr”, that represents a “work hour”. But in most practical senses, this is just another kind of “money”, as well.

Whether society has evolved into the cutting-edge world of paperless electronic credits, or deteriorated into a post-apocalyptic barter system, the fundamental economic core is still the same in all of these futuristic visions: people exchange stuff of value for other stuff of value.

Let’s be clear: that is not the utopian Star Trek vision. The Star Trek vision is much more radical.

Economics without scarcity

According to popular legend, Gene Roddenberry himself laid out very specific rules about his vision of the world in the twenty-fourth century Star Trek universe. Not only was there to be no “currency”, but there was to be no concept of accumulating wealth. People’s basic needs of food and shelter were provided for: hunger and homelessness were completely solved. People did not take on jobs in order to survive: instead, people engaged in activities to enrich themselves and the world around them.

Practically speaking, script writers could only follow this edict some of the time. Too many perennial human dilemmas and plot-lines revolve around wealth, work and payment in some form. It would be unbearably limiting to exclude them completely, across the hundreds of storylines of a decades-long, multi-faceted franchise.

The notion that eliminating material scarcity will lead people to live lives of self-improvement is psychological, not economic.

But the “pure” Roddenberry vision was articulated well from time to time, even if the details were sometimes lacking. In multiple episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jean-Luc Picard finds himself explaining that all material needs are taken care of in the twenty-fourth century, and that people are motivated by the desire to improve and enrich themselves.

The notion that eliminating material scarcity will lead people to live lives of self-improvement is psychological, not economic. Even back in the 1960s, people were familiar with Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs”: the theory that people have different “levels” of needs, and that a person must fulfil one level of needs before he or she can move on to addressing the next level.

According to the hierarchy of needs, a person must first deal with meeting physiological needs, such as hunger, thirst, and sleep. Once those are met, the next most pressing set of needs are safety needs: shelter, health, family, and property. Once those are met, a person can move on to love, self-esteem and finally “self-actualisation”: the enriching of the self.

Maslow’s hierarchy has long been a favorite of pop-psychologists and has been used and abused in both fiction and journalism since the 1940s. But it is fairly clear, even just from the language that he uses, that Roddenberry is inspired by conceptual framework of the hierarchy. If human endeavours are seen as advancing up this noble ladder of advancement, then any society where all of the basic low-level needs are bet would obviously be left to while away their time exclusively on love, self-esteem, and self-actualisation.

We can even speculate about how this might have happened. From the very beginning, the Star Trek universe had the “transporter”: a machine that could turn any physical object into energy, and transmit that energy (or at least information about the original pattern) across space so that energy could then be converted into that same physical form at the destination.

A natural extension of this technology is the “replicator”, which essentially is nothing more than the receiving end of a transporter. This object simply has patterns for different types of physical objects stored in memory, and can create, on demand, any physical object from energy based on these patterns.

If you can make anything you want out of energy, and you have all of the energy in the universe at your disposal, then presumably you can have any physical thing that you want.

There are details, of course. Manual labor hasn’t been eliminated, because presumably someone has to operate the replicators, and move their products from place to place. One can only assume that large objects would have to be created in parts, and then human labor would be needed to assemble those parts.

We can also assume that these people would not need to be paid to perform this labour, because they already are having all of their physical needs met. Why do they perform this labour, then? Clearly they are motivated to assemble the large object – whatever it is – out of their sense of duty and their desire to improve humanity.

It’s all very tidy. But is that how people really work?

Power-mongers and mischief-makers

In Damon Knight’s novel A is for Everything, technology exists that can duplicate any item. According to the basic rules of economics, this means that objects no longer have any “value” in the economic sense of being used to engage in buying, selling, and exchanging.

But in this world, another human psychological factor comes into play: power. Even in today’s society, money is only partially about accumulating “stuff”: it is also about exerting and maintaining power over people. If you remove physical objects as things of value that can be used to accumulate and direct power, then there has to be something else that will take their place.

When you can have anything you want, the only thing worth having is people.

In the world of A is for Everything, it is human labor. Rather than having an economy based on self-improvement and voluntary creative exploration of the universe, the economy is based on a slave trade.

Psychologically, it makes sense: when you can have anything you want, the only thing worth having is people. So those who seek out power and control still achieve it through buying and selling; they simply don’t achieve it through the buying and selling of things.

In Rudy Rucker’s novel Realware, an alien race gifts humans with a device called an “alla”, which can literally create any object out of thin air, and can also make any object disappear. The characters who make this discovery engage in a very long and complex discussion about the social and economic implications of such a device.

One of the biggest fears that comes up in this discussion is the simple fear of pranks and mischief-makers. Mischief-makers of this kind are largely absent from the Star Trek universe, but they are a very real component of humanity. One can imagine duels where one person turns a hilltop into a giant house, and his hippie neighbor turns it into a forest, back and forth all day.

What happens when a prankster decides to disappear your car while you are driving it? What happens when someone decides to create a giant ball of uranium in the town square?

To quote from Realware: “But what kind of kinky kilp would psychos make? A thousand ton turd in the middle of Union Square! A statement turd, you wave? And of course there’d be giant crucifixes everyplace. And just imagine solid, three-dimensional graffiti…. “ Another character adds: “….and you forget porno and political ads.”

In truth, this would be the reality of any economic system based on the idea that anybody can have or make anything that he wants at any time. Sure, some people will want to band together and perform great creative deeds for the betterment of humanity, in concordance with the philosophy of Star Trek’s Federation.

But some people – maybe even most people – will want a thousand-ton turd.