Space Ramblings

Why Star Trek is Libertarian

Star Trek Enterprise

Abigail Nussbaum at Asking the Wrong Questions says that Star Trek projects American and Western values into the future. Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy says this can’t be because Star Trek is socialist. File this under missing the point.


Calling Star Trek socialist, forget defining socialism, it doesn’t matter, because we’re told next to nothing about the local economy. Whatever economy does exist wouldn’t look much like ours in a technological environment where you can make anything if you have enough energy. We hardly see the Federation off the deck of a starship. If our only view of 20th century earth was from the deck of the carrier USS Enterprise, think about the conclusions we would draw.

It’s not just right wingers who think Star Trek is socialist. Roberto Orci stupidly mentioned Budweiser being nationalized by the Federation. (What does nationalized even mean in an interstellar and interspecies alliance?) And why would they bother. That’s the real question. In an economy where the only shortage is energy, why bother controlling the means of production?

There’s no basis for either side. Sure Picard says that we don’t focus on the accumulation of wealth anymore. Obviously. What’s the point of accumulating something you can create in a replicator. Equally obviously, Starfleet uses outside contractors and manufacturers, and if they haven’t been nationalized (federationized?) why would Budweiser be.

What little we do know, is that Earth is an open society and the Federation’s individual planets go their own way. The crews use money, but don’t take it too seriously. About the only thing banned is genetic engineering. The contrast between the Federation and the Romulans, Cardassians and the TOS era Klingons, is that the Federation lets people make their own decisions. That’s the basic idea of the Prime Directive. Is a society that won’t intervene in a pre-warp culture really going to run everyone’s lives for them? Want to join the Federation? No one’s forcing you to. Want to leave, have a nice life.

What is the Federation really? It’s a synthesis of ideals. A libertarian system that encompasses different ideas and beliefs within a vast organization that provides for mutual defense and knowledge sharing, but not domestic control. It assumes that people have improved, but technology is the real game changer here.

In a society where basic needs can be had with a replicator and some solar panels to power it, debates between capitalism and socialism, are as abstract as us debating feudalism and theocracy. It doesn’t matter because we just don’t live that way. The economic pipeline in the 24th century doesn’t look anything like the way it does today. You don’t need Budweiser to get beer. You don’t need to work for Budweiser to be able to drink beer. (Ilya Somin speculating that Starfleet exists to collect taxes is equally off the wall. What taxes? Does Starfleet really need any subsidizing when it creates or discovers new technologies every week.)

The villainous races of Star Trek have been the deniers of agency, from the Borg down to conquering empires like the Klingons and Romulans, and the echoes of Communism and Nazism among the Cardassians. And that puts Star Trek closest to the libertarian corner.

The easiest way to see that is by asking the fundamental question of libertarianism. Will you allow other people to make bad decisions without intervening? That’s the essence of the Prime Directive. It’s the essence of Kirk distinguishing the Federation from the Klingons as the people who will stand by and allow you not to join, even if you have Dilithium that we need.

The Federation not only allows people to make bad decisions, it protects their right to do so. It makes interfering with their right to do so the greatest possible offense. IDIC is not a diversity seminar, it’s a statement of absolute free will. Everyone can choose to be what they want and that will only be for the better.

Star Trek isn’t utopian. It’s full of flawed people and institutions. Sure Next Generation’s view of how things should be was smothering. But it was a view that was rarely enforced on anyone except through inaction and a speech now and then. And it was a view mostly limited to one starship in one era.

If Star Trek had any politics it was left-libertarian, dreaming of a universe where economic realities no longer conflict with the search for knowledge, where the state is reduced to a loose interstellar consensus that the individual can affiliate with through organizations such as Starfleet or ignore most of the time. It may not be all that realistic, but with the emerging trends created by the internet, maybe it’s not so unrealistic after all.

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  • Heavy Armor May 5, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    Probably moreso than Warp Drive, the Replicator is perhaps the biggest game-changer in economies of scale.

    Because of this, the use of money is mostly for allied races within the Federation who have not completely converted to the use of whatever the Federation “credit” is, and for “neutral” races who trade with the Federation. IIRC, one of the standing laws when trading with such races is the virtual illegality of replicating that race’s currency, especially for the purpose of performing a transaction with said species.

    What’s more, the replicator will absolutely call into question the basic questions of human struggle. And it absolutely challenges the notion that Man will not strive to become better without a “financial profit” motive. Star Trek posits that removing the struggle for basic needs (food, shelter) by providing a device that converts energy into matter (powered by solar energy, matter/anti-matter combustion, etc.) would allow Mankind itself to prosper because the accumulation of “material wealth” becomes immaterial itself when both the product and the tools are now virtually limitless. And they are not in the control of a select few individuals who can then withhold it from the masses for said wealth.

    That is the position Star Trek’s detractors are afraid of exploring to its end.

  • O_Deus May 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I used to propose that credits were actually energy credits, but imagine the devaluation every time the technology improved.

    The politics of Star Trek arguments are bogged down in which system to give your allegiance to. And which system the Federation gives its allegiance to. The dangerous question for both sides is what if you don’t need any mandated economic system at all because big business vs government isn’t relevant anymore. Those power relationships are gone except among dictatorships that the Federation is pitted against.

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