Economic Possibilities for our Spacetraveling Grandchildren
By Alberto Mingardi
I’ve been watching on Netflix a new Star Trek series, Discovery, which is sort of a prequel to the classic Kirk & Spock series. I’ve found the series engaging and extremely well crafted – but, just after a few episodes, it is quite too early to cast a judgment.
I’ve always liked Star Trek, particularly as a kid, for its characters and its uncompromising optimism, too. Good science fiction is quite often “dark”, it uses the future to showcase the anxieties and fears we feel today. On the contrary, Star Trek brings us to a time when humankind solved most of its long standing problems, learned to cooperate peacefully, and therefore can now explore outer space. Over there, we’ll make it known that we come in peace – well, as much as we can.
Sure, Star Trek accounts for the natural, hardwired aggression of men – but it shows that we can govern it (learn from the Vulcans!) and perhaps take it out of the closet just in those key moments in which it’ll actually save the day (paging Captain Kirk).
At the same time, the rosy politics and economics of Star Trek is sometimes distressing. You often get the impression that the Federation of Planets is the Soviet Union turned good.
That Star Trek is a beyond money and, really, “beyond scarcity” (think of food synthetizers, the “replicators”!) universe, in which humans are capable of tremendous achievements precisely because they won over most pressing needs, is the way in which the franchise founded by Gene Roddenberry is most commonly understood- Keynes’s “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” on steroids.
A few years ago a book entitled “Trekonomics” by Manu Saadia was discussed at New York Comic Con by no less august presonages than Paul Krugman and Brad De Long (transcript here). Krugman has a very good point, in the discussion: replicators make “things”, and in that sense Star Trek may be beyond scarcity, but that won’t help much with service. “Even now, we spend only 30 per cent of our income on goods the rest is for services, and the replicators won’t help with that”.
The book was reviewed critically by Students for Liberty’s Vice President Fred Roeder. Roeder maintains that:
Star Trek Federation is a great thought experiment on what a post-scarcity society could look like. However, there are major shortcomings such as the allocation of property rights, a price system for energy, incentivization of services, and the existence of rivalry.
A free, prosperous, and open society such as the Federation can only function with a price system in place in order to deal with the scarcity of energy. If trekonomics would really be applied in the Federation, we would see a much more repressive version of this interplanetary union forcing its citizens to work in certain professions and rationing energy.
Roeder’s point is that there may be more of the price system in Star Trek’s dreamed world than most politically minded fans are willing to concede. I recommend his discussion of the “concealed” price mechanism in the United Federation of Planets to be read side-by-side with the DeLong/Krugman’s panel discussion of the kind of “meritocracy” Star Trek implicitly endorses. Meritocracy and the market system ain’t the same thing, as the latter is a decentralized system to take decisions whereas the first is based upon top down criteria. You can’t do without incentives, and Star Trek does not. But how are incentives best come up with? Well, that’s a long debate. It dates back to long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away[*].
[*] The Star Wars reference is purposefully here to set the fans of both sagas off.