Post-Scarcity Economics in Star Trek and My Weird Brain

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IN KEEPING WITH YESTERDAY’S THOUGHTS:

Sometimes, I get into arguments on the internet.  The below is hopefully more of a debate, presented more or less as it took place on a popular Star Trek facebook group. It began — as all arguments do — with a Picard meme.  Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a huge Star Trek fan.  And while the Star Trek franchise is undoubtedly a weird way to engage with such a serious subject, it’s one I’ve found helpful in crystalizing my thinking on post-scarcity social order.

Some of this is definitely based in the esoterica of the franchise, but my feeling is it transcends it enough to be worthwhile in its ideas about post-scarcity as a concept.  My thinking here is influenced by “The Four Futures: Life After Capitalism” by Peter Frase, “Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek” by Manu Saadia and my friend Jackson Lanzing, who used to spend hours with me, late into the night, debating the merits of future economic systems.  Offered for those who would like a sense of the current state of my weird-ass politics — obviously not a complete survey, but it does paint a picture of my current obsessions, both technological and otherwise.

The names have been redacted to protect the innocent and the text altered enough that I can hopefully repost it here without anything particularly identifiable making it through.

ANONYMOUS: I FIND IT HARD TO BELIEVE THAT HUMANITY WOULD DO AWAY WITH CURRENCY OR AT LEAST SOME MEANS TO “PAY” FOR A RESOURCE (E.G., TRADE).  RESOURCE COMPETITION IS INHERENT IN ALL FORMS OF LIFE.  TO ASSUME  HUMANS COULD SUDDENLY CUT THAT INSTINCT LOOSE, EVEN WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF A DEVASTATING WAR OR FIRST CONTACT SCENARIO, SEEMS (TO QUOTE EVERYONE’S FAVORITE POINTY-EARED VULCAN) “ILLOGICAL.”

Me: Why would you pay for a thing that is infinite?  Why charge for it when all of your needs are met?

ANONYMOUS: IT’S JUST HUMAN NATURE.

Me: Is it, though?  There are plenty of instinctual behaviors that society has managed to reign in through a combination of technology and social institutions.  You might want to kill or steal, but you wouldn’t.  (Or at least most people wouldn’t, if put in your position.)  That’s because your survival threats are minimized and your social thriving  is contingent on “playing ball” from a social perspective.  There’s no reason to believe we couldn’t max out our pro-social behaviors from the standpoint of resource competition, especially if we had access to post-scarcity tech.

(For more on this, look at Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” — largely speaking, brutish human impulse has been on the down slope for most of our history, precisely because of our technological development.)

ANONYMOUS: IN BIOLOGY, THERE IS SOMETHING CALLED A “LIMITING RESOURCE.”  THERE IS ALWAYS ONE OR MULTIPLE RESOURCES THAT ARE IN DEMAND IN ANY BIOME OR SOCIAL ORDER.  SO, IF ENERGY IS PLENTIFUL AND REPLICATORS CAN MAKE ANYTHING HUMANS MIGHT NEED, THE NEXT QUESTION IS HOW EFFICIENT ARE REPLICATORS — WHAT DO THEY NEED TO WORK?

Me: I mean, as insane as it might seem, this is made very clear by the cannon: there are no limiting resources.  Or, your limiting resources are so sufficiently minimized that they might as well not exist.  This is not dissimilar to the real world.  If a thing is so cheap that it is effectively free, it is usually given freely, even if there is a fractional cost.  In a society where all limiting resources are thus so infinitesimally small, it is not hard to imagine that there could be no benefit in resource hoarding and exploitation and a huge social cost inclining one against it.  Greed and self-interest do not disappear, but end up channeled into more productive ends.

Star Trek has made much — by implication and outright explanation — of what they call the “reputational economy.”  Essentially, greed and the profit motive are channeled into increasing one’s reputation, instead of accruing wealth.  This isn’t that different from how modern humans function.  Our pursuit of money, after certain survival needs are taken care of, is usually a pursuit of prestige.  But there are all kinds of examples of prestige seeking that aren’t related to money.  On a college campus, prestige might go to the smartest student or the best athlete.  On the internet, it might go to the person with the most views.  Ask any social psychologist and they’ll tell you as much.

The Federation, at least as it’s explained to us by the characters on the shows, simply seems to be a society in which the relationship between social value and prestige seeking is in perfect balance.  I.E, the things that make you famous and increase your social standing are actually the things that benefit your society.  It is an economy of a sort (because competition is an inescapable part of human nature), but one that does not require money, especially as a prerequisite for survival.

ANONYMOUS: I’VE HEARD THIS ARGUMENT BEFORE.  YOU’RE A MARXIST — YOU THINK CURRENCY IS A MODERN INVENTION WITH NO INSTINCTUAL BASIS.

Me: Not quite!  Admittedly, I’m not any kind of a Marxist scholar, so it’s possible I might misunderstand their position, but I think where I get off the train with them is I don’t believe capitalism is inherently evil.  At least no more than monarchy, feudalism, or nationalism.  These things are social technologies that carried us from one stage of social organization to the next.  They are, of course, brutal and ugly in retrospect and as modern humans, we rightly reject many of their core tenants.  But they were the best tech available at the time.  (I would say the same thing about religion, by the way and I think most Star Trek would back me up on that, but many would probably disagree.)  I see currency the same way — it was a very helpful method of social organization, if one that helped a great many people while hurting a great many others.  But it’s fast outpacing its usefulness by any metric.

As for having an instinctual basis, I imagine it does, or we wouldn’t have arrived at it — but there’s probably something I don’t understand here?

I’m doing more than just answering your question now, but in Star Trek, we’re right about at the point where poor people are getting thrown into camps and the world spins off into global conflict.  I think that makes sense.  The end point of automation is either abundance and hierarchy (i.e., neofedualism) or abundance and egalitarianism.  There is no middle ground.  Continuing to cling to capitalism will only guarantee an existential crisis for our social institutions, and human survival generally.  Best to start thinking about this stuff now — while we still have time.

ANONYMOUS: BUT STAR TREK IS FICTION.  IT WAS NEVER MEANT TO PROVIDE A WORKING MODEL FOR HOW SOCIETY COULD FUNCTION.

Me: Fiction like cell phones were fiction before engineers who grew up watching TOS invented them in the 1980s?  I don’t mean to be flip — I agree with you.  But I genuinely believe fiction has a place in our discussion of what we would like the future to look like.  Of course Star Trek doesn’t offer a meaningful blueprint.  But it does offer an end point — a north star to guide our thinking.  Even if we wouldn’t want it to look exactly like that, it’s at least a starting point for the conversation.

I’d argue there’s actually something brilliant about how Star Trek handles its technology, both social and otherwise.  It’s kind of unique in science fiction for presenting a universe that  purportedly adheres to the tenants of known scientific principles, but deliberately avoids explaining how things work.  At least on the show itself, the audience had no idea how a communicator worked, or a warp drive — it was enough to know that they did.  And then an engineer who watched the show thought, “Hey, that’s cool!  Let’s make something like that!”  Or, “We already have this idea for this other thing.  What if it worked more like Kirk’s communicator?”

The influence of Star Trek on the STEM fields is undeniable.  With the rise of automation and post-scarcity problems, I’d love to see more economists and sociologists take up the challenge in the same way many scientists and engineers did.  Most of us would agree Star Trek holds at least some of the elements of an ideal future — regardless of how achievable they may or may not be — so how do we get from here to there?

I’m staying a bit from your point, but let me offer one more thing in response: I think the above is exactly how the writers intended it to work.  Sure, Star Trek was never meant to provide a true blueprint for future society.  But neither was it meant to be a bit of escapist fantasy, in which we didn’t consider the larger ideas being presented.  Their goal was to get us to look at the modern world and figure out how to build a better, kinder, and more compassionate version of it.  It would be a shame to just ignore that.

That’s it for now.  More tomorrow.

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One thought on “Post-Scarcity Economics in Star Trek and My Weird Brain

  1. Pingback: Post-Scarcity Economics in Star Trek and My Weird Brain, Pt. 2 | What exit?

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