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Why Jean-Luc Picard Never Carried a Wallet

How does Star Trek society exist in a post-economic society? (All screenshots by Eric Grundhauser)

With the 2016 U.S. presidential election looming, candidates' fiscal policies are getting lauded, scrutinized, and criticized. While some freak out over how a Trump or a Sanders would affect America’s economy over the next four years, one author has boldly gone much farther afield for potential economic solutions: the Star Trek universe.

In author Manu Saadia’s forthcoming book, Trekonomics, he suggests that the values of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future may be the thing to aspire to if we ever want to achieve a world of peace and abundance. And it’s not just about the technology, either.

The exact economics of the Star Trek universe (excluding the recent J.J. Abrams films, which are set in an alternate timeline, and thus outside the scope of the discussion, nerds) are a bit vague, and vary quite a bit between some of the series and movies. But in each iteration, the 23rd- to 24th-century world of Star Trek is, as Saadia’s book puts it, “an economic utopia.”

During the first Star Trek series, which ran from 1966-69 and spawned every iteration thereafter, Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the crew of the USS Enterprise existed in what amounted to a galaxy-spanning trade system. However, even in its initial conception, the world of Star Trek was a world where money no longer existed (at least within the United Federation of Planets, of which Earth is capital).

By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came out in 1987, taking place around a century after The Original Series, the even-more-future-than-the-previous-future version of the Enterprise came equipped with replicators. These magic boxes could produce unlimited amounts of food, materials, and supplies at no cost, thus eliminating scarcity. “I’d rather call the world of Star Trek ‘post-economic’ than ‘post-scarcity,’" says Saadia, "because the notion of scarcity vs. non-scarcity is no longer useful [in that universe]."

Captain Picard is served a potted plant by a malfunctioning replicator. 

From there on, the Star Trek universe seemed to have made the need for economics obsolete, ensuring Roddenberry’s utopian vision of cosmic diplomacy and discovery. “Economics is the management of scarcity," says Saadia. “With Star Trek, at least inside the Federation, you have basically overcome what [John Meynard] Keynes called, 'The Economic Problem,' ... the allocation of scarce resources.”

Of course there are some items within the world of Star Trek that seemingly cannot be replicated and are valued for their scarcity, such as dilithium crystals which power starships, or unique items like a historic bottle of wine. But even these items prove to be no hinderance to the functioning of the fictional utopia, ironically due to economic thinking. “Given how many top flight engineers and scientists they have, if they really wanted to, they would find a substitute,” says Saadia. “That’s how an economy works. You find a substitute when something gets too scarce.”

There is also the issue that this post-economic fantasia only exists in one corner of the wider Star Trek universe, within the bounds of the Federation. Many economies exist outside the Federation’s utopian society, most apparently in the form of the Ferengi, a race and culture based entirely on trade and greed (Saadia has an entire chapter on them in his book). Even this can be explained, according to Saadia. “The Federation, on the intergalactic stage, engages in economic transactions with other races.” he says. Officers use money at non-Federation bars, and it is even established during the course of the various series that they have a bank.

In Saadia’s view, Federation officers participate in such transactions only as a courtesy. He likens it to international dealings with socialist governments in our own world. “The USSR, or the Chinese for that matter, used to conduct trade with the capitalist world,” he says. “They would basically have a foreign currency account to conduct trade.” In this way, the Federation’s can interact with capitalist regimes despite operating as a cashless society among themselves.

One day maybe we can all live on such peaceful ships of discovery.

This post-economic elysium is all well and good to watch in a science-fiction show where they have magical technologies and centuries of time to solve all of their problems, but what, if anything does this say about our current economic landscape? What does it teach us about how we as a species might one day achieve the limitless wealth enjoyed by likes of Captains Picard and Sisko?

According to Saadia, the most important lesson to learn is that we shouldn’t just wait for technology to elevate us all to a bountiful, unified society. “It’s not the technology or the replicators that enable a post-economic society in Star Trek,” he says. As he explained to us, even in the final film set in the era of The Original Series, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the characters do not use replicators—and yet they appear to be living in a post-scarcity society. Saadia says this points to the fact that the final, post-economic society that is presented was a “policy choice,” more than a result of an increase in convenience. “It’s a matter of values and a democratic decision by society, rather than something that comes out of the natural outgrowth of technological progress,” he says. “Star Trek presents a post-economic future as a social choice.”

The future promised by Star Trek may seem like an unattainable fantasy, but according to Saadia, we can start living it now to make it happen. “Being helpful, and transparent, and sharing is something that really matters in Star Trek,” he says. “You share the products of your work and you help other people do the same.” 

Ultimately, if we want to reach an abundant, post-economic future, the real answer might not be to wait for the future to come to us, but to start dreaming of it, and living it as much as we can now. It might sound utopian, but that’s what Star Trek is all about.