In The Federalist, Robert Tracinski responds to last month’s Reason.tv list of the top five anti-libertarian TV shows with a stirring defence of Star Trek:
… there are occasional statements by our lead characters, particularly in Star Trek: The Next Generation, about how the economy has evolved beyond money. As I have pointed out elsewhere, this is an unfortunate bit of pseudo-science: “A complex, technologically advanced economy that runs without money, prices, and markets is like a starship powered by a perpetual motion machine.” There’s a more detailed takedown at Hot Air which asks: “Who Mines the Dilithium?”
Some of this was toned down as The Next Generation got its dramatic feet under it and the writers gradually disentangled themselves from the mandates of Gene Rodenberry’s liberal utopianism. When you have to take an idea and project it into concrete terms, you quickly discover what really makes sense and what just doesn’t work. For example, having an empath as a part of the command team seems like a great idea — until you discover that she is only really capable of delivering the most banal insights. So that element of the story is downgraded. The same happened as Star Trek continued, particularly with the Ferengi, a race of galactic traders who start out as a crude anti-capitalist caricature (which borrowed uncomfortably from Nazi caricatures of Jewish bankers). Over the course of the franchise, particularly in Deep Space Nine, they were humanized (so to speak) and transformed more into lovable rogues, while Quark’s bar provided Deep Space Nine with its thriving commercial hub.
It’s important to draw a distinction between what a work of art tells you and what it shows you. In the world of Star Trek, there are a few, infrequent references in which we are told that the economy works (somehow) without prices. But the socialism all happens quietly off screen, and it’s not what the show is actually about. The show is about the culture and approach to life of those on board the Enterprise (or the other vessels in later spin-off series). And the culture of the Federation bears none of the hallmarks of a socialist society.
When people are provided with a guaranteed living, whether they work or not, they don’t generally devote themselves to self-improvement, the betterment of mankind, the writing of deathless poetry, or the peaceful exploration of the galaxy. Instead, they tend to stop working, striving, or putting forth any effort at all, not even the effort of changing out of their pajamas in the morning. To the extent they do work, since effort has been disconnected from reward, they tend to avoid as much effort as possible. In the Soviet Union, there was an old joke: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” And when rewards and advancement are no longer connected to a person’s productivity, they tend to be distributed according to an alternative currency of political pull. So all organizations end up being run by preening politicians, scheming bureaucrats, and drone-like functionaries who are skilled at pushing paper and going through the motions of production rather than actually producing anything.
What we are shown on Star Trek is the opposite. As Virginia Postrel has pointed out, based on a survey of her readers, the actual appeal of Star Trek is that it presents a kind of ideal capitalist workplace.
In Star Trek, the work is meaningful; the colleagues are smart, hard-working, competent and respectful; the leaders are capable and fair; and everyone has an important contribution to make…. Deep friendships develop from teamwork and high-stakes problem-solving. It’s the workplace as we wish it were.