Interviews Science

Writer Manu Saadia Explains How Star Trek Can Teach Us (a Lot) About Economics

“I grew up in Paris and my parents were very old school – so no TV, no Star Wars. My parents had friends who knew about Star Trek and were like, ‘It’s OK, there’s no violence,’ so I went to see the first movie, The Motion Picture, when I was eight. People knock down The Motion Picture because nothing happens, but I found it very soothing. In the ’70s and early ’80s, we lived with constant anxiety about nuclear war, missiles, Cold War, The Wall – it was not a super-happy time. Plus, I was in France, which I wouldn’t call a racist country, but if you’re on the outside, it’s not that easy. And Star Trek had none of that. On the contrary, it was proudly inclusive.

“It also portrayed a world where a lot of the troubles of the period had been overcome. So it was escapism in a way, but escapism that gave a sense of possibility, that yes, at some point in the future, through technology and good governance, people would become explorers instead of warriors. And that was something that I latched onto.

“After I saw The Motion Picture, I read Asimov’s Foundation. In the Foundation series, the main character is not a person, but society as a whole. It’s very strange to read, even today. That kind of prompted me to think back on Star Trek and what I had seen. How does it work for people to not go to war, and not be interested in anything but science and exploration? What kind of society sustains that? I was eight, so I did it with my own words and thoughts, and I kept that going. I studied economics, economics history, history of science. In grad school, discussing the structure of Star Trek society was kind of a running joke with friends. But the economics of it has been my lifelong obsession.

“In the Federation, which is the political unit into which humans and various other alien civilisations are congregated, there is no money, because every service and every thing is provided by machines or robots as public goods. In economic jargon, a public good is something that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable, meaning my using that service or good will not prevent somebody else from using it. So an example of a real world public good is the atmosphere.

“Everything is provided because the Federation has these incredible machines called the replicators. The replicators make supply and demand moot. A replicator is the ultimate machine; it’s the last machine. You stand in front of it and you say, ‘I want this,’ and it will make it for you on the spot. Replicators in the Federation are public goods; anybody can use them. Other civilisations in the Star Trek universe use replicators, but they make you pay. So there’s been a decision at some point in the history of the Federation to let everybody use these machines freely.

“Basically, what it presents us with is this society where the industrial revolution has run its course. Every labour-intensive task has been automated and roboticised. And the ultimate result of that is the behaviour of people in that universe, and even their psyches are fundamentally different from ours. Because imagine growing up in a world where there’s no poverty. Then your motivations and behaviours are completely different and organised around much more elevated pursuits: the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of honours, or just the pursuit of leisure.

“People are peaceful and altruistic in Star Trek because they have no reason not to be, objectively and materially. They live in a society that is terminally abundant and doesn’t require them to behave in acquisitive ways. You’re free to be altruistic when you grow up in absolute safety and wealth. Imagine if everybody won the lottery – that’s the Star Trek world. Today as individuals we can be like that, but it requires a lot of effort not to care about material things or displaying status. This is something that has to do with personal discipline and virtue, because you’re bombarded and trained into behaving in a way that is the opposite of altruism. It’s not altruistic guys who come out on top. It’s assholes.

“I know of people who are working on software that makes software. The role of the software engineer is going to be automated, as will be the roles of doctors and surgeons. But the real challenge of automation is what happens in the developing world. In the next 50 years, a country like Nigeria will have a billion people. It used to be that the way for countries to become wealthy was that you went from agriculture to import substitution. You moved a lot of people from the field to factories and towns, and then in the next generation, people became lawyers, programmers, politicians and artists. That’s what happened in China over 30 years. But what if they don’t have factories because they can’t compete with the price of robots? How do these countries become wealthy and provide for everyone in society if there is no path to economic growth?

“It’s going to be the challenge of this century and it’s going to be very complicated. This is the major roadblock towards a Star Trek society, because redistribution will have to be global. It’s not just a matter of how do we allocate our wealth and who do we tax in Australia and the United States. It’s how do we redistribute wealth on a global scale – or not. Do we build up armies to prevent these people from coming? That’s more likely, given what we know of states and how they function. It’s more likely that we’ll build armies to protect ourselves from the barbarians, until we see the light or until we meet the Vulcans.

“We’re not ready for Star Trek yet. Obama, who’s a Star Trek fan, was the closest you’ll ever get to having a Vulcan in charge – and he was considered a dangerous Muslim socialist dictator. So people voted for Trump, a cartoon version of the Ferengis. The Feregenis are this alien civilisation in Star Trek that reveres profit. Their civil religion is money. I’m sure they culled some of it from Trump’s The Art of the Deal. The Ferengis have The Rules of Acquisition that tell you how to make business deals. And they stand in opposition to the Federation throughout Deep Space Nine, the third show in the series.

“At the end of Deep Space Nine they adopt all these reforms, just because they’ve lived long enough close to the Federation to see that it’s probably more beneficial for Ferengi business to have all these things in place. So that’s the lesson of Deep Space Nine, that the natural evolution of capitalism is towards a more social democratic redistributive organisation of society. The Ferengis are wonderful and funny, because they are us – but you don’t want them to run the whole galaxy.”

This article first appeared in Smith Journal volume 22 (Autumn 2017).

You Might Also Like