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Trekonomics: Is Star Trek Really “Anti-Libertarian”?

No, Nick Gillespie, Star Trek has done plenty for the cause of liberty.


Reason‘s Nick Gillespie recently posted a list of the five most anti-libertarian television shows ever, and there’s a serious error.

Actually, there are two serious errors. The first, larger error is that Reason put together a list of the five best libertarian TV shows, and they left off “Firefly,” which simply boggles the mind.

The smaller error is that Gillespie names “Star Trek” among the anti-libertarian shows. Even worse is the reason he gives: “The Starship Enterprise’s adventures throughout the galaxy are supposedly guided by the Federation’s ‘prime directive,’ which forbids humans from intervening in the domestic affairs of the planets they visit. And yet…Captain James T. Kirk is mucking around with every civilization from here to the Romulan Neutral Zone like LBJ on Viagra.”

In other words, “Star Trek” isn’t anti-interventionist enough. I suppose this fits with the libertarians’ neo-isolationist tendencies.

If Gillespie had stuck to economics, he would have had a better case. There is even a dogged Star Wars fan out there who, in arguing for the superiority of his preferred franchise (counterargument: Ewoks), presents a comprehensive case that the Federation of Planets is supposed to be a communist system. The most telling point, from my perspective, is “the uniformity of design—’You can have any color you want, so long as it’s beige.'” Then again, the action takes place in the futuristic equivalent of the Navy, where you would expect everyone to wear uniforms. And perhaps this is more attributable to the convenience of set designers than to any explicitly intended message.

But 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.

There is already a well-developed field of Treknology, the study of the fictional science and technology of the Star Trek franchise. I suppose we are now delving into a new field of Trekonomics.

Yet all of this kind of misses the point.

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.

Following up, I noted “the characteristics of this ideal society: a focus on work, competence, intelligence, productivity, and rationality,” which is a projection of “what kind of people we will have to be to reach a super-technological future.” I go on to argue that instead of looking like a socialist economy, it looks more like the ideal community of producers in Atlas Shrugged.

In Star Trek, the individual is valuable, and he is valued as an individual. For a futuristic Navy, there aren’t that many orders barked out, and the commanders—Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway—respect the opinions, competence, and conscience of the people who work under their leadership.

At best, what the advocates of statism get from Star Trek is the fantasy that some kind of “replicator” technology could actually make the welfare state work—or, more substantially, the illusion that economic communism can somehow be combined with individualism.

All of that might tip the scales back against Star Trek if not for one thing: the Star Trek franchise produced an indelible portrayal of the evil of collectivism: the Borg, a literal collective in which individuals have no private thoughts and are treated as expendable parts of a homogenous whole. (If you’re unfamiliar, see an amusing fan “documentary” on the Borg which pulls together footage from across the franchise.) They are without a doubt the favorite villain of the franchise, and they are portrayed as being “as close to pure evil” as any force the Federation has ever encountered.

The various story lines about the Borg include one episode, “I, Borg,” that offers a powerful portrayal of the value of individualism, with a basic plot premise—a member of a utopian collectivist society rediscovers the word “I”—that might have been borrowed from Ayn Rand’s 1937 novella Anthem.

The Borg has entered the popular imagination as a symbol of the evil of collectivism. It is available to be trotted out by commentators and cartoonists whenever it becomes necessary to slap down any overt suggestion of ideological collectivism. Thus, National Review cast Melissa Harris-Perry as the “Borg Queen” for asserting collective ownership of children, while Eric Allie provided the appropriate graphic. And that’s not to mention all the posters and Internet memes portraying our current president as a Borg drone.

This is one of the functions art is supposed to perform: to provide a memorable concrete projection of the real meaning of different ideas and attitudes toward life—to provide us with archetypes that help us understand the choices we face.

Political themes are not central enough to the franchise that I would necessarily include Star Trek as a top “libertarian” show. (That should go to “Firefly,” which is not merely individualist but quite specifically libertarian in its outlook, with a dash of the conservative’s skepticism about the perfectibility of man.) But by showing us the individualist future culture of the Federation and the nightmarish collectivist dystopia of the Borg, Star Trek has done plenty for the cause of liberty.

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