So a good friend of mine (my roommate at university) recently posted on Facebook about the supposed economics of Star Trek. The basis of this is notionally that money has been eliminated and sufficient material comfort is available that we no longer have ‘want’. Thus, we end up with endless amounts of sanctimony (on television), while humans look down on people who are less evolved and not as morally superior as we have become. However, at the same time, this was later lampooned (to varying degrees) on Deep Space Nine, as the inherent contradictions were show (‘What does “we work to better ourselves” actually mean?’, ‘It means we don’t need money!,’ ‘Then you obviously don’t need any of mine’). The simple premise, as I’ve just stated, is that with the advent of technology which eliminates certain aspects of material depravity (in terms of there is endless food and basic comforts). As a consequence, man is now free to pursue all his own interests, without the need to worry about the basics of life (and by basics, we are understood to mean a living standard superior to modern Western countries).
Now, setting the stage for such a fantasy world, let us look at some of the simpler problems.
Buildings & Land
Who allocates or decides on the quantity of buildings and land which are to be available to whom, when, and why? If I want a flat in London, a flat in New York, and a farm in New Zealand, who is to decide whether I can or can’t have them? The counterargument that, with space travel, near infinite amounts of space make land become irrelevant are simply foolish: someone will always want a certain piece of land more than another. The fact that land at the outskirts of Auckland is cheap does not mean the price of all land in Auckland is cheap. Providing more land will certainly reduce the total value of land, but the relative value will remain constant (if someone wants a piece of land in the inner city twice as much as on the outskirts, than a price equivalent to 2x is sensible). No mechanism is catered for this is the Star Trek universe.
One of the key features of space transport is that it tends to be bulk / large scale. How often, beyond capitalist species, do we see individuals with their own starships? How do they even procure these in the future? What if I decide I enjoy flying, who decides that I can or cannot do so? What if I want to do long-distance travel? Who determines that’s ‘acceptable’ or not? In our world, I purchase a car, a yacht, or an aeroplane based on my available funds and skills. In this future, we’ve just glossed over that. The military are the only people who seem to have access to reasonably unlimited hardware and even they don’t have anything resembling the degree of transport which we are accustomed to now (everyone doesn’t have their own, personal, shuttle). So how transport actually works is simply ignored in favour of plots in which everyone is, literally, stuck on the same boat.
How human initiated services are supposed to be achieved is never specified. Why do doctors do their jobs? Why do they even train to be doctors? Because it merely ‘benefits humanity’? You can imagine such naïve people flying around space buying ever bridge someone has to sell them along the way. But in all serious terms, robotics are advancing sufficiently fast that a lot of services will simply be eliminated, and whatever else isn’t possible will be handled through holographic means (something which Star Trek did cater for). However, whatever remains for people to do, we will no longer have a means to recompense them, and that creates a real problem. Why would anyone work if they were not required to? Why would they do what others even wanted? (For instance, we might still need computer programmers, but why should I do any of the tasks which others want of me? – I can just program along as I see fit).
So we are left with a set of basic economic problems which cannot, as yet, be overcome. Money exists because, as a means of transaction, is allows us to place values on things that we may want, and while reducing the cost of some things to zero (or near zero) will certainly cause some economic change, it will have no effect on the means of value assignment itself. I have ignored resource extraction here, but it’s another valid area. The simple reality is that Star Trek, for better or worse, is a television show, and was written by nominal ‘Progressives’ (at different points in time, thus different perspectives as to what the future of economics will look like). What’s fascinating is that people spend so much time trying to convince themselves that reasonably straightforward fantasies are, actually, deeper in meaning and explain to us more about the world than we really see (regardless of how silly that really is).