Is a “Star Trek” Economy Soon Upon Us?

One of the most alluring things about the Star Trek series is its vision of a near-Utopian world, where peace, social justice, and economic prosperity exist for all humanity (and other enlightened species).

Underpinning this success is replicator technology, in which anything anyone could ever want can be made for free, completely eliminating the need for money and, with it, socioeconomic inequality and poverty.

This unusual concept is explored in the book “Trekonomics“,  by Manu Saadia, which examines the implications and feasibility of Star Trek’s “post-scarcity” economy. The New York Times covered some of the book’s key talking points.

When everything is free, said Mr. Saadia, objects will no longer be status symbols. Success will be measured in achievements, not in money: “You need to build up your reputation, you need to be a fantastic person, you need to be the captain”, People will work hard to reach those goals, even though they don’t need a paycheck to live.

Felix Salmon, a senior editor at Fusion whose imprint at Inkshares will publish “Trekonomics”, says not everyone would strive for greatness in a post-money economy. In general, society might look more like present-day New Zealand, which he sees as less work-obsessed than the United States: “You work to live rather than the other way round”.

This is an arrangement few people could resist: the chance to thrive without spending half our waking lives toiling, to free billions of people from starvation and exploitation and allow them the opportunity to create, volunteer, and otherwise enjoy their lives. Could such a Utopian form of social and economic organization ever exist outside human nature?

In a time of rising inequality and stagnating wages, a world where everyone’s needs are met and people only work if they feel like it seems pretty far away. But, said Mr. Saadia, a post-scarcity economy is actually far more within reach than the technological advances for which “Star Trek” is better known. Warp drive isn’t coming any time soon, if ever, he explained, but wealthy retirees today already live an essentially post-money existence, “traveling and exploring and deepening their understanding of the world and being generally happy”.

If productivity growth continues, he believes there will be much more wealth to go around in a few hundred years’ time. Whether those gains will be distributed equally is an open question. But for Mr. Saadia, “Star Trek” offers a way of imagining what would happen to life and work if they were.

I am reminded of Peter Frase’s “Four Futures” article in Jacobin, which also analyses the Star Trek approach to socioeconomic problems.

Suppose, for example, that all production is by means of Star Trek’s replicator. In order to make money from selling replicated items, people must somehow be prevented from just making whatever they want for free, and this is the function of intellectual property. A replicator is only available from a company that licenses you the right to use one, since anyone who tried to give you a replicator or make one with their own replicator would be violating the terms of their license. What’s more, every time you make something with the replicator, you must pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing. In this world, if Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard wanted to replicate his beloved “tea, Earl Grey, hot”, he would have to pay the company that has copyrighted the replicator pattern for hot Earl Grey tea.

In other words, quite a lot would have to change for humans to make the most of any technological innovation — be it replicators, mass automation, renewable energy, etc. So many values and intuitions get in the way of making a better world a reality; after all, humanity already has a plentiful supply of food and freshwater, yet tens of millions continue to hunger and thirst, due to inefficient, if not callous, management (e.g., you can eat only if you can pay, regardless if there are even any jobs available). And what of the eighty or so individuals who control more wealth than the poorest half of the world — an astonishing 3.5 billion people?

With things as they are, how can we ever hope for widespread access to easily replicable goods?  If we still struggle to properly and fairly allocate the world’s many resources, what makes us think we will behave any differently once something like replicator technology or advanced automation emerge with the potential, yet not the applicability, to free us from untold suffering? Humanity would need to experience massive paradigm shift in the way we structure our economies, society, and values before we see anything remotely resembling the Star Trek universe.

Otherwise, we may end up with any of the three other scenarios highlighted by Frase: rentism, wherein resources are plentiful but socioeconomic hierarchies are intact, thereby concentrating the fruits of automation to a few; socialism, the reverse situation that finds automation benefiting society as a whole but resources remaining scarce, leaving most people in want of goods but at least with more leisure; and exterminism, the worst of both worlds, with scarce resources and hoarded automation supporting a powerful and super-wealthy class and depriving the masses of employment and opportunity.

I for one have hope for progress. There was a time when human rights, rule by consent of the governed, public education, and a host of other values we take for granted today were literally unimagined for most of human history. And even in the parts of the world where these principles have yet to take hold, there is still some understanding and appreciation for them, a sense that humans (and, increasingly, other animals) are entitled to just treatment and a prosperous life. So perhaps it is only a matter of time before a Star Trek-style approach to economics becomes an obvious and widespread approach.

Of course, the question is, what will come first? Will we change on time to make the most of these new technologies if or when they arrive? Will it be these innovations that compel us to change? Will such change happen gradually, via the political process, or through revolution? What are your thoughts?

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