What Star Trek™ Teaches Us About Money - Part 3

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part 3 of 3. Read Part 1 | Part 2.)

In the previous post we explored how the Star Treks economy functions—and the pro's and con's of living in a world driven by public good. What defines that way of life, and could we achieve it?

(1) It’s all about scarcity:

Money as we know it today is really just a tool for resource allocation. It helps us make sense of and organize a world that’s defined by scarcity. There are only so many ’53 Corvettes in existence, so the price for them today is very, very high. On the flipside, potatoes are abundant, so you can fill up the trunk of your ’96 Honda Accord with them for just a few dollars and eat for months. What we dedicate our money to is largely dictated by our own financial limitations.

Scarcity like this does not exist in the “Star Trek” universe. Academics would term it a “post-scarcity economy,” in which most goods, services and information don’t require human labor to produce and, therefore, are practically free. As such, the characters in “Star Trek” can replicate whatever they need—even that Corvette—whenever they need it, effectively removing the impulse for them to keep or maintain physical goods. So, when everything is effectively free, there’s no need to use money or even think about it.

One of the few times the Federation faces scarcity is when it needs to trade with the Ferengi in Latinum. Because it is a liquid that cannot be replicated, we see the emergence of an economy based on Federation credits and an exchange rate between these and various denominations of gold-pressed Latinum.

Captain Picard summed up this post-scarcity society as such, saying: "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

(2) Scarcity is a policy choice:

That said, the society depicted in “Star Trek” didn’t get to its post-scarcity position by accident. Deliberate policy choices (presumably) went into creating it. Somewhere along the line, someone must have decided that it was important to develop the technologies and systems that power the “Star Trek” universe, no matter what the cost, as a shared public good.

Manu Saadia, author of the book, “Trekonomics,” argues that the portion of our own economy dedicated to the public good will likely expand in the coming years, eventually even marginalizing the role of money in our own daily lives. We probably have the resources to feed and clothe every person on the planet today, he says, but we are not yet dedicating ourselves to that as a societal goal, so it is not happening. That could eventually change.

(3) Technology will eventually replace it:

There’s no ignoring the fact that the residents of the “Star Trek” world have most of their needs met not by labor, but by technology. The replicator prepares their food, the holodeck provides their entertainment, the transporter provides their transportation. No, these technologies aren’t free. Presumably, their development cost money at some point in “Star Trek” history—as does space travel itself—but by the time of the show they’ve essentially moved over to the “public good” stage. Technology has altered economics.

“The rise of new technology means that all the economic questions will change,” wrote Noah Smith, assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, in Bloomberg View about the show’s post-economics culture. “Instead of a world defined by scarcity, we will live in a world defined by self-expression. We will be able to decide the kind of people that we want to be, and the kind of lives we want to live, instead of having the world decide for us. The ‘Star Trek’ utopia will free us from the fetters of the dismal science.”

(4) It’s just a stand-in for true value:

Even in a world without money, people still work. The Starfleet officers still show up on the bridge every morning for duty, they still take risks, they still travel to explore the unknown reaches of space, despite the fact that, apparently, there is no paycheck waiting for them back on Earth. That’s because money from an individual’s perspective is just a representation of the value we create for society.

Once money goes away we will still have things to work for — reputation, social acceptance, pride in accomplishment, etc. We just won’t work for our paychecks but instead, we’ll aim to make progress in other value systems, such as ideas, creativity and courage. Maybe new economies will emerge from new value systems. Perhaps, we’ll still be exchanging creative ideas for help from someone with a skill we don’t have, but through a new fungible way to transfer social value from one individual to another without a material intermediary.

In any case, Roddenberry should be proud — he imagined a future that continues to inspire our creativity. Today’s phones are not too far from communicators, the Tricorder X-Prize is still yielding new ideas, and digital currencies like Bitcoin are slowly making social value fungible across the world, occasionally escaping material intermediaries.

Earlier: Part 1 | Earlier: Part 2

Author: Ajay Gopal, PhD, VP of Growth & Data Science