In a forum I frequent, the question of the economic system of Star Trek came up, and as someone who is both a fan of free market capitalism, and also very involved in post-scarcity economic theory, I had a few thoughts. Specifically, a number of people seem to think that Star Trek is a demonstration of a socialist economy, and I can’t disagree more.
It’s worth remembering the definition of socialism:
“a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”Source: https://www.google.com/search?q=socialism+definition
Although there’s conflicting evidence about whether or not there is money per se in the 23rd century (they mention “credits” in TOS, but Kirk clearly says they don’t use money in ST4:TVH), they definitely still have private property. Look at Sisko’s restaurant in New Orleans in DS9, or the Picard family vineyard in TNG (and PIC, apparently). This despite the fact that Picard makes a statement about not being interested in the acquisition of “things” in the last episode of Season 1 of TNG (“The Neutral Zone”).
So yes, although the economy is definitely different (replicator technology making units of currency largely irrelevant), the concept and practice of private property is definitely there. This is called a “post-scarcity economy” and the implications are dramatic and largely not understood in terms of contemporary economics.
Basically, a post-scarcity economy is one in which the value of goods is not driven by supply and demand. Usually, this is envisioned as a consequence of molecular assemblers and/or some sort of nanotechnology that can basically create anything on demand. It implies, but doesn’t necessarily require, essentially limitless energy.
This is something that Star Trek has. They’re called replicators. In TOS, they were called “food processors” and seemed to be somewhat more limited in their scope, but by TNG they were fully integrated into Federation (and Klingon and other societies’) cultures.
Where I think this radically differs from socialism is in the distribution of the means of production. While there are industrial replicators which seem to be under the control of the government (and which seem to be mentioned in the context of disaster relief and new colonization projects), we know there are household replicators as well, which pretty well represents the ultimate in non-state-ownership of the means of production.
It’s very close to “every person a factory owner.” When the means of production are so radically distributed to the individual, that seems to me to be the antithesis of socialism, which requires centralized control or at the very least regulation of the means of production.
Even in the TNG/DS9/VOY era there are still some substances that seem to be beyond the capabilities of replicators. Dilithium stands out prominently as something that still needs to be mined. Biomemetic gel (whatever it is), is closely regulated and controlled, which implies that it can’t be created by just anyone who has a replicator. And so on.
Biological substances in particular seem to be subject to this limitation. Witness the efforts of the Ferengi to obtain the rights to tulaberry wine from the Gamma Quadrant in the first seasons of Deep Space 9. If it was possible to just scan a bottle of wine and crank out endless liters of the stuff, that’s exactly what the Ferengi would have done. But for some reason they have to go to the source, and thus treaties and trade agreements are made.
It’s worth noting that this restriction doesn’t apply to things like normal alcohol, which we see being provided by replicators throughout TNG, DS9, and VOY. On the other hand, we see that hand-grown vintages like Chateau Picard are prized for the simple fact that they are hand-grown. The same applies to Sluggo Cola or Joseph Sisko’s creole shrimp.
This would seem to imply that there’s a cultural value placed on at least some substances that are not replicated. This, despite the fact that a replicator could, in theory, duplicate a bottle of Chateau Picard 2347 down to the last molecule. The fact that it wasn’t replicated, in and of itself, gives value. One imagines a black market in replicated fakes.
The Ferengi are an interesting anomaly. Even in a post-scarcity society with replicators, they still maintain the trappings of a market-based economy, even with a futures commodity exchange. There are two explanations for this, neither of which is mutually exclusive.
First, there is a certain level of cultural atavism at work; they maintain the trappings of a market-dependent economy because that’s what their culture and their religion demands. But they’re also depicted as a particularly practical people when it comes to getting profit.
The second possibility is that their economy is aimed at interactions with cultures who do not, themselves, possess replicator technology, and thus are not aware of the complete imbalance in trade that replicator technology provides. But we do see them trading with all sorts of advanced cultures, so this is somewhat off, and we need to fall back on the idea that replicated items are perceived to be of lesser value, despite being literally identical according to the canon. The fact that restaurants which feature food made “the old fashioned way” with people peeling potatoes speaks to this perceived value which is added by individual effort.
It’s an artisan economy, and people are willing to exchange units of exchange (credits) for artisanal goods, despite the fact that replicated goods are available, speaks to a cultural preference for such things.
The relationship between the Ferengi and gold (and latinum) is a special case. Gold goes from being incredibly valuable to them in TNG (“The Last Outpost”) to being literally worthless in DS9 (“Who Mourns for Morn?”), so it’s not like the writers consistently thought this aspect through across the entirety of the various series.
The bottom line is that although the Star Trek universe shows a very different economic order than ours today, that does not equate to a socialist economy. The fact that the means of production is literally in the hands of just about every individual is at complete odds with the definition of socialism. Too, we see that artisanal goods still hold value over and above mere replicated goods, and that people are willing to exchange units of credit to possess and consume them.