10 May 2009

Star Trek's Federation: Socialist or Narrow Focus?

Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy asks a question that has been plaguing Star Trek for decades: what is its economic system?

I do agree that by all outward appearances it is a State decided affair with personal property no longer a consideration for anyone.  The Federation (the State) does everything, backs everything and nothing is left untouched by the ever so gentle hand of the Federation bureaucracy.  We have had characters state, clearly, that there is no money.  And we have seen spacefaring peoples, like the Ferengi, portrayed as buffoonish for still being capitalist.  The ever so high minded peoples of the Federation have it all figured out and politely shake their heads at the backwards capitalists.

Of course I am very biased, as are all Trek fans.  We have our likes and dislikes, and our nitpicking mentalities on various topics.  So given that, and that I am an extremely and highly biased individual in this, I will press on.

The flip side of the Socialism view is that the various series involving Star Fleet (and I haven't seen enough Deep Space 9 to examine its issues) tend to concentrate on the ways, means and wherefores of the Fleet.  Not the Federation.  That is part of the in-built bias in the ST universe, being ship and base oriented and not society oriented.  We get glimpses of what that society might be, but we only get the major glossy parts that interact with Star Fleet (speaking in a general, hand-waving whole) and very little of the day-to-day affairs of individuals outside of these major installations and vehicles.

And that is a problem.

Shipboard life must have a certain amount of regimentation to build crew trust amongst crewmembers.  A crew that doesn't work together in a well honed fashioned soon finds themselves in bad straights: necessary work is overlooked, minor functions going awry are not quickly addressed, and soon you have major problems cropping up.  A modern US nuclear aircraft carrier is the epitome of this as it is a virtual floating town that must have the amenities for crew that will allow them to 'decompress' off their main tasks and yet fulfill those tasks well without getting on each others nerves.  In a lesser way, the crew of a battle tank must work together for survival, and each do their jobs well.  For a ship or a tank to survive the crew cannot slack off at jobs, and in space the ever present threat of the hard vacuum just beyond the hull of the ship makes this an even higher imperative.

In presenting such a program centered on such actions of such worthies, we get a final sieve of only getting to know, in any real way, the command staff of a ship or base.  Indeed the fixation of fans is on that staff, not on the crew or the ship or the larger setting around them. Thus we get an extremely over-simplified view of the rest of the Federation, rarely peeking under the hood at the internal problems that will always arise on a large, international (that is what the Federation is, after all: a federated set of pre-existing spacefaring races/species/organizations) organization that has sub-units that would retain a high degree of autonomy while contributing to the larger, common, good.  That concept, itself, points to a non-Socialist set-up as the differing sub-parts of the Federation would not cede sovereignty easily, especially those (like the Andorians) who are already a decent spacefaring race (at least by most of the histories written of them, such as they are).  In point of fact many Orion clans broke away from their government to go Corsair or Pirate, including doing their own autonomous ship construction.

The other factor going against a Socialist state is the one least talked about because it is the least well understood:

How did humans get to be just about everywhere in almost no time at all?

Mind you, First Contact was done while a World War was going on!  We have rough estimates of the official death toll of that multi-decade conflict, topping over 600 million.  However, that is given in the context of official 'due to direct conflict' deaths, and as we have seen in World War II, that does not include the Holocaust, the 20 million Soviet civilians dead due to mobile fronts going over their towns and cities, and the millions of dead in China due to the Japanese occupation.  Add all of that together and you get a total about three times the 'official' amount due to conflict.  So when we get 600 million officially dead in WWIII, we take that with a grain of salt: the total death toll would be far higher.

That is disturbing as it starts hitting up into the billion plus range, with a starting population around 5 billion or so (no real good estimates exist for the ST timeline, and if you think of the Eugenics Wars decimating central Asia and having a negative impact in Africa and South America, then 3 to 5 billion would be a better guess).  There is a final wild card to play in this, and that is the cessation of global trade due to a global, multi-Nation insurgent/criminal/terror based war.  Add in the Eugenics and 'back to nature through nuclear devices' outlook of Col. Green and it would be a fair guess that the entire global population of mankind was cut in half. 

A final part that would be devastating are the major geophysical events that have gone past their periodicity norm, and are now coming due for North America.  When I was putting my own Star Trek storyline together, I spent the better part of a chapter going over this, looking as a retrospective from the then modern era backwards to the 21st century.  I used the first event, The Big One in California, to kick off WWIII as it would be a culminating point of trade, criminal activity and ripe for insurgency once the rule of law went out during the crisis.  That would go global as groups normally unaligned with each other seek temporary alignment under common banners to 'get their share' of the goodies.  During the war North America would also suffer the Cascadia fault going, and causing a tsunami affecting the coastal and near reaches of the region from mid-Oregon all the way up to Alaska, the New Madrid Fault Zone ripping apart the central infrastructure of the Mississippi river plains in and around St. Louis, plus the use of the Cumbra Vieja in the Canary Islands by Col. Green dumping a trillion ton landslide into the Atlantic and putting up a couple hundred meter high tsunami hitting along the eastern shore of the US, plus large reflected waves going on to Europe and refracted waves in the Gulf of Mexico.

None of these are unexpected.  At least I didn't see Yellowstone going off, as humanity had to survive...

So who is it that survives in a cogent enough of a group to want to get off this damned planet?

Take a look at Appalachia in the US and some of the Western mountain regions: basic, solid folk who enjoy larger families, want a good life and who have a history of running *from* oppressive governments.  Their exodus from planet Earth and founding the basic working organization that would become Star Fleet serves as a foundation for the Federation.  By and large, they also leave.  As these are not the most placid, most cosmopolitan and easiest to get along with people on the planet, they do what comes naturally: build families, communities, good accountable local governments and then start to populate the colony worlds.  Within a mere 3 generations you can go from 10,000 colonists on a single colony, to millions, and be very close to jumping into the billions in a generation or two beyond that.

That is the original era of Star Trek (not Enterprise, which I will truthfully say I paid little attention to).  What do things look like due to this exodus and their multi-great grandchildren now becoming a force in their own right?

We have a wonderful assortment of characters to draw from!

Cyrano Jones, trader of fortune and bringer of Tribbles.  He is exploiting markets and trade to the nth degree, while remaining a good humored fellow at the same time.  Mind you, he is probably willing to deal in contraband, too....

Harcourt Fenton Mudd, that oily nemesis that is exploiting dilithium miners, and winds up with a virtual android set of caretakers he cannot turn off.

The Dilithium miners!  Well, where would wildcat miners fit in?  They are a private group, raised their own funding and are doing the bit of following their dreams.

We also get the border stations being an integral part of a trade network that stretches across at least the Klingon Neutral Zone and sees those willing to ply a trade and own a ship take risks to do so...

Private ownership of starships!  Throw in that awful episode with the Space Hippies absconding with a private freighter...

Another private freighter was targeted for destruction in the M-5 storyline: that was not identified as a Star Fleet vessel but as private transport.

We have scientific explorers and claim jumpers, people out on small self-financed missions without really caring much about the Federation or Star Fleet, and that has been going on for at least a century or so by the time of the first series.

The final bit we get is the mention of 'credits' which Ilya Somin postulates as a 'vestigial currency' but in this context it has a different view to it.  It is the view derived of a competent interstellar agency, Star Fleet, having contracts for goods and services across the Federation and needing a commonly understood means of trade with the various members of the Federation.  They would not give up locally backed trade systems as those are amenable to local circumstances: look at how the Euro was sold and how various Nations are now reacting badly to it as they realize their local economies get the shaft to be under the common currency.  Expand that to the Federation and the 'credit' becomes something quite different: the 'hard currency' of the Federation with a known and understood value backed just as far as Star Fleet can reach.

Of course its not a 'currency' to them, and they clearly say its not money, too.  It is a resource backed transaction basis, and anyone who has spent any time in government trying to work on budgets knows that the language shifts from 'money' to 'resources' that then require 'budgets'.  How much does a starship cost?  How would any Fleet Captain actually know that?  It has a resource value and an expended resource commitment to it, but translating that into terms beyond the ship itself becomes a localized phenomena.  If this were a Socialist setup, the answer that Jean-Luc Picard would give is that the ship is just done by resources asked of Federation members.  He doesn't.  'It's complex'!  Well, yes, it is, as the cost of the ship really is hard to pin down as there are multiple different standards of looking at that across the Federation.  That said you don't get to an artifact like a starship without a resource budgeting, and as different Federation members contribute unequally, there is no one way to say what the cost is.  Its VALUE is priceless, but the cost is variable.

What this does, then, is set up the entire under-part of the Federation that cannot be easily looked at.  The Ferengi must trade for *something* and if a Federation member didn't have an easy barter... which is what would be required if the Federation was Socialist... then needed goods offered at a market value could not be purchased.  To have Ferengi ever interacting with the Federation there must be a common basis of trade that is understood by both parties, and barter just doesn't cut it.  The Ferengi would take goods of equal value if they thought they had worth to them, but a transportable form of value would be preferred.

So why is there no money in the Federation?

Personal accounts held digitally (or multitronically)?  Really, how much cash do you carry with you?  You also have credit you can leverage to your name.  You can figure out your total value, your total ability to leverage your credit and so on, but that is not the essential 'you'.   If the Federation had allowed mankind, and indeed all Federation members, to do away with personal property then one of our essential liberties is missing... in fact Liberty, the ability to prosper by your own works, is missing.  That is something the Vulcans would not stand for: to remove the ability of an individual to prosper by their own hand and works in the way they choose.  Prosperity is not just internal self-valuation, but the valuation given by society to individuals.  That is not awards, not applause, and goes far beyond 'each according to his ability, each according to his needs' as prosperity is an unequal return for work: you have gained benefit from your work beyond the work itself and the time and materials spent in it.  Craftsmanship is such work and good craftsman prosper while those with less skill and ability do not prosper as much.

In fact that ability to use your liberty to prosper is something that cannot be divorced from you by any government.  When government takes away disproportionately because you receive more due to your effort, that is penalizing excellence in craftsmanship, production and efficiency, as well as thrift.  The Federation does not lack for resources, and the material making up starships looks to be well made, far better than just turned out by machine and we have seen the large level of work necessary to create such ships.  For all to gain no benefit from doing the best they can winds up with the equivalent of a Soviet Fleet: falling apart, in high need of maintenance, untrustworthy and labor intensive to run.  That is not what we see in Star Trek, and we have seen some ships just like that.

When getting to the artistic vision of Gene Roddenberry, we are left with a society that, to him, grew ascetic as time went on.  From a robust, highly interactive one in the original series that then, over the space of a generation, became stagnant.  Going by the old time standard of a generation being about 40 years, that is a not inconceivable thing to have happen, but one that would be shocking in its rapidity to those in the interim period.  Plus we would have to have all Federation members agree to this disproportionate sharing concept... and Vulcans drop the 'prosper' part of things.  As the Vulcans had been at this level of 'civilization' for centuries prior to meeting up with humans, and they didn't practice (from what we could see, scanty though that is) anything like this vision seen over the space of the multiple series, the question of how sound that artistic vision was is brought into focus.

Getting to this near perfect society in which the interpersonal is the major driver and going around from system to system is always a peaceful endeavor, one wonders just why they do so.  While the noble vision of Next Gen was to introduce a more 'human face' to Star Trek by bringing families on board, what we get, instead, is a concentration on command staff and the neglect of telling the stories of those families.  Really, just what are all the non-Fleet folks doing all this time?  What might have been compelling Space Opera (and, yes, like Soap Opera it would have its cliche plots) was turned into a sameness that was never presented with any vigor.  Why does the Federation or, indeed, Star Fleet, think it is a 'good idea' to put people who do NOT have regular jobs on a ship onto a starship that will be away from civilization for years at a time? 

Even worse, imagine a minor starfaring group, say of only a planetary system or two under their belts, suddenly getting visited by one of these Galaxy Class cruisers.  It is a warship, obviously.  It has hundreds of families on-board which have no real function on the ship.  This does not add up to 'peaceful intent' and the obvious conclusion, no matter how much the commander of the ship protests otherwise, is that it is a colonizing vessel.  Does the Federation take 'thanks, but no thanks, don't bother us' as an answer?  Would it respect that answer and follow its own Prime Directive?

Imagine such a ship showing up during a civil war and then not taking sides, not taking part, not doing much of anything.  By Next Gen the solution of Kirk would not be available for automated war with disruption chambers: blow up the computers.  Any Federation ship during Next Gen would be faced with sterile war... and forced to leave if they followed the Prime Directive.  That is incredibly inhuman and inhumane, and if told to leave all reason for staying would disappear.  Of course by doing nothing, such a ship might solve the problem: it would indicate disdain for such a society and just might heal their rift... so they can start going after the Federation, such a high and mighty group that sees no value in helping nor taking action.

Faced with liberty, itself, removed from the equation of life, that thing we are all born with, Star Trek by Next Gen becomes a rather horrific place to contemplate.

Instead I wrote a story on the other part of the Federation... the other people in it.  You know, the non-Fleet folks?  I do transition, of course, but over time the transition is one from a rather sterile domain to one that suddenly becomes vibrant.  You get there by putting liberty back into the human spirit and saying: what do you get so that we see only this most sterile shell of Star Fleet?  Because we do have certain inalienable rights which are self-evident and born within us.  To have a State cross those impoverishes the exercise of those rights, and causes major problems in society.  And with Roddenberry now deceased, and even he had changes in his vision of this future, it now opens up even further to interpretation.  One can respect the most of that vision and yet see its problems and still appreciate the work done.  Like all writers for that universe, I do pick and choose what to support and what not to support, and try to heal over some of the major blank spots.  For a well ordered society you need some measure of an individual's value that will accrue to them by their own work and NOT be taken by the State.  That is how we make things more perfect over time.

Because we are imperfectable.

But nothing stops us from trying to be more perfect, until the State mandates otherwise.


Bloviating Zeppelin said...

You know, an excellent question and little addressed by the writers; I'd never thought of it until now. It simply appeared as though, in that limited ship's reality, everyone had what they needed essentially when they required it. On the other hand, we must admit that ST seldom went back to Earth for any time or covered it in much detail.


A Jacksonian said...

Mr. Z - That is it exactly!

We really have no good basis for seeing what the Federation actually is, how it works or even why it is worth defending. Over series we have seen various differences in view of in-born liberty and freedom, and yet all of them are based on the individual, not the State. When the State goes from mere tool to provider, essential liberty is transgressed: when you seek to the State to look after you, they you are a ward of the State, not a free individual.

To me that very beginning of human exodus would be those that wanted nothing to do with the horrors of the 21st century, caused by the exact, same things that caused the horrors of the 20th: State views backed by military power to remove your ability to have a good life on your own. Those people come from different backgrounds, but we still see the Scots-Irish as a vibrant part of culture that is not amenable to State control. Their conclusion of seeing what happened in three world wars would be: the State must NOT get power over individuals, EVER. Their colonies are not Earthgov (which didn't exist at that point) but self-done. How did starship manufacturing go in WWIII? It was a 're-start' of older industrial base with skilled modern technicians from surviving areas of the US... they did it to get off this damned planet and the insane ways we see the State and the individual in large masses.

That does not get you the aseptic cleanliness of Next Gen throughout the Federation. A starship MUST provide for EVERYTHING, and yet even in Voyager we get the knowledge that replicators must be used sparingly as they depend on the energy from the warp core which, itself, comes from a non-renewable source of anti-matter. Suddenly cooking, cleaning, maintaining a starship must fall back on far older and manual methods just to survive. To get other supplies the ship must 'trade' for its goods... say everyone else in the galaxy does that, just what the hell is the Federation doing?

I can name a State that did not go via common marketing concepts and enforced barter because it couldn't take part in trade groups: the USSR. To enforce such a mandate requires State control and the internal parts of the Federation (just as other Eastern Bloc Nations with the USSR itself) must barter between themselves.


That is not 'progress' but absolute regression when the State mandates there be 'no money'.

Thus the tracking of what is used on a starship may be very cut and dried... but the rest of the Federation would fall apart very quickly going that route. Or go the route of the Klingons and Romulans and be forced to form an Empire. And have a revolution on their hands from the human populated systems that have their clear lineage given to them of being against such things.

You can get to a 'moneyless' Federation, but it doesn't look so hot. One in which the finances are so complex because it IS a Federation isn't simple. Socialism is damned simple - the government mandates this be done, you have no property and work for the State. Picard doesn't say the latter... 'It's complex'.

Looking at that under the hood complexity actually becomes very interesting as the very cut and dried universe we see from the Fleet standpoint doesn't stand up across multiple, divergent cultures. IDIC does rule, after all, and the Vulcans would join a revolution against any government trying to wipe out diverse forms of economics, no matter how 'logical' that would be as it reduces vibrant diversity. That is the problem with Roddenberry: he never took the views of those in the Federation seriously. He wanted a perfect setting and turned it into a fairy tale.... it didn't start that way, which is why the original series still makes for good viewing.