Sunday, May 1, 2011

Star Trek: Money is the root of freedom and prosperity

Star Trek (Three-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray]This post is going to bring on the wrath of the nerds, but I welcome their feedback:

Money has long been blamed for all the ills of the world. But we should thank God for money. Civilization and freedom are built on money. The humans in Star Trek do not use money. This topic has been covered by others, but I'd like to add my arguments to the necessity of money and the problem of scarcity.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the show, decided that he did not want money in his universe. Aside from the headache this has created for staff-writers, it also illustrates the point that money will not go away without severe consequences—unless the creator of the universe abolishes it.

Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As 'Fun, Watchable'

Money Is Good
With money, any person can trade goods or services with any other person within the country. When money was gold-based, people were free to travel anywhere in the world and trade with anyone because gold is demanded everywhere.  Dictators understand this, which is why money is one of the first things to go under a tyranny (see Khmer Rouge). Central planners don’t want pesky individuals messing with their grand designs.

Money makes up one-half of every transaction. When it is abolished, transactions can only take place under a clunky barter system, which cannot escape the coincidence of wants. All other economic decisions are made by the central planners. The U.S. government has not outlawed money, but they got rid of the gold standard, restricting Americans to trade within the U.S.  And they have created a monopoly over money (outlawing competition), thus effectively taking control of 50% of the economy (they have actually delegated this power to the Federal Reserve, which is a private corporation that has no accountability to the people).

Money makes economic calculation possible through the price mechanism. Prices are determined by supply and demand. High prices tell producers that people want the good, so they should dedicate scarce resources to it. Low prices tell them to use their productive energies in other endeavors. Prices help consumers budget, so individuals can calculate the best way to stay out of poverty, and save their way to prosperity.

Money and the price system made America the freest, most prosperous country in the world (a position that is eroding in self-destruction). This came about by the division of labor and free exchange made possible by money and a free market. The destruction of money and the price system resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist countries.

Abolishing money would not create prosperity and equality, it would simply destroy the price system, making it impossible for individuals or governments to figure out whether they were conserving resources or wasting them.  Star Trek could accomplish this if it either made everything in infinite supply, or reduced demand for all goods.

Endless Supply = No Money
On the supply side, Star Trek introduces technology that could arguably limit the need for money. Replicators “can create any inanimate matter, as long as the desired molecular structure is on file” at virtually no cost, “but it cannot create antimatter, dilithium, latinum, or a living organism of any kind.” A replicator could conceivably replicate itself, making it possible for everyone to have one. Then each individual could replicate almost everything they need.  Because prices are determined by supply and demand, the price of all replicable goods would be reduced to zero.

Non-replicable goods would still have a cost. These items could be bartered for, but again we run into the need for a coincidence of wants, which would make money convenient.

No Demand = No Money
In Star Trek, humans have "evolved" into these altruistic beings, so that they no longer desire personal gain.  This is reminiscent of Marx's new socialist man, who would work for the good of the collective.  These "good" humans are contrasted with Ferengis, who are portrayed as backward and greedy race, and appear to be a caricature of Jews
Prominent ears and nose. Lust for money. Just a coincidence.
If humans no longer have personal needs, there is no longer individual demand, only the collective good.  Thus a centralized ruling body can decide what is best for society without anyone grumbling about their lower standard of living (for government monopolies by nature destroy wealth). But as long as humans are mortal, they have to deal with the problem of scarcity (though lobotomies and brainwashing in combination might convince citizens of the Federation to believe otherwise).  Self-preservation may be selfish, but evolving away from it seems like an evolutionary dead end.

The Incentive Problem
Even with replicators, time would still be scarce. Humans have about 100 years of life. Time and life cannot be replicated. It would be extremely difficult to incentivise an individual to work if he could easily replicate anything he needed. Most of us work to get money, so we can buy the things we need. A replicator would nullify most of our money needs, and with it our incentive to work.

Holodecks would virtually nullify the need for an entertainment industry. Combined with a replicator, almost every conceivable need can be met without any work, and therefore without any cost, or need for money.

It is difficult to dispute that, in the real Star Trek future, all thirty-year-old males may well be living in their mothers' basements, enjoying an endless orgy in their holodecks. If you dispute this, consider how many thirty-year-olds are at this moment living in their mothers' basements so they can play MMOs and watch Star Trek. Now imagine what would happen to those young men if they could bang a virtual Uhura three times a day. If they ever needed a bathroom break, they could just take a dump in their replicator and turn it into a bologna sandwich.
Hi mom!
Who’s going to get an engineering degree, or risk their lives exploring deep space in these circumstances? If you only got 100 years, why risk dying this year when you got an Uhura waiting in your mom’s basement? In this case, it appears Star Trek makes an exception for human replication to mass produce red shirts.

A Possible Currency
A solution may come from the travel industry. It appears that instantaneous travel is still impossible in Star Trek. They still have to explore at the snail-pace of warp speed. Couple this with the inability to replicate dilithium, and you have yourself a scarce commodity that could be used as the basis for money.

People could trade dilithium certificates for goods and services that could not be replicated. The luxury of travel could keep peaceful trade necessary.

Trade = Peace
Trade engenders peace. If you don’t know how to make bread, you have an incentive not to kill your baker. On a larger scale, nations that take advantage of comparative advantage by trading with other nations become richer, meaning they enjoy a higher standard of living. On this scale, economic incentives help prevent war. It doesn’t make sense to bomb Japan if you drive a Honda, or Finland if you use a Nokia.

A self-sufficient man who has no need for others has no economic incentive not to kill. He has moral incentives, true, but economic incentives are important. Germany, for example, tried to copy the self-sufficiency of the U.S. so that it could wage unrestricted war. By cutting off trade with other countries, Germany impoverished itself, i.e., it lowered the standard of living of its citizens.

An immoral person with a replicator and a holodeck may decide that it’s more fun to kill and rape real people rather than holo-people. Or, the Federation may decide that Ferengis are corrupting the youth with their philosophy of greed, and wage a war of extermination upon them.  There would be little economic incentive to restrict violent impulses.

Heaven By Edict
Let’s go back to scarcity. What if we could get rid of every scarcity? If there were no death, no time limits, no pain, no hunger or need to eat, and unlimited space, we would not need money. We would also be in heaven. As long as we can die, there will be a need for money and trade.

When people want to abolish money, what they really want is unlimited prosperity. They want heaven, the garden of Eden, the abolishment of death, hunger, and suffering. But these things do not come about by act of congress, or the dictates of a tyrant. We strive toward them everyday with product innovations that come about in a competitive free market. One day we may all really get replicators and holodecks, but such a blissful future will only be possible with the help of money, and the beneficial exchanges made possible by it.

Listen to another Trek song by Jonathan Mann

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