Tuesday, April 26, 2005

More Star Trek economics

Quincy had a good reply to my previous post "Star Trek Economics". I was going to add this as a comment, but with the length I thought I'd add it as a post in itself.

Labor itself is a commodity like everything else. As Austrian economists argue, the price system allocates resources to where they are needed most. And as I noted, Mises in particular said that without a price system, rational economic decisions are impossible to make. Do you need more doctors than teachers, or more physicists than chemists? With no salaries (just another form of prices), there's nothing to direct people toward careers with a labor shortage. Just like the Federation wouldn't really know the optimal number of Galaxy Class starships versus science vessels, its various planetary societies wouldn't really have a mechanism to determine the right proportion of architects, artisans, scientists and Starfleet personnel. Not everybody works for Starfleet, like Vash, who's basically an antiquities privateer. Her goal of profit was part of why that Ferengi found her so attractive.

Supposedly the Federation, courtesy of pattern replicators and nearly unlimited energy (antimatter), has eliminated poverty, war and disease within its borders. According to "First Contact", it happened within 50 years of Zephram Cochrane's first warp flight. But I don't think that nations will ultimately beat their swords into plowshares, or that crime will be nearly eliminated, even with unlimited energy and nearly unlimited resources. I don't think eliminating "want" will sufficiently suppress the dark, "evil" element of human nature.

Moreover, if everyone lives equally and has all material needs provided for, why would anyone want to take a more difficult job? Why not be a peaceful man like Boothby, living a fairly easy life without much exertion, instead of a Starfleet crewman or officer? What incentive did Geordi have to become chief engineer, instead of remaining a junior officer stationed at the helm? Is it really a sense of personal achievement?

Ah, but admirals travel in luxurious suites, while ensigns apparently have to share quarters (episode "Lower Decks"). So everybody is not equal, after all. There is indeed a material incentive to improve yourself, beyond the "bettering oneself" that Picard told Lily in "First Contact". It's one of those inconsistencies about TNG's utopia.

At least in DS9 you see people like Sisko's father. Joseph has an actual business going, with a genuine concern about customers -- he genuinely needs them. If the Federation provides basic needs for everyone, why should he care about being successful? Would he work so hard, especially preparing food by hand, if it were only personal satisfaction? Why not work just a few hours a day?

And in the episode where O'Brien was "in the zone" regarding darts, why would that Vulcan officer (who won by default when O'Brien tore his shoulder) bother to collect his 15-to-1 winnings? What does he spend it on, or are there actual capitalist systems within the Federation?

In the episode "Encounter at Farpoint", Dr. Crusher bought a bolt of cloth. She said to charge it to "Beverly Crusher, Chief Medical Officer, USS Enterprise." They were in a mall, implying lots of similar shops and other "capitalist" vendors. But it's an actual Federation space station, not just a non-Federation world they happened to visit.

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