TCS Daily

Trekking to a Deeper Understanding of Human Nature

By Sonia Arrison - April 13, 2004 12:00 AM

The TV series Star Trek recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, prompting some to marvel at how real-world technologies have caught up with science fiction. But aside from outlining gadget concepts, Trek contains important lessons about capitalism and freedom.

Capitalism, at its most basic level, is an economic system that tackles the question of how to distribute scarce resources. It is based on private property, voluntary exchange, and individual choices. But what happens when resources are no longer scarce? The answer explains why capitalism is as much an account of human nature as it is an economic theory.

In the Star Trek world, money seems to have disappeared and any type of food can be produced on demand with a machine called a replicator. Some might argue that when humans no longer have to worry about the basic necessities of life, such as food and clothing, conflict will disappear. But what Star Trek shows is that conflict is always present in society. When basic necessities are met, the battles simply shift to a new area.

A good deal of the conflict that the Star Trek crew encounters is over control of other beings. Consider what is arguably the worst enemy in the entire series: the Borg, a species that wishes to assimilate and control people in order to satisfy the will of the "collective." Just as George Orwell showed his readers the horrors of a totalitarian state that constantly monitors its citizens, Star Trek's Borgs show the evil and joyless world of those subject to complete mind control.

There are also other scarce things that pop up in various ways in the series and, indeed, in real life. Status is obviously scarce in the Star Trek world. There can only be one captain, after all. Star Trek: The Motion Picture showcased this truth when Admiral James T. Kirk returned to take over the Enterprise and demoted the current captain, Will Decker, who was understandably quite unhappy.

Loyalty can also be seen as a commodity, as real life characters President Bush and Senator John Kerry are well aware. In the Star Trek movie, ship doctor Bones questions Spock's loyalty by asking "how do we know about any of us?" It is often hard to know, and that's why trust in one another is extremely valuable.

And of course, the reason that the Star Trek crew is out to "explore strange new worlds" and "boldly go where no man has gone before" is because during their time on Earth, there is a scarcity of new and interesting things.

Freedom is another re-occurring theme in Star Trek. For instance, the "prime directive," which says that the Federation is not to interfere with the development of alien cultures, can be interpreted to show value in the idea of self-determination. And often, at least in the Original Series, when Kirk and his crew discover a people who are not free, they break this directive.

In the episode "The Apple," the Enterprise discovers a planet whose people are living in what appears to be paradise, but it only lasts so long as they serve their god, Vaal, with blind obedience. Spock defends the society in a somewhat relativist way, but Kirk and Bones are horrified. They work to destroy the controlling Vaal, and after succeeding, Kirk says, "That's what we call freedom -- you'll like it a lot."

Freedom to make one's own decisions is a necessity for capitalism and, as demonstrated above, capitalism is about more than money. There is scarcity in many areas of human conduct and the popularity of the Star Trek series over the last 40 years shows that there's no lack of interest in these issues.

The tension that exists among humans will continue, even if society is able to eliminate physical scarcity through new technologies. Since that's the case, Star Trek and stories with similar themes should live long and prosper.


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