Is Star Trek libertarian? The answer is “no.”
It’s hard to generalize about a franchise that has run for fifty years, spanning dozens of TV episodes and movies. There is much for libertarians (and non-libertarians) to admire in the series’ often-insightful engagement with political issues. Ultimately, however, Star Trek cannot be considered libertarian because of its embrace of socialism.
Libertarians Should Love That The Good Guys Are Tolerant and Diverse…
Relative to most other science fiction shows—and popular culture shows generally—Star Trek has a long history of addressing political issues in a thoughtful way. Some of its themes are definitely congenial to libertarians, and supporters of liberal values more generally.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry stressed the virtues of tolerance and cooperation across racial, ethnic, and national lines.
In the original 1960s series, the bridge crew of the Enterprise includes an Asian, a Russian (included at the height of the Cold War), and a black African, at a time when such diversity in casting was unusual. The inclusion of a black female bridge officer was considered such an important breakthrough for racial equality that Martin Luther King persuaded Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura, to stay on the show when she was thinking of quitting.
Star Trek also featured the first interracial kiss on an American network TV show, and—in the 1990s—one of the first lesbian kisses.
The Federation—the interstellar government that rules earth and numerous alien worlds—seems to successfully incorporate a wide range of cultures and lifestyles, and offers a combination of material abundance and toleration.
Contrast that with the Federation’s rivals, such as the oppressive and homogenous Klingon, Romulan, and Cardassian empires, to say nothing of the totalitarian Borg. Many scenes in the various Star Trek movies and TV series emphasize this difference, and laud the Federation’s tolerant values as a model for the future of humanity.
In a number of ways, the Federation exemplifies a utopian future for humanity, as envisioned by the late-twentieth century American left. In addition to the emphasis on diversity and toleration, Federation leaders, including Star Fleet officers, put a premium on thoughtful deliberation and on negotiation as a preferable alternative to force; though Star Fleet is willing to use force when necessary—especially if it also makes for an exciting plot twist!
….But Hate the Federation’s Socialism
But at least from a libertarian perspective, the otherwise appealing ideological vision of Star Trek is compromised by its commitment to socialism.
The Federation isn’t just socialist in the hyperbolic sense in which some conservatives like to denounce anyone to the left of them as socialist. It’s socialist in the literal sense that the government has near-total control over the economy and the means of production. Especially by the period portrayed in The Next Generation, the government seems to control all major economic enterprises, and there do not seem to be any significant private businesses controlled by humans in Federation territory. Star Fleet characters, such as Captain Picard, boast that the Federation has no currency and that humans are no longer motivated by material gain and do not engage in capitalist economic transactions.
The supposed evils of free markets are exemplified by the Ferengi, an alien race who exemplify all the stereotypes socialists typically associate with “evil capitalists.” The Ferengi are unrelentingly greedy and exploitative. Their love of profit seems to be exceeded only by their sexism—they do not let females work outside the household, even when it would increase their profits to do so.
The problem here is not just that Star Trek embraces socialism: it’s that it does so without giving any serious consideration to the issue. For example, real-world socialist states have almost always resulted in poverty and massive political oppression, piling up body counts in the tens of millions.
But Star Trek gives no hint that this might be a danger, or any explanation of how the Federation avoided it. Unlike on many other issues, where the producers of the series recognize that there are multiple legitimate perspectives on a political issue, they seem almost totally oblivious to the downsides of socialism.
Does Lack of Scarcity Make Good Economics Moot?
Defenders of the series’ portrayal of socialism claim that economic systems are no longer relevant in a “post-scarcity” society. Thanks to the remarkable technology of the replicator, Federation citizens can effortlessly produce almost anything they want, rendering the difference between socialism and capitalism meaningless.
But the world of Star Trek is not in fact one where the problem of scarcity has been overcome. Some crucial goods cannot be replicated. The most obvious are the replicators themselves; in all the many Star Trek TV episodes and films, we never once see them replicate a replicator! The same goes for the dilithium crystals, which power starships. Planetary real estate also apparently cannot be replicated, which is why the Federation and its rivals often fight wars over it.
Just as we enjoy far greater material wealth than our ancestors, so the Star Trek universe is one with vastly greater abundance than what we have today. But that does not mean either we or they have completely overcome scarcity, and thus can ignore issues of economic organization.
The Federation’s Diversity Turns Out to be Only Skin Deep
The uncritical acceptance of socialism may be a manifestation of the Federation’s more general troubling ideological homogeneity. Especially among the human characters, there seems to be remarkably little disagreement over ideological and religious issues. With one important exception (discussed below), few human characters oppose the official Federation ideology, and those few are generally portrayed as fools, villains, or both.
The Federation is a collection of racially and ethnically diverse people who all think alike, at least when it comes to the big issues. The series’ creators likely intended this as an indication of humanity’s future convergence toward the “truth.” But it is also subject to a more sinister interpretation: just as socialism tends to stifle independent economic initiative, it also undermines independent thought.
Both socialism and other political issues are dealt with in a more evenhanded way in Deep Space Nine. That series—the first created after the passing of Gene Rodenberry—raises some serious questions about Federation ideology, and treats some of its opponents sympathetically.
Most notably, it features a favorable portrayal of the Maquis, a group of humans who rebel against the Federation after the government signs a treaty handing over their homes to the oppressive Cardassian Empire. One Maquis leader claims that the Federation is “obsessed” with crushing his movement “because we’ve left the Federation and that’s the one thing you can’t accept.”
Significantly, the name “Maquis” is adapted from French resistance groups who fought against the Nazis.
With the important exception of Deep Space Nine, however, Star Trek’s blindness to the potential dangers of socialism and ideological homogeneity contrasts with its relatively nuanced treatment of many other issues.
Most of the above analysis of Star Trek ideology does not apply to the two recent Star Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams. They are notable for abandoning serious engagement with political issues in favor of superficial action scenes, punctuated with occasional, equally superficial homages to the original series. Abrams’ Federation and Star Fleet are not noticeably socialist, but neither do they seem to stand for any other political values worth mentioning.
A new Star Trek movie has been released, and CBS is planning a new Star Trek TV series. Hopefully, they will avoid both the superficiality of the Abrams movies, and previous Star Trek series’ uncritical portrayal of socialism.