Podcast: Ilya Somin on Themes of Liberty in Star Trek

In this podcast, I talk with with Professor Ilya Somin about themes of liberty in Star Trek. Professor Somin is an associate professor at George Mason School of Law, a blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy, and has written several articles about Star Trek.


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Jeanne Hoffman: Welcome to this Kosmos Online Podcast! I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today my topic is themes of liberty in Star Trek and my guest is professor Ilya Somin. Professor Somin is an associate professor at George Mason School of Law, a blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy, and has written several papers about Star Trek. Welcome, Professor Somin, thanks for joining us!

Ilya Somin: Hey, glad to be here!

JH. So you’ve written that Star Trek presents a conflict between socialism and federalism. What do you mean by this?

IS. Well, for those who may not know, Star Trek is a popular TV series and series of movies set roughly in the beginning of the 24th and 25th centuries, and at that point, the main governmental entity includes Earth and many of its allies, it’s called The Federation, and as the name implies, it has a federal structure. On the other hand, the federalist as a whole, or at least Earth, has a socialist economic system, by which I mean not socialist in some metaphorical sense, like when republicans say Barack Obama is a socialist, but socialist in a literal sense as in an economy completely controlled by the state, and there is a contradiction between Star Trek’s federalism and it’s socialism, in that in an actual socialist system, you can’t really have much in the way of federalism, because you need to have tight, centralized control of the economy and many assets to the political system as well, and the producers of Star Trek now for 40 of 50 years have been largely oblivious to this contradiction.

JH. So does this contradiction exist in all of the different series and in all of the movies?

IS. Well Star Trek now encompasses 5 TV series and something like 15 movies, to say nothing of numerous comic books and novel tie-ins and so forth. So I can’t say it exists in every one of these materials, I can’t remember every single one off-hand. I would say that it definitely exists in most of them; probably at least 3 or 4 out of the 5 TV series. The ones that doesn’t are set before the federation is founded or that are set completely outside of the Federation’s CC. It may also not exist in the most recent Star Trek movie, which essentially is completely devoid of political themes and is mostly just an action movie. But overall, this is a contradiction that is present in most of the Star Trek canon if not in all of it.

JH. There are a lot of contradictions in Star Trek in terms of liberty and anti-liberty ideals. Could you talk a bit about that?

IS. Well, obviously from a producer’s point of view they don’t view these things as contradictions. From a libertarian point of view, they are in that it seems like on the one hand the population of the federation has a great deal of personal freedom. It seems, for instance, there is very little in the way of restrictions on sexual freedom or freedom of speech or whatnot. On the other hand, it has a completely government controlled economic system and historically these two things have not been able to coexist. Countries that have socialist economic systems in the strong sense of the word, Star Trek and the Federation have one, but they tend to also have very little personal freedom because when the government dominates your economic life completely, they can do the same thing to the rest of your life and usually do. Again, the Star Trek producers are usually oblivious to this. They see socialism as an ultimate endpoint to economic progress, just as they see social tolerance as the endpoint to social progress. They don’t really see a contradiction between the two. So obviously they have their more left wing ideological vision.

JH. What would you say some of the key differences are between the series in terms of liberty?

IS. I would say Star Trek: The New Generation is the most aggressive in pushing the traditional left wing ideology. This is the series that renewed the franchise in the 1980’s and early 90’s and are the most unwilling to acknowledge any possible weaknesses in their vision of what the federation is like or to acknowledge any downsides. On the other hand, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a series that ran in the 1990’s, they actually include much more in the criticism of the federation. They still portray it much more positively than not, but they allow other viewpoints more of a say, both humans who don’t like the federation and rebel against it are sometimes portrayed sympathetically, and also aliens who are critical of the federation on various grounds get a more sympathetic hearing in Deep Space Nine than either in the previous or later series I think.

JH. Did the original series set up this precedent for the ideal or did it come around mostly in the next generation?

IS. A lot of it was present already in the original series. Both the original series and The Next Generation were developed by Gene Roddenbury, who is the great visionary behind the entire Star Trek franchise and this combination of social tolerance and economic socialism is really his vision, but I think the socialist aspect is pressed more in The New Generation than in the original series which dates back to the 1960’s. It’s there in the original series but it’s not quite as evident.

JH. So the Star Trek world is supposedly a world without anything resembling money, but in Deep Space Nine some characters have the gold press platinum as money?

IS. Yes, the gold press platinum is not a federation currency. It’s a ferrenghi currency and the ferrenghi are an alien species that are portrayed as the stereotypical capitalists, as left wingers hostile to capitalists would view them. However Deep Space Nine is set on a station that is not owned by the federation, but is owned by the Bajoran government. So technically speaking, they’re under Bajoran law rather than federation law and the producers deliberately did this so as to get around some of the restrictions Gene Roddenbury set down for how the federation could be portrayed. So it enabled them to have more conflict in the setting, and it enabled them to portray economic systems that are hostile or different to that of the federation. However, even in Deep Space Nine, the human characters repeatedly say that the humans and the federation do not have money. It’s just that they use money because they’re dealing with aliens and without the money they wouldn’t be able to trade with these people.

JH. So how does money come into play with resources when they have things like replicators?

IS. So one possible answer to my critique of Star Trek would be to say, well there’s really no scarcity in Star Trek, because they have replicators which can instantly manufacture a wide range of goods and have the transporters which can beam you from place to place, so if there’s no scarcity, why worry about economic systems? I think the answer to that is twofold: One is, in the Star Trek universe there actually is scarcity of some goods, for instance the dilithium crystal is the material which power their starships, they apparently cannot be replicated. Similar, there’s still value to planetary real estate, that is to planets that are habitable, which apparently is why the federation, the Klingons and so forth fight over these planets. So there are still some scarce goods. There’s not as much scarcity, perhaps, as we have today, but the fact that they are a much wealthier society doesn’t mean that they face no economic constraints at all. By the standards of 200 years ago, we have incredible and virtually unimaginable wealth today, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have scarcity of any kind, and I would say the same thing of the level of development of the federation compared to ours, that it would be obvious they’re much wealthier than we are, but that doesn’t mean they have no scarce goods. It’s clear certain goods are scarce. Also, by the way, replicators themselves seem not to be replicable. In no Star Trek episode do you ever see them replicate a replicator, and therefore that implies that replicators are valuable, scarce goods.

JH. It’s very interesting the specific items the replicators magically can’t replicate compared to all of the other resources.

IS. So I’m not going to get too much into the technology of the replicator for one thing, sadly it doesn’t exist in the real world, but it does seem like the producers made some decisions as to what the replicator can and cannot replicate. Presumably they’re plot driven and not driven by any scientific considerations of any kind, but I think the producers correctly recognized that if the replicator could just give you absolutely anything you want, that eliminates much of the potential for conflict in the plot and therefore would make it more difficult to have an interesting series.

JH. So you brought up the ferrenghi as the capitalists of the series, but they’re often portrayed in a negative way…?

IS. Yes, that’s right.

JH. Comical even. Why do you think this is?

IS. Well it’s of course because the ideology of the producers is very hostile to capitalism so as I said the ferrenghi are capitalists as left wing supporters of supporters would imagine them to be. All they care about is profit, they’re greedy, they swindle people all the time, and in addition they’re highly sexist and patriarchal, so there’s that as well. now as Deep Space Nine moves on and gets deeper into it, they actually are portrayed a little bit more favorably than earlier ones, some of them actually get in some nice digs at the expense of the federation. So as I said, in Deep Space Nine, although it generally supports the ideology of Star Trek, it takes a more critical and nuanced perspective of it. Like the message of Deep Space Nine is not that the federation is perfect, but rather it’s better than the available alternatives even though some real questions can be raised about it, whereas in The New Generation the federation is more crudely portrayed, it’s just obviously superior to anything else; not portrayed as absolutely perfect but obviously as superior and only completely unsympathetic characters ever question the values of the federation.

JH. So we recently had a podcast on Firefly and we were talking about how the government there had benevolent intentions and wasn’t enacted well. So for the federation, would you say it’s a predatorial, imperialist racket or a utopia?

IS. Well I think obviously the way Gene Roddenbury intended it is as a utopia. The idea of a predatory, imperialist racket is something I came up with tongue-in-cheek as a possible way of reconciling the federalism and the socialism in a way that only Earth is socialist, while the rest of the federation has either a mixed economy or a more capitalist system, and then Earth seems to dominate Star Fleet, the military division, and that may be because what Star Fleet really does is force the other planets to pay tribute and support Earth’s socialism. You can find small bits of evidence for this viewpoint in various parts of the series, but let’s get real, this is obviously not what the producers intended as their official view of what the federation is like. It’s clear, even in Deep Space Nine, that they intend to portray the federation mostly positively, and as sort of the natural evolution of liberal egalitarian values of ideally how they would function several hundred years from now in a much more advanced society.

JH. What are some of those examples that would point to that?

IS. So for example, in one of the Star Trek movies, a Klingon propagandist says that the federation is just a homo sapiens only club which is dominated by humans. Its obvious that the federation does have lots of non human members, so the way to view this propaganda which would make it plausible would be that, while the federation does have lots of other races in it as well, it’s the humans that dominate the system and exploit the others and good propaganda may exaggerate but it would obviously have to have some basis in some reality to actually appeal to people, so that implies there is some resentment of human domination of the federation by non human members. The other piece of evidence is that when you see Star Fleet crews, probably 90-95% of them or more are human rather than other races, which implies the military is human dominated. I think the real reason for this is, from a special effects point of view, it is easier to portray human characters on TV than to portray alien ones, but if you said aside that sort of consideration then it does look somewhat strange that a civilization that includes dozens of different races, that the military would be so overly dominated by just one.

JH. The one thing I find interesting about Star Trek is that I heard the first on-air interracial kiss happened in Star Trek?

IS. Yes, that’s right.

JH. So it’s groundbreaking as far as that goes with all the different alien races.

IS. It’s true, although the plot of that episode was actually that Captain Kirk and Uhura were forced to do the interracial kiss by evil aliens. So while it was the first interracial kiss on primetime TV, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine also had one of the first, if not the first, lesbian kisses on primetime TV. So they had that milestone as well.

JH. Well thank you very much for interviewing with us today!

IS. Thank you.

JH. For more interviews with leading scholars, visit Kosmosonline.org, connecting the network of liberty advancing academics. This is Jeanne Hoffman, signing off.

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