Matthew Yglesias on Star Trek

At Slate, Matthew Yglesias has an interesting article reviewing all of the Star Trek and many of the movies from the original 1960s series to the present. He especially focuses on the series’ ideology and politics, and its “utopian” vision of the future.

Despite coming at the issue from a very different perspective, I actually agree with much of Yglesias’ analysis. I think he is right that Deep Space Nine had many of Star Trek’s best episodes, that Voyager was the worst of the TV shows, and that the 2009 “reboot” movie (which I criticized here) takes the series in the wrong direction. Most fundamentally, I think we agree that Star Trek is interesting because it takes on serious issues about the kind of future we should want for humanity. That is a big part of the reason we are still talking about Trek almost fifty years after it began.

On the other hand, I have a much more critical perspective than Yglesias on Star Trek’s mostly left-wing politics, which I articulated in this Institute for Humane Studies podcast. As I explain in the podcast, I like Deep Space Nine better than the other series in part because it is more willing to question the Federation’s values, though it ultimately does still endorse them. I also disagree with Yglesias’ view that the economy of Star Trek is post-scarcity, thereby making socialism workable (and indeed the only feasible economic system). As I discuss here, many important goods and services are still limited in the Star Trek universe, including the energy sources that power starships, planetary real estate, a variety of personal services, and – most importantly – replicators. The replicator – the very technology that supposedly eliminates scarcity – is itself scarce; the Federation and its various rivals apparently cannot replicate a replicator.

Even if scarcity were more fully eliminated than in the Star Trek universe, I don’t think it follows that socialism is the only viable response, or that the knowledge and incentive problems that make socialism a menace in our world would suddenly disappear. So long as there are any important scarce goods at all, a government monopoly over them would still be a terrible danger, even if the government were democratic. If scarcity were truly abolished and anyone could have any good or service they wanted at zero cost, there would be no point to socialism, since we would not need government to either facilitate production or redistribute wealth.

Be that as it may, I agree with Yglesias that there is much to admire in Star Trek at its best, and I like some of his ideas for a new Star Trek series. Perhaps a new series will go where no series has gone before and hire him as a consultant.