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National Review's Star Trek Weekend:

National Review has an online Star Trek Weekend, featuring essays on the popular science fiction franchise by various libertarian and conservative writers. My contribution is a revised version of my VC post on federalism in Star Trek's Federation. It's interesting that such a generally liberal science fiction show has so many right of center fans and viewers.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. National Review's Star Trek Weekend:
  2. How Federal is Star Trek's Federation?
Anthony A (mail):
Ilya -

your article didn't mention that trade and commerce did occur in TOS. There wasn't much mention of it, because the Enterprise was a military vessel, primarily on a military mission (despite all the talk about science), and so there wouldn't be much need for internal commerce - Starfleet provides pretty much everything they're willing to let their crew have on a deep space mission. However, Harry Mudd is definitely a trader, even though he's sort of a villain. He's not, really, but there's a subplot about the tension between the Guardian morality and the Trader morality in the Mudd episodes.
9.28.2007 7:22pm
Ilya Somin:
your article didn't mention that trade and commerce did occur in TOS.

Yes, there was more of a private sector in TOS. I didn't discuss it because of space constraints. However, it's not clear whether Mudd's activities were legal under Federation law, and even if they were legal in space, they might not have been on socialist Earth. Remember, my theory is that only Earth was fully socialist. The rest of the Federation probably wasn't.
9.28.2007 7:24pm
visitor from Texas (mail) (www):
You do know that George Phillies, the Libertarian candidate for President, has written a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy.
9.28.2007 7:30pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Prof. Somin -

One note, which has to do with your observations about humans and the Federation.

I read somewhere that in the DS9 series, the Dominion was originally originally conceived as an "anti-federation"; that is, when we finally saw the inside of a Dominion ship, it would be populated (to the viewers' surprise, I guess) by a whole range of races working together. The exception, I guess, being that ultimate authority lay not in some kind of democracy but in the hands of the Founders.

This concept was discarded due to cost issues, as I recall.

Not terribly important; just thought it was interesting, that's all.

- Alaska Jack
9.28.2007 8:06pm
Seerak (mail):
Gene Roddenberry was an "old guard" liberal, one who still had remnants of actual Enlightenment liberalism in his worldview. When people point to Lieutenant Uhura and call Star Trek "liberal", that's what they mean. It's not the same "liberalism" as embodied by modern Hollywood, which today stands revealed as "progressivism", socialism's wimpy little brother. The pattern of the two ST series reflects this.

The Original Series, being from an age when old guard liberals were dominant, carried the background assumption that the United Federation of Planets was simply the Unitd States writ large, and didn't see any need to explain it further. Men like Harold Mudd made sense in it.

To the extent that Star Trek: The Next Generation offered any sort of specific vision of what the Federation future was, its only real specifics were negative statements amounting to the effect that "Whatever it is, it ain't capitalism!" The Ferengi are the first and biggest instance of this, as they represent a parody of capitalism from someone who doesn't understand its true nature (that Ferengi trading/licensing bureau that took away Quark's "trading permit" or whatever it was in a Deep Space 9 episode, is a manifestation of a mixed economy, not a free capitalist one).

Another includes the disparaging of the pursuit of wealth by Riker or Picard in the episode of The Next Generation (first season, I think) where they found three ancient humans, one of whom was a stockbroker or somesuch.

A third was in the movie "First Contact" where Picard says that in the future, people pursue betterment of others and selves *instead* of wealth. (More than one commenter at the tie of that movie's release noted the similarity of that ideal with the Borg's endless pursuit of perfection).

But once you try to figure out what the form of that future society actually *is*, all I ever saw was a very nebulous suggestion of a benevolent socialized democracy, like Canada or Sweden ("nobody goes hungry" etc.), but magically lacking the stagnant economies and other problems attendant upon such societies. In effect, it was wishful thinking, which avoided specificity almost as if the show's writers knew that if they made it any clearer than that, the show would be turned into an unbelievable fairy tale. (That's a big reason why fantasy is so huge now; it's easier to pass off such ideals as "working" in a magical world.)

The Federation was pretty to look at, and its residents seemed to be happy, but what sort of society led to that end? Roddenberry, the old guard liberal, had a relatively clear idea; Rick Berman et al, the modern "progressive" pretenders to that once illustrious ideology, don't.

Modern liberals can't do Roddenberry's type of sci-fi, because they are not his kind of liberal. Those are just about died off now. That is why Star Trek as we know it, was and is doomed without Roddenberry, and Battlestar Galactica is just about the best you are likely to see from this point on.

Putting forth a believable ideal takes far more philosophical work than modern leftists can muster; the last century is filled with the burnt-out husks of the results of their ideals, and they don't have anything left but hatred of that bourgeois liberal capitalist society they wished to abolish. All they have left is a weak, stubborn insistence on a negative, that "whatever it is, it's not capitalism!"
9.28.2007 8:47pm
Cornellian (mail):
and Battlestar Galactica is just about the best you are likely to see from this point on.

The new BG is, however, very, very good, and far more realistic on virtually every axis of measurement (economics, human nature etc.) than the original Star Trek.
9.28.2007 8:56pm
Seerak (mail):
The new BG is, however, very, very good, and far more realistic on virtually every axis of measurement (economics, human nature etc.) than the original Star Trek.

Well, in terms of how well executed it is, that is true.

But its "realism" is what I *don't* like about it. I vastly prefer Roddenberry's portrayal of what he thought *ought* to be our future -- not merely our current society against a sci-fi backdrop. During the recent phase in Season 2 where they decided to turn it into a preachy metaphor for the Iraq War -- "Battlestar Iraqtica" -- and the "soap opera" stuff in Season 3, viewership took quite a hit.
9.28.2007 9:14pm
Jeff R.:
Of course, by the time you get to ST:TNG at least, you're talking about a post-scarcity economy for the most part. They've got replicators, and they have enough power to use them freely and without rationing on fully-developed planets like Earth, so pretty much anything other than land, human servant-style labor, and unique art objects or relics is going to be fantastically dirt cheap, cheap enough that the government would be able to supply everyone with whatever they want for a relative pittance.

(The class of things that cannot be replicated appears to be pretty darn tiny. Latinum, which seems to have no other useful properties, but that property alone makes it ideal as a currency for buying and selling relics, labor, land, and energy...)

(Aboard ship, they do need to ration energy use, at which point the Holodeck and Replicator rations instantly become a currency, allowing them to meaningfully gamble...)
9.28.2007 9:28pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
To be a bit more concise than Seerak--what was "liberalism" in 1966 when TOS started is closer to conservativism today than it is to anything that calls itself liberalism today. (Not a perfect match, but closer.) Some of that is because a lot of today's conservatives were liberals back then. As Reagan said about the Democratic Party, of which he had been a member back when he was the gun-carrying president of the Screen Actors Guild, "I didn't move--they did."
9.28.2007 9:47pm
lpdbw:
I can only speak for myself, but I believe there are others like me: Young when the original series was on, discovering science fiction (Heinlein mostly, with collectivists like Asimov and Clarke running way behind), developing an interest in science and engineering.

From my perspective, "right of center" just means willing to look at the world around you and figuring out how it really works, instead of magical thinking about how it "ought" to work.
9.28.2007 10:09pm
Seerak (mail):
The rapprochement between "classic" or old-guard liberalism and modern-day conservatism is not a fundamental one, and cannot last.

As liberalism became increasingly co-opted into its own opposite by the Left through the twentieth century, the old liberal ideals and those who held to them were kicked to the curb. Thinking that conservatism was the only place to go (a mistake then, and a mistake now), that's where they went -- and conservatism ended up adopting them out of political expediency.

But do not fool yourself that there is any philosophical affinity there. "Old guard" liberalism, in particular its root political principle of individual rights, are a remnant of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, to which conservatism remains avowedly hostile (see Russell Kirk, "The Conservative Mind").

In the long run, that rapprochement cannot and will not last; conservatism's religious wing will see to it.
9.28.2007 10:19pm
c.gray (mail):

But once you try to figure out what the form of that future society actually *is*, all I ever saw was a very nebulous suggestion of a benevolent socialized democracy, like Canada or Sweden ("nobody goes hungry" etc.), but magically lacking the stagnant economies and other problems attendant upon such societies.


To be fair, every human in StarTrek is able to make whatever physical object they want appear out of thin air by walking to a replicator and making a demand, and then travel anywhere they want instantly by using a teleporter. That sort of technology probably is what's required to make socialist prosperity something other than an oxymoron.

Anyway, the real governing paradigm of StarTrek is not socialism, but military fascism. The military is presented as the epitome of Federation civilization. Civilian politicians are invariably characterized as gullible, corrupt and/or ineffectual buffoons who need to be rescued by incorruptible professional soldiers. And StarFleet officers almost routinely violate policy and laws issued by the civilian government with complete impunity.

It's time to face facts, friends. The Federation is an Empire. A cabal of neoconservative Vulcans has been manipulating Human civilization to serve as the shock troops in a bid for Vulcan Galactic domination, against the true interests of the Humanity.
9.28.2007 11:16pm
whit:
roddenberry was a former cop (LAPD Sgt. ). moreso than the whole liberal vs. conservative etc. stuff that is being mentioned here, the enterprise (first and foremost) is a patrol car, or maybe a precinct, on patrol in space. before i found out about roddenberry's police background, the whole "cops in space" thing jumped out at me. the politics, procedures, etc. of the enterprise, and to an extent - the federation, make a lot of sense when looked at with this understanding.

if you understand roddenberry's police background, his screenwriting history (dragnet, etc.) and his claim that star trek was essentially 'wagon train' in space, this makes a lot of sense.

sure, star trek is racially integrated (and won an NAACP award for this). so was LAPD. the captain's log, is much like a police blotter. etc. etc.

kirk loves to work undercover. so do cops.

real cops tend to conservative (administrators tend to be of whatever political persuasion is politically advantageous, since they are political appointees). and i think star trek epitomizes the kind of law and order, individualistic conservatism that a cop would respect. sure kirk liked to bend the rules sometimes, and get "creative". what lawyer hasn't accused cops of doing that? :)

kirk didn't believe in the "no win" scenario. cops are taught that losing is NOT AN OPTION.

kirk picked up some sort of female companionship on nearly every planet he visited. cops tend to do the same in each district :)

the enterprise was racially integrated - so was LAPD.

cops LOVE gadgets. so did star trek (phasers, communicator, etc.)

kirk is like a salty patrol sgt. he constantly stretches the boundaries imposed on him by the federation (the administration) and clearly cares a lot about his troops (except for the obligatory sacrificial party member who will get killed after beamdown). the federation, and its rules, are generally respected, but sometimes seen as an obstacle to good captainship, much like administration rules and procedures are often seen as an obstacle to good police work.

i'm of course ignoring the later iterations of star trek. COPS DON'T DRINK TEA. :)
9.29.2007 12:53am
Lucas (mail):
There is some evidence that there are currencies on Federation worlds. In one episode of DS9, Morn's old partners in crime come around looking for the loot from a heist at the Bank of Bolias--Bolias is a federation world. They used gold-pressed latinum (latinum being impossible to replication).
9.29.2007 2:07am
Steven Horwitz (mail) (www):
Let me suggest another reason that Star Trek appeals to conservatives and libertarians that links to the well-articulated points about the evolution of liberalism.

In the 1960s, the American left were the optimists about the future and the right were the pessimists (generally speaking). But the 21st century left, with Al Gore perhaps being the quintessential example, has become the Party of Pessimism - whether it's environmental destruction, income inequality, race relations, etc.. Read the major mags or even the front page of papers with left-leaning editorial boards and you see this pessimism everywhere (and it pre-dates the Bush Administration giving the left good reason to BE pessimistic). With the collapse of socialism in theory and practice, the left's optimistic vision of the future died and there's nothing there to replace it.

By contrast, libertarians and conservatives tend to (again, not in all cases) hold an optimistic vision of the future, premised on the powers of entrepreneurship and economic growth. Conservatives tend to backtrack from this when it comes to the culture, but libertarians, again not in all cases, tend to retain their optimism about the future of a dynamic society, even one as mixed in its freedom as ours.

I don't want to push this any farther than I already have, which may be too much. I do think that the optimism about humanity deeply embedded in TOS and TNG resonates more clearly with libertarians and conservatives today than with the left.

And now I zip up my asbestos suit and await further discussion.
9.29.2007 10:58am
Beem:
I have an answer!

Because many conservatives* are nerds, and Star Trek is a show for nerds. Conservative nerds watch Star Trek for aliens, warp drive, and cool special effects; anyway, the fact that Star Trek has no currency-backed economy is probably an artifact of lazy writing rather than an explicit direction for some super-socialist society.

*The quality and quantity of nerdiness is not exclusive to conservatives or any other ideology

Unfortunately, my answer does not pat conservatives on the back for watching a television show, so I suppose it will not be as popularly received as other self-congratulatory responses.
9.29.2007 3:48pm
Cornellian (mail):
Because many conservatives* are nerds, and Star Trek is a show for nerds.

Sort of depends on what you mean by "conservative." It has been my experience that the libertarian mindset is much more prevalent among nerds than among the population as a whole. I don't think I've ever met a hard core geek who was also a hard core social conservative, though I suppose they may exist. There's just something of a cognitive disconnect between a fascination with science and technology and a belief that evolution is some kind of atheist plot to subvert the moral fiber of our young.
9.29.2007 6:36pm
Syd Henderson (mail):

[Ilya Somin, September 28, 2007 at 5:47pm] Trackbacks
National Review's Star Trek Weekend:

National Review has an online Star Trek Weekend, featuring essays on the popular science fiction franchise by various libertarian and conservative writers. My contribution is a revised version of my VC post on federalism in Star Trek's Federation. It's interesting that such a generally liberal science fiction show has so many right of center fans and viewers.


A conservative friend of mine went to the Heinlein centennial and was surprised that there were so many liberals there.

Why should this surprise people? There's a lot more to a show or a writer than ideology. The ability to tell a good story with interesting speculation transcends any politics.
9.30.2007 12:06am
Alan K. Henderson (mail) (www):
I'm not sure that nerds are more likely to be socially liberal (and I know many social conservatives who are evolutionists, and scarcely any creationists who fit Cornellian's silly stereotype). I do know that nerds look more deeply into stuff than general society does. Harry Potter nerds try to figure out Rowlingverse economics, or what exactly it is that the wizarding world celebrates on Halloween. Trek nerds compare and contrast the Federation's Articles of Federation with the UN Charter. Roleplaying the objects of fandom is an extension of this trait - the Society for Creative Anachronism is a classic example.

One with sufficient nerdiness could probably plot levels of nerdiness in a hierarchy reminiscent of Dante's topography of Hell. Not to suggest anything infernal about nerdiness...
9.30.2007 1:38am
Elais:
I'm liberal as all get out, and I enjoyed Star Trek in it's many tv/movie incarnations. I'm not sure you can reduce Star Trek to merely a competion between who it appeals to more: conservatives or liberals. It can appeal to everyone, regardless of ideological bent.
9.30.2007 10:40pm
Aleks:
re: That's a big reason why fantasy is so huge now; it's easier to pass off such ideals as "working" in a magical world.)

I have yet to read a fantasy work where the social System is Socialist. Most fantasy worlds are more or less medieval in technological, government and politics.

Re: I don't think I've ever met a hard core geek who was also a hard core social conservative, though I suppose they may exist.

Not an easy combination. Science simply does not fit well with religious dogmatism. It can mesh well with the mystical strain of religiosity, but not with the religious authoritarianism that undergrids social conservatism.
10.3.2007 6:06pm