Peter Suderman gives a positive review to the new Star Trek movie that premiered today, but notes that it focuses more on personal issues than political ones. It will be interesting to see the young Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. But I hope the movie answers an important question about that has always perplexed me about the Star Trek universe: When and why did the Federation turn socialist?
As I explained in one of my most widely read articles, Star Trek's Federation (or at least Earth) is definitely socialist by the time of the New Generation series, and probably the time of the original series that focused on the Enterprise commanded by Captain Kirk. By "socialist," I mean an economy where all large enterprises are controlled by the government, not merely a market economy where there is regulation or a welfare state. Despite Republican rhetoric to the contrary, Barack Obama is not a socialist; but he would be one if he sought to nationalize all major enterprises and abolish the use of money, as Star Trek's Federation seems to have done.
By the time of the original series, the Federation already lacks any currency (which is necessary to run a large-scale market economy), and all large enterprises seem to be government-owned; this is even more clearly the case in TNG. However, Star Trek's future Earth wasn't always that way. In Enterprise, the series set in the period just before the founding of the Federation, we see many private firms still in existence, including even privately owned space colonies and interstellar freighters. And Earth still has currency at that time. Thus, the Federation's transition to socialism probably took place sometime between 2161 (the end of Enterprise and the founding of the Federation) and 2245 (the beginning of Kirk's "five year mission" in the original series). The new Star Trek movie, which covers the days of Kirk's youth, is set right in the middle of the transition period (the early 2200s). So what caused the transition to socialism during that time? Was there a sudden violent socialist revolution, as happened in Russia in 1917? Or was there a lengthy transition caused by a gradual expansion of government until it gradually took over the entire economy? Bryan Caplan points out that the Earth portrayed in the new movie seems to have experienced very little economic growth over the previous two centuries. That suggests a slow transition over a long period of time. The low growth could be the result of gradually increasing government control choking off the private sector.
Obviously, the most likely answer to my question is that the writers of the TV series' and movies simply didn't think very hard about developing a realistic economic and political history for Earth and the Federation. However, the issue is of more than pedantic interest. Star Trek is a cultural icon watched by tens of millions. Many more people will derive their vision of what the future should be at least partially from Star Trek than from reading serious scholarship. Law professor Benjamin Barton wrote that "no book released in 2005 will have more influence on what kids and adults around the world think about government than The Half-Blood Prince [of the hugely popular Harry Potter series]." Similarly, no nonfiction book of the last few decades is likely to have more influence on how people see the future than Star Trek. If Star Trek continues to portray a socialist future as basically unproblematic, and even implies that a transition to full-blown socialism can be achieved without any major trauma, that is a point worth noting.
With rare exceptions, the Star Trek franchise has been far too blase in its portrayal of future socialism and its implications. After all, socialist regimes have been responsible for the death and impoverishment of millions. There has never been a society that combined full-blown socialism with prosperity or extensive "noneconomic" liberties for the population. And there has never been a transition to socialism without large-scale repression and mass murder. If Star Trek's writers want to posit a new form of socialism that somehow avoids the shortcomings of all previous ones, they should at least give us some sense of how this new and improved socialism escaped the usual pitfalls. Had a similarly prominent pop culture icon been equally obtuse in its portrayal of fascism or even milder forms of right-wing oppression (e.g. - by portraying a rightist military dictatorship that seems to work well and benefits the people greatly without any noticeable loss of personal freedom), it would have been universally pilloried.
Despite this criticism, I still like many things about Star Trek, and I certainly think it is often fun to watch. Political ideology is not the only noteworthy aspect of a science fiction universe, or even the most important. I don't ask that the producers of Star Trek incorporate my political views into the series. I do wish, however, that they would consider the implications of their own more seriously.
UPDATE: I'm sure various readers will claim that socialism in Star Trek works well because they have transporters and replicators, which supposedly eliminate all economic scarcity. If resources are completely unlimited, the argument goes, it doesn't matter if they are used inefficiently. But as I pointed out in this post, there is in fact economic scarcity in the Star Trek universe, because not everything can be replicated (e.g. - power sources for starships and replicators themselves). Moreover, the Federation and other nations in that universe wage war over the control of planets and other assets, which implies that they can't be replicated either. It's also worth noting that replicators seem to be a government monopoly in the Federation, at least on Earth; I don't think we ever see a private replicator owned by a human Federation citizen. That has some troubling implications of its own.
UPDATE #2: Some commenters doubt that there really wasn't any currency in Star Trek. I refer them to this interview with Star Trek screenwriter Ronald D. Moore [HT: commenter Jim Hu], who later also produced Battlestar Galactica:
Question: I've been wondering this since I saw FC: What ever happened to Federation Standard Credits as established in "The Trouble With Tribbles," and, I believed, mentioned (though I don't remember where) in TNG?
Moore: All I know is that by the time I joined TNG, Gene [Roddendery, the creator of Star Trek] had decreed that money most emphatically did NOT exist in the Federation, nor did "credits" and that was that. Personally, I've always felt this was a bunch of hooey, but it was one of the rules and that's that. Fortunately DS9 [Deep Space 9] isn't part of the Federation, so currency could make a back-door re-entry into our story-telling.
So there may have still been credits as a kind of residual currency in the original series. Perhaps it could only be used in government-owned stores and facilities to acquire goods at government-set prices. In the USSR, for example, especially privileged citizens could shop at special stores to which only a small elite had access; Star Fleet officers (the people we see getting credits) might fall into that category. In any event, the socialist government of the Federation eventually abolished them.
UPDATE #3: In a series encompassing hundreds of TV episodes and a dozen movies, there will inevitably be inconsistencies. Therefore, I can't deny that there are probably some scenes in there that seem to contradict my general thesis that the Federation is socialist, including some mentioned by various commenters. Nonetheless, I think there are two consistent patterns that support my position. First, prominent characters such as Captain Picard and Kirk repeatedly state that there is no money in the Federation. This is confirmed as part of the rules for the TV series' by Star Trek screenwriter Ronald D. Moore. Obviously, it is impossible to run a large-scale market economy without currency of some kind. Second - as far as I can tell - we never see any large privately owned enterprises in any of the Star Trek series set after the founding of the Federation. We never hear such of such enterprises being mentioned, or see their brand names on any goods. They are absent even in episodes that include civilian settings. This is a striking omission, given the wide range of issues covered in the vast Star Trek ouevre. Tellingly, none of the commenters (many of whom seem to know far more about Star Trek than I do) have managed to cite any counterexamples. Even if one or two counterexamples do turn up in an isolated single episode, it would not be enough to outweigh the whole rest of the series. The combination of the lack of any large-scale private enterprise and the lack of currency strongly suggest that the Federation is socialist.