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United Federation of Planets

I grew up watching “classic” Star Trek, and have been a fan of the franchise for all of my adult life. In fact, I would even admit that the moral and philosophical lessons of Gene Roddenberry’s vision have shaped my own views of society and politics to a great degree.

However, it is only in the last 10 years or so that I realized what an outlier Trek is compared to most science fiction movies and television shows.

Most people who watch Star Trek think of it as just another action-filled space opera, and miss an important philosophical point: The Federation is a utopian society. This is easy to miss, because most of the stories in the Trek universe take place outside of the bounds of the Federation — the politics of the Federation happen “offstage” most of the time. Even episodes set in the heart of the Federation are mostly concerned with a particular crisis, and don’t talk too much about larger social and political issues.

However, the utopian character is pretty clear, and is even explicitly mentioned in the dialogue in a few places, as in this memorable speech by Commander Benjamin Sisko:

The problem is Earth…On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise.

That sounds pretty explicitly Utopian to me.

Utopias are rare in science fiction literature because they are hard to write about. Drama relies on conflict, and Utopias with little or no conflict tend to be boring to read about. Dystopian societies, with their built-in conflicts, tend to be much easier to dramatize.

There are a few brave SF authors who have tackled the subject of utopian societies, often do so by setting their tales at the edges of the utopia, where the “ideal” society interacts and intersects with ones that are less ideal. Iain Banks’ “The Culture” novels are a great example of this.

Many of the early Trek episodes use this formula: exploring how to avoid compromising one’s utopian ideals in a universe filled with violence and tragedy. This theme also occurs in the earlier spinoff series(ST:TNG, ST:DS9, ST:Voyager) and the various Trek movies all the way up to around 2010 or so.

Unfortunately, some of the more recent Trek spinoffs have explicitly repudiated the utopian theme, positing a “dark shadow” at the heart of the Federation — I don’t much care for these stories. To me, it’s the same as having Superman break his vow against killing — it’s a cheap and lazy way to generate drama that undermines the whole concept of the character. (A properly-written Superman story is a puzzle — how to stop the clever villain without killing anyone.)

In any case, I have found the idea of the Federation to be inspiring. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the closes thing I have to a religious or spiritual belief system is the belief in the future existence of the Federation.

Wait…what?

Oh, don’t get me wrong — I don’t think that the actual Federation, as depicted on television is ever going to exist. I don’t think that we’ll cruise around the galaxy via warp drive or faster than light travel. I even doubt that humans will ever visit other star systems (although our robotic descendants might — it’s a lot easier when you can just power down for a few centuries).

However, what I do think is that there is a possibility — not a certainty — that a future society here on Earth might have some of the characteristics of the fictional Federation. A society in which many of the evils which plague us today — crime, poverty, disease and war — are simply solved.

Moreover, I believe that within us, as humans, we have the capability to create such a paradise. We just don’t know how — yet.

My optimistic view is simply that the chance of such a society coming into being is greater than zero. This is in contrast to the pessimistic view that the chances are zero — a view which holds that humans are fundamentally incapable of creating a true utopia, and that the problems I mention will plague us forever — or at least until we become extinct.

This optimistic view is one I call “Roddenberrian” (yeah, that’s a mouthful!) because apparently this utopian theme was in fact championed by Gene Roddenberry.

In contrast, I often refer to the pessimistic view as the “Tolkienesque” view (although there are many other authors who could equally-well share this honor). You see, I’ve read The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, and I know something about Tolkien’s worldview.

Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and even though the world of Middle-Earth is more Anglo-Saxon than Christian, at it’s core it is based on a key Christian idea: that the world we live in is a fallen world. In the Christian Bible, Adam and Eve got kicked out of Eden; in Tolkien’s world the Elves got kicked out of paradise for a similar transgression.

Here’s the thing about a fallen world: you can’t fix it. Not ever.

There is nothing that mortals can do — no technology, no military victory, no political innovation, no spiritual awakening, no human achievement — that can make the world “un-fallen”. Only the Creator has the power to undo the mistakes of humanity, to fix what has been broken. We are effectively trapped in a prison for all eternity. Pretty bleak, huh?

So my article of faith is simply this: that the problems of the world are, in fact, subject to improvement. That we have the power to get better.

So how do we get there? What path must we take to get to this future Eden?

I don’t know. I’ll go so far as to claim that nobody knows.

I suspect that part of this journey involves the development of new and improved social institutions. We have already invented a number of these over the last several millennia: democratic governments, competitive markets, the scientific method. Life is oh so much better than it was in Plato’s time.

However, these institutions don’t come into existence overnight. There’s a concept of social capital: the level of trust that individuals place in in a social institution.

Take for example, modern banking: it took centuries for banks to build up enough social capital to be able to gain the trust of average citizens.

If you were to travel back in time to, say, ancient Rome and try to explain modern banking, they wouldn’t believe you. Even if you could get them to understand the technological innovations needed to enable something as basic as writing a check, the idea that people would actually trust their wealth to a mechanism like this would violate their basic beliefs about human nature and trust.

By the same token, if someone like Picard or Kirk were to travel in time to our era and lay out on a whiteboard exactly how the economic system of the Federation works, we wouldn’t believe them either. Thus, having “the answer” doesn’t actually do us any good. We need to experience the journey before we can accept the destination.

If you are at all familiar with the Trek canon, you may notice that the writers are very cagey about revealing any details of the Federation’s political and economic rules. That’s because the authors don’t know the answer either; and even if they did, the audience would never accept it.

However, from time to time the writers do drop a hint or two about the Federation’s economics. Most of these “hints” don’t have any coherent back-story or depth, they are only there to provide provocative contrast with 20th century life.

An example is the fact that the Federation doesn’t use “money”. This has been stated several times throughout the franchise: individual Federation citizens often use currency when dealing with alien races, but the Federation itself doesn’t use money internally. So who decides who gets all the stuff? How are resources allocated?

We can extrapolate a bit from what we do know from watching the shows: the Federation is clearly a “post-scarcity” society. With replicators, anyone can have as many material goods as they would wish. Moreover, there’s no need to accumulate a whole lot of “stuff” which becomes more of a burden than a boon. If I need a Phillips screwdriver from time to time, I don’t need to maintain a garage with a big toolbox full of various sized screwdrivers — I can just go to the nearest replicator and have one printed out when I needed it, and then drop it in the disposer when I an done.

This means that most people live relatively modest, spartan, and yet quite comfortable lifestyles. I suspect someone who tried to accumulate lots of “stuff” would be considered a “hoarder”, and while they wouldn’t be punished for this behavior, they might be encouraged to seek counseling.

By the same token, with off-world colonies and space stations, there’s plenty of living space, so owning land isn’t as big a deal either (except of course for tracts with spectacular views!).

Material goods and real estate simply aren’t regarded as valuable in the Federation, but not everything is so plentiful. There are some items that are rare and considered highly valuable:

  • Energy: the power needed to run starships and replicate items is not infinite, so there is some scarcity around Dilithium and such.
  • People: the Federation values people and personal development. Everyone is given opportunities to improve themselves, and the Federation provides guidance and counseling to aid people in their quest to become smarter and wiser.
  • Objects of special provenance: Objects that have a unique history, such as archaeological artifacts — whose value would be meaningless if replicated — seem to be particularly prized, and are sometimes given as gifts. This also includes original works by creative individuals — a painting of a cat, or a home-cooked bowl of Cajun gumbo.

Of course, most of the stories take place within the confines of Star Fleet, which is a military organization (if somewhat more enlightened than most), and as such has a command economy. Major allocations of resources are decided by the fleet admirals based on projections of strategic needs.

Unlike the vast majority science fiction on television, the United Federation of Planets is a place where you actually might want to live out your life (as opposed to, say, anywhere in the Star Wars universe — there’s a reason why the word “wars” appears in the title).

Since we can’t actually get there on a starship, we’ll have to settle for the next best thing: build it ourselves. This will probably take longer than most of our lifetimes, but that shouldn’t stop us — and maybe the journey will be fun.

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