We need a libertarian Star Trek, I think. I love Trek. I have some things to say about it, after I critique it. The truth is, I suspect 2018 (and the years to follow), are going to be very very bad years for us. For mankind. This is also an article about establishment American (“liberal”) culture, its folly, and its role in our predicament.
Interestingly, Star Trek canon proposes that the 2020s will see increasing poverty and social unrest due to increases in automation which displaces labor (obviously, an application of the Marxian “crisis of Capitalism” – but effectively in agreement with Libertarianism’s classical liberal class theory in a roundabout way). In 2026, World War III begins and sees nuclear weapons destroy most of Earth’s cities. The era of strife and conflict lasts until 2063, which is followed shortly by the invention of warp travel through space and first contact with the Vulcans (and about 200 more years stumbling along until we get to James T. Kirk – the future isn’t an easy ride).
Star Trek was conceived specifically with the intent of offering a vision of humanity’s future. This was during an era when technology and futurism were thought of as a means to utopia. Famous world’s fairs were still being held in America, promising miraculous easy living as a result of scientific progress. There was a sense that post-war American culture would merely continue, and through science, perfect. In this sense, Star Trek wasn’t about the future, so much as it was about exploring an ideal of establishment American culture against what it considered to be the less ideal aspects of human nature.
Star Trek was a navel-gazing exercise by American post-war establishment idealism, as it awoke to a perception of coming self-perfection, its culture the vanguard of a social utopia that American power could bring to the rest of humanity.
The United Federation of Planets – Star Trek’s ruling government – is just a metaphor for how the American establishment views itself and its own power. The Federation is inherently just, naturally promotes social harmony among diverse alien species, and is inherently right in its conflicts with other alien political authorities. The Federation is inherently competent. It’s solved its internal social and economic problems. Conflict comes from without. The Federation’s military wing – Starfleet – follows a rigid military structure, but apparently isn’t a military, but an “exploratory” organization. Just like American troops aren’t killers for the King’s gold – they’re “world policemen”. Both the United Nations in its idealized form, and raw American hegemony (promoting “democracy”) are versions of this ideal.
The aliens in Star Trek are not aliens. They represent human cultural and psychological traits that establishment American culture dislikes. This was true for Star Trek in the 1960s, but especially true during the second era of Trek during the 1980s-90s. Understanding this is critical for understanding what Trek is really saying. The visionaries and writers who made Trek came out of a certain culture. Some might call it “1990s liberalism”, but I’d call it “American establishment culture”. They wrote Trek and inserted into it their perception of the ideals of their culture. This is funny, and in some ways ironic.
The 1960s Trek was high on America’s post-war sense of military righteousness. Gene Roddenberry, the franchise’s visionary founder, was a WWII bomber pilot. The 60s were the height of the Cold War. To American establishment culture, WWII represented the validation of military liberalism. That is, the New Deal and the Atlantic Charter. The notion of what I call “military liberalism” is deeply, deeply, deeply Protestant, Puritanical, and Calvinist in nature.
Imagine humanity coming out of the Garden of Eden with original sin. We’re all bad people who can’t be trusted. But then, God’s grace saves us – some of us. This salvation is through predestination; some people will end up being good and righteous, but the rest are doomed to be losers. That is, some of us are just born better. In contrast to racial supremacist doctrines, it’s not genealogy that makes these people better. Rather, perhaps it’s God’s mysterious, seemingly arbitrary, hand which selects the good from the bad. And, what makes someone good is that they end up having the right values.
In America, those of us living here chose to come here. Pioneer and pilgrim ancestors (and idealized noble suffering slaves, persecuted immigrants, etc.) had to suffer adversity to make it here. Having arrived, this is the promised land. Thus, being American means having proven to a degree your own election, through willingness to suffer in order to find Zion. This is one reason why Southern whites are often despised by Yankee culture – they are the ostensible non-victims of the American story, those whose only suffering was justly deserved punishment.
When America (as the leader, in our minds) won WWII, it was because the righteous elect sallied forth against evil. The New Deal was righteous America saying, “Enough!” and taking the keys of the economy and polity away from the forces of greed and self-interest. According to basic Calvinist thinking, we don’t control whether we’re one of the good guys, or not. You simply are, or aren’t. Good itself, sure, involves doing right by other people, upholding freedom and fairness and so forth. Good, however, simply exists. It has to defeat evil.
My mother expresses this notion beautifully when I have political arguments with her. She was educated perfectly into the consensus liberal view of the 1940s, 60s, and 90s. We were discussing how to help minority children have better educational outcomes. Though I can’t recall the exact subtopic, I remember employing the sort of thinking Thaddeus Russell often promotes. I was discussing how people have different values. Perhaps the idea of sitting quietly at your desk, getting A’s, and then going to college and following an approved course of study is not what some cultures are interested in. Still – taking certain conventional ideas for granted (taxation, public schooling) – couldn’t the government offer programs that offer at least some opportunities to minority children without forcing them to follow a prescribed course through life?
My mother was beginning to agree with my arguments about the difficulty of democratic politics in a diverse society. I led her to a place very skillfully, because she embraced the idea I was trying to promote: that it might be impossible to choose exactly what sort of policies are the best for a given situation. “So what’s the answer then? What do we do?” was her question, the one I had been expecting.
I answered, “We need to persuade each other. We have no right to impose our beliefs and culture on others, so if we want to cooperate, help, and have peace with people, we have to persuade them. We have to engage with each other on a voluntary basis.”
After a little back and forth, I admitted that this meant relying on other people to accept our preferred moral ideas voluntarily. This caused her to resort to her furious refrain, clearly embedded by the righteous vitriol of her generation’s political convictions: “But if you don’t force people to do the right thing, they simply won’t”.
This is the same refrain she offers when confronted by calls for less government, lower taxes, and so forth. I commend her, it’s a concise and honest expression of the American establishment’s essential political premise.
If you don’t force people to do the right thing, they simply won’t. That’s why we need government, that’s why we need to nuke Hiroshima and ally with Stalin.
See, the Nazis weren’t bad because they forced people to do things, they’re bad because they forced people to do the wrong thing.
This is Calvinism. Americans are the elect. We deserve to have power, first of all. Second of all, goodness must naturally proceed from American power.
Concerning the aliens of Star Trek, they tell us more about establishment culture than they do about anyone or anything else. To “liberals”, the aliens of Trek represent either the world’s backwards cultures (1960s Trek), or the negative aspects of human psychology and society (1990s Trek). The reality is that Trek reveals the cartoonish view that the establishment culture has of itself. It is a view that lacks any sense of irony.
The Federation is laughable. A magic space alliance where everyone who joins mostly all get along, and there’s no money because, “We have grown out of our infancy” (Captain Picard from The Next Generation).
In Star Trek, yes, money is officially not part of future society. There is an argument that the future has technology which can replicate any material object out of thin air. This is part of why money is supposedly unnecessary. But there’s more to it.
The other reason, perhaps the main reason, why there’s no money in the future is because, in Picard’s words, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.”
See? Future people evolved culturally. They just became better people. They figured out how to not be greedy, and work together.
Every good American liberal knows that greed is essentially wasteful, that profit must create dead weight loss, and that cooperation in concert with scientific organization must inherently create the best outcomes. The future of Star Trek assumes that scientific management of the economy has advanced, as has the sort of quasi-governmental humanistic cultural management of establishment liberalism. Between these two developments, magic space ships travel to meet Klingons, all with no money required.
Any half-literate student of Austrian economics would laugh at these notions. There’s always scarcity, even with matter replicators. There’s always self-interest. Government planning will always face a knowledge problem (unless we manage to join into a permanent hive-mind of collective intent). But American liberals – establishment types (even Rockefeller Republican types) – take Star Trek’s goofy economic notions completely for granted.
To these people, the liberals, it’s the libertarians, conservatives, and so forth, who are the “backwards” remnants of past scarcity, the relics which are impeding the coming utopian future. Again, it doesn’t matter that liberals haven’t figured out how to organize the economy. They’re the elect. God’s grace will sort it out for the best on their behalf. They simply have to dominate the fallen cultures of man, force them into the approved, politically correct (but trust us, objectively best) system.
The aliens of Star Trek are cartoonish examples of things which liberals don’t approve of. The Klingons value fighting, not because it spreads an ideal, but because it has its own inherent honor. The Ferengi love commerce, so they’re sniveling, selfish, and eat worms. The Vulcans are logical – accounted as good guys, but kept at the margins.
With the Klingons in particular, you see what Star Trek is really saying. They’re awful villains, warlike and bloody. But, when they temper their rage, and submit to liberalism’s rules and bureaucracy, they’re good. When they fight and spill blood to defend liberalism as its allies, they are heroic. When they fight for their own sake, and own honor, they are ridiculed and despised. The message is: war is inherently bad, foolish, infantile. However, as long as it serves liberal power, war’s great. Worst of all is a culture that possesses its own sense of meaning and purpose, independent from liberalism: heresy! Again, the pure Calvinism.
The biggest flaw of this quasi-Calvinist perspective is the subtle arrogance it imbues in its adherents. Liberalism’s biggest problem is that it’s mostly a really great ideology. Use reason to understand humanity. Be open to change, and progress. Value human experience, in all its diverse forms. There’s a reason why 1) America has prevailed as world hegemon and 2) educated Americans are overwhelmingly liberal. Liberalism, in many instances, was the leading light for many issues.
The problem with liberalism is that it’s not 100% right on all issues. I don’t even know if liberalism is mostly right. Life and existence are complex, complex enough that we can suppose that our understanding of any given issue could possibly be completely wrong. I hate to speak this way, but “Science” has been completely wrong many times in the past. Social, economic, and political issues barely fall into the realm of scientific inquiry as it is.
Liberalism is not committing an error in assuming that it might know best. It is committing an error to assume that knowing best entitles it to hold power. Because, “People have to be forced to do the right thing or else they simply won’t.” This is Star Trek’s fatal flaw. Even so, I love Trek.
I like Star Trek because it represents this simple premise: taking our best self to the limits of what we know, and then venturing beyond. It suggests that our true best self is “out there” for us to find, if we dare. Sure, it does it in an “American liberal” context, but close enough. I wish we had a libertarian version. That is, a version where humanity isn’t even sure if it’s the good guys, where we’re the eternal children of the galaxy. Curious, humble children. Stumbling, sometimes shining brilliantly, but inherently diverse. No machine, military, with sharp precision such as what you see in Starfleet.
Frankly, the worst characters in Star Trek are the non-main character Starfleet officers. Inane jerks, mostly. Sycophants. Boring, predictable, stifled, conservative. The heroes of Star Trek: Kirk and Sisko, these types, consistently defy the norms. Is this the secret subtext of Star Trek? That the most interesting people, the heroes, in a sense stand apart from the norms of the “ideal” society, even if they don’t reject it?
In the end, neither New Deal America, nor the “Atlantic” world order will save us. Indeed, this system is likely going to bring much pain down upon the world, if not – through arrogance – destroy it. However, even when we are powerless, we all have our own frontiers in life. We can seek them, and push beyond them, and maybe find some meaning there. What more do we need?
If anything will save us, and bring about “the future”, it will be that. We need to push past our own frontiers, in spite of the Federation.
Happy New Year.