The Political Philosophy of Star Trek

The Political Philosophy of Star Trek

Individualism, Not Socialism

Star Trek sometimes catches flack for portraying a Socialist space utopia. There's a vast, far-reaching central government, and Captain Picard often waxes – especially when time travel gives him the opportunity to lecture present-day people – about how humanity has evolved beyond self interest. Those interested in personal gain are portrayed in a less than flattering light. Our era with hundreds of national governments is reflected on smugly as "the age of confusion". But should Star Trek be totally thrown out for its political philosophy? I believe there's more to redeem it than to condemn it.

The economics of Star Trek, given the technology, are not so far-fetched. Replicator technology would enable the utopia of the Star Trek universe by eliminating physical scarcity of most things. Even energy scarcity isn't something one has to worry about except in extreme circumstances, thanks to antimatter-powered warp cores.

Granted, this point is (so far as I'm aware) never emphasized. But if marginal costs fall sufficiently across the board, the entire price system could plausibly become more costly than its benefits. Harold Demsetz argues near the end of his paper, "The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights":

Attention is sometimes called to the fact that emerging technical developments will make the use of markets or governments more economic than they now are. There are surely many instances where this is true. However, our analysis suggests that technological developments can operate in the opposite direction. . . . Markets or their government alternatives should come into greater prominence only if technical developments lower the costs of these institutional arrangements more than they reduce the costs of producing[.]

Replicators and warp cores clearly reduce raw costs of production more than they reduce the costs of government or the market mechanism. One could imagine a story where after hundreds of years, the question of allocation by the price mechanism becomes outmoded, and the economics of scarcity fall into disuse.

Nevertheless, despite the negative portrayal of capitalists, there is a more fundamental theme: individualism. Though Starfleet might fairly be called a Socialist utopia, it is not always a perfect one. One of the most common themes in each of the series is the captain's deliberate defiance of a direct order, thereby saving the day. Successwise, captains have a vastly better track record than Starfleet, illustrating well the knowledge problem of centralized government. Naturally, though Starfleet never does back off the regulations and directives, it's apparently fine to violate them so long as things work out in the end.

Star Trek is in fact rather schizophrenic in its attitude towards its utopia. Generally it's good and enlightened, though often misinformed, having to be corrected by intrepid Enterprise captains. Occasionally though, Starfleet embodies every problem of tyrannical government, making the captains not only occasional rulebreakers with exceptionally good judgement, but outright traitor-heroes. The story of Insurrection, for example, puts Starfleet barely short of genocide, forcibly relocating an eternally youthful race to another planet where they would eventually die. The crew of the Enterprise, infected with the planet's youthful vigor, reneges against Starfleet and saves the Ba'ku. And there is never a bit of moral ambiguity in their decision.

These themes come to the forefront in Voyager, where the crew has to make its way without the benefit – or the burden – of a nearby Starfleet. If Picard's driving ideology is altruism, Janeway's is explicit individualism. How many times throughout the Seven of Nine rehabilitation subplot did Janeway lecture Seven on the virtues of individuality? She's even been known to directly lecture the Borg Collective on the evils of collective consciousness. She called them a race "as close to pure evil as any race we've ever encountered," referring unambiguously to the forcible and imperial suppression of individuality.

So Star Trek promotes a Socialist utopia with a strongly individualist culture? Star Trek has always had a moralizing component to it. Though their stereotype of Capitalists could be called unfair, their utopia doesn't necessarily do injustice to economics, thanks to the replicator. So despite a political structure that would translate disastrously into our present world, the strong individualist themes of the show commend it far past its unfair stereotypes condemn it.


CultureSocialismHarold Demsetz


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  • 1

    David Pontoppidan

    Oct 24, 2012 at 8:18 | Reply

    I like this. However, you must remember that both trade and private property exist in the Star Trek universe and within the Federation, although in post-capitalistic ways of transaction and commerce. Star Trek is therefore not socialist by traditional definitions. I prefer to think of it as somewhat anarchistic.

    But as a fellow friend of ours would say, it is only logical to assume that market-based systems would evolve and change drastically as technology improved the ways in which we live.

    Above all else, Star Trek is about what it means to be human, and about moral questions. I was reminded of that tonight watching ‘Generations’, where Kirk gives up Paradise and provides the ultimate sacrifice to “make a difference”.

    • 1.1


      Jul 13, 2017 at 15:22

      Some people do not understand, and they keep saying that they are socialists but in fact they are cumunitarians (no comunist too).

  • 2

    Joseph Sileo

    Oct 25, 2012 at 4:01 | Reply

    It could be argued that scarcity wasn’t eliminated but transferred. For example it takes a great deal of energy to operate a replicator. It is shown in Voyager that resources were rationed because they were far away from their normal source of energy. A Market Economy immediately formed both aboard the ship,where crew members would use Holodeck time, replicator rations, and work details as currency, and between Voyager and other civilizations, where technology and other resources were traded. ST: Voyager is actually a great example of the natural emergence of a market economy. The reason the other series appeared to be Socialist Utopias was because matter was in infinite supply because they had the technology to convert energy into matter. The technology was also present to harness huge quantities of energy with little effort. (matter antimatter reactions)

    Eventually as with all systems you get diminishing returns, so I would imagine with time scarcity would rear its ugly head. But who knows, technology could progress to the point where we can capture all forms of energy and all forms of matter, and convert the two. At that point wouldn’t we have a perpetual motion system?

    • 2.1

      Jon Vera

      Jan 21, 2017 at 10:04

      Star Trek looks like a grand future to many people in the same way that the Soviet Union might have looked like a grand future to a starving medieval peasant. But relative to the potential and opportunity available within the Star Trek universe, there is clearly a lot of scarcity. What scarcity you ask? Materially, desires just shift: personal spacecraft instead of cars, grand estates instead of suburban homes, transporter travel vs high speed rail. And other kinds of scarcity are intrinsic and analogous to today: power and top jobs in science, exploration, management, politics.scientific research, opportunities for exploration, etc. are all still scarce. Scarcity never disappears. And the way those resources are allocated is typically socialist: through a bureaucracy, connections, and political influence.

      And Star Trek allocates those in a typically socialist fashion: inefficiently, using a vast bureaucracy, uninformed centralized decision making, and based on power, status, and connections.

      Yes, Star Trek is socialist, and it isn’t even a utopia.

  • 3

    Alexander Duncan

    Mar 18, 2013 at 15:25 | Reply

    I think the problem you attribute to Star Trek is really a problem that you have invented yourself, i.e., the typification of Star Trek as “socialist.” If anything, Star Trek is technocratic, and technocracy is neither socialist nor capitalist – it represents thinking of another order altogether. Thus, of course there are elements of altruism and individualism in Star Trek, just as there are in human life. It has nothing to do with socialist political ideology at all.

  • 4

    Jim Osborne

    Sep 05, 2013 at 6:00 | Reply

    Star Trek portrays a Socialist decentralized management model WHICH would allow more individuality and choices regarding career and education. That also allows for a smaller government which reduces gridlock (look at the us congress) and by getting rid of personal wealth resources are redistributed so that everyone has at least their basic needs and medical and education met. You confuse propaganda of the USSR and our own ideology from the cold war, when you eliminate poverty, a lot of things would go with it: hopelessness, and dispair, cuelty, and exploitation. Marx envisioned a workers revolution occurring in an already industrialized country due to extreme disparity of wages, and lack of benefits compared with management

    The former ceo of Exxon got a 450 million retirement package while they managed to wriggle out of fiscal responsibility caused by the Exxon Valdez and damage continues today and the citizens of Alaska ended up being shafted. People’s wages since 1980 have barely managed to stave off inflation while upper management reaps huge payouts. With the death of unions goes fair wages and health benefits and even retirement wait til you see all the fees for managing your 401k

    Socialist, yes, but they get rid of the social problems we’ve ignored for the last 237 years. And replication technology in their universe occurred sometime after 2269. (I checked)

  • 5


    Mar 26, 2016 at 5:24 | Reply

    Creating things out of thin air instantly is nothing more than science fiction magical that uses an idiotic ideology (Communism or Socialist) that history has shown time and time again doesn’t work.

    Why Star Trek’s Future Without Money Is Bogus

  • 6

    Joshua Scott Hotchkin

    Apr 04, 2016 at 20:18 | Reply

    I have written about this in the past. Non-scarcity and reputation economies will change the entire landscape of human civilization.

  • 7


    Mar 27, 2018 at 1:12 | Reply

    Why does every discussion about star trek say there isn’t a monetary system. Capitalism is alive and well only with fine tuned guidelines on ethics that ensure entry into the market over that of wealth protection. Strong ethical guidelines with a monetary system, drive isn’t based on amount of items owned and instead quality of life, a lack of consumerism that is exchanged for personal mental fulfillment. Honestly the idea is that of how the united States founding documents came into being. Taking all forms of past government and political party ideologies extracting the good, discarding the failures, and evolving to something better. It has a thriving economy that is balanced. There are multiple fos of currency and trade between planetary systems and species.

  • 8

    James T Kirk

    May 21, 2018 at 15:46 | Reply

    Just remember the needs of the many outweigh the few Gold Rush se08 e03

  • 9

    Robert Hutchison

    Jul 17, 2018 at 19:07 | Reply

    Whether Star Trek is socialist or communistic or whatever, I leave up to people who are a lot smarter and knowledgeable than me. I only know I LIKE IT! Live Long and Prosper, Everyone…

  • 10


    Jul 29, 2018 at 21:37 | Reply

    I’ve dreamed of a society where you could choose what you want to do without concern of the basic human needs: food, shelter, clothing. Where you know every person on the planet has that as well. Where instead of choosing what you need to do now to survive after 65, you choose your passions, you live your WHOLE life now instead of waiting to retire.

    This doesn’t have to mean people can’t choose to be loaded, but the system of capitalism without wealth gap rules is a system of oppression in itself. You want to give out $30 million CEO bonuses? Then you must put $300 milion back into the company with staff bonuses, better health coverage, etc.

    The need for a world currency of equal value. Markets are driven by profits instead of humanity. We will ship raw materials great distances to be manufactured and then shipped back over those distances again to increase profits for us, the shareholders. We the shareholders, putting all our money into stocks for our retirement.

    Along with the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, religious extremism… it’s sad, it’s depressing, our humanity is so far from a way better deal then the greed of now.

  • 11


    Jan 31, 2019 at 8:11 | Reply

    When referring to the Insurrection events, you seem to blame the Federation and Starfleet for actions short of genocide, but fail to mention that Admiral Dougherty, who was in charge of the relocation, withheld relevant facts, such as Dougherty’s alliance with the Son’A, his plan of a forceful relocation of the Ba’Ku and rendering the planet irrevokably uninhabitable by collecting the metaphasic particles. If he would have been honest with the consequences and factors of the operation, Starfleet would never condone it, meaning they’re not the bad guys you set them out to be.

  • 12

    Michael Mallalieu

    Oct 14, 2019 at 11:59 | Reply

    personally I think star trek is based on the idea of mutual cooperation for the benefit of all, whether that is brought about by socialist/communist ideologies or by a neo capitalist system whatever that is; I don’t know. But what I do know is that for the federation to have come into being in the first place that it took a great third or fourth world war of selfishly competing nations for resources and the invention of a weapon of mass destruction which could travel faster than anything else before (warp drive) that Vulcans in the nearby vicinity enacted first contact and thus brought about the beginnings of a dialogue between ourselves and the Vulcans and witnessing another way of life and a more utilitarian if you like way of doing things. This dialogue or trade of ideas between ourselves and the Vulcans was the catalyst to our envisioning of a a brighter future among the stars with help and friendship of the Vulcans (live long and prosper). So we put our petty differences away and realised the common good of all and joined the federation, as the federation was not a human construct it had been in place for god knows how long before and each emerging civilisation once the basic technological recommendations have been met ie warp drive, contact is initiated. Nowhere as far as I’m aware does star trek say what earths political/economic system is like only that earth is a member of the federation, my inkling is that as all systems had failed in the past on earth and with dialogue with the Vulcans we realised we need to pull together for the common good which at the time was the future of the human race and more importantly the future of spaceship earth and so we created a similar system to how I see how the federation works, maybe one were we have a system similar to a Federal United Nations here on earth. Which I think would be (FUN)

  • 13

    normand calvé

    Jan 21, 2022 at 14:14 | Reply

    Before politics or economics, the first aspect to adress is morality, like, is the economy at the service of a a minority’s intere$ts, or to satisfy at the welfare and prosperity of the majority of the citizens ?

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