I admit it. Ok, fine – I admit it with pride. I’m a huge Star Trek fan. I’m not sure how many seasons you have to have on DVD in order to qualify as a “huge” fan, but I bet I’m pretty close. Yes I have the first four seasons of TNG. And, yes I rode the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton before they closed it down. I even got my picture taken on the bridge of the Enterprise in the Captain’s chair with my best bud standing in at weapons officer. I was in geek heaven. Except for the $20 salad that is. Ouch! By the way, the myth that everything in Vegas is cheap because they want you to gamble is an absolute lie. Everything in that god-forsaken den of iniquity is overpriced. Even the overpriced stuff is overpriced. But I digress. A lot of people claim to be Star Trek fans because it’s a glimpse at what our future could be. A world where everybody lives for the betterment of man-kind and not for “selfish gain.” It’s a place where the human race has moved beyond such things as disease, poverty and war. In short, it’s a utopian paradise. And the thing that brought this paradise to fruition? Well, I’ll let Picard explain:
Lily: “No money? You mean you don’t get paid?”
Picard: “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
Sounds great, huh. Too bad it’s a load of horse crap. It’s a shame that people don’t instintively know this is a load of horse crap anymore. It actually takes research these days to figure out why that exchange is so absurd. Oh well. Let’s get on with it then. The fundamental flaw in Picard’s line of reasoning is that he thinks money is a measure of value. In the future then, they’ve stopped using money to measure worth and value, and moved on to more noble value measures such as scholarship and exploration. Working for the betterment of society is the new measuring stick of value. This is a total misunderstanding of what money actually is though. Money is a medium of exchange. It isn’t a measure of something’s value. Hans Hoppe explains this very well:
Action and exchange are expressive of preferences: each person values what he acquires more highly than what he surrenders – not of identity or equivalency. No one ever needs to measure value. It is easily explained why actors would want to use cardinal numbers to count and construct measurement instruments to measure space, weight, mass and time: In a world of quantitative determinateness, i.e., in a world of scarcity, where things can render strictly limited effects only, counting and measuring are the prerequisite for successful action. But what imaginable technical or economic need could there possibly be for a measure of value?
Second, setting these difficulties aside for a moment and assuming that money indeed measures value (such that the money price paid for a good represents a cardinal measure of this good’s value) in the same way as a ruler measures space, another insurmountable problem results. Then the question arises “what is the value of this measure of value?” Surely it must have value just as a ruler must have value, otherwise no one would want to own either one. Yet it would obviously be absurd to answer that the value of a unit of money – one dollar – is one. One what? Such a reply would be as nonsensical as answering a question concerning the value of a yard- stick by saying “one yard.” The value of a cardinal measure cannot be expressed in terms of this measure itself. Rather, its value must be expressed in ordinal terms: It is better to have cardinal numbers and measures of length or weight than merely to have ordinal measures at one’s disposal.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you own an old timey hand cranked ice cream maker. It’s really old, like maybe from the turn of the century. You value it highly because of it’s age and it’s quality construction. It also brings back lots of memories from your childhood of your grandmother churning up some ice cream on a summer day. You’d like to pass those same memories on to your kids but somewhere along the way a piece of it broke. It’s an odd shaped gear that made the whole contraption work and it’d be very difficult to fabricate it yourself. If you found one on ebay or in a flea market would you pay $20 for it? I’m sure you would. Would someone else pay $20 for it? Very unlikely. That little gear is not “worth” $20. That’s a misnomer. The technically accurate way to say it, is that you value having the gear more than you value having the $20. This of course relies on the fact that value is subjective. What’s worth $20 to me might be worth $200 to someone else. The facility of money just makes the transaction itself easier to carry out.
Given this, it should be clear now why the Star Trek utopia of a world with no money can’t obtain. Because money doesn’t measure value. People do. And when people value one thing above another there will be trade. And when there is trade there will eventually develop a medium of exchange to make trade easier. And we’re back to money again. Money always develops as a natural occurence in every society. This is what’s called the “natural” theory of money. It can’t be avoided because it’s the logical outcome of normal human behavior. Of course, I guess you could argue that in the Star Trek future they have replicators that can make everything they need, so that makes trade un-necessary. But, ignoring the fact that this is silly, that still won’t get you free of money. Remember, money isn’t a value measure. It’s a medium of exchange. It’s a thing that makes trade easier. So, in this utopian future is there anything being traded? Of course there is.
Watch any episode of Star Trek and you’ll see what’s being traded. Human ingenuity, information, labor, etc. Even if all basic materials can be replicated at will in a magic box, you still can’t replicate the ingenuity and hard work it takes to “better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Those things are being traded. Picard is trading his time and his talents for the opportunity to do something he loves, which is explore deep space. There was an episode one time where Picard was offered an Admiral rank in Starfleet. He mulled it over during the whole episode and eventually turned it down. He valued deep space exploration more than he valued his time and talents. But he valued his time and talents more than he valued the Admiralship position. The basic usage of money was still in tact, even if it is a little unorthodox to think of it that way. The bottom line is: money isn’t the cause of evil, greed or misery. It’s simply a tool to form an abstraction layer over a barter economy to make it function more smoothly. The basic concepts of trade are universal and necessary. Get rid of physical money and humanity will just replace it with something else. It’s logically inescapable.
Critical listening on this subject:
How is Fiat Money Possible?: