Despite five Star Trek TV series and numerous movies, we still don’t know too much about federalism in the United Federation of Planets. How much power does the Federation’s central government have, and how much is left to the individual planets? Does the central government’s Star Fleet have a monopoly of military force, or do other planets have their own forces? Does the Federation subsidize planetary governments or are they fiscally self-sufficient? Unfortunately, the academic literature on Federation law isn’t much help either.
The evidence in the TV series themselves is contradictory. On the one hand, the Federation seems to have a socialistic economy with a massive welfare state and no currency, which would require a high degree of centralization and planning incompatible with meaningful federalism. The Federation is not just “socialist” in the sense that some conservatives denounce any big-government policy as “socialistic.” It’s socialist in the classic sense of the word: government control of all or most major economic activity. In the absence of a currency and price system, central planning seems to be the only way to coordinate a complex economy to even a limited degree. Moreover, virtually all large-scale Federation enterprises in the Star Trek universe seem to be government-owned: from space stations to research facilities to mining operations. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Federation is communist; we don’t see much evidence of class struggle (though maybe that’s because all of the bourgeoisie have already been safely packed off to Gulag planets) or of a monolithic one-party state. But it at least has some form of kinder, gentler non-Marxian socialism.
On the other hand, member planets apparently have considerable autonomy. For example, Vulcan seems to have very different laws from Earth. And Vulcan’s economy seems to have a large private sector. In Deep Space Nine, the planet of Bajor applies for Federation membership. Although Bajor is at least a partial theocracy with a government heavily influenced by religious leaders, anti-Federation Bajorans never argue that Federation membership would lead to the end of Bajor’s quasi-theocratic political system (as it surely would if the highly secular Federation denied political autonomy to member planets). In our world, it has generally proven impossible to combine socialism with decentralized federalism. Theoretically federal socialist states, such as the U.S.S.R. and Czechoslovakia, were in fact dominated by their central governments, with regional authorities holding little real power.
How do we reconcile the contradiction? Maybe it is only Earth that is socialistic, while the other member worlds have free market systems or mixed economies. The human-dominated Star Fleet military is the only visible Federation military force, and is perhaps tasked with collecting tribute from the nonhuman planets for redistribution to Earth. But as long as they pay their taxes, which subsidize Earth’s welfare state and Star Fleet itself, they are largely left alone to govern their domestic affairs as they see fit. The Federation is essentially a big protection racket. Like the Mafia, it provides “protection” in both senses of the word: external security, and also “protection” against its own depredations.
This theory explains a lot. It is now clear why Star Fleet is so completely dominated by humans. There are almost no nonhuman Star Fleet admirals, and e very few other nonhuman officers. Except for a few collaborators like Mr. Spock, the nonhumans can’t be trusted to force their own people to pay tribute. In one of the Star Trek movies, a Klingon spokesman denounces the Federation as a “homo sapiens-only club.” Taken literally, this is too obviously false to be effective propaganda; the Federation surely does have nonhuman members. But the line makes sense if it actually refers to the fact that Federation and Star Fleet are tools for expropriating wealth from nonhuman planets and transferring it to Earth.
It is easy to have fun with these kinds of speculations. The truth, however, is that the producers of Star Trek most likely didn’t even consider the possibility that there is a contradiction between the Federation’s socialism and its federalism. Just as they didn’t consider the contradiction between its socialism and its seemingly strong protection for personal freedom. The problem is not that Star Trek ideology is flawed in its treatment of these issues; it’s that Star Trek failed to take them seriously to begin with.
Star Trek’s failure is unfortunate. Along with the Star Wars, it is our most vivid and best known popular culture vision of the future. For every person who reads serious nonfiction books about federalism or political economy, there are thousands of Star Trek fans. Unfortunately, Star Trek – perhaps unwittingly – perpetuates the longstanding illusion that we can combine government control of the economy with strong local autonomy and individual freedom. Over hundreds of episodes, Star Trek has addressed an incredible variety of political issues – ranging from war to religious tolerance to homosexuality. Sadly, its treatment of the basic organization of political and economic systems is far from its finest TV hour.
That doesn’t mean that Star Trek is evil or that it isn’t worth watching. There is much to like about the various Star Trek series. And politics is not and should not be the only focus of science fiction. I’m certainly not suggesting you tell your kids not to watch Star Trek; better that they watch Trek than reality TV. Just make sure they don’t grow up to be Federation tax collectors!
— Ilya Somin is an assistant professor of law at George Mason University School of Law.