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Freeman Essay #126: “Science Fiction and Economic Fiction”

My November 2009 Freeman column was inspired by some economic errors committed by the writers of Star Trek.  My column is below the fold.

Thomas Macaulay Boudreaux, age 12 and my only child, is a huge fan of Star Trek. Actually, even an italicized “huge” doesn’t quite capture the extent of Thomas’s fascination with, and knowledge of, the franchise. From Captain Pike through Mr. Spock to Ensign Sato, Thomas knows and loves anything and everything Star Trek.

So in August I took Thomas to Las Vegas for the year’s biggest Star Trek convention. Attending that three-day event caused me to reflect more seriously than I have yet done on the late Gene Roddenberry’s master creation.

First and foremost, Star Trek is indeed entertaining. Led by Thomas, I myself have become something of a Trekkie. (Star Trek: The Next Generation is my favorite series, although I like each of the five series quite a lot.) As Brent Spiner (the actor who plays Data) noted at the convention, Star Trek is, above all, an action-adventure show—and there’s action and adventure galore.

But here are some other observations.

I easily forgive a sci-fi series such as Star Trek for being sketchy about how today’s known truths of the laws of the natural world are harnessed by future humans to make extended space exploration possible. For example, it’s not clear just how artificial gravity is created and maintained so uniformly on Starfleet vessels, and it’s certainly a stretch to assume that the Milky Way galaxy is filled with lots of “M-class planets”—planets with an atmosphere, temperature range, and gravitational force nearly identical to Earth’s.

To quibble about such artistic liberties, however, would be to miss the larger, more interesting picture. But I cannot forgive the many economic errors made in the series. These errors don’t merely stretch known economic truths; they dispense with them altogether.

One example occurs in the 1984 Star Trek movie The Voyage Home. In that film, Captain Kirk and his crew travel back in time to 1984 San Francisco to capture a humpback whale. These whales had gone extinct by the twenty-third century and the good Starfleet captain and his crew have reason to try to restore the species.

While in the twentieth century a zoologist informs Mr. Spock that the hunting of whales is threatening the species’s existence. On hearing this comment, Mr. Spock volunteers that “to hunt a species to extinction is illogical.”

Not at all. When property rights are poorly defined and enforced—either because technology is inadequate to the task or because government interferes—valuable resources often are overused. Most famously, poorly defined property rights often lead to a “tragedy of the commons.” Because the open oceans are not owned by anyone, and because a whale doesn’t become anyone’s property until it is captured, no one has any incentives to preserve whale stocks so that whales can sustainably reproduce. They are “overfished.” This result is quite logical. Mr. Spock should learn some economics.

Another example of economic ignorance in Star Trek occurs in a third-season episode of Enterprise. It is, again, an error committed by a logic-worshipping Vulcan who travels back in time with the ship’s captain. In that episode, Subcommander T’Pol and Captain Jonathan Archer visit early twenty-first-century America. As they drive through a California town, T’Pol asks the captain if humans of that era were aware that they were running out of oil. She goes on to observe that oil did in fact finally run out in 2161.

T’Pol’s claim is ludicrous. First, there is no evidence that we are running out of oil. As MIT economist Morris Adelman wrote in 2004 (the year after that episode was filmed), known reserves of oil recently reached an all-time high. Second, if and when oil does become much more scarce than it is today, its price will rise—and will keep rising as oil becomes more scarce. This higher price will both cause consumers to economize on oil and oil-based products, and prompt entrepreneurs to redouble their efforts to find suitable substitutes for oil.

At some point, the cost of extracting additional oil buried deep within the earth’s crust will exceed the value of doing so—not only because this cost will be very high but also because alternative sources of energy will be more attractive.

Merchants of Menace

Perhaps most annoying of all, though, is the portrayal of the Ferengi. These are a merchant class of humanoid aliens, appearing most prominently in the series Deep Space Nine. Wikipedia describes the Ferengi as “ultra-capitalist”—and it’s pretty clear that the Star Trek writers would see that description as accurate.

But accurate it certainly is not. The Ferengi are obsessed with profit, and so Star Trek writers portray them as crass, often-cheating, mean-spirited, oily characters. Those few Ferengi portrayed sympathetically are ones, such as Rom, who mysteriously don’t share the Ferengi obsession with pecuniary gain. (Star Trek fans: I realize that the portrayal of Quark is more nuanced, but it doesn’t come close to negating my interpretation.)

In addition to having the Ferengi costume look clownish and filling Ferengi mouths with sharp, ugly teeth, Star Trek writers have composed a set of strictures that the Ferengi allegedly follow. Called “The Ferengi Rules of Acquisition,” these 286 pieces of allegedly capitalist wisdom are mostly absurd. Consider:

Rule #1: “Once you have their money . . . never give it back.” Any businessperson who refused to return money to a dissatisfied customer would not be in business for long. Competitors more accommodating to consumers would outcompete such ignoramuses.

Rule #2: “Never allow family to stand in the way of opportunity” and Rule #21: “Never place friendship above profit.” No doubt a few capitalists are sociopathic in this way—just as, no doubt, so too are a few politicians. But how many businesspeople do you know who would wittingly sacrifice their families’ and their friends’ best interests even for the smallest economic gain?

Rule #27: “There’s nothing more dangerous than an honest businessman.” Really now. Anyone who knows anything about capitalist reality knows that dishonest businesspeople eventually are caught—not so much by the law but rather by consumers who prefer to deal with honest businesspeople. Dishonest business dealings are a sure recipe for business failure.

Rule #52: “Never ask when you can take.” This rule is one for thieves, not merchants and producers. It is indeed a rule consistently followed by politicians but not by businesspeople.

Nevertheless, my complaints to the contrary, now that I am finished composing this column, I will boldly go into the family room to watch an episode of Star Trek with Thomas!


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