Anti–Star Trek Revisited

One of the best things about having something you wrote go flying around the Internet for a few days is that you get lots of feedback and ideas from interesting people with whom you’d normally never interact. This is the promise of what Brad DeLong called the “invisible college,” and I must say I’m really enjoying it. It’s kind of like getting peer reviewed for a journal article, except that the volume and quality of reaction I’ve gotten to “Anti–Star Trek” has been superior to the actual peer reviews I’ve received.

Most people who took the time to write about my post were inclined to view it favorably, but of course the real fun is being told that you’re wrong on the Internet. Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias actually tried to defend Anti–Star Trek as a superior arrangement to actual Star Trek. I think Hanson is some kind of libertarian, and the tone of the post is pretty snide and condescending, but whatever; I’ve said nastier things about libertarians. It’s still worth addressing what he says. His argument has three separable components: the first misses the point, the second is irrelevant, and the third reveals an important moral disagreement about what makes for a good society.

First, Hanson wants to say that really, my portrayal of Star Trek as a communist society is wrong. There are still some resource constraints, we see market exchange (although I’d argue it’s mostly what Erik Olin Wright likes to call “capitalism between consenting adults”), and so on:

Now it should be noted that Star Trek fiction has many cases of people using money and trading. Even setting that aside, replicators need both matter and energy as input, and neither could ever be in infinite supply. So even an ideal “communist” Star Trek must enforce limited budgets of access to such things. Lawyers and guardians would need to adjudicate and enforce such limits.

True enough, but this was a thought experiment. I was trying to extract the element of the Star Trek universe that is both unusual and resonant with present-day trends, and that’s the existence of post-scarcity technologies. Allocating scarce goods and resources is an old and not as interesting problem, so I wrote that stuff out of the thought experiment.

Second, Hanson claims that I’m glorifying the government/military hierarchy of Starfleet over the hierarchies that would be produced by the intellectual property-based regime of Anti–Star Trek.

After all, this might lead to unequal “classes,” where some own more than others. This even though Star Fleet displays lots of hierarchy and inequality, and spends large budgets that must come at the expense of private budgets.

The far future seems to have put Frase in full flaming far mode, declaring his undying allegience to a core ideal: he prefers the inequality that comes from a government hierarchy, over inequality that comes from voluntary trade. Sigh.

But the structure of Starfleet has nothing to do with the underlying economic basis of the Star Trek universe. The fact that people can engage in the kind of space adventure we see on the show is something made possible by abundance and an underlying communist social structure, but it isn’t a necessary consequence of it. And the fact that Starfleet is structured like a Naval hierarchy is justified by the existence of hostile alien races — which, again, isn’t the aspect of the Star Trek universe that I was interested in for this thought experiment.

Finally, Hanson wants to suggest that it is just and right that people should be rewarded monetarily for the intellectual property they create.

In both the Star Trek and Anti–Star Trek societies, the main source of long term value seems to be the accumulation of better designs. Yet Frase (and apparently Yglesias) is horrified to imagine that the people who contribute this main value might get paid for their contributions. After all, this might lead to unequal “classes,” where some own more than others.

Of course, he doesn’t really mean people should be “paid for their contributions.” That would just mean rewarding people when they come up with a good idea. Anti–Star Trek, however, adds the further requirement that the original creator should get paid every time someone makes use of their idea.

It’s hard to see why you would approve of this, unless you justify it on the grounds of morality rather than economic efficiency. In this regard, it’s interesting to contrast Hanson’s vitriol with Matt Yglesias’s favorable reaction to what I wrote. Both Hanson and Yglesias approve of a maximalist neoliberal vision of markets and commodification in a way that I don’t, although Yglesias’s politics are much closer to mine. But Yglesias approaches intellectual property in basically utilitarian terms: he views the artificial monopoly and scarcity mandated by IP law as justified if and only if it leads to more creation of knowledge and culture. This is also the view of IP that’s enshrined in the constitution: the point of copyright is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Hanson, in contrast, seems to be taking a position that I often see on the libertarian fringes: he thinks that people have some kind of inherent right to be showered with riches if they come up with a popular idea. One response to this is the Yglesias/utilitarian one: this is silly because it doesn’t lead to maximizing overall human well-being, and it’s clear that lots of valuable new ideas get created even in the absence of IP rights.

My response is somewhat different: I don’t think it even makes sense to obsess about who did or didn’t “create” some specific idea. The progress of human culture is a cumulative process — ”standing on the shoulders of giants,” Stigler’s Law, and so on. Moreover, all creators are dependent on living in a very specific type of society — technologically advanced, low levels of violence, high levels of education, and so on — that facilitates their work. And the ubiquity of simultaneous invention suggests to me that there is little rationale behind the desire to anoint some specific person as “the creator” of a good idea. Even from a more libertarian perspective, I don’t see the point of rewarding people for coming up with ideas. As Levine and Boldrin like to argue, the trick is to successfully implement and popularize an idea. Or as the Mark Zuckerberg character says to the Winklevii in that Facebook movie: if you had invented Facebook, then you would have invented Facebook.

Nevertheless, I think Hanson’s response is worth paying attention to, because the transition to a world like Anti–Star Trek probably requires a cultural shift from the utilitarian Yglesias perspective on intellectual property to the Hansonian moralistic view, in which copying is viewed as morally equivalent to theft. Yglesias noted in a follow-up that some people objected to Anti–Star Trek on the grounds that under current IP law, things like replicator patterns might not be covered, and in any case copyrights don’t last forever. But as he then notes, laws can change, especially when powerful rentier interests want them to change. And it will be much easier to bring about the transition to eternal, all-encompassing intellectual property protections if people stop thinking of IP as a necessary evil to encourage innovation, and start thinking of it as a basic human right of “creators”.