“Once you have their money… you never give it back,” or, Contradictory statements about acquisition and wealth in Star Trek

Picture of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise from Star Trek: the Next Generation. Quote from an episode: “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 of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

One of the times that a character on screen claimed that the Federation doesn’t use money.

Since I’ve been obsessively reading reviews and such of the new Star Trek: Picard series, I’ve seen many people commenting on parts of the plot that clearly contradict the claim Jean-Luc himself made in one of the TV episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation:

“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 of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
—Captain Jean-Luc Picard

Many other times in the various series and the movies, statements have been made to the effect that they don’t use money in the Federation.

In the latest series, one source of tension between Jean-Luc and his former aide, Raffi, is that when they both left Star Fleet after the Utopia Planitia shipyards disaster, Jean-Luc was able to retire to his fabulous chateau and vineyards and live among wonderful antique furniture and the like, while Raffi ended up in what is essentially a mobile home parked in the desert.

If they really don’t use money in the 24th Century, and the accumulation of wealth is meaningless, how does such a thing happen?

That’s not all. Captain Rios, the pilot with the unlicensed ship that Raffi finds for Jean-Luc is being hired. We don’t know the terms, but Rios does comment at one point that he is expensive.

This is hardly the first time that important plot points in stories of the Star Trek universe have contradicted the assertion that money doesn’t exist in the beautiful future of the Federation.

Let’s turn back in time to the 13th of October in the year 1966, when the Original Series episode, “Mudd’s Women” was first broadcast. The Enterprise responded to a distress call and beams four survivors from a ship that is about to crash into an asteroid. One man and three unnaturally beautiful women. The man claims he was escorting the women to a distant colony to get married. It quickly transpires that the man has given a false name, and that he is Harcourt Fenton Mudd, a con-man with an extensive criminal record.

Now, if there really is no concept of money or wealth, what, exactly does a con-man do to get convicted of Grand Theft and Grand Larceny (among other things)?

Rather than the episode just ending with the discovery of Mudd’s identity, there is a complication. The ship’s dilithium crystals (the power source of the ship) are failing, so they must divert to a nearby mining colony to get replacements. But Mudd contacts the miners secretly and strikes a deal to provide the miners with the three brides instead in exchange for them demanding the ship release Mudd before they’ll provide the crystals, right?

So this is another thing. One of the explanations that is often given (on screen and not) to why money and economic disparity has ceased to exist is that replicator technology means that the Federation is no longer a scarcity economy. But then, why do we need mean living on dangerous worlds mining dilithium? The usual answer is creating dilithium crystals takes more energy that an equal amount of dilithium can supply.

But it’s not just dilithium. In another first season episode of the series, “The Devil in the Dark” the Enterprise goes to a pergium mining colony because of a mysterious creature killing engineers. Eventually Kirk and Spock determine that the lone creature is a Horta, set to guard thousands of eggs until the next generation hatches, but because the Horta are silicon-based lifeforms, the miners mistook the eggs for geological anomalies. Anyway, again, if replicators can make anything, why are the miners so delighted, after making peace with the Horta, at all the “other valuable minerals” the newly hatched creatures help them find?

Then there’s an episode from season 2 of the original series, “The Trouble with Tribbles” in which Cyrano Jones, an intersteller trader, is selling adorable purring critters called Tribbles (among other things), and the creatures’ incredible fertility issues cause various problems (and solve one). But he’s selling the Tribbles early in the episode, then at another point a bar owner is unwilling to extend him any more credit and certainly doesn’t want more Tribbles since the Tribbles he already bought have multiplied so much…

Again, selling and bar credit clearly imply some sort of money system, right?

The Next Generation introduced a new alien race, the Ferengi, who were fleshed out significantly in the series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Ferengi society is built all around the Rules of Acquisition (the first of which, “Once you have their money… you never give it back,” I quote in the title of this post). Now the Ferengi and their obsession with business and acquiring wealth were usually hand-waved with the point that the Ferengi were not part of the Federation, and yet one is able to operate on a Federation Station for 7 seasons of Deep Space Nine without any problems.

And there’s that hilarious scene from the movie, The Search for Spock where McCoy is trying to hire a criminal pilot to take him to the Mutara system. “Mutara system is forbidden. Need permits many, which means money, more.”

I could keep pulling out examples. I understand that the real explanation is that script writers are creating stories that will appeal and be understood by contemporary humans who live in societies where money and the acquisition of health are extremely important. These are story situations and character types that the audience will understand without a lot of explanation.

For an in-universe explanation, I’m going to have to get a little cynical. I think that the various statements about not using money and such are ideals that the Federation official aspires to, and tries to make reality by providing needed services, housing, and so forth, to everyone. In other words, it’s not the money doesn’t exist, it’s that in theory you don’t need it to survive. Some sort of exchange system where credits are tracked or whatever exists, and clearly the concept of private property still exists. But most everyone has bought into the myth that it’s not needed.

If it seems unreasonable to believe that people would buy into this myth, consider this: how many millions of Americans (including a lot of very serious and highly educated pundits and such) insist that racism is all in the past, because we eliminated slavery! And then passed civil rights laws! And isn’t just Americans, of course, who go along with and repeat things that aren’t quite true.

If anyone has a better explanation, I would love to hear it!

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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