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Star Trek: How We Will Abolish Money

My wife and I are avid fans of Star Trek (no surprise there right?). Having grown up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and continuing on to Deep Space Nine and even a little Voyager, but recently we’ve been watching the four seasons of Star Trek Enterprise [3]. It’s the one with Scott Bakula as Captain Jonathan Archer of the NX-1 Enterprise (there it is to the right) and the only one set in the near future. I have no idea how the seasons were received when they aired but we’re really enjoying them because it’s not set hundreds of years into the future, only a hundred and fifty. In future Earth, we’ve developed warp drives, transporters (though we’re not comfortable using them), and have made contact with alien species (no universal translator, just a really good translator).

One of the interesting aspects about Star Trek is how it treats money. Even a mere 150 years into the future, there is no concept of money. People do their jobs because they take pride in their work, satisfaction in their accomplishments, and work hard because they don’t want to let down their peers or their society but receive no monetary compensation. While they get all of their needs satisfied (food, shelter, entertainment), no one is saving for retirement because there’s nothing to save.

It was always difficult for me to see the logical jump from society today to anytime in the future where money is obsolete. Entire industries exist solely because money exists (mortgages, finance, banking to name a few) and you can bet your last dollar they’ll do anything it takes to make sure money keeps on existing. So how are we supposed to get from our money driven world to one where money has no meaning?

By having social norms overtake market norms. It’s an idea I first read in Predictably Irrational [4]. In one of the chapters of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely talks about how in the workplace we’ve replaced a bit of the market norms with social norms. In the days of Ford and the assembly line, workers punched in and punched out. They worked for the paycheck, trading in their time, effort, and expertise for money. It was a clear trade, punctuated by the sound of time card machines. As we’ve moved away from a labor based economy to a service based economy, social norms have begun to replace market norms.

I have friends who work 40+ hours a week but are compensated for only forty, the extra being spent “to get the job done right.” I routinely worked a few hours over forty myself to get the job done because I didn’t want to let my team down (I was very fortunate to be on very strong teams that didn’t find ourselves under the gun or behind on deadlines). I didn’t work those extra hours out of the goodness of my heart but I also didn’t do it for direct compensation. I worked those hours because I knew I had an obligation to both the project’s clients and my teammates. It was the social norms, not the market norms that compelled me, and so many others, to work without direct monetary compensation.

It’s an interesting idea and while it clearly doesn’t explain everything, it’s the first time I’ve read of an idea that will even take us in that direction. Eventually social norms can overtake market norms, a social support infrastructure will be put into place, and we’ll have abolished money, developed warp drives, met alien species, and find ourselves cruising among the stars!