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I felt like writing this, but now that I'm done I'm not sure it's worth putting online-- oh, but what the hell. I'll throw it behind a cut so that it doesn't clutter up anyone's Friends page.

I was just reading a (hardly original) discussion about whether money exists in Star Trek or not-- sometimes they claim that the Federation doesn't use money, but then they talk about people having credits, or going shopping, or what have you. My take is that the "no money" thing is Federation propaganda, stacked on an abundancy economy which means that people in the Federation don't NEED money to survive, but that they use some form of currency for luxuries.

But I started to wonder if maybe they have a barter economy, rather than a currency-based one. We're used to thinking of barter as being a primitive system, but I think that's because it has the following problems:

1. Bartering often involves stuff, which either means hauling the stuff around with you when you do your shopping, or promising to deliver the stuff later.

2. It's a more complicated transaction than using money: you have to establish the relative value of different objects, maybe you have to draw up a contract for delivery, and you have to police against fraud or breach of contract.

#2 makes bartering a big problem in our economy, because we have to buy so much stuff: food, clothing, shelter, recreation, road tolls, gas, etc. We spend money every day, and adding a layer of barter on top of those transactions would slow things down ridiculously. But in the Federation, most of those things we have to buy are available for free: food and objects via the replicator, transportation via the transporter, possibly recreation in the form of holodecks (though those aren't necessarily available to the masses) or the Internet or amateur performances etc. Granted, some of this is surmise on my part, but it's possible that the only time Federation citizens have to spend money is to obtain luxuries: non-replicable objects, objets d'art where authenticity is important to the person, and most importantly, favors and services from other people. People would undergo fewer economic transactions in a given day, and so bartering isn't such a hassle: money still might be more convenient, but it's plausible that they can get along without it, particularly if they share the apparently Federation-wide attitude that they have evolved "beyond money". (Even today there are some transactions where offering money is considered uncouth, particularly swapping favors with friends or acquaintances.) Because a lot of trading will be for services instead of objects (the latter being easily obtained via replicator), #1 is less of a problem too.

But the thing that intrigues me most is how computers and the Internet might make bartering a lot easier than it is today or has been in the past, in three ways:
a) Computers could allow you to quickly determine the worth of objects to be bartered, by analyzing a deal and comparing it to other deals which have occurred in the past. Granted, in a bartering system value is subjective (otherwise, it starts turning into a money economy), but still, knowing what other people "paid" for a service can serve as a baseline for the current transaction.
b) Computers can aid in the forming of a delivery contract. Using public-key cryptography (or the 24th century equivalent), a contract can be "signed" in a way which is very difficult to forge, and even stored in some public repository online as a permanent record. The computer can handle the legal details of drawing up the contract, so that once an agreement is reached, everything is handled quickly and automatically.
c) Computers can allow you to check up on the seller/buyer: do they keep their contracts? Traditional bartering means that both sides have to be an expert in a wide variety of stuff: is this clothing of good quality? is this cow healthy? etc. But if committing fraud during a bartering system could i) ruin your reputation online, making it difficult for you to barter again, and ii) lead to legal sanctions, as the transaction is registered publicly; and if crime in general is less appealing because one's necessities and recreational needs are largely met, then bartering becomes somewhat less risky. (And if the trade does go sour, it doesn't ruin your life because you are only dealing in luxuries.)

Since I'm imagining the Federation here, which is rather utopian, I haven't put much thought into the privacy or security implications of any of this.


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September 2010

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