Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A high degree of centralization and planning is incompatible with meaningful federalism

The Volokh Conspiracy Ilya Somin, September 19, 2007 at 2:08am
How Federal is Star Trek's Federation?
While teaching my Federalism seminar recently, I made an analogy to Star Trek's United Federation of Planets. That got me thinking about the role of federalism in Star Trek. How much power does the Federation's central government have, and how much is left to the individual planets? Does the central government's Star Fleet have a monopoly of military force, or do Vulcan and other planets have their own local forces? Does the Federation subsidize planetary governments heavily, or are there hard budget constraints? Despite five Star Trek TV series and numerous movies, these questions haven't really been answered. Unfortunately, the academic literature on Federation law isn't much help either (see also this supposedly comprehensive volume on Star Trek and the law, which almost completely ignores federalism issues).
The evidence in the TV series' on these points is contradictory. On the one hand, the Federation seems to have a socialistic economy with a massive welfare state and no currency, which would require a high degree of centralization and planning incompatible with meaningful federalism. In the absence of a currency and price system, central planning seems to be the only way to coordinate a complex economy to even a limited degree. On the other, member planets apparently have considerable autonomy. For example, Vulcan seems to have very different laws from Earth. And Vulcan's economy seems to have a large market sector dominated by family-owned enterprises. In Deep Space Nine, the planet of Bajor applies for Federation membership. Although Bajor is at least a partial theocracy with a government heavily influenced by religious leaders, anti-Federation Bajorans never argue that Federation membership would lead to the end of Bajor's quasi-theocratic political system (as it surely would if the highly secular Federation denied political autonomy to member planets).
How to reconcile the evidence? I would suggest that it is only Earth that is socialistic, while the other member worlds have free market systems or mixed economies. The human-dominated Star Fleet military is the only Federation military force, and is tasked with collecting tribute from the nonhuman planets for redistribution to Earth. But as long as they pay their taxes, which subsidize Earth's welfare state and Star Fleet itself, they are largely left alone to govern their domestic affairs as they see fit. The Federation is essentially a big protection racket (in both senses of the word: providing external security, and also "protection" against its own depradations). There is even a good historical precedent. The 5th century BC Athenian-dominated Delian League also collected tribute from the other member states (which had no independent militaries) and used it to finance government spending on welfare benefits and the Athenian Navy, an analogue to Star Fleet. As long as the allies paid their tribute, Athens mostly left them alone and did not try to influence their domestic policies...Trackbacks

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