You don’t have to have seen Star Trek or even like sci-fi to find this relevant. This isn’t just about bad writing, which is an artistic crime by itself – and when the very thing you’re trying to denounce is so obviously a ludicrous strawman not only do you fail to make the point, you end up undermining your own position. It’s also about propaganda.
I am a geek, I admit, so I can unapologetically say that if you’re not, I’ll do some quick back-story for you: the Ferengi are an alien race in the Star Trek universe, introduced way back in The Next Generation’s first season. Since the Federation (sort of like all the best parts of the United States in space; in Kirk’s words a place where people had “the full exercise of individual Rights” source) finally made friends with the classic bad guys the Klingons, the show needed a new nemesis for our heroes. Now, when you consider that even someone who hasn’t watched Star Trek probably knows who The Borg are, this should give you an idea of the impact a truly terrifying enemy can have…and how far off the mark the writers were with the Ferengi. They are ugly apish buffoons (the Ferengi, not the writers – though I don’t deny the similarity). After only a couple of episodes it was clear they couldn’t be taken seriously, so much so that almost every “Ferengi” episode of DS9 and Voyager to come was written as a “comedy episode”, with one exception.
The Ferengi were shown to be a technologically-advanced intelligent species (appearances to the contrary) who could rival the Federation in space exploration and/or conquest. As I said, this didn’t last long and they instead devolved into the ultra “capitalist” exploitative bigoted idiots that would crop up every now and then to beat us over the head with the “too much capitalism is bad!” mallet. I could attribute this to just bad writing, but the problem is that the Ferengi are a caricature of everything the Left believes about capitalism, beginning with a most profound and basic misunderstanding. Of course, it’s not the Left I’m addressing this to, but the everyday person who doesn’t know any better and whose only understanding of capitalism comes from false generalisations and clichéd movie villains.
Capitalism in one sentence
“Do not initiate force against an innocent rational being.” Got that? Good, because this is the basic premise of capitalism. Of course, people will disagree and they’re welcome to. You are welcome to define capitalism as you like, but you have to justify your definition and show how it’s logically derived. This is the job of philosophy, but I don’t intend to go into that much detail here. The best philosophical defender of capitalism was Ayn Rand and it’s her understanding of the term I’ll use. Even if you totally disagree with Ayn Rand, I don’t see how someone can object to me invoking her here. After all, when I attack communism and socialism, I don’t attack what I think they are, I attack what they actually claim to be! I am happy to take a socialist’s definition of their own system and roll with it, so no one should object to me using Rand’s definition of capitalism here.
Why does it matter? Well, the “profound and basic” misconception of capitalism that I alluded to is of capitalism saying “make money!” But it doesn’t. Don’t confuse an economic consequence with a political principle. I attack socialism, not because it says “surrender all your values to the State!” (although that is a logical consequence of socialism) but because it says “the Rights of the individual are secondary to the needs of the State.” I think capitalism has proven that wealth and profit are its corollaries (hard to argue with, even if you don’t like capitalism), but the political principle on which it stands is: “leave people alone”, or “don’t initiate force against others.”
We’ll see that every distasteful aspect of the Ferengi, who are supposedly the unavoidable consequences of rampant unchecked laissez-faire capitalism, are false and even precluded by capitalism.
In Ferengi society females are treated like second class citizens. The men run everything and exclude Ferengi women on the grounds that they are useless in business, and all the Ferengi care about is profit. This is probably the biggest non-sequitor of them all. I don’t know how someone gets from “leave people alone” to “treat women like useless house-bound tools”. Capitalism’s principle of leaving every person free to pursue their own life, liberty and happiness surely encourages respect for our fellow creatures, recognising that they are just like us and have the same potential as we do. Also, with the use of force banned, how could women be forcibly restrained from having jobs and earning money? The Western world has proven (most memorably during WW2) that having half your entire population not sitting around doing nothing, increases production and profits. Imagine if today women were suddenly forbidden from working – almost every business where gender is irrelevant would collapse! Yet we’re supposed to believe that a society so obsessed with profit as the Ferengi wouldn’t take advantage of a worker base which could in theory double its workforce? Isn’t a common criticism of laissez-faire capitalism that would it end up employing too many people that it shouldn’t, not excluding them?
Of course, as any real life rational businessman knows, there is no profit in unnecessary discrimination.
You might say that this is just an example of an alien race which is ultra-capitalistic and also happens to be ultra-sexist. But every single aspect of the Ferengi revolves around profit, so the implication is clear that their horrifically-sexist society is connected to their capitalism. But even if it wasn’t, it’s guilt by association. For example, imagine if Trek gave us an alien race who are all black, oh and it just so happens they’re thieves and rape isn’t a crime on their world. Who would dismiss this as innocently exploring ethical issues in a science-fiction format and not racist?
The Ferengi are open to and encourage bribery, and forever force money from their customers by upping prices, lowering wages, and denying basic commodities to their employees, since without a regulation from some Progressive bureaucrat of course, this is what would obviously happen in all companies. Naturally, all unions are banned.
Leaving aside the government support that unions have had in the Western world (which only gives one side an unfair advantage in negotiations, but since that side isn’t the evil businessmen it’s ok), with the use of force banned, how could unions be prevented? They are an obvious and natural means for employees to pool their (economic) power and lobby their employer for change. If we drop the premise that businessmen are James Bond villains or irrational scrooges, it’s clear that no reasonable employer is going to lose his staff when by making acceptable changes (or losses) he can keep them here and happy. On the other hand, he isn’t going to needlessly cut into his profits if he doesn’t have to. And implying that this is necessarily a bad thing isn’t an attack on capitalism, it’s an attack on the very inescapable nature of human trade itself!
Also, it’s simply daft to assert that a businessman can keep upping his prices to extremes. Of course, in the heads of anti-capitalists, prices are set in a vacuum and buyers are at the whims of sellers. But prices reflect costs, overheads, the affluence of the customer base and competition. Yes, if there is little competition you can get away with upping your prices, but it doesn’t mean that, for example, if I’m the only pub within a 50 mile radius I can charge $20 for a pint of ale. No matter how rich my customer base is, no is going to pay that much for a pint. And even if a tiny minority could, would that handful keep my business running? If only 1 person a day buys a $20 pint, it does not follow that if I cut my prices to $2, I will now get 10 customers a day instead of 1; in reality I’d probably get many times that, because not only will more customers be attracted to my pub, they will each spend more because the prices are good. ‘Good’ here being within the context of my customers’ affluence; in some regions I could up my price to $3 and not lose customers. In other regions I’d have to drop it to $1.50 to (counter-intuitively) make profit. But to say that the customer is irrelevant and an unchecked businessman would just irrationally up his prices is pure fantasy. Which would be fine if this was just another alien race and not an unashamed caricature of a genuinely pro-human political system.
(Incidentally, in my experience pub managers and owners resent raising prices because it simply drives customers away, which means they lose the atmosphere in their premises and lose business. Ironically, the ever-increasing costs on alcohol are imposed by government taxes, something that wouldn’t exist in a truly capitalist society.)
The Ferengi give and take bribes like we shake hands. This is bad, naturally, because the affairs of two private consensual individuals are of course the concern of the rest of society. Oh wait…
A bribe is a bribe if it’s a way to circumvent honest trade. For example, if you’re a buyer you could be bribed to accept some poor quality stock that you normally wouldn’t, and which your company wouldn’t normally want – but you get a brown paper envelope and press the Confirm button anyway. This is a bribe. Similarly, you could be a politician with the power to use force against your own civilians, and be bribed by a business to grant them special privileges. This is a bribe. (By the way, whilst the former could of course still happen under capitalism, the latter could not. Remind me again why the Left doesn’t like it?)
But saying that any private settlement reached between two free individuals is a bribe is just ridiculous. By this reasoning, any bargaining or negotiation at all should be viewed as a bribe. Offering to give someone a bit more for something you want isn’t a bribe, it’s called trade! But presumably this is frowned upon by the Soviet Federation of Planets because all transactions are the concern of the State.
It’s either fraud, in which case it’s illegal (even and especially under capitalism) or it’s not fraud in which case it’s no one else’s business.
Obsession with profit
Everything the Ferengi say and do revolves around profit. Their version of the bible is “The Rules of Acquisition” and even their afterlife myths involve a latinum-plated vault where treasures await them. How many businessmen do you know whose every topic of conversation concerns money? How many of them actually dream about it? How many of them see it as an end in itself?
Like everything else with the propaganda of the Left, it makes no sense. Anti-capitalists think that just because capitalists want to be left free to pursue their own selfish values, which includes making money, that “making money” is therefore all they care about. I’ve seen scarecrows with less straw than this argument. It’s like saying that just because someone thinks drugs should be legalised, his ulterior motive is getting high on anything he can get his hands on. I happen to think all drugs should be legalised, but if they were I wouldn’t take them. So why assume that someone who wants property rights fully respected automatically wants to stand on the necks of the poor to make some extra cash? It’s because the Left frames every anti-capitalist argument as a matter of money, and not the principles that political systems should be based on. It is here that anti-capitalists reveal that they are the ones obsessed with profit. But whereas the Ferengi are obsessed with having more money, the Left is obsessed with making sure no one has too much of it!
This ties in with the above: that just because capitalists want to be left free, which includes having no limit or checks on the profit they can acquire, they are “greedy”, an adjective related to excessive consumption. The difference is: rational people eat until they are full, because there is a logical and practical reason to eat and cease eating when that biological urge has been satisfied. The difference with money is, there is no logical or practical point in life at which it becomes pointless to acquire more money (especially since wealth isn’t finite, it’s created). Ok, in theory you might have so much money that literally nothing is an obstacle for you – but if your productive effort reaps money then the only way to stop making it, short of refusing to get paid, is to sit on your hands and watch TV for the rest of your life, a position itself that is contrary to human flourishing. Also, the incredibly rich do seem to be quite generous with their money in real life, a fact borne out by billionaire philanthropists and mega-corporations who are the largest contributors to charity in the world.
In fact, if greed is the irrational pursuit of objectives, then why would we assume that a person who continues working with no end in sight to what he can achieve or acquire is being irrational? We don’t see the best sports stars earn enough to live comfortably and then retire, do we? And we don’t criticise the likes of Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Stephen Hendry and Lionel Messi for continuing to blow the opposition away even after achieving everything “reasonably” necessary in a career, do we? So why are businessmen with the same ruthless determination to win viewed as greedy? The best sports stars make fortunes for themselves in exchange for a relatively limited return to their “customers”, the spectators. They smash the hopes and dreams of their rivals and seek to conquer everything and hope the other guy loses. Even assuming a businessman of equal ruthlessness, he at least brings a product to the world, not just a group of fans, and gives how many others a career and purpose along the way? And unlike a sportsman’s titles and records, the businessman’s practical achievements will live with humanity forever.
And yet, it is the charity worker which is held alongside the sportsman and businessman as the model of humanity.
Towards the end of the Ferengi story arc, which we see in the last season of Deep Space Nine, the leader of the Ferengi Alliance (though what he leads and how, in a system where government force is supposedly banned, is a mystery) has introduced taxation (pretty much a swear word to the Ferengi) and instituted various social reforms such as “free” healthcare and pensions. Ironically, a society where energy is free and unlimited and all matter can be “replicated” from thin air is probably the only one where socialism would actually work. But even then it wouldn’t, unless doctors and scientists could also be replicated…
Yes, the immoral Ferengi slowly begin to learn the true meaning of Christmas; that profit is a vice and the true calling of all sophisticated beings is of charity work to any potential number of other individuals they may never meet and might care nothing about.
But the funny thing is that despite the Ferengi being deliberately stacked as caricatures, they still manage to get things done! Throughout Trek, the Ferengi are never involved in any wars and their business interests are allowed to continue without interference from any aggressive power. They have an impressive military and aren’t slackers when it comes to exploration and invention. We are never shown the Ferengi homeworld in ruins, resource-deprived, impoverished or with people enslaved. In fact, in the words of Trek’s most famous Ferengi: “You’re overlooking something, Commander. Humans used to be a lot worse than Ferengi. Slavery, concentration camps, interstellar war; we have nothing in our past that approaches that kind of barbarism. You see? We’re nothing like you. We’re better.” And despite the Trek writers giving us the kind of alien history that we can only dream about, we’re still told “but if you want all this, you going to have to take corporatism and sexism too.” One can’t help but think that if ultra-capitalism produced a world without war, slavery and genocide, maybe it’s worth a few greedy businessmen.
I’m reminded of the Caldari society in Eve Online, which is supposedly a capitalist state taken to extremes; from Wikipedia: “the Caldari State is organised as a form of statist corporatocracy, where the State itself is owned by and operated on behalf of a few trust-like megaconglomerates.” Whilst I don’t deny that such a State could exist in theory, it isn’t capitalistic. Capitalism is the separation of corporation from State. The Caldari are contrasted with the Gallente, who “favour liberal economic policies, encourage individual entrepreneurship and social democracy, and maintain a progressive approach to social welfare”. The Gallente are very much like Trek’s Federation politically, but the problem is that these “virtues” are reeled off in one sentence as if they are mutually compatible or inevitable. They aren’t. Progressive social reforms are a hallmark of Leftist politics and are undeniably fascist in origin and nature. Individual entrepreneurship is antithetical to social welfare and liberal economics, since Liberalism in the modern sense means socialism, not capitalism. Again, we see strawmen in action: the best of all worlds is a semi-socialist “liberal” democracy and anything else must necessarily be an undesirable radical society which is either fully-despotic and totalitarian or ultra-capitalistic where the mega-corporations are in charge. How convenient. But I say again: this is all based on a simple misconception of capitalism. If capitalism is the society where nothing trumps individual Rights, then please tell me, how exactly could business own the State? How could despotism come about? How could anyone be forcibly included or excluded from any activity against their wish?
Because I’m so opinionated I can’t just leave it there and point out the flaws of anti-capitalism in just two popular works of fiction. The question is: why is capitalism painted this way? Leaving aside conspiracy theories of the Left (not because the Left is innocent but because not everyone who is sceptical of capitalism is always a Leftist), I’ll suggest this: it’s easy. If capitalism was understood properly it necessarily would exclude most of the nasty stuff that people don’t want to see in politics. The problem though is that it raises a lot of uncomfortable questions that people don’t want to answer, or simply can’t, like: what about education, roads, healthcare, tax? It’s easier to imagine that somehow our society just works with the balance of individual freedom and Statism, and pretend that the two are compatible or can even co-exist for a while, and anyone else must just have it wrong. And how much better does such a Liberal Progressive society look when contrasted to the strawmen alternatives?
The irony is that despite Roddenberry’s Marxist utopia, the United Federation of Planets was supposed to be the United States of America in space, a place where individual freedom was treasured and people of all races would work together, not because they are forced to, not because they are guilt-tripped into it, not because of positive discrimination or ethic-minority quotas, not because of political correctness, but simply because there is no rational reason for us to not cooperate if everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and because there is no profit in discrimination. It was the capitalism of early America that smashed slavery and feudalism and allowed men to flourish (and get rich), and those countries that followed the example (like Britain in Europe) also succeeded compared to other nations. It was the Progressives of the late 19th and 20th centuries that would re-introduce the anti-individualist God-state as the political ideal, whether as expressed fascists, communists and socialists, whether as brazen as Hitler’s Nazi party or as nicey-nice as Barak Obama’s neo-socialism. Rather than being cutting edge thought-provoking television, Star Trek is just another example of anti-capitalist nonsensical clichés. We can blame it on bad writing, but the reason for such an obvious strawman in the first place is sadly more pervasive.