Star Trek and Adam Smith: Imitating Captain Kirk

celebrity imitation science fiction star trek

James E Hartley for AdamSmithWorks     

"The episode is amusing, but underneath it lies a deep point. When Kirk wants to change a culture, he does not mount a frontal attack. Instead, he plays the game better than anyone else." 
This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. 
More than 250 years later, Adam Smith’s observation from The Theory of Moral Sentiments is still a constant refrain in discussions of culture. The Culture War, which seems to be always with us, finds its fuel in exactly this corruption of our moral sentiments. Some rich or powerful person engages in yet another violation of long established community norms and the commentators come out of the woodwork declaring the end of civilization. People want to keep up with the Kardashians because they are so young and beautiful and rich, but what happens when they turn into objects of worship?

The solution? It seems obvious to many commentators that we need to tear down the corrupt moral culture and insist that people follow a better set of cultural norms. The strategy is frequently wholesale attacks on contemporary culture. If only we could prove to the population at large that the cultural norms of their objects of worship are terribly degrading to human soul. Perhaps an even stronger denunciation will finally get through to people.

But, as Smith goes on to note, the problem is deeper than the culture warriors want to admit.

It is from our disposition to admire, and consequently to imitate, the rich and the great, that they are enabled to set, or to lead, what is called the fashion. Their dress is the fashionable dress; the language of their conversation, the fashionable style; their air and deportment, the fashionable behaviour. Even their vices and follies are fashionable; and the greater part of men are proud to imitate and resemble them in the very qualities which dishonour and degrade them.

The admiration people have for the rich and great leads them to want to imitate their style and behavior. It is not, however, only the dress or language which people imitate, it is also their vices and follies. People are proud to imitate even the most degrading aspects of their behavior.

If Smith is right, then it is no wonder that the attacks on popular culture have so little impact. It does no good to tell people that the acts of the rich and famous are degrading if people are proud to imitate those acts even though they are degrading. The desire to imitate the successful runs deep in human character. As reading Smith makes clear, this is not a modern phenomenon; it seems to be a constant in human behavior.

What then can be done? Captain Kirk has an answer. The Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action” begins when the crew meets the Iotians, who are described as a highly imitative people. (It is hard to miss the Smithian note that we should see these people as a lot like us.) What do the Iotians imitate? Their entire society is based on The Book, a tome which was left behind by a previous visitor. What is this book? A history of 1930s Chicago mobsters.

A society built around gangland warfare over turf leaves a lot to be desired. People roam the street with machine guns, drive by shootings are commonplace, leaders of rival gangs are constantly looking for an edge, and women serve little purpose beyond being playthings for the great and powerful. Faced with a society like that, it is rather obvious that the whole society needs to be torn down and replaced with a better set of cultural norms.

The obvious plot would be to have Kirk give an impassioned speech in which he explains the problems with the society to the Iotians. He could point out that a society based on 1930s Chicago gangsters will have an impossible time growing and developing, that the constant gang warfare inflicts obvious harm not only on rival gangs but on innocent bystanders. Kirk could offer up better models to imitate. He could try to convince them to replace The Book with the Starfleet Manual or some other description of a functioning society. If you imagine Kirk following that path, how successful would he have been? None of those other cultural norms will look attractive to someone enamored with machine-gun-wielding bootleggers.

Instead, Kirk does something extremely surprising. He joins the Iotians in imitating The Book. He sets himself up as the leader of the biggest and most successful gang around. Starfleet has better guns and a larger gang than anyone on the planet. Gathering all the gang leaders together, Kirk tells them that from now on, he is going to be the head boss, that the Starfleet gang will now be running the show, and that Starfleet will show up yearly to collect its piece of the action. Kirk will no longer put up with all these petty battles between the now subservient gang leaders.

The episode is amusing, but underneath it lies a deep point. When Kirk wants to change a culture, he does not mount a frontal attack. Instead, he plays the game better than anyone else. For a society that admires gang leaders, Kirk becomes the greatest gang leader. Now that Kirk has established himself as the greatest, it is suddenly possible to imagine reshaping the society. People have this instinctual desire to imitate the rich and famous, so the easiest was to influence them is to become the object of admiration.

The lesson here for the Culture Warriors is simple: imitate Captain Kirk. An assault on cultural norms will not work because people are going to imitate even the vices and flaws of the rich and famous. If you want to influence popular culture, you have to become the great. You have to produce better music and movies and TV shows, earn larger fortunes in business, become better at 3 points shots and scoring touchdowns. If all the energy and money devoted to attacking popular culture was devoted to developing a superior set of rich and famous people, the culture will morph of its own accord as people imitate the new head bosses.

Want more?
From James Hartley: Star Trek and Adam Smith: Sympathy of the Vians; H.G. Wells should have read Adam Smith: Do the Eloi and Morlocks Trade?; Hidden Revolutionaries: Tristram Shandy and Adam Smith; and Money, Wealth, and Whuffie.
Jon Murphy's Why do we Admire Celebrities?
Kristen Collin's Adam Smith’s Critique of the Public’s Scrutiny of the Poor
Christopher Martin's Adam Smith on the Rich and the Poor
Richard Gunderman's On Adam Smith and Envy
Erik W. Matson's Perspectives from Smith on Wealth and Happiness
EconTalk's Adam Davidson on Hollywood and the Future of Work
Alberto Mingardi's Two cheers for the tasteless
Jon Millar's The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks
For teachers, Bellringer Prompt: How we react to wealth and poverty