James R. Rummel points out that in the Star Trek universe, there is no money:
That always struck me as being exceedingly odd, particularly when I noticed that people were serving drinks in the space station saloons, and generally doing scut work. What motivated these people to get out of bed and work as servants every day, anyway? Where did the ambition to excel and become a starship captain come from? Why would anyone put on a red shirt and accompany the bridge crew as part of an away team?
Don't think I let this bother me too much. It was just entertainment, after all, and I didn't think it would stand up to too much scrutiny. If it bothered me at all, I just figured that the science of psychology had advanced so far by the time the Star Trek society rolled around that people were conditioned from birth to give their best, even if they didn't get any direct reward from their efforts.
And in a follow-up post, he expands upon this theme regarding the moral corruption that would result from a holodeck:
What would it take to condition someone to the point that they wouldn't want to simply spend all their time in the holodeck, running Roman Orgy v1.0? The methods to alter a human's natural desires to the point that they would shun such fleshly delights in order to strive to contribute to society essentially would warp them into something that I wouldn't even recognize as human anymore.
I left a comment to the effect of my usual interpretation of the economics of Star Trek: they were unrealistic, as they eliminated the first law of economics -- scarcity. Thanks to the replicator, there is virtually no need to manufacture anything. Although there were a few objects, such as latinum or yamok sauce, that could not be replicated, there was essentially nothing that your replicator could not provide for you -- including more replicators.
Commentor Dove took me to task for this assessment:
The higher and less obvious: patterns, designs, inventions. Dropping the cost of manufacturing to zero would do for tinkerers what dropping the cost of distrubution to zero (internet again) has done for writers. You wouldn't see stagnation. You'd see an explosion. The internet didn't leave us merely happy that we could finally get free porn and games. Perhaps for the first little bit, but then it turned tons of people into writers and public intellectuals who otherwise would have led private lives. So it would go with replicators. We might be content with the free food at first, but not forever. Soon we'd be giddy about the ability to design, say, our own working model train sets.
I found this at least partially persuasive. The manufacturing sector might disappear, save for those few items which cannot be replicated, or those protected by replication from proprietary claims, but the maintenance of such machinery and the creative sector would only expand. Tom Paris, for example, became a successful holonovel author. Although early Trek suggested that computers could do all of the necessary creative work, Trek did move away from this position and the ability to create entertaining and effective holoprograms became a prized -- and therefore scarce -- skill.
Likewise for manufacturing. Although a replicator could create anything which already existed, it could not create anything original. And this scarcity would fuel human desire to possess it.
There's no real bottom to human greed for more. More stuff, more experiences, more more. After all, we Americans live in a society where a person with home air conditioning and cable TV is considered poor. This would have been an absurd position fifty years ago.
If members of a society can have any common object in unlimited quantities due to replicator technology, or experience anything ordinary in a holodeck, they will begin to crave the uncommon and extraordinary -- and will be willing to work to earn the money (or credits) necessary to purchase them.
Alternately, there could even be a manufacturing economy for illegal products, such as narcotics (which might be programmed out of replicators) or holodeck programs of highly questionable taste.
Star Trek was not entirely consistent in depicting this economic universe, where there were merchants for everything, from self-sealing stem bolts to clothing. There are some items which cannot be replicated, and occasionally there are energy limitations on replicator systems. But this can be excused for the sake of good storytelling.
I would like to note that although I am coming around to Dove's point of view, we are approaching it from different directions:
On the whole, I think the view that humanity consists of gluttons and hedonists who would do nothing but eat, sleep, and have sex all day if we could get away with it is pessimistic and ultimately degrading. That's an all right vacation, but nobody actually wants that life. We are not our lusts, or not entirely. We are our ambitions, too. Self-discipline and achivement can be expected of us.
Actually, I think that a lot of people, particularly in the first generation of such technology, would do nothing but eat, sleep, and have sex all day if there were no economic incentive to get out, work, and achieve great things.
Quick: how many of you would quit your jobs if you suddenly won $100 million in a lottery? I would, and I have a great job right now. I might follow other ambitions, like get a Ph.D. or get back into art, but in the absence of bills stacking up, I probably wouldn't work as hard to achieve these things.
I've had days that were bad enough that, if given a choice, I'd walk into a holodeck and never leave. And I bet that a lot of other people would do likewise. Dove is too optimistic about human ambition.
Other articles on the economics of Star Trek:
The Marxism of Star Trek
Star Trek and Money
The Political Economy of Star Trek
Eidelblog: Star Trek economics