A time traveller from the 20th Century wouldn’t initially notice it. Arriving on 24th Century Earth, capital of the United Federation of Planets, they’d find a society at peace, where poverty and material want had been banished at least a hundred years ago, and where self improvement would be the stated driving goal of humanity.
They’d see passionate political debate on the web, and and would vote in free elections to elect both Earth’s various federal and national governments (Earth still would be nominally divided into nations and regional unions, but really just for local administrative and cultural purposes) and also the President and Council of the United Federation of Planets. They’d also notice the pervasive presence of Starfleet personnel pretty much everywhere, with its nebulous duty of interstellar exploration but also defence of the UFP member states. They’d find it rare to encounter a family that did not have someone serving in “the fleet”, and it would be a source of pride to the family. Then there’s the presence of the great commanders of Starfleet history, from Archer to Kirk to Picard to Janeway, heroes used by the UFP and Earth’s government to unite the people in a multicultural bond of respect and tolerance.
Finally, they’d notice the economy, or rather, the lack of it: The fact that energy supply, which powers the molecule manipulating replicators in every home and workplace that creates everything from starship components to breakfast to new shoes, decides everything, and that energy supply is 100% controlled by the state.
There is no poverty. Everybody gets a comfortable home. Everyone is entitled to a de facto career of their choice. Choose to enroll in Starfleet, or just be a sculptor. Want to try running a restaurant? Sure, just apply at your local council for a space (the state owns all the property) and they’ll find you somewhere to set up, and off you go. It doesn’t have to make any money, obviously, because what would you need money for anyway? The state doesn’t mind what you do, yet this is the open secret that never gets discussed.
What happens to the bums, to the people who don’t want to be Starfleet ensigns or run restaurants or write holodeck dramas? What do they do? The answer is: nothing. They get allocated their home same as everybody else and can while their days away looking at the window if they wish. The state doesn’t care. Who gets the nice apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay? Whomever wins the lottery when an apartment becomes free, that’s who. Want to live on the upper east side of Manhattan? Put your name on the list, and good luck.
But try to become rich, and it’s a different ballgame. First of all, it’s impossible on Earth. How can you be rich if you can’t own anything. That’s not to say that people don’t regard this house or that apartment as “their” homes or businesses, and they are as long as you need them. But you don’t own them, and so you can’t acquire them as an asset. Set up a business? Sure. Just don’t have prices. After all, you don’t have costs. Why would you do it, so? Why do people like being praised for a play they wrote, or a painting they painted, or a fabulous cake they baked. Because of pride, and that is what drives economic activity on post-scarcity Earth. The great inventors, writers, chefs of Earth live in nice homes, but no nicer than anyone else’s. But they are lauded in the media for their efforts, and that’s their reward. Robots can keep the sewers clean.
But try to advocate a return to private property, and watch the walls close in. The United Earth Party, which wins every election on Earth, keeps an eye on these things. Start advocating private property or the accumulation of wealth and find that you’re just not invited onto the major news shows. Remarks will be made about how perhaps you’d be happy with the Ferengis. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of humans in particular live and thrive in that ultra-capitalist society. But don’t think you can push that nonsense here in paradise.
It’s when you look closer at the political structure on Earth you can see the dark corners. The United Earth Party, which seized control of the war scarred Earth after the Third World War, is all about tolerance and benevolence, but only by its definition. It’s the only party permitted, although its primary elections are open to all. Turnout in elections, however, tends to be around the 20% threshold, but it would be inaccurate to call it repression. The truth is, most humans have better things to do with their time. Then there’s the debates. Within the party, debate on the local issues (should we build a new bridge/transporter station/metro?) is vigorously debated. Interstellar policy is also a source of great exchanges. Should Bajor be permitted to join the Federation? Perhaps a defence treaty with the Klingon Empire? Are our defences strong enough facing the Romulans? Should Starfleet be building actually warships? And of course, the ever present threat of the Borg. Primary debates within the UEP will be open and passionate. But do not dare raise the issue of Earth’s economic settlement, because settlement denial is instant political poison. Support private property and wealth acquisition? Do you want another civil war on Earth? Do you like the idea of little children dying from radiation poisoning? Well, do you?
It’s not a secret, but it’s not openly discussed that New Zealand houses Earth’s largest prison. Most of the inmates are violent criminals, but one section holds those citizens who just would not accept the economic settlement. Those convicted of the violent advocacy of Capitalism. It’ll get you 20 years in an admittedly very comfortable prison, but a prison all the same.
Then there’s the class structure on Earth, which does get talked about, but really only in the chattering classes and academic journals. Firstly, bear in mind that classes on Earth are not based on creed or wealth or race. Racism of any form will get you banged up faster than you can say “Vulcans go home!”. The class structure is based on meritocratic ability. Really smart people end up as Federation scientists, or diplomats, or Starfleet officers. Indeed, pretty much every Starfleet officer is an accomplished scientist in their own right. The intellectual cream of Earth rises to the top, and effectively runs human society (and the United Federation of Planets. The human domination of the UFP is a source of muttering in member states off world, although most planets marvel at the human capacity for diplomacy). One former Klingon Ambassador to Earth referred to Starfleet Academy as a “studfarm where Earth’s high achieving cream meet, procreate, and their high achieving genes create the next self-replicating generation of high achievers.” It’s no surprise that the number of Starfleet recruits whose parents were also officers in rising every year.
As for the other 97% of humans, they just get on with their daily lives. Some work, some spend a lifetime studying, some just watch holodeck dramas all day, or just enjoy the view.