Review: Utopia for Realists

Rutger Bregman (Utopia for Realists) makes compelling arguments for the redistribution of the unprecedented wealth of the contemporary world.

Rutger Bregman (Utopia for Realists) makes compelling arguments for the redistribution of the unprecedented wealth of the contemporary world. Bregman collects and presents economic research showing that redistributive, egalitarian measures — such as a guaranteed basic income, a 15 hour work week, a net wealth tax, or open borders — actually increase overall prosperity. Programs to alleviate poverty prevent higher social spending on law enforcement or medical bills, and people who benefit, especially as children, are far more likely to be healthy, functioning, and productive members of society later on.

Utopia for Realists offers social advocacy via intellectual history and a survey of contemporary economic research. Showing that a concept seemingly as basic as GNP (now GDP) was developed to measure national production for World War I, or that passports were not used rigorously until that time, shows how our prejudices about measuring national prosperity or the sanctity of borders are relatively new (historically speaking), and thus are not inevitable. There are indeed other ways to measure the value of human activity or how stringently to monitor the movement of human beings — in an era when goods, services, information, and capital are assumed to flow freely through the global economy.

Bregman defines utopia as a land of plenty. And, for all its faults, the contemporary world offers a far higher standard of living to far more people than any economic system in human history. Bregman believes that the inequality of wealth is one major cause for the persistence of economic problems. And while western economies may be a land of plenty, many of us even in the land of plenty are overworked at relatively useless jobs.

Universal Basic Income

Bregman is known as a strong advocate for the basic minimum income. He is a champion for that idea again in Utopia for Realists. He unfolds the history of guaranteed minimum income experiments from 19th century England as well as 1960s and 1970s Canada and the US.

While proposing such social re-engineering will strike many as counter-intuitive or even crazy, Bregman chronicles the intellectual history of such debates, which goes back at least to England during the early industrial revolution. He shows how landmark research can be framed in a tendentious way, negatively influencing generations of social science research.

The Speenhamland system (1795), an early basic income program for the poor was proposed by local magistrates to help prevent a popular revolt during the time of the French revolution. It was a success; William Pitt the Younger wanted to make the local program a national law.

Influential economists such as Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo remained opposed to basic income, fearing it would instill laziness, a political position which some espouse to this day. Decades later, after a popular revolt broke out, the influential Royal Commission Report (1832), ignored its own data, and willfully mischaracterized the program as a disaster. The result was the Poor Law, which forced many into involuntary labor in the workhouse. The Royal Commission Report has been cited by influential economists even into the 20th century.

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The Royal Commission Report was used as evidence even against Richard Nixon’s proposed Basic Income Bill (1969), an attempt to take America’s 1960s War on Poverty to the next level. Surprisingly, the Nixon administration came quite close to implementing a guaranteed basic income. The Bill was blocked by Democrats in the Senate, who wanted a bill with an even greater budget. So instead of passing a guaranteed basic income, the idea of welfare without work soon became discredited in the U.S. even before the Reagan Revolution pushed the U.S. back to less generous social programs in the 1980s.

The 15-Hour Workweek

Bregman makes a convincing case for the 15 hour work week. He shows that it is not a new idea. First he shows the history of economist philosophers and other thinkers who confidently predicted that automation would bring the average work week down to 15 hours John Maynard Keynes was confident of this projection early in the 20th century and others thought so back in the 19 century why has it not come to pass although he doesn’t make the case to strongly.

Bregman demonstrates that there’s more than enough wealth to go around to bring everyone out of poverty and into a 15 hour work week. What is missing is the lack of political will. The elites do not wish to extend the 15 hour work week to all people at this time. People in Western countries are now working longer hours than before, especially in the US, where a majority of workers work more than 40 hours per week. The long-awaited 15 hour week has not come to fruition, and there is significant opposition to it even from the working class.

Open Borders

Looking beyond the problems of the developed world to the developing world, Bregman shows how unclear the effect of foreign aid has been. For all the resentment that foreign aid stirs up in the U.S. (where it is a tiny slice of the budget), it’s very difficult to measure its impact. He asserts his support for open borders as a paradigm shift that would increase overall trade and prosperity. Citing sociological research by Robert Putnam and others, Bregman dispels the idea that immigrants are more likely to be terrorists, to undermine social cohesion, or are unwilling to work, or would reduce wages.

Ideas Change the World

Bregman relishes showing the errors in judgment made by major economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Marx and Engels, and later Milton Friedman — that some of their economic ideas had little bearing on reality. Neo-liberals such as Milton Friedman have always opposed government programs that redistribute the wealth. These economists suffered from the same malaise as other brilliant thinkers who get locked into their own ideas and are unwilling to change their minds. One chapter (“How Ideas Change the World”) deals with the issue of intellectual attachment to one’s own idea, and Bregman shows how he himself has suffered from it but eventually learn to transcend it.

Conclusion

Bregman addresses many thorny socioeconomic issues while using an engaging, conversational style. His history of ideas is filled with telling anecdotes. He frames his work in the guise of “we” (humanity) can decide our future. While this is optimistic in that it understates the current grip on power and wealth of the super wealthy, Utopia for Realists offers evidence in support of currently controversial social programs that might ameliorate the suffering of many and increase wealth for all.

Editor of The Satirist (thesatirist.com) America’s Most Critical Journal; satirist, critic, standup in Amsterdam

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