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Book Review: 'Utopia for Realists' by Rutger Bregman

First published in the Netherlands in 2014 and now republished in English with a retina-burning, bright orange jacket, Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists has become an international bestseller thanks to three big ideas: open borders, a basic income, and a shorter working week. At least two of these proposals have been of longstanding interest to libertarians. It is good to see them making waves on the centre-Left. Bregman’s passion for the basic income, in particular, is beyond doubt although it sometimes comes at the expense of objectivity. If you have studied any of these ideas before and are sceptical, Bregman’s analysis is unlikely to convince you, but there is enough original material to give most readers something to think about.

The book begins with an invigorating summary of the benefits of free trade and globalisation, which starts where Johan Norberg’s excellent Progress left off. The extraordinary, unprecedented rise of economic prosperity and all its attendant benefits in recent generations cannot be lauded too often, and Bregman pays fitting tribute before turning on a sixpence to discuss the problems that have turned our "Land of Plenty" into a "dystopia": anxiety, narcissism, boredom, apathy and – above all – the inability of his generation to come up with a vision of where society should go next (he is 28).

Bregman’s answer to this sense of purposelessness is to propose three grand schemes, starting with a guaranteed income for all. Citing some illuminating real world experiments, Bregman makes a compelling case for giving poor people money rather than setting up elaborate poverty-reduction schemes. It is the stress of being poor that leads people to make bad decisions as much as it is bad decision-making that makes them poor. Give homeless people a lump sum with no questions asked, he says, and you’ll be surprised how quickly they get back on their feet. Give people the security of a basic income, and you’ll be surprised by how few of them fritter it away.

I only looked up a few of the book’s references, but I saw enough to make me question whether the author was always being entirely candid.

There is much to be said for this, and Bregman claims to have a good deal of evidence to back it up. But as he makes his case, there is a creeping suspicion that the evidence is not as strong as he implies. When unfavourable evidence suggests that giving away "free money" can create unintended consequences or simply not work, he is quick to explain it away. But his critical faculties go to sleep when evidence supports his priors. For example, an absurd report from the New Economics Foundation is cited as evidence that advertising executives destroy £7 for every £1 they earn. Research by Robert Putnam and others which suggests that diversity undermines social cohesion is described by Bregman as having being "debunked" so thoroughly that it "crumbles to dust," but the studies he cites do not deliver any such killer blow, including a meta-analysis that largely confirms Putnam’s findings from the USA. The risible scatterplots of The Spirit Level don’t belong in a book aimed at "realists," and it would have taken Bregman only a few minutes to fact-check the old myth about Henry Ford giving his workers a pay rise so that they could buy his cars. (That wasn’t his reason and his workers wouldn’t have been able to afford one, anyway.)

I only looked up a few of the book’s references, but I saw enough to make me question whether the author was always being entirely candid. His account of the Speenhamland welfare system is particularly misleading. Introduced in 1795 and abolished in 1834, the Speenhamland System taxed landowners to prop up the wages of workers to compensate for rising bread prices. Historians have generally regarded it as a dismal failure that created mass pauperism. Bregman’s claim that it was actually a "success" is tendentious, but that scarcely matters since it was not a "basic income" in any sense, despite his repeated insistence to the contrary. It was effectively a working tax credit for people who had jobs. The unemployed did not benefit from it at all, and it tells us nothing about how a basic income may or may not work in practice.

The idea of a basic income may not be as old as Bregman makes out but, like his other big ideas, it has been around long enough for serious people to have given it serious consideration. Bregman does not mention Milton Friedman’s early endorsement of the basic income (perhaps because he fears alienating readers who only know of Friedman from the bizarre distortions of Naomi Klein), but he rightly cites John Maynard Keynes as a great proponent of more leisure. Open borders also have many advocates in the economics profession.

Why, then, have they not been acted upon? From Bregman’s telling, you might assume that it is because people have an exaggerated sense of the risks while being unaware of the benefits. There may be some truth to this, but those of us who are sympathetic to the idea of having more leisure time, freer movement, and a simpler welfare system must accept that there are obvious objections to part-time work, open borders, and a basic income with which Bregman does not fully engage.

The most common objection to the basic income is not that it failed in Georgian England but that it is simply unaffordable. To sell the idea to waverers like myself, Bregman needs to explain how much the basic income should be, how much it will cost in total, and what areas of government expenditure can be cut as a result. We need to be told whether it will generate a net savings or a net loss. Bregman says that poverty could be eradicated in the USA for what he suggests is a modest $175 billion a year, but this $175 billion is on top of the many billions already being spent to relieve poverty.

Bregman says that the basic income must be paid to everybody if it is to be popular, but that implies a gross cost of £650 billion per annum if every man, woman, and child in Britain is given £10,000 each. Admittedly, a large portion of this will be clawed back through taxes, but it is still a colossal sum; total government expenditure is currently less than £800 billion. If the provision of a basic income means that there is no need for services to be "free at the point of need," then the government can stop trying to run whole sectors of the economy, such as health and education, and make massive savings to offset some of the cost. But there is no suggestion that this is what Bregman has in mind. More likely, he intends the basic income to be offered in addition to existing benefits-in-kind and, perhaps, in addition to existing cash benefits. There is no way of knowing whether this would be remotely affordable, as Bregman doesn’t hint at the size of the basic income or at the tax rates that would be needed to pay for it.

The perennially unpopular idea of open borders also has flaws with which Bregman does not get to grips. Doubtless there are xenophobic objections to mass immigration but there are also practical objections which cannot easily be dismissed. Bregman is right to take on the myth that immigration is bad for the economy, and he provides good evidence to show that immigrants are not particularly prone to crime, idleness, or terrorism. But, like many proponents of open borders, he overlooks the fact that studies of immigration in the modern era are invariably studies of controlled immigration. He takes comfort from the fact that, since 1975, only 41 U.S. residents have been killed by foreign-born terrorists ("apart from the 2,983 people who died in the September 11 terrorist attack"), but he does not entertain the idea that this figure would have been a good deal higher if the U.S. had allowed jihadists to come and go as they pleased. It is possible that open borders would give us exactly the same type of hard-working, diligent, and peaceful immigrant that we get with the current system of passport checks and work visas, but the possibility that a free-for-all could lead to more undesirables entering the country must at least be considered.

Nor does he ask whether developed countries have the infrastructure and resources to accommodate, let alone assimilate, hundreds of millions of people at short notice. Many libertarians support open borders in principle, but argue that free movement is incompatible with the welfare state. Bregman’s basic income would compound that problem. Can we really expect a nation’s taxpayers to give a guaranteed income to anyone who chooses to move there? These questions are not necessarily unanswerable, but Bregman does not help his case by failing to ask them.

Finally, the obvious objection to the 15-hour week is not so much to the concept of working less as it is to the coercion needed to achieve it. There is no mystery about why Keynes’ prophecy of the three-hour day failed. Bregman touches on it himself when he says, "Economic growth can yield either to more leisure or more consumption." People have opted for more consumption. A part-time job could easily afford us a standard of living that was the norm when Keynes made his prediction in the 1930s, but we aspire to more than that. Bregman notes that many people say that they would like to work less, but talk is cheap. There are not many people in full-time work who are desperately trying to find part-time work, but there are always a large number of reluctant part-timers who would prefer to be working full time.

Bregman argues that a basic income would lead to people working less – indeed, he says that this is "precisely the point" of the basic income – but this contradicts his claim a few pages earlier when, defending the basic income against the accusation that it will lead to idleness, he cites evidence showing no decline in the number of hours worked when a basic income was trialled in a Canadian town. If he is right about the Canadian experiment, it would suggest that there is no great appetite for more leisure time. If he is wrong, his case for the basic income is weaker.

Although questions remain over Bregman’s big ideas, he should be applauded for seeking progressive, forward-looking policies at a time when the Left is split between those who are trying to relive the 1970s and those who are stuck in the cul-de-sac of identity politics. When discussing his policy proposals, Bergman is lively and thought-provoking, and so it is disappointing when gloomy clichés start appearing at the halfway stage. He tries hard to maintain a sunny disposition but cannot resist the familiar template of left-wing doom-mongering. It is patently untrue that we have "all gotten poorer" and are "all working harder than ever." He explicitly refutes this earlier in the book, so why say it? Income inequality in the Netherlands, as in Britain, has not risen for a quarter of a century so why claim it is "spiralling"?

Utopia for Realists is a cut above your average socialist tract by the likes of Oliver James or Danny Dorling, and yet its author falls back on some of the same lazy rhetoric at times. He spends several pages berating people for having "bull---t jobs," overlooking the fact that somebody must value this work otherwise they would not get paid. His chapter about mechanisation does not give a convincing reason why we should view the current hysteria about "robots taking our jobs" any differently to previous Luddite movements. And do we really need another bog standard critique of GDP, a measure of economic output that no one has ever claimed was the sole measure of progress?

When, in the closing chapters, the solution to mechanisation turns out to be "massive redistribution," and the only way to get people to do jobs that Bregman considers "useful" is to introduce "higher taxes," it becomes clear that the shiny new vision for the Left is not so different from the old. The apple, alas, does not fall far from the tree.

This originally appeared on the Institute of Economic Affairs' website and is reprinted with permission.

(Photo credit: Branchevereniging Nederlandse Architectenbureaus. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)


Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion, and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of publications including Sock Puppets, Euro Puppets, The Proof of the Pudding, The Crack Cocaine of Gambling and Free Market Solutions in Health.