Sunday, May 7, 2017

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Bold new ideas from one of Europe's most prominent young thinkers.

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch thinker and journalist. At twenty-nine, he's quite an accomplished young author, with four books under his belt. Utopia for Realists was first published in his native Netherlands in 2014 and has just been translated into English.

The main ideas the book espouses are a universal basic wage, a 15-hour working week and more open borders. The case for a universal wage has plenty of appeal, as crazy as it may sound. Bregman marshals some fascinating research on it. Where it has been trialed, the results have shown that people spend the money wisely. A common belief throughout history is that that the poor are lazy and undeserving, but research shows that the poor, when given money, use it for education or starting up their own businesses. The broad bureaucracy of the welfare state, with its experts, counselors and financial advisors, could well be a waste of money. It might be cheaper to give people money because they'll know best how to spend it.

The most striking example Bregman offers of a basic universal income was one proposed  by none other than American President Richard Nixon. He had a pilot program ready to go that would have given the poor a guaranteed basic income, but politics got in the way and the program was shelved.

A lot of the other ideas in the book flow from the basic wage, like a shorter working week. Bregman has statistics which show a large percentage of workers think their jobs are nothing more than useless busy work. He uses the example of the Irish bankers strike. Apparently, the strike didn't hurt the economy that much at all. People came up with their own methods of exchange. It seems most of the banking industry wasn't that necessary. Contrast this with the New York garbage strike, which caused utter chaos within a week. Bregman suggests we could ditch the useless busy work and spend our leisure time on more artistic pursuits.

The last big idea, more open borders, is the most contentious idea in the book, especially considering today's political landscape. Bregman here marshals data that shows more open borders would actually improve economic performance.

This is a book full of bold, fresh ideas worth thinking about. They may seem like the stuff of fantasy, but so have many other radical propositions that in due course became the norm.

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN:  9781408890271 RRP: $21.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.