Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World
Rutger Bregman, 2017
Rutger Bregman is a young Dutch writer (uncomfortably younger than me!) who has become prominent in recent years for his proposals for how developed nations can significantly improve living standards for both their citizens and, in fact, all of humanity.
Does he have a TED Talk you can watch? Of course he does.
In his book Utopia for Realists, Bregman advocates:
- Universal basic income (UBI). Wealthy countries should have implemented this years ago to alleviate poverty; in the future, as more and more of our jobs are automated, it will become even more important.
- Shorter workweeks. You can’t make workers more productive by making them work longer, as you hit a point of severely diminishing returns. Additionally, less overworked people make better citizens, more engaged in the life of the community.
- Dramatically liberalized immigration. Open borders would be ideal, but if wealthy countries admit even a modestly higher number of immigrants from poor nations, it could pay impressive dividends in economic growth and poverty reduction.
This book is written to convince the layperson and does not presume any specialist knowledge, although that means many people will find it regurgitates the basics. I’ve already read a fair bit on UBI -- I think the best overall introduction is Dylan Matthews’ 2017 article on Vox. And as it happens, I was midway through reading Bregman’s book when Rose Eveleth put out an episode of her “Flash Forward” podcast also exploring the topic of UBI. It’s definitely in the zeitgeist these days.
So why read Bregman’s book when one could cobble together the same material from online articles?
Put simply, Bregman knows how to frame an issue, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he chose the title Utopia for Realists. Bregman feels that we have lost our ability to think big, to dream that the world could be better and to believe that we have the ability to make it so.
Frankly, I think his first chapter makes a few tone-deaf statements that could turn off some readers; writing of today’s politics, he says “what now separates right from left is a percentage point or two on the income tax rate” (p. 15), and I’m sure many of us would dearly love to live in a place where that’s true.
But he means well; his point is that policies that could dramatically improve our lives and forestall misery are out there, but just beyond the reach of the Overton window, a concept that he defines in the final chapter, and frankly should be in more people’s mental lexicons anyway.
He repeatedly makes the point that the policies he would like to see implemented are less radical than many of us imagine. Richard Nixon, no one’s idea of a leftist radical, would have liked to see some form of UBI implemented in the 1970s, and Bregman devotes a chapter to the idea’s slow death.
He blames the failure of basic income on our cultural reservations about giving poor people money, which he says are not based on any empirical foundation. We have this prejudice that people shouldn’t get money they haven’t worked for, but this is counterproductive if we want a society that functions for everyone.
In short, he thinks that we’re being held back by irrational prejudices and distrust of ideas that feel different from what we’re used to. This is, essentially, his core argument, which he also applies to some other issues that don’t fit neatly into the three biggies that I laid out above: the growth of the financial sector (he’s not such a fan), and foreign aid to developing countries (let’s do what’s been empirically shown to work, he says).
In the end, he calls on us to follow in the footsteps of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman -- not in terms of their ideas, but rather the confidence and willingness that these prominent economists had to reshape the world in the 20th century. As he writes, “ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again” (p. 250).