Free money, open borders and other reasonable ideas
Utopia for Realists, by Rutger Bregman (Bloomsbury, £16.99).
THE SEARCH FOR UTOPIAS can be dangerous, but not searching is also fraught. The idea that modern capitalism is about the best we can do is, as Ralph Miliband once said, a slur on humanity.
But this delusion persists, even after the the Great Crash of 2007. For the elites, politics remains about problem management - only symptoms are addressed. The dominant ideology, liberalism, has been hollowed out and reduced to the freedom to consume. The dominant ideas are ones that validate capitalism.
Yet Rutger Bregman has some arresting facts. “For every pound earned by advertising executives, they destroy £7 in the form of stress, over-consumption, pollution and debt; conversely, each pound paid to a trash collector creates an equivalent of £12 in terms of health and sustainability.”
People are well aware when they are doing meaningless work. A 2014 YouGov poll found that 37% of British workers felt they were doing a job that didn’t need to exist. Strikes emphasise this. A stoppage by New York garbage workers led to an immediate environmental health emergency, which would not happen if overpaid lobbyists and bankers struck.
The case for higher taxes - not just on the rich because they can afford it, but to get more people into useful work - is clear. Bregman’s aim is to make utopian ideas look reasonable. His big idea - popularised in a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk in April 2017 with well over a million online viewings - is to give free money to people. A universal basic income would be cheaper to operate than the cost of dealing with homelessness or policing the benefits system, and would actually make people more productive.
This idea is not new. US policymakers took it seriously in the 1970s, impressed with evidence about improved health and educational outcomes. It was abandoned when opponents highlighted spiralling divorce rates in areas where such schemes had been trialled. With the rise of the Christian right, a policy that gave too much independence to women was unthinkable.
Since then, the focus on “helping the poor” has been spectacularly unsuccessful, not least because it deepens the wedge between them and the rest of society. Universal approaches work better and increase social solidarity. That requires proper funding of public services. But countries with a large public sector, as in Scandinavia, also score high on wellbeing indicators - as do countries with less inequality. States with the highest rates of depression, school dropout, drug abuse, obesity, low electoral turnout, social and political distrust are also the most unequal.
High on this list is the US, not a poor country in world terms. But inequality has social consequences, for example more bullying, that contribute to stress and poor health. The IMF says that inequality even limits economic growth.
Yet even as production grows, median wages are declining significantly, as labour is less scarce, partly due to increased mechanisation. Scholars estimate that nearly half of all US and a third of European jobs are at high risk of being usurped by machines in the next 20 years.
Hence another of Bregman’s ‘utopian’ ideas: a drastic shortening of the working week and expansion of leisure time. Evidence suggests a shorter work-week need not hit productivity - rested workers are more efficient. Even Ted Heath’s notorious three day week during the 1974 miners strike caused a fall in production of only 6%. Less work means less stress, less unemployment, less climate change, fewer accidents, more gender and social equality.
Globally, Bregman identifies one single measure that could eliminate poverty: open borders. In an era of globalisation, only 3% of people live outside the country of their birth. Billions of people are forced to sell their labour at a fraction of what they could get in a developed country, a key driver of global inequality. Opening borders would generate an estimated $65 trillion in wealth.
This sounds truly utopian. But most concerns that have been raised against it don’t withstand scrutiny. There’s little evidence that open borders increase criminality or depress wage rates. Even the idea that diversity undermines social cohesion has been debunked - it’s the disadvantages that people in diverse communities face that undermines trust. And open borders mean that migrants, knowing they are free to come and go, are more likely to return to their country of origin. Instead, the opposite is happening: “three quarters of all border walls and fences were erected after the year 2000.”
This book is accessible and optimistic. Bregman has said in interview that Martin Luther King didn’t gain support by saying, “I have a nightmare.” The left needs to reclaim the language of hope and progress. Jeremy Corbyn understands this. The gap between utopia and power is closing fast.