'There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong'

Review of Utopia for Realists: the case for a universal basic income, open borders and a 15-hour workweek, by Rutger Bregman

John Rentoul
Tuesday 29 March 2016 08:39
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If energy, enthusiasm and aphorism could make the world better, then Rutger Bregman's book would do it. Even in translation from the Dutch, the writing is powerful and fluent, although ultimately unconvincing.

The basic income idea, which Bregman rightly says has been around since Thomas More's Utopia in 1516, has recently become fashionable. The policy of an unconditional payment to all citizens, whether they work or not, to replace all state benefits was espoused by the Greens before the last election, but even they downgraded it to a long-term aspiration when they saw what trouble Natalie Bennett got into trying to explain the party's relatively mainstream policy of building more social housing.

Last year a stray sentence in a Finnish local government brainstorming document prompted a flurry of reports in the British press. Declan Gaffney patiently explained to Guardian readers why the idea is flawed. My colleague Hannah Fearn wrote favourably about it for Independent Voices when Ontario province in Canada said it would try it. Being unusually open-minded, she also commissioned Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, to explain why it wouldn't work.

Bregman claims his book prompted several local authorities in the Netherlands to experiment, or to plan to experiment, with basic income policies, so I was interested to see how he dealt with the objections raised by Gaffney and Mian. To recap, a basic, or citizens, income seems like a good idea because it is so simple; it abolishes means-testing; it provides an incentive to work because every pound earned increases income (subject to tax); and, if set high enough, it would abolish poverty.

The first problem with it is that it would be expensive. This is not an objection in principle, but it would require steep rates of tax on earned income to pay for it, which in turn requires people to vote for higher taxes.

The fundamental problem, though, is that people's needs are different. If the basic income were set at a level that would allow people to afford London rents, it would be even more expensive and probably needlessly generous to people outside London. The same goes for people with disabilities that require expensive care. The basic income would, therefore, have to be set at different levels for people with different disabilities and possibly for different parts of the country. It would cease to be a universal flat-rate payment, and it would require a bureaucracy to administer it.

In other words, it would be a bit like the existing systems of welfare in most countries, only a bit simpler and a lot more expensive. Ask Iain Duncan Smith how easy it is to bring in grand simplifications of social-security systems.

Unfortunately, Bregman doesn't deal with these objections. He is mainly concerned to explain why, every time something like the basic income has been tried, the information about its success has been suppressed. Apparently it was tried in Winnipeg in Canada in 1973 but the experiment was stopped after a change of national government which "saw little point to the expensive experiment" and wouldn't provide funds to analyse the data. They have since been analysed, but Bregman doesn't tell us much about the conclusions, apart from quoting one couple who liked receiving free money.

Bergman's other ideas are similar in their simplicity and grandiosity. He claims that abolishing all controls on immigration would double the world economy (which is just as well because one of the questions about a basic income in the UK is how it would operate with free movement of EU workers). And he advocates a 15-hour working week, another staple of utopians through the ages. Apart from tweaking incentives in the tax system to make it cheaper for a company to hire an additional employee than to extend the hours of existing employees, however, he offers little to achieve this leisure-rich paradise.

Bregman almost redeems himself in his last chapter. He recounts the story of an American sect who believed that the world was going to end in 1954. When it didn't, some were disillusioned, but others simply redefined the prophecy and became more rigid in their beliefs than before. I thought he was citing this as a warning against "recalibrating reality" when it conflicts with one's world view. Instead, it leads him to a discussion about how unpopular the views of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman once were, and how their "neoliberalism" now rules the world. The lesson being that, if you stick with your ideas and they are right, you will eventually prevail.

The book is a boisterously good read, dotted with quotations, most of them from John Maynard Keynes, which is no bad thing. But it should have concluded with this, from HL Mencken in 1917: "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong."

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