Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists: And how we can get there, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp 316 1 4088 9026 4, hbk, £16.99

As the title suggests, this book is both hopeful and realistic. In chapter 1 it charts the progress that we have made in tackling poverty during the past two hundred years and explores some of the downsides of progress: for instance, most people are no longer hungry, but too many are obese; and there are still far too many people in poverty. We’re still waiting for utopia.

Bregman then launches into his advocacy for ‘free money’: or does he? There is plenty of vivid description of experiments in various parts of the world, but rather too many of the payments in those experiments come with conditions attached: the requirement to report to social workers, the requirement to create a business plan – or the payments are reduced as earnings rise. This is not ‘free money’: it is conditional money. The difference is important. When Bregman introduces the term ‘basic income’ he envisages ‘an additional allowance for … the unemployed, and those unable to work’ (p. 34). This is not a Basic Income. And when he enthuses over the Canadian Mincome experiment, the Seattle experiment, Richard Nixon’s proposals, and the current Canadian experiment, he does not recognise that it would be better to describe these as income-tested benefits, or as guaranteed incomes, than as Basic Incomes. If Bregman wishes to use a term to mean something other than what it usually means then that would be legitimate if he were to offer good arguments for doing so: but he does not, and he never takes the trouble to distinguish between Basic Income (an unconditional and nonwithdrawable payment for every individual); Negative Income Tax (paid by the employer if someone’s wages fall below a tax threshold); and an income-tested benefit (which brings a household’s net income up to a prescribed level). And neither does he distinguish between varying annual dividends and regular equal payments. The behaviours of these different social policy instruments are very different from each other, and great care needs to be taken to distinguish between them.

There is much more than Basic Income in this book. Bregman discusses realistic ways of tackling homelessness; he advocates more open borders as a way of tackling global poverty; he prefers a ‘dashboard’ approach to GDP for measuring national product; and he wants to see someone’s pay reflecting the social value of their work. When Bregman advocates a shorter working week he does not recognise that a genuine Basic Income would help this to happen, but he does see that both Basic Income and a shorter working week would facilitate the transitions required by the Second Machine Age.

There is much well-evidenced wisdom in the book: for instance, that poverty reduces cognitive ability, as does having to cope with complex bureaucracy, so the poor become poorer; that bureaucratic ‘activating’ policies trap people in poverty; and that to attach work conditions to benefits can turn populations against the welfare state. However, in a book that advocates random controlled trials and asks that presuppositions should be carefully questioned, the author somewhat inconsistently assumes that correlation between income inequality and various other social ills implies that income inequality causes those other social ills, when it is just as likely that a variety of factors are causing both income inequality and other social problems; and the rather chaotic way in which terminology is employed in relation to cash transfers of various kinds means that the evidence gained from a variety of different experiments cannot with any confidence be employed to argue for a genuine Basic Income, for a Negative Income Tax, or for means-tested benefits.

The publisher is to be congratulated on such a reasonably priced hardback, but not for the statement that ‘the Dutch edition of Utopia for Realists … sparked a basic income movement that made international headlines’. The Basic Income debate has been around for a long time, this book did not spark it, and it is a pity that the book’s flaws mean that it will not be the contribution to the debate that it ought to have been. The acknowledgements at the end of the book do not mention any of the authors at the heart of the Basic Income debate, and neither do the references ( – there is no bibliography, so it is impossible to be sure how widely Bregman read in the field before he wrote his book). It is possible that Bregman wrote his book in a hurry and that he consulted no experts in the field as he did so. For the author to have taken greater care, to have involved himself in the existing Basic Income movement, and to have worked collaboratively with the movement’s scholars, might have produced a better book.