I’ve just finished Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, a practical guide to creating a better world using some pretty radical policy ideas. As the phrase goes, it’s available from all good bookshops. I did my bit for the small trader and got mine from Cogito Books in Hexham, Northumberland. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, full of ‘stand-out’ ideas and facts, here’s five of the best.
There’s never been a better time to be alive
We live in a time of plenty that earlier generations of humans could scarcely imagine, in fact people in Medieval times talked of a utopia called Cockaigne which sounds uncannily like life in the modern developed world. Extreme poverty has dropped from 84 per cent in 1820 to 44 per cent in 1981 to just under 10 per cent today. Levels of malnutrition, child mortality, disease and crime are plummeting. Put simply, human beings are better educated, more equal, happier, healthier and safer than ever before.
Everything you think you know about poverty is probably wrong
Think the poor are feckless or just a bit dumb? In fact there’s psychological research that poverty and the stress it brings reduces mental ‘bandwidth’. So how do you solve the stress of poverty? Why not take the money worries out of the equation and give the poor free money with no strings attached? This sounds like a recipe for disaster but evidence from around the world shows this is a surprisingly effective way to turn people’s lives around and, given the terrible cost to public services caused by poverty and deprivation, it may even be a wise investment. It also gets rid of a whole benefits ‘industry’ which tries to sort out the deserving from the undeserving at great expense.
The strange tale of how free money for all almost happened – thanks to Tricky Dicky
Richard Nixon, one of the most loathed and controversial US presidents of modern times, almost bought in a Universal Basic Income. Yes, Tricky Dicky himself championed one of the great progressive policies of our time. In 1969 he wanted to implement a law that would guarantee every family in the States a sum equivalent to $10,000 a year and almost got it on the statute books. However, and I’m not making this up, he changed his mind after a briefing which wrongly interpreted findings from an experiment with Universal Basic Income in Berkshire in the late 18th century.
Open the Borders, help the poor.
The most radical idea in Utopia for Realists isn’t Universal Basic Income – which incidentally is now being trialled in Finland and Canada – it is to get rid of national borders. This sounds politically impossible, but it’s an interesting point that passports and hard borders in Europe only became widespread after World War One. The world is open to free flows of goods and services but not the people needed to buy and sell them. Bregman argues that if you allowed people to flow without visas, checks and passports it would make the whole world twice as rich and make a huge difference to people in developing nations.
Ideas can (still) change the world
Bregman says there is a shortage of ideas around at the moment, particularly on the left who do little but respond to the march of the free market right. As he argues in his final call to action, you can dismiss ideas as unachievable but things once decried as unrealistic from universal healthcare to recycling to the minimum wage have now become part of the political mainstream. Utopia is achievable, and we’ve made great strides particularly in the last 30 years. All we have to do is to organise ourselves and be unrealistic, unreasonable and impossible.