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Utopia for Realists
How We Can Build the Ideal World

by Rutger Bregman, Little, Brown and Company, 2017

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian and journalist, born 26 April 1988, described by someone working for Google as:

... one of Europe's most prominent young thinkers. He has published four books on history, philosophy, and economics. His History of Progress was awarded the Belgian Liberals prize for best nonfiction book of 2013, and Bregman has twice been nominated for the European Press Prize.

Steven Pinker writes:

If you're bored with hackneyed debates and decades-old right-wing and left-wing clichés, you may enjoy the bold thinking, fresh ideas, lively prose, and evidence-based arguments in Utopia for Realists.

Bregman gives us a long argument for a policy that President Nixon and two advisors, Milton Friedman and Patrick Moynihan, favored but got lost in misconception. He does that in Chapter Four, titled "The Bizarre Tale of President Nixon and His Basic Incoe Bill." Ayn Rand is mentioned. But first he gives us "a little history lesson:"

Where 84% of the world's population still lived in extreme poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%.

He adds:

If this trend holds, the extreme poverty that has been an abiding feature of life will soon be eradicated for good. Even those we still call poor will enjoy an abundance unprecedented in world history. In the country where I live, the Netherlands, a homeless person receiving public assistance today has more to spend than the average Dutchman person in 1950, and four times more than people in Holland's glorious Golden Age, when the country still ruled the seven seas.

What has happened? The benefits of machines replacing muscle and sweat and automation has been giving humanity an abundance of goods, and the big issue remains the distribution of what is produced. Bregman writes of the idea that if poor people are given money (like I get with my small social security check) they will just waste it — liquor, cigarettes or as the gullible victims of professional hucksters of various kinds). Nixon defended his guaranteed income and lost his argument through conservative rhetoric. That rhetoric dates back to the idea that hunger alone goads people to do useful work. And there was the idea with Malthus that assistance to the poor would help the assisted breed, defeating the assistance with more mouths to feed.

Bregman documents a few studies that have reported good results from assistance to groups of poor people. His talk of utopia is an argument for being open-minded about programs that remove poverty and make living more pleasant. The utopia he speaks of is not, he claims, a utopia with a blueprint. It is not the utopia that for many of us is a dirty word. The "utopia for realists" he is advocating is not a formula that does away with capitalism. He describes his utopia as an open-ended creative application of arrangements that would both work in a practical economic sense and makes us feel better about our work, our leisure and ourselves. In other words, it seems that it would come like other political change: with conflicting ideas floated, rejected or accepted based on mass experience, communications and politics.

Bregman criticizes today's European socialists. He writes:

But first, the underdog socialists will have to stop wallowing in their moral superiority and outdated ideas. Everyone who reckons themselves progressive should be a beacon of not just energy but ideas, not only indignation but hope, and equal parts ethics and hard sell.

Bregman takes steps toward creation of a blueprint of his own: the fifteen-hour working week and open borders.

The Guardian opines:

If that all sounds like fantasy politics, then Bregman has assembled a wealth of empirical evidence to make his case. Better than that, though, it is not a dry, statistical analysis – although he doesn’t shy from solid data – but a book written with verve, wit and imagination. The effect is charmingly persuasive, even when you can’t quite believe what you’re reading.

The Guardian describes Bregman's starting point:"

The welfare state has become too large and we need to cut back on benefits. Immigration is out of control and borders need to be strengthened... The centre ground is being dragged to the left and right.

Bregman's chapter titles include:

New Figures for a New Era
A Fifteen-Hour Workweek
Why it Doesn't Pay to be a Banker
Race Against the Machine
Beyond the Gates of the Land of Plenty
How Ideas Change the World

A five-star reviewer at Amazon writes:

He ends with sound advice for the Left: stop caving to right wing dogma. You have access to dramatic facts. Use them. There are gigantic, proven solutions waiting to be implemented if only someone would sponsor them. He points out that the accepted issues of the day, like voting by women, same-sex marriage and abolition of slavery were outrageously radical and completely unacceptable just a few years ago. So be impossible and have a thick skin.


Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.