Review: Utopia for Realists

And how we can get there

Rutger Bregman [Elizabeth Manton trans.] (2017)

Utopia for Realists offers a general argument that far-reaching visions are a requirement for real progress alongside three specific candidates for such visions: universal basic income, a fifteen hour workweek, and open borders. It’s lively, readable, and engages with criticism of its ideas in a clear and frank way.

The first of the candidate visions is for a universal basic income. As the name suggests, this is the idea that some reasonable amount of money, say £15,000/year,1 is given to everyone to do with as they wish. Proponents argue that the approach is cheaper, more dignified, and more effective than the alternatives. And proponents aren’t just liberal firebrands: one of the most compelling chapters in the book explores the story of Richard Nixon’s Basic Income Bill which could have set the mould for Western governments. The empirical evidence for basic income is promising, and set to grow considerably in the next few years as trials which are currently running start turning in data.2

The second candidate vision is less work, for a specific definition of work. Perhaps it is better phrased as ‘less drudgery’: the kind of work Bregman wants less of is the kind you’re not doing when “if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The argument is the same one that has been made since the industrial revolution: efficiency is an increase in output (stuff) for a given input (time), so why not use increases in efficiency to reduce the input rather than increase the output? The short answer, at present, is because most of us get paid for providing the input, not for providing the output. Bregman’s assertion is that we are able to produce enough3 to spread the necessary drudgery out thinly between us all and spend the rest of the time in leisure.4

The final major candidate vision in the book is for open borders. Of all of the counter-intuitive topics in the book, open borders is perhaps the most counter-intuitive. Even for those who can see why giving free money to everyone makes everyone richer, it can seem bizarre that sharing our resources with strangers can make us better off. It seems bizarre because we intuitively think of these resources as pools with a limited capacity: e.g. that there is a fixed amount of meaningful work to distribute among those who are capable of doing it. But in many instances this is not true; additional people create additional demands for food, housing, schooling, leisure facilities, etc., all of which mean there’s more work for someone to do.5

Behind all these candidate visions is a condemnation of a politics which sees government as an optimisation problem: how do we allocate resources and deploy programmes to maximize X, where X is employment, education, the economy, housing, healthcare, or anything else acknowledged to be within the purview of government. Some of these seem to be no-brainers,6 but others deserve discussion about whether X is the right sort of thing to maximize in the first place. Bryan Caplan has argued that education is not something we should be seeking to maximize in The Case Against Education.7 Bregman offers the same treatment of employment. In both cases the argument is that we’re maximizing the wrong things not because the policies are ineffective, but because they’re affecting the wrong things. In yet another reprise of the same old script, we’ve let our measures become targets: we’re maximizing % of university-educated population rather than capacity for people to be effective and self-governing individuals, citizens, and employees; and we’re maximizing hours worked rather than tangible value8 created (and shared!).9

Ultimately, I’m wary of accepting the findings in the book too uncritically, especially because I agreed at the outset with the potential merits of universal basic income and obviating drudgery (and was agnostic regarding open borders). I’m not convinced that I will dive into Politics (with a capital ‘p’) to support these ideas in the way Bregman advocates,10 but if I do I suppose it is books like this one which will be partly responsible. More than any of the specific utopian ideas put forward, the book is a call for the reinvigoration of value-based Political debate, and it will be interesting to see whether that call can garner enough of a broad and diverse base of support to become a reality.11


  1. Somewhat coincidentally, this is almost exactly what I earn as a PhD student 

  2. Testing policies, and cautiously expanding them in scale and to new contexts, is a robust and sensible way to ensure we do things that actually work, and which minimise unintended, undesirable outcomes. Showing that giving free money to everyone in a small town produces good outcomes doesn’t guarantee that those same outcomes would be realised if you gave free money to everyone in the world, but it does show that giving free money to people is a potentially great idea, and it should be explored further. 

  3. Quite what constitutes ‘enough’ is rather hard to pin down. Humans tend to define enough (once key drives are met) in relation to those around them, so it’s difficult to pick out exactly what level of consumption is acceptable as a baseline. 

  4. People who see work as valuable in and of itself argue that a life of pure leisure would lack meaning. Quite aside from the fact that much work fails to provide a sense of meaning (see Bullshit Jobs, also reviewed on this blog), it’s highly likely that once we stop looking to work to provide meaning we will seek it in other places. Both the aristocracies of the past and the Star Trek: The Next Generation-style visions of the future provide models for filling lives with creativity, learning, discussing and debating, and caring for others in the community (including spending time raising children). 

  5. This is a simplistic example, but it at least illustrates the point that demand is created by people and that therefore more people create more demand. 

  6. At least you would think so, but witness the debates in the USA over the merits of public healthcare. 

  7. I should point out that I’ve not read The Case Against Education, but I believe an accurate summary of its central argument is that education has become a pointless means of competitive evaluation rather than a means of ensuring adequacy for a role as a citizen or employee. 

  8. Bregman talks about the way some work destroys value, using a similar conception of value to Varoufakis in Talking to My Daughter (also reviewed on this blog) which bottoms out in improvements to lived human experience. 

  9. Raeworth’s Doughnut Economics (also reviewed on this blog) provides sketches for some of the ways in which some of the ideas in Bregman’s utopias could be operationalised and implemented. 

  10. Which is perhaps a pity, because I’m probably the sort of person he’s rather hoping to convince to be more politically active. 

  11. There are some notable efforts in this vein, such as Michael Sandel’s Public Philosophy events.