Tuesday, 25 April 2017

A new view of Utopia

A Universal Basic Income and 15 hour week are among the radical ideas put forward by the young Dutch academic Rutger Bergman in his book Utopia for Realists.

Picking up on Thomas Moore’s concept of Utopia, Bergman puts forward a blueprint for a new future. The tone is one of thinking about how things are and saying why, whilst dreaming what they could be and asking why not.

The bold premise is that by implementing the Universal Basic Income (UBI), cutting the working week to 15 hours and opening borders to migration that poverty can largely be eradicated.

The idea of UBI has been gathering support since the Swiss referendum on the subject last June. The idea of giving people a basic amount to live on is now being trialed in parts of the Netherlands and Finland. But the idea is not new having been trialed during the 1960s and 70s in the US and Canada . Amazingly, US President Richard Nixon was on the verge of implementing UBI in the 1970s - the legislation finally falling in the Senate.

What Bergman argues is that the evidence from past experiments shows that when people are given money they use it sensibly. People are not innately lazy always looking for a way of skiving – which happens to be the premise on which the benefits system in the UK is now based.

There is the example of an experiment in the City of London in 2009, when 13 men living on the street were given £3,000 a year.

The result was not that they spent it on alcohol and drugs. After 18 months, seven had a roof over their heads, with two about to move into apartments.

The men had joined classes and reconnected with families. What was more the experiment saved money, with the total cost working out at £50,000, rather than the £400, 000 per annum it was previously costing to keep them on the street.

The central thrust of Bergman’s argument is that the evidence shows that when given a basic amount of money people act sensibly, they don’t stop working but do have more time for their families and education.

What is more it contributes to the common good by further cutting welfare costs.

The shorter working week is not a new idea either. It was a perfectly realistic goal in the post war world. Recalling once again that great liberal, Nixon, promising Americans a four day week in 1956.

The big change in attitude to ideas like the shorter working week came with the neo-liberal revolution of recent decades,  promoted at the outset by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US.

Since that time people have worked longer for less, with requisite increases in levels of stress, mental illness and general unhappiness with life.

Now things need to change, not least for the welfare of the human person but also with the rapid advance of automation, there simply won’t be the jobs to do in the future.

An Oxford University study suggests 54% of jobs in Europe are likely to be done by machines in the next 20 years.

Bergman’s answer to the world’s problems is a massive redistribution of wealth, moving from the present grotesque inequalities that sees eight people owning as much of the world’s wealth as half of its population (3.5 billion). The means to achieve such redistribution will be implementation of UBI, a 15 hour working week and taxes on capital and not labour.

He also calls for an opening up of borders, arguing that if developed countries let in just 3% more immigrants that would provide a boost of US$305 billion for the world’s poor.

Bergman’s challenging ideas have much to recommend them, though, concepts like open borders, might take a bit more selling in the present febrile atmosphere.

*Utopia for realists and how we can get there By Rutger Bregman                     Published by Bloomberg £16.99

- published in the Catholic Universe - 23/4/2017

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