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Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek

By Rutger Bregman

The past two centuries have seen explosive growth both in population and prosperity worldwide. Per capita income is now ten times what it was in 1850. The average Italian is 15 times as wealthy as in 1880. And the global economy? It is now 250 times what it was before the Industrial Revolution.

By the year 2013, six billion of the globe’s seven billion inhabitants owned a cell phone.

But the real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don't have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. No, the real crisis is that we can't come up with anything better.

Without utopia, we are lost. Not that the present is bad; on the contrary. However, it is bleak, if we have no hope of anything better.

Had you asked the greatest economist of the 20th century what the biggest challenge of the 21st would be, he wouldn't have had to think twice. Leisure.

By 2030, Keynes said, mankind would be confronted with the greatest challenge it had ever faced: what to do with a sea of spare time. Unless politicians make “disastrous mistakes” (austerity during an economic crisis, for instance), he anticipated that within a century the Western standard of living would have multiplied to at least four times that of 1930. The conclusion? In 2030, we’ll be working just 15 hours a week.

Yet the Industrial Revolution, which propelled the 19th century’s explosive economic growth, had brought about the exact opposite of leisure.

Nevertheless, starting around 1850 some of the prosperity created by the Industrial Revolution began to trickle down to the lower classes. And money is time.

By around 1970, sociologists talked confidently of the imminent “end of work.” Mankind was on the brink of a veritable leisure revolution.

In the 1980s, workweek reductions came to a grinding halt. Economic growth was translating not into more leisure, but more stuff.

Why? It all has to do with the most important development of the last decades: the feminist revolution.

It’s safe to say the predictions of the great minds didn't exactly come true. Not by a long shot, in fact.

We aren't bored to death; we’re working ourselves to death.

Time is money. Economic growth can yield either more leisure or more consumption. From 1850 until 1980, we got both, but since then, it is mostly consumption that has increased. Even where real incomes have stayed the same and inequality has exploded, the consumption craze has continued, but then on credit.

“The big reason poor people are poor is because they don't have enough money,” notes economist Charles Kenny, “and it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem.”

“Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity,” stresses the economist Joseph Hanlon. “You can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

The great thing about money is that people can use it to buy things they need instead of things that self-appointed experts think they need.

Yet the “lazy poor people” argument is trotted out time and again. The very persistence of this view has compelled scientists to investigate whether it’s true. Just a few years ago, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet summed up their findings: When the poor receive no-strings cash they actually tend to work harder.

Basic income: It’s an idea whose time has come.

For the first time in history, we are actually rich enough to finance a sizable basic income. We can get rid of the whole bureaucratic rigamarole designed to force assistance recipients into low-productivity jobs at any cost, and we can help finance the new simplified system by chucking the maze of tax credits and deductions, too.

All the world’s developed countries had it within their means to wipe out poverty years ago.

A universal, unconditional basic income would also enjoy the broadest base of support. After all, everyone stands to benefit.

The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame. It is a grotesque pact between right and left.

We’re saddled with a welfare state from a bygone era when the breadwinners were still mostly men and people spent their whole lives working at the same company.

Never before has the time been so ripe for the introduction of a universal, unconditional basic income.

It is now within our means to take the next step in the history of progress: to give each and every person the security of a basic income. It’s what capitalism ought to have been striving for all along. See it as a dividend on progress, made possible by the blood, sweat, and tears of past generations.

“The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once called poverty a “personality defect.”

There’s a key distinction though between people with busy lives and those living in poverty: You can't take a break from poverty.

A British study discovered that the costs of poverty among children in England top £29 billion ($44 billion) a year. According to the researchers, a policy to eliminate poverty “could largely pay for itself.”

“Anywhere you find poor people, you also find non-poor people theorizing their cultural inferiority and dys-function.”

That a president as recent and as conservative as Richard Nixon once sought to implement a basic income seems to have evaporated from the collective memory.

In recent decades, our welfare states have come to look increasingly like surveillance states. Using Big Brother tactics, Big Government is forcing us into a Big Society.

The current tangle of red tape keeps people trapped in poverty. It actually produces dependence.

This isn't a war on poverty; it’s a war on the poor.

If there’s one thing that we capitalists have in common with the communists of old, it’s a pathological obsession with gainful employment.

It all boils down to the fallacy that a life without poverty is a privilege you have to work for, rather than a right we all deserve.

Up until a few centuries ago, almost everybody worked in agriculture. That left an affluent upper class free to loaf around, live off their private assets, and wage war – all hobbies that don't create wealth but at best shift it about, or at worst destroy it. Any blue-blooded noble was proud of this lifestyle, which gave the happy few the hereditary right to line their pockets at the expense of others.

The bottom line is that wealth can be concentrated somewhere, but that doesn't also mean that’s where it’s being created. This is just as true for your former feudal landowner as it is for the current CEO of Goldman Sachs.

Bankers sometimes imagine themselves the great creators of all this wealth. The lord who was proud to live off his peasants’ labor suffered no such delusions.

Innumerable people spend their entire working lives doing jobs they consider to be pointless. They’re the jobs that even the people doing them admit are, in essence, superfluous.

As long as we continue to be obsessed with work, work, and more work the number of superfluous jobs will only continue to grow.

Another recent poll revealed that as many as 37% of British workers think they have a bullshit job.

This results in scenarios where, on the one hand, governments cut back on useful jobs in sectors like healthcare, education, and infrastructure – resulting in unemployment – while on the other investing millions in the unemployment industry of training and surveillance whose effectiveness has long been disproven.

The purpose of a shorter workweek is not so we can all sit around doing nothing, but so we can spend more time on the things that genuinely matter to us. In the end, it’s not the market or technology that decides what has real value, but society.


The idea that the GDP still serves as an accurate gauge of social welfare is one of the most widespread myths of our times.

Given our obsession with it, it’s hard to believe that just 80 years ago the GDP didn't even exist.

If you had asked Hoover how “the economy” was doing, he would have given you a puzzled look because he would have had no notion of our modern understanding of the word “economy.” “Economy” isn't really a thing, after all – it’s an idea, and that idea had yet to be invented.

From the wreckage of depression and war, the GDP emerged as the ultimate yardstick of progress. Its job was not to bolster the war effort, but to anchor the consumer society.

At the start of the 20th century the U.S. government employed a grand total of one economist; more accurately, an “economic ornithologist,” whose job was to study birds. Less than 40 years later, the National Bureau of Economic Research payrolled some 5,000 economists, in the sense that we use the word. *

Though it’s a number bandied about freely in the media, there are few people who really understand how the GDP is determined. Even many professional economists have no clue.

The GDP is not a clearly defined object just waiting around to be “measured.” To measure GDP is to seek to measure an idea. *

“The gross national product […] measures everything […] except that which makes life worthwhile,” said Robert Kennedy.

It’s time for a new set of figures. The targets of our performance-driven society are no less absurd than the five-year plans of the former U.S.S.R.

“Productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.”29 Governing by numbers is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia.


If all the developed countries would let in just 3% more immigrants, the world’s poor would have $305 billion more to spend, say scientists at the World Bank. That’s the combined total of all development aid – times three.

Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.

Today, the richest 8% earn half of all the world’s income,and the richest 1% own more than half of all wealth. The poorest billion people account for just 1% of all consumption; the richest billion, 72%.

A person living at the poverty line in the U.S. belongs to the richest 14% of the world population; someone earning a median wage belongs to the richest 4%.

Even food stamp recipients in the U.S. live like royalty compared to the poorest people in the world.

Opening up our borders, even just a crack, is by far the most powerful weapon we have in the global fight against poverty.

Here we are, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and from Uzbekistan to Thailand, from Israel to Botswana, the world has more barriers than ever.

Perhaps in a century or so we’ll look back on these boundaries the way we look back on slavery and apartheid today. One thing is certain however: If we want to make the world a better place, there’s no getting around migration.


Fundamental reform of the banking sector has yet to happen. On Wall Street, bankers are seeing the highest bonus payments since the crash.12 And the banks’ capital buffers are as minuscule as ever.

“It’s like standing at Chernobyl and seeing they’ve restarted the reactor but still have the same old management.”

Had we invested too much in our old convictions? Or were there simply no alternatives? This last possibility is the most worrying of all.

When we suddenly found ourselves facing the collapse of the entire banking sector, there were no real alternatives available; all we could do was keep plodding down the same path.

Nowadays, “neoliberal” is a put-down leveled at anybody who doesn't agree with the left. Hayek and Friedman, however, were proud neoliberals who saw it as their duty to reinvent liberalism.

Hayek wrote. “What we lack is a liberal Utopia.”

When asked what she considered to be her greatest victory, Thatcher’s reply was “New Labour”: Under the leadership of neoliberal Tony Blair, even her social democratic rivals in the Labour Party had come around to her worldview.

In less than 50 years, an idea once dismissed as radical and marginal had come to rule the world.

In an ironic twist of fate, the neoliberalist brainchild of two men who devoutly believed in the power of ideas has now put a lockdown on the development of new ones. It would seem that we have arrived at “the end of history,” with liberal democracy as the last stop and the “free consumer” as the terminus of our species.

When Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, 2008, and inaugurated the biggest crisis since the 1930s, there were no real alternatives to hand. No one had laid the groundwork.

A 15-hour workweek, universal basic income, and a world without borders… They’re all crazy dreams – but for how much longer? *

Ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again. “Indeed,” wrote Keynes, “the world is ruled by little else.”