Update: Utopia for Realists is temporarily unavailable. We’re happy to share that the translation rights have been sold to Little, Brown (US), Bloomsbury (UK), Rowohlt (Germany), Salamandra (Spain, Spanish), Natur&Kultur (Sweden), Bertrand (Portugal), Gimm-Young (Korea), Bungeishunki (Japan), Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (Italy), Psichogios (Greece), Domingo (Turkey), Du Seuil (France), and Grup62 (Spain, Catalan). These houses will publish new editions starting in spring 2017.
From a universal basic income to a 15-hour workweek, from a world without borders to a world without poverty – it’s time to return to utopian thinking.
Rutger Bregman takes us on a journey through history, beyond the traditional left-right divides, as he introduces ideas whose time has come. Utopia for Realists is one of those rare books that takes you by surprise and challenges what you think you know.
Rutger Bregman is one of Europe’s most prominent young thinkers. The 27-year-old historian and author has published four books on history, philosophy, and economics. His History of Progress was awarded the Belgian Liberales prize for best nonfiction book of 2013. The Dutch edition of Utopia for Realists became a national bestseller and sparked a basic income movement that soon made international headlines. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his journalism work at The Correspondent. His work has been featured in The Washington Post and on the BBC.
Please direct interview requests to publisher Milou Klein Lankhorst: email@example.com.
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We tend to think that simply giving people money makes them lazy. Yet a wealth of scientific research shows the contrary: free money helps lift people out of poverty. The time has come for a radical reform of the welfare state.
London, May 2009 – An experiment is underway. Its subjects: 13 homeless men. They are veterans of the street. Some have been sleeping on the cold pavement of the Square Mile, Europe’s financial center, for going on 40 years. Between the police expenses, court costs, and social services, these 13 troublemakers have racked up a bill estimated at £400,000 or more. Per year.
The strain on city services and local charities is too great for things to go on this way. So Broadway, a London-based aid organization, makes a radical decision: From now on, the City’s 13 consummate drifters will be getting VIP treatment. It’s adiós to the daily helpings of food stamps, soup kitchens, and shelters. They’re getting a drastic and instantaneous bailout.
From now on, these rough sleepers are getting free money.
To be exact, they’re getting £3,000 in spending money, and they don’t have to do a thing in return. How they spend it is up to them. They can opt to make use of an advisor if they'd like – or not. There are no strings attached, no questions to trip them up.
The only thing they’re asked is: What do you think you need?
“I didn’t have enormous expectations,” one social worker later recalled. But the drifters’ desires proved eminently modest. A telephone, a dictionary, a hearing aid – each had his own ideas about what he needed. In fact, most were downright thrifty. After one year, they had spent an average of just £800.
Take Simon, who had been strung out on heroin for 20 years. The money turned his life around. Simon got clean and started taking gardening classes. “For some reason, for the first time in my life, everything just clicked,” he said later. “I’m starting to look after myself, wash and shave. Now I’m thinking of going back home. I’ve got two kids.” A year and a half after the experiment began, seven of the 13 rough sleepers had a roof over their heads. Two more were about to move into their own apartments. All 13 had taken critical steps toward solvency and personal growth. They were enrolled in classes, learning to cook, going through rehab, visiting their families, and making plans for the future.
“It empowers people,” one of the social workers said about the personalized budget. “It gives choices. I think it can make a difference.” After decades of fruitless pushing, pulling, pampering, penalizing, prosecuting, and protecting, nine notorious vagrants had finally been brought in from the streets. The cost? Some £50,000 a year, including the social worker’s wages. In other words, not only did the project help nine people, it also cut costs considerably. Even The Economist had to conclude that the “most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them.”
Poor people can’t handle money. This seems to be the prevailing sentiment, almost a truism. After all, if they knew how to manage money, how could they be poor in the first place? We assume that they must spend it on fast food and soda instead of on fresh fruit and books. So to “help,” we’ve rigged up a myriad of ingenious assistance programs, with reams of paperwork, registration systems, and an army of inspectors, all revolving around the Biblical principle that “those unwilling to work will not get to eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In recent years, government assistance has become increasingly anchored in employment, with recipients required to apply for jobs, enroll in return-to-work programs, and do mandatory “volunteer” work. Touted as a shift “from welfare to workfare,” the underlying message is clear: Free money makes people lazy.
Except that according to the evidence, it doesn’t.
Meet Bernard Omondi. For years he earned $2 a day working in a stone quarry in an impoverished part of western Kenya. Then, one morning, he received a rather peculiar text message. “When I saw the message, I jumped up,” Bernard later recalled. A sum of $500 had just been deposited in his bank account. For Bernard, this was almost a year’s wages.
Several months later a journalist from The New York Times visited Bernard’s village. It was as though the entire population had won the lottery: The village was flush with cash. Yet no one was drinking their money away. Instead, homes had been repaired and small businesses started. Bernard invested his money in a brand-new Bajaj Boxer motorcycle from India and was making $6 - $9 a day ferrying people around as a taxi driver. His income had more than tripled.
“This puts the choice in the hands of the poor,” says Michael Faye, founder of GiveDirectly, the organization behind Bernard’s windfall. “And the truth is, I don’t think I have a very good sense of what the poor need.” Faye doesn’t give people fish, or even teach them to fish. He gives them cash, in the conviction that the real experts on what poor people need are the poor people themselves. When I asked him why there are so few peppy videos or pictures on GiveDirectly’s website, Faye explained that he doesn’t want to play on emotions too much. “Our data are hard enough.”
He’s right: According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, GiveDirectly’s cash grants spur a lasting rise in incomes (up 38% from before the infusion) and also boost homeownership and possession of livestock (up 58%), while reducing the number of days that children go hungry by 42%. Furthermore, 93% of every donation is placed directly in the hands of recipients. Presented with GiveDirectly’s figures, Google soon handed over a $2.5 million donation.
But Bernard and his fellow villagers haven’t been the only ones to luck out. In 2008, the government of Uganda decided to distribute almost $400 to some 12,000 16-to-35-year-olds. The money was all but free; the only thing they had to do in return was submit a business plan. Five years later, the effects were staggering. Having invested in their own education and business ventures, the beneficiaries’ incomes had gone up nearly 50%. And their odds of getting hired had increased more than 60%.
Another Ugandan program distributed $150 to over 1,800 poor women in the country’s north, with similar results: Incomes shot up by almost 100%. Women who received support from an aid worker (cost: $350) benefited slightly more, but researchers subsequently calculated that it would have been much more effective to lump the aid worker’s salary in with the grants. As the report dryly concluded, the results imply “a huge change in poverty alleviation programs in Africa and worldwide.”
Studies from all over the world offer proof positive: Free money works.
Already, research has correlated unconditional cash disbursements with reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, and truancy, and with improved school performance, economic growth, and gender equality. “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.”
In their book Just Give Money to the Poor (2010), scholars at the University of Manchester furnish countless examples of cases where cash handouts with few or no strings attached have worked. In Namibia, figures for malnutrition took a nosedive (from 42% to 10%), as did those for truancy (from 40% to virtually 0%) and crime (by 42%). In Malawi, school attendance among girls and women surged 40%, regardless of whether the cash came with or without conditions. Time and again, the ones to profit most are children. They suffer less hunger and disease, grow taller, perform better at school, and are less likely to be forced into child labor.
From Brazil to India, from Mexico to South Africa, cash transfer programs have become all the rage across the Global South. When the United Nations formulated its Millennium Development Goals in 2000, these programs weren’t even on the radar. Yet by 2010, they were already reaching more than 110 million families in 45 countries.
Back at the University of Manchester, the researchers summed up these programs’ benefits: (1) households put the money to good use, (2) poverty declines, (3) diverse long-term benefits for income, health, and tax revenues, and (4) the programs cost less than the alternatives. So why send over expensive white folks in SUVs when we can simply hand over their salaries to the poor? Especially when this also takes sticky civil service fingers out of the equation. Plus, free cash greases the wheels of the whole economy: People buy more, and that boosts employment and incomes.
Countless aid organizations and governments are convinced that they know what poor people need, and invest in schools, solar panels, or cattle. And, granted, better a cow than no cow. But at what cost? A Rwandan study estimated that donating one pregnant cow costs around $3,000 (including a milking workshop). That’s five years’ wages for a Rwandan. Or take the patchwork of courses offered to the poor: study after study has shown that they cost a lot but achieve little, whether the objective is learning to fish, read, or run a business. “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. And, as it happens, there is one category of product which poor people do not spend their free money on, and that’s alcohol and tobacco. In fact, a major study by the World Bank demonstrated that in 82% of all researched cases in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, alcohol and tobacco consumption actually declined.
But it gets even stranger. In Liberia, an experiment was conducted to see what would happen if you give $200 to the shiftiest of the poor. Alcoholics, addicts, and petty criminals were rounded up from the slums. Three years later, what had they spent the money on? Food, clothing, medicine, and small businesses. “If these men didn’t throw away free money,” one of the researchers wondered, “who would?”
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. In the final report on the Namibian experiment, a bishop offered this neat Biblical explanation. “Look in depth at Exodus 16,” he wrote. “The people of Israel in the long journey out of slavery, they received manna from heaven. But,” he continued, “it did not make them lazy; instead, it enabled them to be on the move.”
Free money: It’s a notion already proposed by some of history’s leading thinkers. Thomas More dreamed about it in his book Utopia in 1516. Countless economists and philosophers – Nobel Prize winners among them – would follow. Its proponents have spanned the spectrum from left to right, all the way to the founders of neoliberal thought, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. And Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) promises that, one day, it will come.
A universal basic guaranteed income.
And not merely for a few years, or in developing countries alone, or only for the poor, but just what it says on the box: free money for everyone. Not as a favor, but as a right. Call it the “capitalist road to communism.” A monthly allowance, enough to live on, without having to lift a finger. The only condition, as such, is that you “have a pulse.” No inspectors looking over your shoulder to see if you’ve spent it wisely, nobody questioning if it’s really deserved. No more special benefit and assistance programs; at most an additional allowance for seniors, the unemployed, and those unable to work.
Basic income: It’s an idea whose time has come.
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