I recently read two books by Dutch author Rutger Bregman, one after another because I enjoyed the first one so much.
I recommend them both highly because they changed the way I think about human nature and thus, the way I think about what kind of society is possible. Both books offer intriguing ideas and new ways of thinking that could inform public policy if Democrats win in November.
Three Utopian Ideas Made Realistic
Universal basic income. A 15-hour workweek. Open borders. Crazy ideas? Maybe. But crazier ones have become reality over the last couple centuries, from abolishing slavery to votes for women to the 5-day workweek to Social Security.
That’s Rutger Bregman’s hopeful premise in Utopia for Realists.
Crazy ideas can become acceptable and then, even inevitable, if conditions are right. Those conditions are usually some kind of crisis. Fortunately, we’ve got no shortage of crises today. Something’s surely got to give. Bregman thinks we’re on the cusp of a tipping point.
But a crisis can only draw from the ideas that people are talking about at the time. In the famous words of Milton Friedman, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
So, that’s why we need to nurture the ideas we want for the future, no matter how crazy they seem now. With the proper care, ideas can jump from the minds of visionaries into the books of professors and then into the reporting of journalists and onto the platforms of politicians — and finally, into public policy.
In Utopia for Realists, Bregman makes a case for the three crazy ideas he promotes using evidence that sounds pretty convincing today.
First, universal basic income. A guaranteed income can increase prosperity, while freeing workers from the need to stay in dangerous or meaningless jobs and allowing people to find work that they actually want to do. Just handing out cash works better than most welfare or unemployment programs — the results are better and it’s cheaper too, according to numerous studies that Bregman cites.
Believe it or not, in 1969 legislation to offer Americans a guaranteed basic income almost became law under President Nixon, as Bregman notes. If it was realistic then, why can’t it be realistic now, especially if Democrats win in November?
Then, a 15-hour workweek. With automation, many economies may no longer need humans to do paid work for 40 hours per week. Employees who put in a full work week these days aren’t very efficient with their time on the clock anyway. Most workers could get enough done in fewer hours at work, leaving more time not only for goofing off but for volunteer work that people really enjoy — and that the world really needs.
To help pay for both a universal income and a shorter workweek, governments could make taxes fair and stop letting a few rich people in such lucrative fields as finance and tech make the rest of us shoulder their tax burden.
Finally, open borders. Lifting immigration restrictions would allow people to travel from where they’re not appreciated to where they’re needed. It’s the best way to increase prosperity in poor countries. And for rich countries, none of the objections to immigrants holds up under scrutiny: they won’t take our jobs, undermine the unity of our societies or bring more crime. This is the idea of Bregman’s that I found hardest to accept, despite the research and arguments he offers in support.
A New Kind of Economics
For all three ideas, it’s all about economics and the theories we accept about how the economy should work. And fortunately for Bregman, economics is one field where ideas do change. For instance, just look at today’s reigning neoliberal free-market economics. As recently as the 1940s, during the time that World War II’s warfare state morphed into the post-war welfare state, letting the private sector handle anything important seemed crazy.
But then, through an advocacy campaign of three decades by Frederick Hayek, Milton Friedman and other neo-liberal economists, the free market became first acceptable and then, under Reagan, inevitable.
As neoliberal economics now starts to falter and come under attack for creating vast disparities of wealth where just a few dozen rich people control as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world population put together, an economic crisis can’t be far off.
The shutdown during the Covid pandemic may have helped speed this crisis along. In one among many symptoms of pain, the U.S. economy just experienced a 34.3% drop in GDP, the biggest quarterly decline ever reported. If Bregman’s ideas are on the table when today’s potential crisis becomes acute, his utopia may stand a chance of becoming reality, especially if the November elections swing to the Democrats.
Homo Sapiens May not be Wise, but We’re Something Better
Having just finished Utopia for Realists, I was glad to find that Bregman had just published a new book in June. And once I’d finished Humankind: A Hopeful History, I was not disappointed.
As in Utopia, in his new book Humankind Bregman presents innovative and challenging ideas in a prose style that’s easy to read and quick to get through. And, the two books reinforce each other. Humankind provides an understanding of what makes people happy and what motivates them to do work that justifies the ideas for a universal guaranteed income, a short work week and free immigration that Bregman offers in Utopia.
Humankind argues that all public policy, politics, and economics are based on either one of two views of human nature. Depending on which view you select, you’ll get a very different government and economy.
Each view was best expressed for the modern world by philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries: On the pessimistic side, Thomas Hobbes concluded that humans were naturally violent and needed a strong authority or nation-state (which he called “the Leviathan”) to rein them in and keep people from slaughtering each other.
By contrast, optimist Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that humans are essentially good and can manage themselves, unless they are spoiled by society and oppressed by tyrannical authorities.
Underneath a Thin Veneer of Civilization, Brutes?
Bregman recognizes that most governments and economies today are organized on the principles of Hobbes. The authorities today subscribe to the “veneer” theory of human nature, which claims that, underneath a thin layer or veneer of civilized rules and morality, every person is fundamentally a brute, ready to claw the eyes out of her neighbor if there’s any gain in it and as long as there’s no policeman around. Or, under a veneer of sobriety and diligence, we’re all really just greedy and lazy takers, like chimpanzees, who will snatch anybody else’s banana they can.
Wars, multi-level marketing and climate change show that humans don’t always live up to the name homo sapiens. We’ve proven that we’re often guided by foolishness rather than wisdom.
That doesn’t actually bother Bregman. He accepts that modern humans aren’t especially smart and agrees with paleontologists who have determined that Neanderthals’ bigger skulls may have made them brainier than our own ancestors. But Bregman thinks that intelligence was less important than another personality trait for helping modern humans triumph — friendliness.
That’s why he refers to our species not as homo sapiens but as homo puppy. We didn’t evolve to have the biggest brains. We involved to be the most sociable and cooperative and to appear as likable as possible to other people.
And so, it’s no surprise that in the philosophical cage match between Hobbes and Rousseau, Bregman comes down on the side of the optimistic Frenchman to justify the reforms he presents in Utopia along with other reforms he offers in this new book.
Bad News that Turns out to be Fake News
Bregman starts by refuting well known stories of people allegedly behaving badly that have made the case for Hobbesian human badness seem ironclad, including:
- The real story behind the novel Lord of the Flies
- Psychology experiments from the 1950s and 1960s showing how ordinary people could behave like monsters
- The fake news of how 37 New Yorkers supposedly heard Kitty Genovese being murdered but didn’t call the police
Bregman shows how these cases were understood incorrectly, presented dishonestly or turned out to be just downright wrong.
It wasn’t an accident that bad research or fake news triumphed in these cases. Skewing experiments or reporting to create evidence that humans are cruel, uncaring or lazy was intentional. Supporting pessimistic conclusions about human nature has been an excellent way to advance a career in academe or the news media.
Elites in government and business have a vested interest in convincing the rest of us that unsupervised humans can’t take care of themselves — thus, the need for strong kings, presidents, police forces, bosses and lecturing educators.
The media of course is full of war, murder, sexual violence, and larceny. But that’s not because these things are so common. It’s because they’re uncommon. That’s what makes them news. You don’t attract TV viewers or web clicks by putting a reporter out in a field to announce that today marks yet another day of peace. Also, if most media does the bidding of elites, then it’s clear that elites want to promote the view of Hobbes, the view that people need leadership to keep humanity from descending into violent chaos.
After debunking these stories of violence, fear and selfishness, Bregman then presents other stories of people behaving well, with altruism or compassion. He claims that this is true realism.
“Managing is Bullshit” says CEO
One of my favorite stories of people doing well by doing good presents Jos de Blok, founder of a healthcare company in the Netherlands that beats its competitors in every way — providing better care at a lower cost — while delighting its employees.
That’s because de Blok employs self-directed teams and hands-off management which assumes his employees don’t need to be manipulated into performing through incentives or punishments. Instead, de Blok assumes that employees are naturally driven to succeed for their own satisfaction. He eschews such management-training course staples as performance bonuses and KPIs. “Managing is bullshit. Just let people do their job.”
For me, Humankind helped bring together ideas I’ve vaguely thought about for years. Bregman presents a coherent framework to support recent plans from a variety of progressive sources: Bernie Sanders, the Green New Deal and the Black Lives Matter movement.
As ideas are debated ranging from reforming police and prisons to finally getting universal healthcare, Bregman’s basic framework can cut through a lot of clutter: Are you with Hobbes or are you with Rousseau?
That is, do you follow Hobbes in believing that people are essentially violent, lazy and selfish, as most people in authority seem to do? Or can you trust your own experience, with your own motivation and the behavior of your family and friends, to conclude with Rousseau that people are mostly kind, generous, and well intentioned?
The path to hell may be paved with good intentions, but that doesn’t take away from Bregman’s basic point that people are good and that it’s more accurate to view people as generally cooperative and helpful. With that view, you can then find easy ways to get someone off the wrong path and back on the right one. You can also see the real reason why good people do bad things. Bregman demonstrates both points with examples from recent history.
The Power of Friendship
One of Bregman’s most surprising stories shows how a good human quality can be turned to ill use. In World War II, Allied commanders were continually surprised at how hard ordinary German soldiers would fight even as it became clear to both sides in 1944 that the war was lost for them.
Interviews with captured German troops showed why. It wasn’t because they were so inspired by Hitler or moved by Nazi ideology or stuck on antisemitism. It was because soldiers became close friends, devoted comrades-in-arms. Aware of the powerful motivation troops developed to help their buddies, German commanders would even take the time to keep army units back from the front long enough for new recruits to form strong friendships with their new comrades. To keep from letting those comrades down is why the average German soldier fought so hard.
What’s the lesson? The Allies tried different messages in the propaganda leaflets they dropped behind enemy lines, with better results.
Good People Corrupted by Power
Meantime, readers of Bregman should consider how one of history’s most famous fans of Rousseau and believer in the goodness of man went wrong: the leader of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre. He wound up killing more than 17,000 of his countrymen in just a couple years in the name of progress and out of a misplaced idea of integrity.
I recently reviewed a biography of the revolutionary leader so honest that he was known as “The Incorruptible.” The lesson of Robespierre’s career is that humility and a sense of humor, which Robespierre lacked, can keep a leader’s zeal for righting the injustices of the past from turning into murderous tyranny in the present.
Back to Bregman’s book, in the end, Humankind inspires us to ask what kind of leaders we need. Or whether, in some cases, we need leaders at all. Agreeing with Lord Acton that power corrupts, Bregman finds that perfectly fine people turn into monsters when they rise to positions of such power that they no longer need to worry about pleasing others.
Bregman does seem to have doubts about the whole structure of organized civilization since people in the Fertile Crescent turned from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled farming. He also seems to think that tribal societies are more just and more fair in general than nation-states have been.
But rather than preaching revolution and anarchism, Bregman seems to be merely calling for reforms to make industrial society kinder and gentler.
Those changes, as outlined in Utopia for Realists, may seem extreme in the context of today’s cut-throat capitalism. But things like universal guaranteed income and giving workers more free time may be just what we need to save any form of modern economy at all from a variety of looming crises both economic and ecological.