Rutger Bregman's 'Utopia for Realists' Shows Us Why We Deserve Universal Basic Income

If you're looking for the blueprint for a better tomorrow, you'll find it in Rutger Bregman's Utopia for Realists. Its premise is simple: we should adopt a universal basic income plan for all citizens, work less, and open up our borders.

If you're looking for the blueprint for a better tomorrow, you'll find it in Rutger Bregman's Utopia for Realists. Its premise is simple: we should adopt a universal basic income plan for all citizens, work less, and open up our borders. Crazy, right?

Why Everyone Should Get Free Money

The concept of free money for everyone, no strings attached, isn't new. Researchers have been testing this idea for decades. But no country has come closer to actually implementing a basic income program than the United States did under President Richard Nixon. His bill, which would have allowed every citizen the right to a basic yearly income passed the House twice, but was stalled in the Senate by the Democrats, because they felt the payment was too low.

I was wholly unaware of this history and of the many studies that have been conducted to prove a basic income does not turn its recipients into lazy do-nothings. “For three years now I’ve been reading everything on basic income I could get my hands on,” Bregman said in an interview with Gawker. “Not once have I come across a basic income experiment that led to mass laziness.”

The most popular study on the effects of basic income took place in Manitoba between 1974 and 1979 where everyone received a “Mincome” (minimum income) of $9,000 a year (by today's standards) from the government, no strings attached. Evelyn Forget, an economist and professor at the University of Manitoba, who looked over the data from the study says there was a 9 percent reduction in working hours among two main groups of citizens. But the reasons why give insight into how basic income can dramatically change the course of someone's life.

Married women were using their additional income to extend their maternity leaves and spend more time with their infants, and teenage boys were using that income to stay in school.

“When we interviewed people, we discovered that prior to the experiment, a lot of people from low-income families, a lot of boys in particular, were under a fair amount of family pressure to become self-supporting when they turned 16 and leave school. When Mincome came along, those families decided that they could afford to keep their sons in high school just a little bit longer,” Forget told PRI in an interview.

What this study and others like it have found is free money empowers people with the ability of choice, the choice to make a different life for yourself. “Poverty is fundamentally about a lock of cash. It's not about stupidity,” economist Joseph Hanlon said. “You can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

Watch Rutger Bregman explain what happened when 13 homeless men on the streets of London were given £3,000 cash, no strings attached. What they spent it on my surprise you.

People aren't stupid, poverty makes people stupid. In psychology it's known as the “scarcity mentality” and when people don't have enough, it causes them to behave differently. When someone is in a constant state of worry about where their next meal is coming from, mental bandwidth becomes compromised, causing people to make unwise decisions.

Rutger Bregman engages readers in a mix of stories and evidence-based studies, showing us this utopia is within our grasp. Its a lesson in psychology, history, and economics, which all point to why basic income would eliminate poverty and save us money. After all, isn't it the goal to live better than our parents and grandparents did? To make sure the next generation can live better than us? Basic income may indeed the answer. But first we have to willing to accept it. This book has made me a believer.

The 15-hour Work Week

Rutger Bregman's second big crazy idea is the 15-hour work week, a concept most of us would be able to get behind. He brings up the concept of “bullshit jobs,” occupations that really have no value. Anthropologist David Graeber describes them as jobs that, if they were to disappear, would throw the country in chaos.

I work one of these “bullshit jobs,” a social media analyst provides no real need in the world—I'm not developing a cure for cancer—but it helps pay the bills, so in my spare time I can volunteer or write more investigative in-depth stories. But if we reduce the work week, we could share in the necessary jobs (e.g. teachers, nurses, engineers, and garbage collectors) and even increase efficiency. He also proposes a tax reform which incentives more meaningful work, encouraging our best and brightest to go into teaching rather than a career on Wall Street.

Open Borders

His third big idea may be considered more radical than basic income to many in America: open borders. This issue is more a question of morality, though, it does come with the incentive of economic growth. 

Consider this: The biggest determining factor in a persons health, wealth, and life expectancy is where they're born. America's poorest citizens are still quite rich when compared to the world's poorest. The problem with this idea is acceptance. There are several faulty arguments used against the adoption of open borders: “They'll take our jobs,” “Cheap immigrants will force our wages down,” “They're too lazy to work,” and “They'll never go back.” Bregman address each argument, citing experts and giving data that shows us none of these is the case.

Open our borders is a far-away dream. However, Rutger Bregman makes it seem like some of these utopian policies are well-within our grasp.

If your looking for what kind of future we should be striving for, you'll find it in Rutger Bregman's Utopia for Realists. It was a national bestseller when it was first released in Dutch in the Netherlands, and helped start a conversation which led to municipalities experimenting with basic income. Here's hoping this book will help America reignite an old conversation Nixon started back in the 70s. Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek is available now.


Photo Credit: Maand van de Geschiedenis/ Flickr

Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.