Would you like some free money?
Would you also like the poor, unemployed people of your neighbourhood to be given some free money?
Would you like your taxes to go towards giving those poor unemployed people free money?
Do you really think they deserve free money and would use it wisely?
Well, who are you to judge?
That there should be free money, or to use the accepted term, a basic universal income, is one of the key aspects of Rutger Bregmans’ philosophy in his book Utopia for Realists. Perhaps that sounds to you like bleeding heart nonsense but by the time I was half way through (and he writes so clearly and with such verve that I was won over by his style on the first page) I was completely convinced. He brings to our attention countless studies and experiments that demonstrate how, when the fear of poverty is eradicated, people blossom. They work harder and make wiser life choices. They are less of a burden on the legal, health and social services. And giving people free money would, in fact, cost us less than the monolithic, labyrinthine social welfare system that currently throttles the life out of people. So why don’t we do it?
Bregman starts off by contrasting the medieval world, in which our current notion of ‘utopia’ was formed, with the modern world. He shows clearly how, in most of the world, we have achieved that utopia. In Europe even the poorest among us enjoy a level of comfort that a medieval peasant would be astonished by. But there’s a vacuum at the heart of this utopia. Bregman quotes Oscar Wilde who believed “progress is the realization of utopias”. He suggests that unless we come up with a new version of utopia, not only will we not progress but we will slide backwards into deprivation.
“There’s no new dream to replace it. In fact, most people in wealthy countries believe their children will actually be worse off than their parents.”
So now we must create new utopias to strive for. The political upheavals of 2016 prove that we need new horizons and ambitions.
Bregman’s analysis of what exactly poverty is and our moralising attitudes towards it is certainly revealing. He refers to George Orwell, who experienced great poverty and documented it in ‘Down and out in London and Paris’. Orwell noticed
“…how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”
We are still wedded to the notion that poor people are poor because they are too stupid or lazy to not be poor. They have not worked hard enough at school. They have eaten or smoked or drunk too much. They cannot be trusted with money because will abuse it. Only a few, maybe, with some kind of illness or who have had a terrible piece of bad luck, genuinely deserve to be helped. This attitude, that social welfare is a favour bestowed upon the ‘worthy poor’, is the basis of our current welfare system. It is why there is so much expensive red tape and why people have to jump through hoops to continually prove their worthiness to receive help.
And Bregman, toting his trunkfuls’ of research behind him, says that is simply not true. He suggests that everyone is deserving of basic level of income. It sounds so simple and yet it has been rejected as an option time and time again by governments. So, tonight’s homework is to think really honestly to yourself – who do I believe deserves help? And why?
Tomorrow; taking Bregman’s philosophy as a starting point, we’re going to consider our obsession with the meritocracy and why we had better hope the merits don’t suddenly change.