The case for a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek

Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, talks to Ezra Klein about the power and purpose of utopian thinking.

Universal basic income. A 15-hour workweek. Open borders. These ideas may strike you as wild, fantastical, maybe even utopian. But that’s exactly the point.

Imagining utopia, writes Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, “isn’t an attempt to predict the future. It’s an attempt to unlock the future. To fling open the windows of our minds.”

He’s right. Bregman is the author of the lovely book Utopia for Realists (as well as the star of the viral Davos speech and Tucker Carlson takedown). I had him on my podcast to discuss not just his vision of utopia, or my vision of utopia, but how to think like a utopian, and why doing so matter most when the days feel so dystopic.

In summary (you can read the whole article on Vox):

The utopian case for a universal basic income

Ezra Klein

Let’s dig into to some of the dimensions of your utopia. Make the utopian case for universal basic income (UBI).

Rutger Bregman

Universal basic income is all about freedom. That’s the most important argument for it. It’s about the freedom to make your own choices. It’s about the freedom to say “yes” to the things that you want to do, and it’s about the freedom to say “no” to things you don’t like — a boss that harasses you or a wife or husband that you don’t really like anymore. If we move to the details, most people would say it’s a monthly grant enough to pay for your basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and it’s absolutely unconditional so you can decide for yourself what you want to do with it.

The 15-hour workweek, and what Keynes got wrong

Ezra Klein

Talk to me about the case for 15-hour work week.

Rutger Bregman

This goes back to a very famous essay by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” In that essay, Keynes makes two predictions. First, he says we’ll probably be four to eight times lot richer in 2030. And it turns out he was actually more or less right.

The second prediction was that we will use that wealth to start working less because that’s what we had been doing since 1850. So again, he extrapolated into the future and said we’ll probably have a working week of about 15 hours. That sounds crazy now, but it was mainstream back then. Up until the ’60s and the ’70s, almost all the sociologists and philosophers were all talking about the real challenge of the future, which was going to be boredom.

I think what Keynes got wrong is that he imagined that this was a force of economics that we would follow, but it’s actually about real political battles that have to be fought. And [starting] in the 1980s, especially in the US, workers started losing those battles.

The case for open borders

Ezra Klein

I want to move us to open borders. Make the case for me.

Rutger Bregman

As I said earlier, your utopia for the future starts with the injustices of today. And I think you can easily make the argument that borders are the biggest source of inequality worldwide. 60 percent of your income is dependent simply on where you were born — something that you didn’t choose.

Most of the arguments we have against immigration — they’ll take our jobs, they’re all lazy, they’re all criminals, they’re all terrorists, etc. — don’t stand up to the data, and many immigration policies nowadays are counterproductive. [For example], if you build higher walls, as the US did in the 70s and 80s when it basically militarized the wall with Mexico, you get more illegal immigrants. Because they still come, but they don’t want to leave anymore because the journey is simply so harsh and difficult.


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