A naive and silly book
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 10 May 2017
In chapter one, the author assays the idea of utopia, but does so incompetently. He looks at three utopias: "Land of Cockaigne", described in various Medieval tales and poems, Campanella's "City of the Sun", and More's "Utopia". According to the author, the first is a wish-fulfillment dream of unlimited wealth, luxury and instant gratification of every lust, the second makes him think of "fascism, Stalinism and genocide". As for the third, he doesn't describe or quote from it it at all, but says More "literally wrote the book on utopia".
In reality, Cockaigne Land, rather than an ideal model, was generally satirical and parodic, mocking, for example, fat, lazy, decadent monks who lived in idle luxury while peasants worked to supply all their needs. As for Campanella's and More's utopias, both are in fact pretty similar to one another (though not identical), and both are *communist*.
Some common features of both utopias:
* Everyone is required to work for the state.
* Idleness is punished.
* Goods are distributed equally to all.
* Equal sharing of work leads to short working hours.
* State-run education ensures children have right values.
* People dress uniformly and plainly.
* Money is not in general use.
* There is slavery.
Some interesting differences:
* In Campanella's city, the family is abolished and there is "community of wives".
* Also, in Campanella's city, there are both male and female magistrates.
The idea of community of wives recurs in socialist and communist writings, including those of Leger-Marie Deschamps, of the Saint-Simonians, and in the most famous communist tract of them all, the manifesto written by Marx and Engels.
How does a person set out to write a book about the idea of utopia manage to miss the fact that Tommaso Campanella's and Thomas More's utopias are communist?
This mistake undermines the central premise of his book. The author claims we've lost the utopian spirit, and need to revive it, but in fact, when we look at the utopias he invokes in evidence, we find that they promised prosperity for all and shorter working hours (and, in the Campanella version, also feminism), and we've got those things. The ordinary masses in the developed world is wealthier than More and Campanella imagined possible, most of us work fewer hours than More and Campanella promised we would, and we don't have slaves, because we have machines. Moreover, not only was this achieved without communism, but communism has turned out to be a disaster which consistently leads to economic failure (to the point of famine) and tyranny -- exactly in the manner predicted with almost uncanny precision by Eugen Fichter in the 19th century dystopian novel, "Pictures of Our Socialistic Future" and explained forensically in Friedrich Hayek's 1943 book, "The Road to Serfdom". Hayek's theory has been confirmed again and again since his book came out -- in Mao's China, the Castros' Cuba, the Kims' Korea, and various other countries including, most recently, Venezuela.
The communist utopia turned out to be a nightmare. Moderate socialist utopias are redundant, because we already have moderate socialism in most of the Western world. Feminist and gay and sexual liberation utopias are similarly redundant. Dystopias, which carry the implicit message, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", are much more germane today. Nevertheless, utopias are still written. They usually lean towards libertarianism, and they're typically published under the rubric of science fiction. The Star Trek franchise is set against a utopian background, in case Mr Bregman hasn't noticed.
Most of the rest of Bregman's book is given over to justifying a guaranteed minimum income, which is a reasonable idea by itself, but not if it is implemented in addition to, rather than instead of, a whole slew of other welfare payments and redistributive policies that the author seems to endorse, which tend to involve means tests, heavy bureaucracy and perverse incentives.
Even worse, the author is a passionate advocate of open borders. Sorry, but open borders are not compatible with a welfare state. You can have one or the other. Trying to have both is a recipe for national bankruptcy. The fact that Europe had open borders from the late 19th century to the beginning of WWI is not an argument. Conditions were very different back then. First, state welfare was much smaller in relation to the size of the economy, second, the overall amount of migration was much lower, and third, populations were much sparser -- there were even places one could migrate to where land was being given away, or sold extremely cheaply, just to attract settlers. Mass migration is not only a problem for countries that receive migrants. It often also a problem for the countries that experience high emigration. It's often the best workers who emigrate, resulting in "brain drain", which has a depressive effect on local economies. Ireland has persistently suffered from this effect since the 19th century, and Eastern Europe is suffering from it quite badly right now.
Another contradiction in this book: as noted earlier, the author is an advocate of wealth redistribution. I presume he means from the rich to the poor, but if so, is he aware that uncontrolled mass immigration drives down wages and drives up rents, which has the effect of redistributing wealth from workers to employers and property-owners? Open borders is incompatible with the goal of creating a more equal society.
So, no. If you want to advocate a universal basic income, fair enough, but don't spoil it by also advocating other measures that would cancel out the benefits.
P.S. At one point, Bregman discusses Robert Putnam's famous study finding that diversity reduces trust in society. He claims Putnam's finding has been debunked, citing a study finding that "African Americans and Latinos report lower levels of trust, regardless of where they live." I wonder why they have low levels of trust. Could it be because they live in high crime neighbourhoods? I wonder who's committing that crime? Are there data on this? Anyway, the argument is that diversity, as long as it doesn't include African Americans and Latinos, doesn't cause the level of trust to go down, and Putnam's finding is therefore a mere artefact. Great. So Putnam is now debunked. What follows? Is Bregman now going to argue that diversity is fine, as long as it doesn't include African Americans and Latinos? That will go down well in the USA. He's shot himself in the foot.
P.P.S., towards the end of the book, Bregman briefly discusses the influence of Friedrick Hayek and Milton Friedman - both "neoliberals" (according to Bregman - Hayek called himself an old-fashioned liberal and Friedman called himself a libertarian), both of whom expressed support for a universal basic income. In fact, the idea is more associated with them than with anyone on the Left. (Marx opposed all ameliorative measures, because he wanted the whole system to fall down catastrophically in a violent revolution.) Bregman does not discuss Hayek's incisive critiques of communism and managerial socialism, never mind his demolition of Keynes' ignorant and muddled nonsense, but instead calls Hayek a "slippery philosopher". Has he read Hayek's "Road to Serfdom"? There's nothing remotely slippery about it. It makes very definite predictions, and these predictions have been confirmed empirically. Has he read "The Fatal Conceit"? If not, he needs to. Especially the part about Keynes' slipperiness.
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