Utopia for Realists
And How We Get There
Rutger Bregman tr. Elizabeth Manton, 2017
When you think of the Dutch, mountain ranges are rarely the first thing that comes to mind. Yet that was the image I was left with at the end of Utopia for Realists, a policy manifesto by the Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman. A vast alpine landscape, plummeting ravines and soaring peaks, with every summit marked by a small flag flapping defiantly in the face of the winds of the world.
At the risk of suffocating the analogy by explaining it, the altitudes of these mountains correspond to the quality of Utopia as it progresses and the flags to the citations. While Utopia is a decent agglomeration of a great deal of important work, Bregman has, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing of original value to add and the farther we get from the crests of the work of others, the worse the scenery and more treacherous the territory.
Billed as a bold policy compendium, the ideas in Utopia essentially boil down to Universal Basic Income (more than a third of the book), a shorter workweek, and a global relaxation of border controls, plus a few epicyclic extensions of these. All good ideas in their own right, but all better elucidated elsewhere, by actual researchers. More to the point, none particularly radical. Indeed, the policies, their histories, and even much of the evidence Bregman cites should all be thoroughly familiar to any reader whose revolutionary education extends no further than the opinion pages of a few large newspapers. Despite Bregman's self-praise for his apparently radical thinking, policies that have been detailed on the front cover of The Economist are not shockingly unthinkable.
If these ideas form the brittle skeleton of Utopia, it's the meat of the beast that's truly diseased. The stated mission of the book is the search for utopia, the belief that our society should strive for true greatness. The problem is that Bregman's aspirational utopianism quickly gives way to methodological utopianism, leaving the book little more than a masterclass in confirmation bias. While Bregman praises the work of Esther Duflo and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (an organisation that I'm absolutely enamoured with) on the importance of statistical rigour and honesty in empirical policy, he fails to take heed of their lessons at any other point in the book, as he races through the headline results of any finding that supports him without the slightest pause for skepticism or closer examination. Besides the undergraduate statistical errors, Bregman resolutely refuses to consider any single result that casts a shadow on his plans. Towards the end of the book, Bregman even offers a brief aside on the dangers of confirmation bias, mentioning a single time he saw a newspaper headline that didn't fit his beliefs about shorter work weeks (importantly, this is not mentioned until over 100 pages after the chapter on the subject) and where the primary lesson appears to be how adroitly he was able to dismiss the conclusion without even needing to read the paper. "Watch out for those who would lead you astray" is advice for children and fanatics, certainly not for policy writers who were praising the virtues of unsentimental empiricism not twenty pages earlier.
It's these contradictions that are the most damning feature of the book. While oversimplification may not appeal to me (nor, I suspect, to most of the audience here), it does serve some purpose when we live in democracies where nearly 40% of adults are functionally illiterate. But Utopia is not a TED talk where a researcher simplifies their work to suit the format. Rather, the frequent contradictions show that Bregman doesn't really grok the logic of the policies that he's peddling and leave the impression that Utopia for Realists is little more than a scrapbook of newspaper op-eds that Bregman agrees with. His original contributions largely amount to the opening and closing exhortations to 'dream big' and 'reach for the stars' when setting public policy, chapters roughly as visionary as a boilerplate high school graduation speech.
More than once, Bregman repeats Hugo's quote, On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées. Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And Bregman is right to do so. These are good policies, policies whose time has come. They deserve more attention. They deserve to be called from the peaks of mountain ranges. They deserve better than this book.
As a rule, I don't like to read other reviews of a book before writing my own. I find it keeps my thoughts clear. However, this time I did come across a breathless review in The Guardian while looking for some biographical details about Bregman. The reviewer, Andrew Anthony, correctly pinned Bregman as "a hybrid that’s reminiscent of the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell". Utopia for Realists is a book for people who read that as a compliment.
The cover image is a photograph of the Himalayas, taken from aboard the International Space Station. Courtesy of NASA.