INNOVATION

A Free Basic Income For Everyone Is The Answer To (Pretty Much) Everything

So believes historian Rutger Bregman.

02/07/2017 11:29 PM AEST | Updated 02/07/2017 11:29 PM AEST

We are a half way through 2017 and this year is sadly shaping up to be no better than 2016, despite everyone's wishes. Wars are being fought overseas and politicians are making seemingly crazy decisions the world over. It's enough to make you crestfallen.

Though things aren't as bad as they seem, if you just take a look at history -- and that's what historian Rutger Bregman does in his book, Utopia For Realists.

"I studied history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and I always had the idea that I wanted to do a PhD, but then I realised that to do so I had to spend four years of my life on some insignificant subject that I didn't really care about," Bregman told The HuffPost Australia.

"I wanted to ask the big questions of history. This was the time around 2010 and 2011 when we had the Global Financial Crisis and the Arab Spring, and there were so many questions out there. When I turned on the TV I only saw our economists talking about it, which made me wonder why are there were no historians commentating, because there is so much we can learn from history."

I think that the big problem of today isn't so much that we don't have it good, but that we have no vision of where we want to go next.

At that point Bregman tried bridging the gap between academia and storytelling with journalism.

"I worked for one year at a big dutch newspaper, and I discovered that the problem with the news is that it's always about exceptions. It's always about what happens today and not about what happens everyday. It's about corruption and crisis and terrorism, so if you watch a lot of the news you know at the end of the day exactly how the world is not working," Bregman said.

From there Bregman scored a job at a startup called The Correspondent. They allow him to publish articles on any topics he wanted. From those articles, and with more research and help from other historians and economists, Utopia For Realists was published in 2014. It has since been translated and published in 20 other countries around the world. Bregman is 27 years old.

The book, which has become an international best seller, explores our current place in history. It looks at levels of poverty, famine, wealth, homelessness and unemployment and uses history to evaluate how far we've come. Right now we are living in the utopia which was dreamed of in the Middle Ages.

"I think that the big problem of today isn't so much that we don't have it good, but that we have no vision of where we want to go next," Bregman told HuffPost Australia.

Rutger Bregman Twitter
Bregman's book, Utopia For Realists, had become an international best seller.

"Again, if you watch a lot of the news it's understandable that many people are pessimistic right now -- we're living in the age of Donald Trump, England had Brexit, and there's so much bad stuff going on, it seems, but if you zoom out a little bit and actually take a look, the last 20 or 30 years have been the best in all of human history.

"It's just that all of the good developments are very slow, they happen everyday. Take a look at the decline of child mortality for example. It has declined by more than 50 percent in the past 20 to 30 years, but that's slowly happening everyday. There's never a headline that says "child mortality rate decreases by 00000000.1 percent today". Using history to get some perspective is a useful tool -- it can make you a little more optimistic about where we are right now," Bregman said.

Bregman uses history to take aim at many of the world's current welfare systems that simply don't work. Laying blame and distrusting people in poverty by ways of restricted and difficult support systems only perpetuates the issue, and history shows that.

"What history can show us is that the way we have structured our society and our economy right now is not natural. We are living in incredibly rich countries and there are still millions of people living in poverty, when it doesn't have to be that way. It can be different. That's why I try to use history to throw open the windows and show to people that we can do things differently. People have tried different things in the past that have worked, and we can do that again."

These 'things' Bregman refers to that have been trialled in the past is the distribution of a free basic income. Free money for everyone -- a modest amount but enough to lift those living in poverty out of it and enough to help everyone else do more with their lives. You don't have to work for it, you don't have to answer for it and you don't have to be poor or homeless -- everyone gets it. It's a revolutionary idea that's immediately met with doubts. But history shows it works.

"The first thing that people think is that free money will make people lazy. If we gave everyone an unconditional basic income then they will probably stop working. Then I always ask them what would they do with a free basic income, and about 99 percent of people will say 'oh, well I wouldn't stop working, I have dreams and ambitions, but it's the other people you'd have to worry about'."

Watch Bregman's TEDTalk on the concept of 'free money'.

"In the book I look at the scientific evidence we've got, and we've got huge mountains of evidence from various experiments. A large basic income experiment happened in the 1970s for example, and there are other experiments, and from those we now know that actually, most people want to make something of their lives.

"If we look at the evidence we don't have to be worried at all about huge reductions in work hours, or that people will be lazy. In fact, it's to the contrary, especially for people living in poverty. They will have the means to get up and do something and contribute to the common good, and a lot of people not in poverty but in so called 'bullshit jobs' will be able to quit those jobs and do something that they consider to be fulfilling and useful," Bregman said.

Sounds expensive though, right? Well again, that depends on how you look at it. When you take into account the cost of current unsuccessful welfare programs alone, they themselves amount to, in some counties, hundreds of millions of dollars.

While a free basic income might not be the answer to everything, it's pretty close. Experiments referenced in the book proved that when people were given free money their stress levels were reduced, disease and illness levels dropped significantly -- which in turn saved money in the health sector -- and money was pumped back into the economy -- along with a myriad of other fiscal, health and community benefits. With a free basic income, these communities were better off than before in so many ways.

"Whether or not it will become a reality, I have no idea. We will have to see about that. I am not in the art of forecasting or predicting. I am not an optimist or a pessimist -- I am a possibilist," Rutger said.

And that's the whole point of a utopia -- to dream of what is possible.

"In the 17th century when someone said 'democracy is the future' people would have looked at that person and told them they were crazy. They would have had a hard time making the prediction that it would happen. But that's what happens with utopias -- every milestone of civilization was once a utopian fantasy. I'm not saying that it's bound to happen, I am just saying that it's worth fighting for."

Utopia For Realists by Rutger Bregman is published by Bloomsbury, $21.99

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