Utopia for Realists – A Book Review

Chris Lovejoy

This book is a manifesto for three ideas that the author believes will enable us to achieve a ‘utopia’. These are universal basic income, a reduction in work hours and inreased immigration.

The author uses the term ‘utopia’ loosely; to denote a situation in which certain ideals have been achieved. He states that the abolishment of slavery was a previous ‘utopia’ and the emancipation of women another. He argues that we should continually be striving for the next ‘utopia’.

He points out that while GDP has been improving for decades, it is a poor indicator of quality of life. Above a certain GDP threshold, the main determinant of quality of life is the level of inequality in the society. He suggests that the genuine poorogress indicator (GPI) or index of sustainable economic welfare (ISEW) are better metrics as they include inequality and other factors.

He argues that a universal basic income and a reduction in work hours will lead to improvements in these better metrics. While I agree that this is the case, I don’t believe that these will be attained from mere ideological discussion and rather must be dictated by market forces. He touches on how technological advancements enable us to work less but we haven’t done so for fear of dropping a rung in the socio-economic ladder. In the future, he argues, increases in machine capability may further decrease this need for work.

However, I believe it is less a case of people deciding to work less but rather a case of being forced to. As companies utilise machine technology more, an increasing number of jobs will become superfluous. I don’t believe that universal basic income will come out of an ideological movement, as this author seems to suggest, but rather out of necessity in order to support the increasing proportion of the population for which no real jobs exist. Correspondingly, the reduction in working hours that he argues for will also be forced rather than chosen.

With regards to his third point, that we should increase immigration, the book does not go deep enough into the subject. He outlines some of the common arguments against immigration (increasing crime, reducing social cohesion, ‘taking our jobs’ nd others) but dismisses each with a citation or two that doesn’t really get to the bottom of things. I feel this can be forgiven, though, as the book is focussed towards the universal basic income and one chapter on immigration is included almost as a foot-note.

This book attempts to make a rational, evidence-based argument for why we should strive towards a universal basic income as our next ‘utopia’. This is supported throughout with citations from different studies and quotes from philosophers from different periods of history.

Having only read the book and not delved deeper into the research behind his arguments, I am unable to say whether I agree with the author’s argument or not. As this is such a deep and complex issue, which is not directly related to my current line of work, I don’t feel it would be a worthwhile time-investment for me to do so. This is one reason why I question the utility of books such as these. They may be useful for ‘armchair philosophy’ discussions with friends, but I suspect the ultimate impact is very small. The book may be a nice primer on the subject but only those who delve much deeper into the issues will really be able to say anything of value. And the only ones who should do so are those who will actively change the way they live as a result, not just change the way they discuss these topics with their friends.

It is for this reason that I think there is a fundamental limitation to the benefit of books which aim to present political ideologies supported by an evidence base. I don’t believe our ideology will be the main driving force towards adopting a universal basic income. Rather, it will be dictated by technology and market forces.