“Basic income is about the freedom to say no” – Rutger Bregman goes bouldering

“You have the instinct for it,” says Rutger Bregman, as I haul myself up an indoor climbing wall, nestled under the arches at Vauxhall station in London. “Shit, this is some talent!” he bellows, as I reach the top. I am inwardly delighted, even though I realise the praise is absurd: I have climbed about four metres and it’s a beginner’s route.

Bregman has suggested that we go bouldering together. Bouldering is a variety of rock climbing, done over short distances without safety ropes. Coming from Bregman, it seems a curious choice. The young Dutch historian and author is most famous for advocating a universal basic income — a regular cash grant to every single person, given unconditionally, to support them and provide a minimum standard of living, no matter what might go wrong.

His book, Utopia for Realists (UK) (US), has been a surprise bestseller, finding an audience eager for radical yet plausible policy ideas. Yet this celebrated advocate of unconditional handouts has chosen a sport that is all about self-reliance, and the ultimate departure from the principle of the safety net.

“There is a safety net — look!” says Bregman, pointing at the crash mats. I am not totally convinced. It doesn’t take long before I fall off — a combination of lack of skill and lack of fitness. As I peel myself off the mat, I realise the skin of one elbow has not remained with me.

Bregman’s contention is that a basic income would be the logical and perfectly affordable next step for a human race that has already taken huge leaps forward since before the industrial revolution, when, he writes, “nearly everyone, everywhere was still poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick and ugly”.

Bregman himself looks the picture of health, possibly because, at 29, he’s 15 years younger than me, and possibly because he’s been practising. He climbs twice a week; his T-shirt says Sterk, the name of his local bouldering hall in Utrecht. The word means “strong” in Dutch. My limited experience of rock climbing with my daughters has taught me that the legs take the strain. Bouldering, however, requires more upper-body strength.

“It’s more explosive,” I am told. And within 15 minutes, I’m done: the tendons below my wrist have given up and I am close to doing the same. The first three routes were exhilarating but without a rope, even the short climbs under the arches of VauxWall are starting to feel vertiginous. I’m losing my nerve as well as my strength. Bregman, on the other hand, is just getting started.

“How long is a typical session?” I ask. “Fifteen minutes or an hour or . . . I can’t imagine anyone keeping this up for an hour.

“Two, two-and-a-half hours, if I have the time. Which I usually don’t,” he says. “If you warm up slowly, not like today, then you are at your peak after 45 minutes, and then you can keep that up for another 45 minutes.”

I spend much of the next hour watching Bregman solve one route after another. Sometimes he is dangling loosely off an overhang, as though resting in an invisible hammock. Sometimes he is moving laterally, his legs as high as his arms in a spiderlike scurry across the wall. Once, he hangs vertically as he works his way from left to right across a whimsical hold: a huge pair of pouting lips in one corner, just below the roof. He took up the sport three years ago. “I didn’t like to exercise at all. It’s so soul-destroying. But this is different.”

Bregman sees soul-destroying activity in much of modern life. Too many people, he says, are doing jobs they dislike or see as pointless, because they have no alternative. A basic income would liberate people: perhaps a minimum of €1,000 a month, given unconditionally as a cash grant, or through the tax system as a negative income tax.

Bregman has branded a basic income as “venture capital for the people”. A good line, I congratulate him. But what does it mean?

“OK, so basic income is all about the freedom to say no. That’s a privilege for the rich right now. With a basic income, you can say no to a job you don’t want to do. You can say no to a city in which you no longer want to live. You can say no to an employer who harasses you at work . . . that’s what real freedom looks like.”

Part of the impetus for a basic income has come from the sense that the robots are coming for our jobs — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. The venture capital firm Y Combinator is funding research into basic income, which seems to be a popular idea in Silicon Valley. But Bregman has no patience for the idea that technological change underpins the case for basic income.

“This is not about AI,” he insists. “You go back to the 1960s, and all the economists, all the philosophers, all the sociologists said we’re going to be working less and less and less and less and boredom is going to be the great challenge of the future. Didn’t happen . . . mostly because we have this ideological obsession with creating new jobs.”

Advocates of basic income have included two rather different Nobel laureates: the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr and the free-market evangelist Milton Friedman. The idea draws support from leftwingers who see an opportunity to redistribute and to give workers more bargaining power, and rightwingers who see an opportunity to dismantle paternalistic bureaucracies and empower ordinary people to make their own choices.

Bregman’s own sympathies seem to lie more with the left. At one point I tease him about the fact that he is in London on Valentine’s Day while his wife Maartje (a photographer and collaborator) is not. His response is spat out with a vehemence that might have been for comic effect, and might not: “You know that Valentine’s Day is just a capitalist scam to make you buy stuff you don’t need, to impress people you don’t like, right?”

But like Friedman, Bregman is clearly no fan of paternalistic bureaucracies. “Nowhere you’ll find as much support for something like basic income as [among] people who work for unemployment agencies,” he says. “In Holland I did a couple of lectures for those groups and they just give me a standing ovation when you say that we should abolish their jobs.”

It is the unconditional nature of the cash transfer that particularly appeals to him. With the transfer of money, no strings attached, there is a transfer of dignity, of bargaining power, and of responsibility. People have to make their own choices.

Again, I venture a connection between the basic income idea and bouldering: it’s a solo sport in which individuals need to find their own path, judging risks for themselves?

“If I would make this sport political, what I like about it is that it is competitive, but with yourself. So you’re not competing with anyone else, you’re just trying to do better yourself. And it’s a puzzle, every time it’s different. It’s a very creative sport, I guess.”

Utopia for Realists was itself a slowly assembled puzzle. The early drafts were articles in De Correspondent, an online crowdfunded news website founded by a Dutch pop-philosopher and columnist, Rob Wiijnberg. “It’s an anarchist-idealist collective of journalists who don’t follow the news,” Bregman explains.

This may explain why Utopia for Realists is such a curiously enjoyable read. The title sums up Bregman’s belief that evidence-based pragmatism should not rule out provocative, ambitious ideas. The book is lively, well researched and full of unlikely pieces of history, from the Speenhamland system of poor relief, developed in England in 1795, to US President Richard Nixon’s flirtation with the idea of a basic income in 1969. (Bregman studied history rather than economics or politics.) It is also perfectly orthogonal to anything one might read in a newspaper. The book was published in Dutch by De Correspondent, built a following slowly, then was self-published in English.

“I was my own PR employee at that point. I was emailing everyone — no interviews, no reviews. Nothing.” Yet when Bregman emailed me out of the blue with the English translation and a request for my support, I was sufficiently impressed to endorse the book. Steven Pinker also gave it a glowing cover quote. And as Bregman and his colleagues were pondering giving up, the project suddenly took off. While not quite Fifty Shades of Grey, in a short space of time Utopia for Realists went from brave failed experiment to international bestseller, due to be published in 28 languages.

“Ideas always start on the fringe and then they move towards the centre,” he says. “Then I was invited to come to Davos this year. Like, yeah, that’s pretty much it, right? My first lectures about basic income were for anarchists with long hair, and smelly.”

Did he go to Davos? “No, I had to go to a book fair in Colombia.” He did, however, give a talk at TED last year, and seems aware of the irony of advocating the dismantling of an entire class of do-gooders.

“You’re talking for an audience of 1,500 people, many of them involved in kinds of charities. The CEO of Toms, for example, was there.” Toms donates a pair of shoes to a poor family for every pair purchased; Bregman isn’t impressed. “Buy one shoe, give one shoe. That is just a horrible, horrible idea.”

He got a huge round of applause when he proposed scrapping aid bureaucracies and replacing them with direct cash transfers. The rapturous reception struck him as odd. “I was saying we should hand over the salaries of all these paternalistic bureaucrats and give them to the poor, who are the real experts on their own lives. And they were all clapping and laughing, and I was thinking on stage, ‘But I’m talking about you! It’s you!’”

It’s a good talk, I tell him. “I like to prepare for these things. I knew it off by heart three months before I went on stage.”

I press him on the details of the talk. He skips a little too lightly between the idea of replacing international development aid with direct cash transfers to poor people, and the idea of overhauling modern western welfare states to place unconditional cash payments at their heart. The two ideas are cousins, not identical twins, I suggest. Adding a dollar a day, no strings attached, to a non-existent social safety net might be transformative in rural India or Africa. A resident of London is going to want a little more than that before she willingly gives up her housing benefit. Bregman agrees: his focus now is on welfare reform.

Another question mark is over the evidence base for a basic income. Bregman mentions “dozens of experiments” but, arguably, there has never been a completely satisfactory randomised trial of a long-term basic income. (A literature review by the charity GiveDirectly counted six shorter-term randomised trials; policymakers should conduct many more.)

One promising episode — a four-year trial in Manitoba, Canada, in the 1970s — received little attention. When the economist Evelyn Forget managed to get hold of the mothballed archives in 2009, they were on the verge of being discarded. There is a new study in Kenya, funded by GiveDirectly. With 5,000 recipients getting a basic income for 12 years, that trial shows real ambition — but the income in question is just over $20 a month. This is unlikely to tell us much about reforming a European welfare state. Nor is a much-hyped but rather small trial in Finland, which will last just two years and is focused only on those already receiving unemployment benefits.

Other trials have been excitedly announced but have yet to begin, let alone conclude. We are still waiting for a study large and patient enough to tell us much about a basic income in a developed economy. So what are these “dozens of experiments”?

Bregman says that the experiments he has in mind are less evaluating a full basic income scheme, and more exploring the impact of cash transfers in development aid. That is indeed a well-studied area, although not quite the same thing. Those experiments provide encouragement for proponents of a basic income: households tend to put the money to good use, and reap long-term benefits.

By now, we’re talking over a coffee, my enfeebled hands thankfully strong enough to grip a mug. My final question is about one of his other ideas: dramatically liberalising immigration rules.

“Every utopian system is obviously grounded in the injustices of the present,” he says. “What’s the biggest injustice in the world right now? It’s pretty easy to see. It’s borders: apartheid on a global scale.”

But while basic income seems to be having a day in the sun, an end to passport control is hardly in tune with the Trumpian zeitgeist, is it? “Well that’s almost my problem with basic income right now. I get questions during lectures, people say, ‘Is this really a radical idea?’ So I’m like, I should move on. Because utopias are meant to make people angry.”

Fair enough: as in bouldering, so in utopian politics. Once you’ve solved one puzzle, it is time to move on to a new challenge.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 9 March 2018.

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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28th of March, 2018HighlightsOther Writing • Comments off