Yet Another Progressive With Yet Another Grand Plan

In the Guardian today there is a piece introducing us to the latest intellectual liberal who is convinced his Grand Plan for society will succeed where all others have failed miserably before. He comes armed with the most honourable intentions, as is invariably the case, unashamed ignorance of economics (he doesn’t grasp why Professors are paid more than cleaners) and a “wealth of empirical evidence”.

The Guardian’s Anthony Andrew writes:

Rutger Bregman is a 28-year-old Dutchman whose book, Utopia for Realists, has taken Holland by storm and could yet revitalise progressive thought around the globe. His solutions are quite simple and staunchly set against current trends: we should institute a universal basic income for everyone that covers minimum living expenses – say around £12,000 a year; the working week should be shortened to 15 hours; borders should be opened and migrants allowed to move wherever they choose.

A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is usually touted as an alternative to means-tested welfare, which advocates argue would be less costly to taxpayers and less incentivising of idleness – a way of achieving the same ends but with less negative impact on economic productivity.

Whether UBI’s would be better than the status quo is hotly debated in economic circles, but Bregman isn’t interested in it as an economic welfare reform anyway. He sees UBI as a way of giving people the ‘freedom’ to stop having to work jobs they think are “useless” and of enabling them to “live the lives they want to live.”

There are two simple but politically profound questions, which it never occurs to liberals hellbent on doing social good to ask. These are: who gets to decide? And why? In this case: why does Bregman get to decide the maximum amount of hours everyone can work for in exchange for money? Why isn’t it the individuals themselves? Our societies, through common law, grant individuals the right to freedom of property and person, after all. So why, in this regard, would it be okay for the government to essentially remove these rights?

Why should Bregman (or in political terms, a gang of intellectuals wielding state power) have ultimate authority in the matter of deciding the most hours a person should work in a week? Why should it be someone else and not you who gets to be the final arbiter?

I suspect Bregman’s answer would be of the form that he should get to decide because his empirical evidence shows that the outcomes will be better for everyone (i.e everyone will consider themselves better off) if this one little freedom is sacrificed. In short, he should get to decide because he (believes) he has superior knowledge.

But the knowledge needed to successfully improve everyone’s lives, which would have to be the knowledge of what each individual values most at any given moment and in their life, is dispersed across space and time and in people’s minds – and is, by its nature, uncollectible.

Bregman would need to possess supernatural powers of omnipotence and omnipresence in order to acquire the knowledge required to better everyone’s lives according to what they value most highly in the moment and in their lives.

Thus Bregman doesn’t have knowledge. He has the pretence of knowledge, which when acted upon by people with state power is a destructive and deadly force. Communism in the 20th century taught humanity this painful lesson.

The planned economies of the 20th century didn’t produce the promised/expected utopia and instead led to staggering amounts of human suffering and death, precisely because everyone was forced to live according to a single plan imposed upon them by government central planners – inspired and guided by intellectuals possessing the pretence of knowledge and more than a little hubris.

Societies only create wealth and flourish to the degree to which they are spontaneously shaped according to the many forever changing plans of the many millions of people who constitute them. This diversity of plans is a prerequisite of human flourishing, and such diversity will only arise to the degree to which individuals have economic freedoms – such as working as many hours as one wants to, or buying as many hours of labour as your business needs to meet society’s demand for its product or service.

The truth is, Bregman’s Utopia for realists could only achieve the opposite of enabling everyone to live the lives they want to live. All it could do is restrict everyone to living the life he thinks they should want to live. Bregman simply assumes everyone else shares his vision of utopia and thus they won’t want to act contrary to his decrees. Why would they? He knows best. Apparently.

But everyone has a different idea of what their ideal life is. And the only conditions under which everyone can pursue their ideal lives is freedom; that means freedom from the scientism and hubris of intellectuals like Bregman, manifested by government central planners as legal shackles placed upon people for their own good.

Enough with the Grand Plans already! Enough with attempting to use the brute force of the law to make people wealthier, happier and healthier. It never works because it cannot work. Force always achieves the opposite of its intended aims.

The common man doesn’t need saving from himself. He has the inalienable right to act peacefully according to his own will in pursuit of his own aims. And there is no moral foundation for the exercise of power over him by egotists drunk on the pretence of knowledge, whether a majority elected them or not.

One comment

  1. While Bregman has some nice ideas, and I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of what he is saying, it is very true that “Grand Plans” really don’t work out very well, for the reasons you have described. People should always remember that Utopia does not originally mean a paradise – in the Greek it means “no-place”, and for a very good reason.


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