Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles [ Applause ] >> Hello, and welcome. I'm Emma Alberici the host of Lateline on the ABC, and I'm here with Rutger Bregman who has a fairly radical proposition. [Laughs] So imagine everyone gets an income and you don't have to work for it. Awesome. [Laughs] And on top of that, if you do work, you only have to work 15 hours a week. And all the borders are open. So you go wherever you like and no one questions you about it. That's apparently Utopia for Realists. I'm not sure that it's Utopia for politicians. [ Laughter ] So Utopia for Realists examines a different approach to economics and to life and it challenges us all to think in a way that modern politics wouldn't dare allow us to, certainly not with Donald Trump in the White House wanting to build walls, and Brexit and Guilders in the Netherlands and Marine Lapen in France and Colin Hanson indeed here. Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian who started writing about this idea of a basic wage back in 2013 long before many of the concepts he espouses could ever be called mainstream. The book is an international bestseller. We're lucky to have him here. Welcome. Join me in thanking him for being with us. [ Applause ] We're just going to be in conversation for this hour. So I'll open it up and then I'll start the questions and then we've got two microphones at either side here and I'll invite you to participate in the conversation shortly. So I guess we'll start by just the simple question of what is a universal basic income? Give us the concept. >> It's a very simple idea. So everyone would receive a monthly grant that is enough to pay for your basic needs, food, shelter, clothing. So that's it. Basic income is really a floor in the income distribution. So it's not the same as communism. It's not that everyone will receive the same amount of money. It's sort of you could see it as venture capital for the people, right? For the first time, everyone will have the freedom to decide for themselves what to make of their lives. And say for example everyone could say no to a job that they don't want to do. It's a very simple idea with quite radical implications. >> But it is the same amount for everyone? >> Yeah. Yeah, it's the basic income that everyone would receive it. Whether you're employed or unemployed, whether you're poor or rich, man or woman, it doesn't matter. Everyone gets it. >> And how is it calculated? And how on earth do countries afford such a thing? >> A big part of my book is about how would this work in practice? That is the realist part of the title. When I started researching this subject in 2013, it was -- well, in the first place it was completely forgotten and what I could find about it was quite abstract. So a lot of people thinking about what is human nature like, what will you do with a basic income? What would I do? Will we all be lazy? Et cetera. And I was really interested in the practical question, you know, has it ever been tried? And it turns out there have been huge experiments, forgotten experiments in the '70's in Canada and the US, and since then in other places as well where they actually tried it. And it turns out that it works very well. I even discovered, which is probably one of the craziest stories in the book, is that Richard Nixon of all people almost implemented a basic income at the beginning of the '70's. >> In fact, it was very popular. I recall something like 90% of the population were in favour. Republicans were on board generally en masse. >> Yeah. At the end of the '60's, almost everyone in the US and in Canada believed that some form of basic income was going to be implemented. So for example, John Kenneth Galbraith the left-wing economist, he thought it was a great idea. But also Milton Friedman, you know, the neo-liberal economist. They actually agreed on the need for a guaranteed annual income. Martin Luther King, he was in favour of it. So it's not that Richard Nixon was suddenly a great philosopher or utopian thinker. He was just saying, "Oh, everyone wants it. Let's do it then." >> And it's interesting because back then also it united the unions, the corporate sector, churches. And I was just getting in my notes here, because there's a quote from Nixon where he says it was the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation's history. So why didn't it go ahead? >> It's a pretty bizarre story full of crazy coincidences. >> US politics? [ Laughter ] >> What happened in the first place is that, well, everyone was in favour of basic income. Richard Nixon had a proposal for a modest basic income and it got through the House of Representatives twice. But then it hit the Senate floor and Democrats started to think, "Well, if this is going to be implemented anyway, we want a higher basic income. So let's just vote against it now and then it will probably get higher in the second round." Didn't really work out that way. So it was basically killed by the left in the Senate. The idea finally died in 1978 with an experiment in Seattle, one of the big basic income experiences with a lot of positive results. So crime went down. Kids performed much better in school. You know, healthcare costs went down. Basically it turned out that basic income was an investment that pays for itself in the long run. But there was one big problem. The researchers found out that the divorce rate went up by 50%. [ Laughter ] So you can imagine at that point all the conservatives saying, "We can't have basic income. This will make women much too independent. You know, we really don't want basic income." >> Was there a connexion drawn between the basic income and the divorce rate? Was there an obvious kind of thread there? >> Well, that's what they thought, yeah, that it was really caused by a basic income. That suddenly a woman can say, "I want to leave him. Now I've got the freedom to do so." The thing is that years later they found out that it was a statistical mistake. [ Laughter ] So in reality the divorce rate did not go up at all. But back then we were already in the era of Reagan and et cetera and the idea was forgotten. >> How is a basic income any different to welfare? >> I think in a few important ways. The most important way in which it's different is that a basic income is absolutely unconditional. What we've seen in the past 30 years is that the welfare state from Holland to Australia has become more and more conditional, actually quite humiliating for the people who have to rely on it. Time and time again, the assumption is that government bureaucrats know better what the poor should do with their lives than the poor themselves. The idea behind basic income is that poverty is not a lack of character but just a lack of cash. And you can cure a lack of cash pretty easily with cash, right? [ Laughter ] >> How novel. >> Yeah. Once you've seen the light, it's very simple actually. [ Laughter ] But it actually works. I think that's the most important thing. My book is I believe a very evidence-based book. And I believe that's also the way forward, is to do more of those experiments. And that's actually what's happening around the world right now. I mean, Finland is just doing a big experiment. Canada has just announced one. A lot of people in Silicon Valley are enthusiastic about this idea. So yeah, it's really spreading around the globe. >> But isn't there also evidence that when people come into money, they often squander it? That when they haven't had to work for it, they make poor decisions? >> Well, if you watch a lot of reality television, I can imagine that you'd believe that. [ Laughter ] One of the stories in my book is about a pretty crazy experience that happened in London in 2009. And this was a social organisation that worked with chronically homeless men. And there were about 13 of them and they had tried pretty much everything at that point and nothing really worked. So it was simply time for something new. And one of the people who worked there said, "You know, why not try something really new? Let's just give them money. 3,000 pounds, and let's see what happens." Now even at that organisation, obviously most people were quite sceptical, but they were wasting money anyway, so let's see what happens. Now a year after the experience, 7 out of 13 of the men -- and some of them had been living on the streets for 40 years -- but 7 of the 13 of them had a roof above their head. Two more had applied for housing and all had made significant decisions to invest in their lives. So what did they use the money for? One of them bought a dictionary. Another bought [inaudible]. One of them took gardening classes. It was pretty incredible to see that the money really empowered the men and for the first time they felt like society trusted them to make their own decisions. Now the twist comes at the end because that's when you look at the financial side of the story. You could say, "Well, we've got to do this because we've got to pity the poor or pity the homeless. It's the moral thing to do." But it actually also makes financial sense. The project in total cost 50,000 pounds. That's about seven times less than what they would normally spend on these homeless men. So even The Economist, you know, nota very utopian, left-wing magazine, right? Even they wrote, "The best way to spend money on the homeless might be just to give it to them." And to be honest, I think that is almost always the case. That if we want to help the poor, just solve the problem, you know. Don't try to manage the symptoms, but solve the problem. And the problem is the lack of cash. That's it. >> There's a talk in your TED Talk about the other approaches of people thinking they know what's best and buying certain things for them and giving poor kids teddy bears in countries and so on. >> Yeah. >> Things they don't need. >> When I gave the TED Talk, I had one line in my talk. I said, you know, we should get rid of the vast industry of bureaucratic paternalists and simply hand over their salaries to the poor they're supposed to help. And the TED audience was really like clapping and laughing and I was a big confused because I'm talking about you guys. [ Laughter ] >> So you mentioned this right at the outset, that one of the instincts people have is, "Doesn't this create kind of a bunch of lazy sloths who don't work anymore and just collect the money?" That's kind of instinctively what you think would end up happening. >> Yeah, yeah. >> A bunch of people would say, "Well, what am I going to go to work for. I'm getting paid anyway." >> Exactly, exactly. I think we have a very mistaken image of human nature.