Book of the week: Trust people to make their own decisions

Cover of Fair ShotFair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn
by Chris Hughes
Published by Bloomsbury, £12.99
(Buy at Amazon)

Books by entrepreneurs and captains of industry are usually written (or more accurately, ghost written) in order to flatter a tycoon’s ego or as a public-relations exercise. Rarely do they have something significant to say. Chris Hughes’s Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn is an exception. Although Hughes earned hundreds of millions of dollars from his role as co-founder of Facebook, he admits that his success was down to good luck more than anything else: he was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate, and lived at a time where a “winner takes all” global economy ensured that a small elite were showered with riches, while average wages stagnated.

Given this, it is only fair, he argues, that these lucky few pay a little bit more in tax so that the rest of society can benefit as well. Rather than proposing complicated government programmes, however, Hughes thinks the fairest solution would be for the government to trust people to make their own decision by guaranteeing everyone a basic income. He acknowledges that anything perceived as “rewarding idleness” might be politically difficult to sell. He therefore promises a more limited version targeted at those who have worked in the past tax year and earned less than $50,000.

Hughes was badly burned when he tried to turn around the august political magazine The New Republic, only to end up losing a lot of money while alienating almost the entire staff. As he acknowledges, it would have been better for him to have set up an endowment to fund the magazine’s long-term survival, instead of trying to impose grandiose schemes. This experience has conditioned him to approach the campaign for a basic income in a more cautious way, and he is careful not to oversell the idea, or appear too much like an American Bob Geldof.

Paradoxically, this restraint makes his arguments a lot more convincing than more wild-eyed advocates of the idea, such as Rutger Bregman (whose book Utopia For Realists we reviewed in March 2017). As Hughes explains in his book, the idea of providing a basic income for all without precondition has been trialled on many occasions, with some success. Indeed, the US state of Alaska already operates a stripped-down basic-income scheme in that every resident gets a cheque from its oil fund.

This is a strong, punchy book, a cut above the platitudinous puff pieces business leaders typically produce. While the controversy over “fake news” has effectively killed off Zuckerberg’s political pretensions, Hughes has advanced the debate over how to address both inequality and the longer-term threat of automation creating a world without work.