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date: 13 July 2020

Basic Income

Summary and Keywords

The idea that states should provide a means-tested guaranteed minimum income for citizens who are unable to meet their basic needs is widely shared and has been a central component in the evolution of social citizenship rights in existing welfare states. However, an increasing number of activists and scholars defend the more radical option of establishing a universal basic income, that is, an unconditional income paid to all members of society on an individual basis without any means test or work requirement. Indeed, some political philosophers have argued that basic income is one of the most important reforms in the development of a just and democratic society, comparable to other milestones in the history of citizenship rights, such as universal suffrage or even the abolishment of slavery. Basic income or similar ideas, such as a basic capital or a negative income tax, have been advanced in many versions since the 18th century in different parts of the world and under a great variety of names. However, while these were previously often isolated and disconnected initiatives, basic income has more recently become the object of an increasingly cumulative research effort to shed light on the many aspects of this idea. It has also inspired policy developments and given rise to experiments and pilot projects in several countries.

Keywords: egalitarianism, liberalism, libertarianism, perfectionism, social justice, welfare state, work

What Is Basic Income?

Basic Income Defined and Introduced

The idea that states should provide a means-tested guaranteed minimum income for citizens who are unable to meet their basic needs is widely shared and has been a central component in the evolution of social citizenship rights. However, proposals for a basic income represent a different and more inclusive strategy for income support. They suggest that a firm income floor should be established for all members of society without any form of behavioral conditionality, means test, or other procedures that may be perceived as intrusive or stigmatizing.

Basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.

Notably, this definition, which is the most common in the literature and also used by the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN, to which I return below) remains silent about the level of such a regular payment. The “basic” of basic income is thus meant to capture that it provides a reliable economic foundation upon which incomes from other sources can be freely added, not that it is “definitionally … tied to some notion of ‘basic needs’” (Van Parijs, 1995, p. 30). While some authors prefer to define a basic income as being high enough to satisfy basic needs (Wright, 2010), I shall here stick to the standard definition. It usefully reflects the diversity of proposals for unconditional and individual forms of income support in both affluent and developing countries, and it provides an inclusive basis for ecumenical debates on their role and value in different ideological settings and in different types of economies. It follows from this definition that basic income is not necessarily a more radical or redistributive form of income support relative to more traditional safety nets. This depends entirely on the details of the particular proposal advanced, and the wider set of measures with which it is combined.

Many of the key contributions to the debate claim that an ethically appealing basic income should be set at a level that provides the basis for (with Carole Pateman’s words) a “modest but decent standard of life” (Pateman, 2003, p. 131) and that any gradual steps in this direction should be defended and specified with such a clear target in mind (Barry, 2005; Widerquist, 2013). It is also common to highlight the significance of such a threshold by distinguishing between full and partial basic income, depending on whether it would be high enough to fully (or only partially) replace forms of income security that serve to satisfy basic needs for people with insufficient incomes. Other influential contributions, such as Philippe Van Parijs’s justification of basic income, defend “the highest sustainable” basic income (taking both economic incentives and ecological effects into account), meaning that the right level may fall below or exceed basic needs depending on circumstances (Van Parijs, 1995, p. 30–31; see also Lovett, 2010). Yet, Van Parijs also holds that “all the richer countries can now afford to pay a basic income above subsistence” (Van Parijs, 2001, p. 6).

While these authors disagree as to whether we should aim for a basic income that covers basic needs, or the highest sustainable basic income, they all regard the basic income as part of a strategy for strengthening social safety nets in a way that supports the bargaining power of the least advantaged, and serves as a foundation for (rather than a replacement of) the many subsidized services of the welfare state (such as health care, child care, and so on). However, there are also proposals for a basic income as a non-bureaucratic alternative to the welfare state. One remarkable aspect of the basic income debate is that this proposal has been put forward and integrated within widely differing ideological conceptions (Van Parijs, 1992a; Fitzpatrick, 1999). For example, libertarians have argued that such a reform would not only replace (or greatly simplify) most other forms of income support and tax deductions but also many costly services (Murray, 2006). At this end of the left–right spectrum, some think that a basic income would also make minimum wages redundant and limit the role of “rent-seeking” associated with the availability of targeted transfers for special interests (Buchanan & Congleton, 1998). These examples illustrate that there are vital debates on basic income among scholars with very different worldviews and ideals. However, they also show that we should be careful not to jump to the conclusion that basic income is somehow beyond left and right in the more substantive sense that these different approaches could form the basis for a unified and feasible political coalition for the same type of basic income (De Wispelaere, 2016). A high and strongly redistributive basic income with the aim of radicalizing the welfare state and abolishing “wage slavery” (Wright, 2010) is obviously a project that differs fundamentally from the right-libertarian idea of a low basic income to replace the welfare state.

The History of Basic Income: A Brief Overview

The idea that all members of society should be provided with a set of resources on an unconditional basis, in a form that that they are free to use as they see fit, has been advanced in many versions since the 18th century in different parts of the world, and under a great variety of names, such as a “guaranteed minimum,” “state bonus,” “social dividend,” “demogrant,” or “citizen’s income” (Cunliffe & Erreygers, 2004; Vanderborght & Van Parijs, 2005).

In Agrarian Justice (1797), Thomas Paine combined an argument for a basic pension with the first well-known plea for the idea that all persons should be entitled to an unconditional payment, in the form of a basic endowment at the age of 21 “as a compensation in part, for the loss of their natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.” Similarly, in 1848 Belgian author Joseph Charlier—a follower of the French socialist Charles Fourier—argued that the earth was given to all as a “common natural patrimony” and that all had a claim to a share of the value of land in the form of a “territorial dividend.” However, Charlier’s solution was different and more radical than Paine’s. He argued that all individuals should be equipped with a modest but regular income stream without any means test or behavioral conditionality, and that such a dividend should be high enough to ensure that their vital needs could be satisfied (Cunliffe & Erreygers, 2001).

Since these early statements of the idea, basic income has come in and out of fashion several times. Important contributions in the first part of the 20th century include works by Bertrand Russell, G. D. H. Cole and James Meade. However, the idea of an unconditional income guarantee did not have its first major breakthrough in the political mainstream until the 1960s in North America. During this period, economists as different as Milton Friedman (monetarist) and James Tobin (Keynesian) came to defend different versions of a so-called negative income tax as a key component in any successful strategy to eradicate poverty.

A negative income tax is not exactly the same thing as what we now call a basic income. However, they both provide a guaranteed income, without a “willingness to work”-test or other forms of behavioral conditionality. The main difference between a basic income and a negative income tax scheme is that the former is paid to all (rich and poor) with no strings attached whereas the latter takes the form of a refundable tax credit, with explicit payments only to low-income groups. With a system for negative income tax people’s eligibility for income supplements, and the size of the payments they are entitled to, depend on their level of income from other sources and must therefore be adjusted in light of information about their overall economic condition. Still, when the negative income tax is designed to provide people with regular, advance payments these two systems become very similar. In fact, Tobin and his coauthors presented the basic income option (then referred to as a “demogrant”) as their preferred technical form of such a guaranteed minimum income (Tobin et al., 1967).

These ideas were widely embraced and debated intensely in different versions during this period, with economists like Paul Samuelson, John K. Galbraith, and Robert Solow advocating the idea, along with other prominent voices such as Martin Luther King Jr. A modest negative income tax, extending income support to “the working poor” was part of Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP), first proposed in 1969, while a full-blown “demogrant” program was included in the platform of George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.

The political climate gradually became less hospitable to these ideas as the FAP did not pass the Senate, and McGovern’s campaign failed (Steensland, 2008). However, no fewer than four large-scale “income maintenance” experiments were conducted in the United States (e.g., Munnell, 1986; Robins, Spiegelman, Weiner, & Bell, 1980), and one in Canada (Hum & Simpson, 1993) between 1968 and 1980 to shed light on the possible effects of a guaranteed annual income. The details and circumstances of the tested plans varied and the results were mixed. Overall, they did not support the hypothesis that people would withdraw from the labor market under such a guaranteed income, or reduce work effort in a way that would jeopardize the feasibility of such a plan. They also tended to confirm a relatively modest but statistically significant decline in work hours. The latter finding was often emphasized and interpreted as an undesirable outcome in the reactions of politicians and in media coverage of the evidence at the time (Widerquist, 2005). This reduction mainly seemed to reflect that that the guaranteed income enabled parents with young children to spend more time at home, and that adolescents in low-income families were able to stay longer in school (Munnell, 1986). A more recent study on the impact of the Canadian experiment, the only of these projects in which all low-income families of an entire town were eligible for payments, also documents fewer school dropouts, and positive health effects, including an 8.5 percent reduction in hospitalization rates of participants relative to controls (Forget, 2011).

In a parallel development, North America became the home of a modest but stable basic income scheme as a result of the establishment of the Alaska Permanent Fund in 1976. Following the discovery of vast oil resources on state land, the fund was constructed with the aim to convert this temporary source of revenue into a sustainable permanent asset for future generations (Goldsmith, 2005; Widerquist & Howard, 2012). The fund’s dividend program has provided every permanent resident of Alaska (including children) with annual, unconditional, and individual payments since 1982. The size of these dividends has varied considerably depending on market fluctuations and the overall development of the fund. In 2014 and 2015 the annual amounts were close to (or slightly above) $2000.

Another major “rediscovery” of the basic income proposal took place in Europe in the early 1980s, as reflected by intense debates on the topic in several European countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, with the growing number of green parties being particularly receptive to such ideas. This intensified interest was also manifested in (and greatly facilitated by) the establishment of BIEN in 1986, a network that aims to foster informed discussion on this topic, organizes regular conferences, and has national affiliates throughout the world. This network was launched as Basic Income European Network but it was turned into Basic Income Earth Network in 2004 to reflect the increasingly global scope of the debate (see www.basicincome.org).

While earlier explorations of basic income were often isolated and disconnected initiatives, the growing continuity and coordination of scholarly debates on the topic have helped establish the foundation for a more cumulative, international research effort to shed light on the many aspects of this idea (see, e.g., Van Parijs, 1992a; Van der Veen & Groot, 2000; Standing, 2005; Widerquist, Noguera, Vanderborght, & De Wispelaere, 2013). Since 2006 there is also an international academic journal, Basic Income Studies, devoted specifically to basic income research.

One of the most important developments in more recent years is that scholarly debates on basic income, and political activism for its implementation, are no longer confined to the wealthiest countries in Europe or North America (Murray & Pateman, 2012). For example, basic income supporters won a symbolic victory in January 2004 when the gradual implementation of basic income was signed into law as a long-term aspiration in Brazil, a step that has served as a reference point in the development of the country’s cash transfer programs for low-income groups (Suplicy, 2005; Lavinas, 2013). Other examples of widely discussed initiatives in recent years are the pilot projects with small basic income payments in the Otjivero settlement in Namibia for two years 2008–2009, and in three ambitious pilot studies in India involving small unconditional payments to more than 6000 persons in nine villages in Madhya Pradesh. Evaluations of these experiments have reported positive effects of the basic income in areas such as nutrition, health, schooling, and gainful economic activity (Haarman & Haarman, 2012; Davala, Jhabvala, Mehta, & Standing, 2015).

Social Justice and Basic Income: Key Debates

From Marxian Perfectionism to Equality of Opportunity

A central task for basic income research is to explore the normative underpinnings of such a reform and to clarify how this proposal relates to some of the most fundamental moral values of our societies. The importance of this theme seems obvious considering that many strong reactions to such ideas—whether positive or negative—stem primarily from moral convictions about freedom, fairness, or social justice. In order to assess the desirability of such a reform, it is crucial to systematically articulate and address the bases of these moral views.

Considering the comprehensiveness and diversity of current debates on basic income, the following analysis is not meant to offer an exhaustive list of justifications of such a reform. However, we may usefully distinguish four general types of justifications that have been particularly influential in the philosophical literature on this topic, namely arguments appealing to the values of (a) non-alienation, (b) equality of opportunity, (c) left libertarianism and, finally, (d) equality of status. All of these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I shall argue that the most promising line of argument combines and balances elements of (b) and (d).

Starting with the argument from non-alienation, one contribution that played a central role in the new wave of interest in basic income among European scholars in the early 1980s was the work of Robert van der Veen and Philippe Van Parijs. Considering the Left’s disappointment and disillusionment with actually existing forms of socialism, the argument presented by van der Veen and Van Parijs suggested that we should stop focusing so much on socialism, that is, the collective ownership of (most of) the means of production that—after all—the Marxian tradition only embraced as a means. Instead, they suggested that we should look for inspiration in the ultimate aims that Marx (in the Critique of the Gotha Programme) associated with the so-called higher stage of communism.

According to their argument, capitalism generally appears superior to socialism for supporting productive development. However, we should aim to utilize and steer this capacity to help realize conditions where the needs of all could be adequately met at the same time that “extrinsic rewards … would be less and less necessary to prompt a sufficient supply of labor,” that is, because work, interpreted broadly, would increasingly be perceived as inherently rewarding. “Work, to use Marx’s phrase, could and should become ‘life’s prime want’” (Van der Veen & Van Parijs, 1986a, 1986b, 2006). In short, this controversial argument proposed that a promising path for interpreting and realizing Marx’s emancipatory vision was to promote the highest sustainable unconditional basic income within the context of a capitalist economy. The idea was essentially to build distributive mechanisms that would enable workers to say no to unattractive jobs and help develop productive capacity, working conditions, and access to free time in a direction that would gradually help expand the sphere of “inherently rewarding” work, thereby minimizing the role of efforts performed for purely instrumental reasons, as a necessary evil.

We shall return to some of the factual considerations on the possible links between basic income, productivity, and access to meaningful work, in connection with the exploitation objection below. However, leaving these issues aside for the moment, there is a fundamental objection to justifications of basic income that appeal so very strongly to the idea of inherently rewarding work. While such an objective will seem attractive to most people, it would also be dogmatic to assume that it should necessarily become life’s “prime want” for everyone. People may reasonably want to accept less stimulating forms of work if that would help increase opportunities for other things they find important: say, forms of consumption or leisure activities to which they ascribe great value.

This is not to deny that meaningful work and freedom from toil may play an important role in the requirements of social justice, but it indicates why this particular Marxian line of argument seems to stand in sharp tension with an important liberal concern for respecting people’s diverse conceptions of the good life. Van Parijs belongs to those who have, on such grounds, later rejected such a “perfectionistic” approach to the issue of social justice and basic income, according to which the state should actively promote a particular conception of human excellence by stimulating specific activities, character traits, or forms of life while discouraging others. But he has also rightly pointed out that basic income—given its complete unconditionality—does not seem to fit very well with such a starting point. After all, people would be free to use it for whatever purposes they may have, that is, including activities that are unlikely to realize the ideals of non-alienation, as these are typically fleshed out. As he points out, then, the basic income appears to be “an extremely gross tool for anyone concerned to foster a particular conception of the good” (Van Parijs, 1992a, p. 20).

This may suggest that a more compelling and coherent path is to develop a non-perfectionist foundation for the justification of such a reform based on a liberal, neutrality-based account of equality of opportunity. Van Parijs’ Real Freedom for All (1995) is the most comprehensive and influential attempt to justify a basic income on grounds of liberal-egalitarian justice, and has contributed greatly to place the basic income proposal firmly on the agenda of contemporary political philosophy (see, e.g., Reeve & Williams, 2003; White, 2003; Van Donselaar, 2009; Birnbaum, 2012). Van Parijs’ notion of justice as real freedom for all involves not just the “formal freedom” of a solid protection of fundamental, personal liberties; it also requires equal (or, taking efficiency into account, leximin) access to the means necessary to exercise those liberties for whatever purposes one might have. The highest sustainable basic income is thus advanced as the best available arrangement to ensure that people have the “real freedom” to do whatever they might want to do.

We shall return to Van Parijs’ account of equal opportunity and the neutrality–perfectionism divide in the basic income debate. However, before analyzing the full list of justifications mentioned above we must first introduce the most important basis of criticism to basic income in debates on social justice, the so-called exploitation objection. In general terms, the objection says that mandatory transfers from workers to the so-called voluntarily unemployed are “exploitative” and, therefore, inherently unfair. Wouldn’t basic income amount to an institutionalized form of free-riding or “parasitism” (Van Donselaar, 2009), allowing persons that choose not to work (as distinct to people who are not capable of working, or unable to find a suitable job despite their best efforts) to drain the energies and resources of their hard-working fellow citizens? This charge, sometimes specified as a violation of “reciprocity” (Galston, 2001; White, 2003), appears particularly forceful when these categories of people, say a full-time worker and a full-time surfer who prefers to live off welfare, are assumed to have equal productive abilities (Rawls, 1993, p. 182; Van Parijs, 1991). The literature on basic income offers two main lines of arguments for addressing this important objection—one pragmatic and one principled—to be identified and addressed in the following two sections.

Would a Basic Income Facilitate Productive Contribution? Pragmatic Approaches to the Exploitation Objection

The pragmatic response accepts the central moral premises of the exploitation objection. Those who advance this type of argument concede that the basic income would allow some degree of exploitation and that this captures an objectionable feature of such a scheme. However, they also argue that this should not lead us to abandon the view that basic income is part of the best available strategy for social justice, all things considered. Two versions of this reply can be distinguished: (a) while basic income allows exploitation it also has crucial advantages for supporting people’s opportunities to contribute productively and may well reduce exploitation overall relative to conditional forms of income support; (b) even though basic income involves some degree of exploitation, this should be tolerated due to its unique advantages in supporting other fundamental values.

To appreciate the potential of (a), we should recognize that conditional forms of income support are by no means immune to the exploitation objection. Several arguments have been advanced in the literature, individually or combined, for why a modest but predictable basic income would be a better way of preventing poverty while encouraging people’s productive contributions under contemporary circumstances, than strategies that rely more exclusively on traditional welfare state-measures. In today’s economies, it is commonly observed that the distinction between work and leisure often appears increasingly blurry (Colin & Palier, 2015; Standing, 2011). Do people work when they spend most of their evenings to prepare the startup of a new business project? Do they work when they improve or maintain their opportunities to find and be available for jobs, or when they care for an elderly relative, or assist refugees in urgent need, or when they make unpaid contributions to the collaborative commons?

We may distinguish four general considerations on why this may lead us to prefer basic income to traditional forms of income support on grounds of nonexploitation. First, there is the observation that household-based, means-tested benefits of the residual safety nets are typically associated with (next to) confiscatory effective marginal tax rates for low incomes, thereby failing to encourage the individual members of such households to take productive initiatives. This condition may be particularly harmful to poor households in a rapidly changing economy where self-employment is common, and where people are expected to be able to move in and out of jobs in flexible ways, and to combine earnings from different sources (Atkinson, 2015, p. 209f.).

Second, there is the observation that traditional forms of social insurance usually require people to be available for work in order to remain eligible for benefits, which usually implies a ban on more time-consuming forms of informal work, volunteering etc. (Jordan, 1992). When the exploitation objection is directed against basic income, the argument is often driven by a narrow focus on remunerated forms of work. Considering the obstacles to gainful participation associated with present forms of means testing and behavioral conditionality, basic income supporters have emphasized how the fear of jeopardizing or interrupting access to a regular payment for basic needs in such systems may often deter people from taking economic initiatives and making social contributions of different kinds. As Brian Barry puts it, “there is surely something crazy about the stipulation that those drawing unemployment benefit must be ‘available for work’ at any moment, which rules out their using the time to improve their qualifications, engage in community work, or help a neighbor while earning a bit extra. This is, in my view, the knock-down argument for basic income at subsistence level” (Barry, 2001; see also Barry, 2005). The central basis for Barry’s strong endorsement is, then, that the basic income involves no activity restrictions and no need to ask anyone for permission to take productive initiatives, in the labor market or elsewhere.

In specifying these considerations, one of the key issues is what counts as a relevant contribution in return for social benefits, and how best to support and recognize these contributions. One strand of normative theory on basic income has argued that an employment-centered account of work fails to sufficiently take into account the extent to which formalized economic activities, and social cooperation at large, depends heavily on unpaid, informal, and socially necessary care work. Arguably, this often reflects a gender-biased lens on the meaning of work, productive contribution, and socially useful activities. In every part of the world women still tend to take far greater responsibility for work in the household, informal care work, and the everyday maintenance and nurturing of relationships, often making them economically worse off than men, and placing them in conditions of greater social and economic vulnerability. For such reasons, scholars such as Carole Pateman have argued that a basic income would be a way of counteracting an important and objectionable form of free-riding, which typically takes the form of men’s free-riding on the unpaid efforts of women (Pateman, 2003, 2006; McKay, 2001).

More widely, many contributions to the education, security and health of children, political work, and informal contributions to maintain and develop the infrastructure and vitality of a society’s cultural and political life, require much time and effort, most of which tend to be non-remunerated. While it seems obvious that many such contributions have great social value it does not seem possible or desirable to formalize or monitor all such efforts and initiatives. This has led some researchers to examine the prospects for linking basic income-type transfers to innovative strategies for developing the opportunities, social infrastructure, and norms in support of useful contributions beyond the employment contract (Gorz, 1999; Atkinson, 2015). Another aspect of attempts to widen our conceptions of productive contribution focuses on the rapid development and expansion of the collaborative commons on the Internet (Rifkin, 2014), and the many ways in which products and services are developed and provided free of charge through the voluntary unpaid efforts of users in, for example, mass collaboration phenomena such as open source software or Wikipedia (Wright, 2010). In view of such observations, the so-called income without work can, in many cases, be understood as an income for all those who actually “work without an income” (Offe, 1992).

Third, there may be key advantages from the point of view of enabling productive contribution of dissociating access to basic security from work requirements for the reason that people’s work motivation would generally be stronger, and their suitability for their jobs greater, if they are in a position to make an active choice to get or hold on to a job instead of working only because they have to in order to make ends meet. With a basic income to rely on people would not have to apply for jobs they do not want or have no realistic prospects to get. Such a system of income support could thereby do away with costs associated with writing and processing meaningless applications, and of supporting a bureaucracy for monitoring and enforcing such obligations. At the same time, people would not have to stick to jobs they hate only because they don’t know if they would be able to find another way of supporting themselves. More broadly, there is the idea that people may generally act more confidently and productively as entrepreneurs and be more willing to try out new things, and accept (rather than resist) the necessary transitions of a dynamic economy if they know that whatever happens they will always have the basic income to rely on (Van Parijs, 1992b).

Fourth, and relatedly, if people had the bargaining power and security that the basic income confers, this may help promote a more inclusive and humane labor market with better opportunities for all to contribute productively, by spreading jobs among a greater number of people (i.e., lowering labor market barriers while supporting better working conditions). In the context of high levels of unemployment and/or highly unequal access to attractive jobs, would it not be better to “demoralize” the labor market in such a way that the involuntarily unemployed and the involuntarily employed could (where possible) change places? (Groot, 2004) Insofar as the basic income would facilitate productive contribution and address objectionable forms of free-riding in existing systems, “pure” parasites may not turn out to be a substantial category of people under a sensibly designed basic income scheme.

Finally, as mentioned in the beginning of this section there is also a second version of the pragmatic response to the exploitation objection (b), which is based on the idea that nonexploitation is not all that matters and, perhaps, not what matters most. Specifically, the aim of effectively ensuring that all persons are able to satisfy their basic needs in a dignified way, and have the necessary bargaining power to avoid or escape situations of dire need and exploitable dependency, are objectives we have reasons to ascribe fundamental moral importance (something to which we return in connection with equality of status below). Thus, even if we accept the exploitation objection as valid, and even if the basic income would lead to a net increase of exploitation, the objection is not necessarily decisive (White, 2006; Van Donselaar, 2015). To the extent that basic income has weighty advantages in attempts to serve these other and (perhaps) prioritized objectives, “some drones” might be a moral price worth paying (Pateman, 2006, p. 117; cf. Goodin, 1992).

Against the Exploitation Objection: Pre-Distribution, Left Libertarianism, and Equality of Opportunity

According to the pragmatic approach to the exploitation objection it becomes important whether certain hoped-for, contribution-oriented effects of the basic income would actually materialize. However, there is also a second and more principled response available in the literature, which I shall here refer to as the pre-distribution argument. This view questions one of the key assumptions of the exploitation objection, and makes the justification of such a reform much less dependent on its possible consequences. It is important to see that the exploitation objection usually assumes that the basic income would be financed exclusively or mainly through the taxation of earned incomes to which workers have valid moral claims, on grounds of reciprocity (or desert or ambition). However, it can be argued that this objection misfires since it fails to see how basic income could, instead, be sensibly conceived as way of addressing people’s unequal endowments, that is, the value of the resources that we receive (rather than produce) throughout our lives. According to this view, we should interpret the basic income as a strategy for pre-distribution of assets to which all have an equal claim rather than a redistribution of earned incomes.

An influential idea in contemporary political philosophy, associated with authors such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, claims that just social arrangements should not allow people’s socioeconomic life prospects to be shaped in any fundamental way by natural and social contingencies, or circumstances of “brute luck” fully beyond a person’s control, such as their place of birth or family background. But how can the general and abstract aim of counteracting the impact of such “morally arbitrary” circumstances be interpreted and operationalized for practical purposes in contemporary societies? In addressing this question, it is hard to deny that people’s access to the value of natural resources, inherited capital, and, more broadly, the economic returns to the social and technological infrastructure depend systematically and enormously on which particular slot in the economy they happen to find themselves, largely due to circumstances beyond their control.

Based on this observation the problem is not, perhaps, that there are opportunity-expanding assets that we receive without any clear or deep connection to our own work efforts, or that we may have unconditional access to (some of) them. Instead, the problem is that such gifts or gift-like resources are distributed so very unequally (Ackerman, Alstott, & Van Parijs, 2006; Van Parijs, 1995). This underlying inequality of “gifts” (widely conceived) can therefore be seen as allowing those who are privileged in this respect—who claim more than their fair share of resources to which nobody has a prior moral claim—to “bend the weakest to their will by compelling them to do what they themselves would not dream of doing” (Van Parijs, 2003, p. 209). Due to the spontaneous concentration of such resources, some have the economic opportunities and bargaining power that allow them to say no to unattractive jobs, to opt in and out of work in flexible ways, to choose when and how to retire, and so on. However, most people have a far more limited range of options in these respects.

One path for spelling out this type of view is “left-libertarian,” in the sense that it builds on ideas of self-ownership and original entitlements to natural resources in the tradition of John Locke and Robert Nozick. Full libertarian self-ownership implies ownership of the products of one’s labor. This notion has been invoked to support the claim that taxation of the returns to people’s exercise of their own abilities is inconsistent with freedom, and amounts to a form of forced labor. Yet, for reasons suggested in the early proposals of Paine and Charlier mentioned above, this does not stand in the way of justified redistribution. As summarized by Peter Vallentyne: “… no human agent created natural resources, and there is no reason that the lucky person who first claims rights over a natural resource, and the inheritors of those rights, should reap all the benefits that the resource provides” (Vallentyne, 2011). According to some, the most straightforward way of addressing this inequality is to ensure that all may access a share of the competitive value of natural resources by providing unconditional payments in cash, financed by people who claim more than an equal share of these resources (Steiner, 1994). While such an argument may provide a foundation for a wide range of taxes on the ownership, control, or use of natural resources, including environmental taxes, it is not clear that such sources of taxation would be sufficient to offer a substantial or strongly redistributive form of basic income. For left-libertarians of this sort, this is not perceived as a problem (or at least not a problem of justice). The size of the justified basic income may turn out to be high or low. This simply depends on the revenue from taxation of natural resources.

However, the general idea of pre-distribution can also be fleshed out in a way that allows a much wider range of taxes for financing a basic income, and that links the basic income more consistently to an egalitarian project of equal opportunity. One of the starting points of Van Parijs’ Real Freedom for All is that the libertarian challenge to egalitarian justice must be taken very seriously. He even refers to his own conception as “real libertarianism” and is often categorized as a left-libertarian thinker. Yet, it is important to see that he thinks that we should ultimately dissociate our views about liberty from the strong notions of self-ownership endorsed by orthodox libertarians, and the restrictions they impose on justified redistribution (Van Parijs, 1995, p. 2f; 2009a, p. 156). While making use of certain libertarian ideas, Van Parijs’ non-perfectionist case for the highest sustainable basic income is based on the view that all gifts, whether natural or produced, and whether inherited or bestowed by current generations, are subject to yield-maximizing taxation (Van Parijs, 1995, pp. 297–298).

Using the term of gifts in this context may be unfortunate to the extent that it gives the misleading impression that the confiscation of people’s symbolic expressions of love, friendship, and affection constitutes the essence of distributive justice, and the primary economic foundation of the welfare state. This is, of course, not the idea (1995, p. 103). However, larger inter vivos gifts and bequests may clearly be an important source of concern for anyone who is guided by the aim of counteracting the impact of luck on the social distribution of life prospects, and have been ascribed a role in the financing of unconditional payments for such purposes (Atkinson, 2015; Piketty, 2015; White, 2015).

More fundamentally, the radical implications of Van Parijs’ argument and his assumption that a high basic income is required by such a conception of justice, depends importantly on the inclusion of jobs in the category of assets to which the notion of gift equalization applies. Van Parijs argues that so-called employment rents are incorporated into the wages of privileged jobs of contemporary economies, and call for redistributive transfers by way of predictable taxes on income and capital. In the absence of efforts to help equalize access to such job rents he argues that stable job inequalities (as, for example, reflected in the willingness of people to accept attractive jobs at wages very far below actual wages rates) manifest massively unequal opportunities to “tap … society’s tremendous income-generating power” (Van Parijs, 2003, p. 206).

The mechanisms that lead people to access and hold on to privileged jobs so very unequally in contemporary societies are diverse and involve a complex mix of causal factors. Whether or not we are able to benefit systematically from such efforts to obtain a favourable job depends on “a combination of circumstances most of which are no less arbitrary than the fact that one of our parents happens to have a rich sister” (Van Parijs, 2009a, p. 158), such as the fact that we live in a particular part of the world, or that we access a particular slot in the economy because of family connections, valuable networks, or a good fit between our talents, linguistic abilities, skills, and available positions, etc. For any practical purposes, this interpretation of how best to equalize socioeconomic life prospects suggests that we may therefore sensibly subject job rents (along with other substantial, inequality-generating “gifts”) to predictable, revenue-maximizing taxation (for critical discussion of this argument, see, e.g., White, 2003; Van Donselaar, 2009; Reeve & Williams, 2003; Birnbaum, 2012; Van Donselaar, 2015).

Beyond Libertarian Resourcism: Basic Income, Power, and Equality of Status

It is important to see that the pre-distribution argument, and the connection it claims to establish between equality of opportunity and basic income, typically depends on a strong emphasis on state neutrality or impartiality in relation to people’s diverse choices and conceptions of the good life. According to this view there is something deeply objectionable about strategies for equality that focus mainly on “in kind” benefits, or entitlements that are earmarked for employment-oriented projects, or other specific purposes defined by the state (Van Parijs, 1995, p. 33f.; Alstott, 1999). This appears discriminatory and illiberal in the sense that it fails to advance equality of opportunity in a way that respects people’s commitment to diverse conceptions of the good life: “If the motive in combating unemployment is not some sort of work fetishism—an obsession with keeping everyone busy—” “the UBI [universal basic income] is to be preferred” (Van Parijs, 2001, p. 19).

The pre-distribution argument articulates powerful reasons for why efforts to equalize opportunities should include elements of unconditional transfers, and why such transfers are not inherently exploitative. However, it is misleading to suggest that we must choose between a view that we may refer to as libertarian resourcism (exemplified by the different versions of the pre-distribution argument above)—with its emphasis on cash payments as the privileged method of distributing opportunities—and objectionable forms of perfectionism. According to libertarian resourcism, the job of the state is essentially to endow people with “their” fair individual shares of resources, and let them do whatever they might want to do. Surely, Van Parijs is right that we must not be work fetishists. On the other hand, we should not be resource fetishists either, by fully disconnecting a concern about the distribution of measurable resources from an evaluation of how it affects the terms of social interaction or inequalities of social and political power more broadly. If all considerations about the kinds of lives and relationships that our way of designing people’s resource bundles may facilitate should be dismissed as illiberal then a natural response would be: so much worse for liberalism.

It seems far too rash to suggest that some form of libertarian resourcism exhaustively captures all there is to social justice, or that any deviation from such a view would fail to respect people’s commitment to diverse conceptions of the good life. As exemplified by John Rawls’s liberal-egalitarian philosophy, the project of counteracting the impact of natural and social contingencies on the distribution of socioeconomic life prospects (to which the pre-distribution argument offers a contribution) can be plausibly interpreted as one element of a wider conception of social justice. For example, Rawls’s reasons for stressing the great moral significance of addressing wealth concentration in the choice of economic regime, and of establishing and maintaining a solid “social minimum” for satisfying basic needs (Rawls, 1993, p. 7) were largely justified by another type of consideration, focusing on how best to satisfy the morally prior objective of ensuring the “equal worth” of the basic liberties, including the fair value of our equal political liberties.

A central topic in his arguments on this theme is how to equip citizens with the resources necessary to effectively participate as equals, and to identify and pursue their projects with a lively sense of self-worth. Thus, in discussing the limitations of welfare state capitalism from the point of view of social justice, Rawls famously stressed that “the intent is not simply to assist those who lose out through accident and misfortune (although this must be done), but rather to put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degree of social and economic equality” (Rawls, 2001, p. 139; see O’Neill & Williamson, 2012). This illustrates how Rawls’s liberal-egalitarian conception of social justice incorporates and attaches priority to an anti-oligarchic concern for building a position of independence, capacity, and power for all citizens or, for short, a basis for equality of status in social and political life.

Such considerations on resources, status, and voice in social and political relationships have been central in recent works on so-called relational egalitarianism and its critique of focusing (exclusively) on the impact of luck or the distribution of resources rather than the wider terms of social interaction. However, they are unavailable to libertarian approaches to the justification of basic income, which are (at least in their orthodox forms) exclusively defined with reference to the fair entitlements of “self-owners” and their freedom to use their resource bundles for whatever purposes they may have, even if this leads them into relations of submissiveness and servility. Self-owners do not necessarily care about powerlessness in social relations and, in any case, such conditions are unrelated to justice—as specified by these conceptions—as long as no libertarian rights are violated.

These observations also suggest that libertarian ways of thinking will have great difficulties to explain the view of basic income supporters that a regular income stream should be given priority to some form of basic capital, that is, lump-sum payments rather than a monthly stream of income (as defended by Paine and, much more recently, Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, for discussions of basic capital see, e.g., Ackerman, Alstott, & Van Parijs, 2006; White, 2015). After all, the latter would provide greater opportunities and flexibility to make large and risky investments at an early stage of life, and it will generally be hard to rely on libertarian principles to justify the restriction or denial of such options.

My own view, guided by a republican interpretation of John Rawls, is that many of the most forceful arguments for providing regular access to an individual and unconditional source of income for all is that this can offer a material foundation for people’s opportunity to effectively exercise their basic liberties while being able to (as Philip Pettit puts it) “walk tall, and look others in the eye” (Pettit, 2012, p. 82). Unlike a basic capital, that may be spent in the local casino at the day of payment the basic income option provides a direct and resolute strategy for systematically and continuously preventing conditions of exploitable dependency and vulnerability to abuse throughout people’s lives (Birnbaum, 2012). This type of argument is not primarily about counteracting the impact of luck on the distribution of life prospects, or about endowing people with an equal share of natural resources (important as this may be). Instead, it focuses on the links between power, status, and self-respect.

To explain, there are strong reasons to think that exploitable dependency in relation to private and public power is generally harmful to the protection of effective freedom or “voice” in human relationships. Such a condition may easily prevent us from articulating or expressing our own views with strength and confidence, and to relate to others with a non-subservient self-conception (McKinnon, 2003). Under these circumstances we must be prepared to strategically adapt to the will of those we depend on to satisfy our basic needs, and we will thus remain vulnerable to their changing moods and shifting judgments. Whenever we lack a genuine exit option from a very poor job or a bad relationship because we depend on that particular relationship for satisfying our basic needs, we have no option but to live at the mercy of another in order to effectively exercise our basic liberties.

The general objective to provide a basis for people to say no to working conditions or relationships where they are constantly bossed around and looked down upon; where they may reasonably feel that they are a nuisance to others much or most of the time (begging for money or applying for jobs that it is obvious they are not suitable for); and, so, lack a context for recognition and esteem in their everyday lives, cannot plausibly be dismissed as perfectionist in any objectionable sense (cf. Chan, 2000). Much of the more recent work on the normative theory of basic income, work conditionality, and the welfare state provide arguments in this direction, suggesting that we should find ways for equality of opportunity and equality of status to work in tandem. Carole Pateman (2003, 2006) defends the basic income as a tool for democratization. Philip Pettit (2007), Frank Lovett (2010), David Casassas and Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) all defend basic income as a promising instrument to serve the republican notion of freedom as non-domination. Catriona McKinnon (2003) and Simon Birnbaum (2012) build their arguments for basic income on Rawlsian considerations about the social bases of self-respect while Karl Widerquist (2013) emphasizes the basic income as a foundation for freedom as “the power to say no.” While these approaches differ in important ways, they are all concerned with the connections between unconditionality, personal independence, and voice in social relationships.

The Political Relevance and Feasibility of Basic Income

The Problem-Solving Potential of Basic Income: Three Lines of Argument

To flesh out some of the possible practical implications of these general arguments in the philosophy of basic income, I will now distinguish three discourses in which such considerations play out in more problem-driven scholarly discussions on welfare reform. It has been argued that basic income may not only be desirable for reasons expressed by theories of social justice but that it may also be an indispensable instrument for addressing some of the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time. Considering the political feasibility and practical relevance of basic income (Van der Veen & Groot, 2000; Caputo, 2012), such arguments may also point to a more ecumenical justification for such a reform in the sense that they speak to more immediate, urgent, and widely shared objectives.

First, there is a fear that trends of growing socioeconomic inequalities and precarious forms of work (increasingly insecure, temporary, and flexible jobs) have now become so pronounced that that the prospects for social cohesion and deliberative politics for the common good are increasingly bleak unless resolute measures are taken to revive and radicalize the universal welfare state (Bauman, 1999; Standing, 2011). There is a growing awareness and sense of urgency about the extent to which wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in fewer hands in many countries, and a more widely shared conviction that this may pose a fundamental threat to our long-term capacity to build and maintain political communities responsive to the common good rather than sectional interests or the power of money (Piketty, 2014, 2015; Atkinson, 2015).

Focusing on the connections between exit, voice, and market power one possible implication of political equality was captured succinctly by Rousseau’s famous remark that “no citizen should be rich enough to be able to buy another, and none so poor that he has to sell himself” (Rousseau, 1762/1994, p. 87; cf. White, 2011). Such a potentially corrupting or distorting influence of fundamental wealth inequalities may, for example, arise through the possibility of the wealthy to exploit people’s dependency by “buying” the loyalties of voters and politicians. With the words of Rawls, how can we develop an economic regime that will “prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy and indirectly political life as well” (Rawls, 2001, p. 139)?

When interpreting the debates on inequality and the precariat through such a normative lens, it becomes an important task to assess the potential of basic income to help build citizenship on democratic rather than (increasingly) oligarchic foundations. These growing asymmetries of power and social security also give rise to wider questions about the preconditions for social peace, solidarity, and the civic virtues of democratic societies. Guy Standing’s influential book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class argues that while the anger and frustration of the growing precariat may be channeled through progressive demands, this group may also be receptive to simplistic and divisive solutions of political extremism and right-wing populism (Standing, 2011). In this context, we have reasons to explore the potential of basic income as part of the answer to the question of how best to support a shared political space of social equals, in which “denizens” are turned into citizens equipped with basic security so that they can face each other with a non-subservient self-conception, and to form and express independent judgments.

Second, the ways in which our labor markets are being restructured by rapid technological development, and how automation and digitization are making many jobs redundant, have been an important topic of problem-driven, popular discussions of basic income (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014; Colin & Palier, 2015). The development of the robot society may potentially provide us with far greater opportunities to reduce the standard working week and a new interpretation of full employment that involves the decoupling of social security from the labor contract by allowing all to reap the benefits of these technological gains. Again, however, this places wealth inequalities at the center of attention and, in this context, the question of who owns the robots (Atkinson, 2015). That is, such scenario will not materialize if the profits of massive productivity gains are allowed to accumulate in the hands of the owners of private capital, and holders of privileged jobs (Van Parijs, 1995), rather than providing a basis for universal dividends or social investment for the common good.

The uncertainty of how these labor market developments affect the prospects for job creation and social security in the future also makes it clear that everyone cannot wholeheartedly embrace the “rise of the robots.” Indeed, it may be actively resisted if people’s access to the means for security, gainful participation, and social recognition are all tightly linked to the particular jobs or sectors of the economy that may now be under threat. Hence the suggestion that some form of basic income may be an important part of the solution for how to seize the emancipatory potential of these developing technologies, and for how they can be perceived as a source of hope and progress rather than a threat to people’s livelihoods.

Third, an ethically acceptable approach to the questions of equality and inclusion in future labor markets should not be dissociated from the wider challenges of environmental degradation and climate change. Given the assumption that we would otherwise fail to respect our obligations to future generations, this suggests that we must look for ways of adapting our economies to less material-intensive forms of social and economic development. However, as long as people’s access to security and gainful participation depends on unsustainable forms or levels of production this has the predictable consequence of blocking radical measures for environmental sustainability whenever they are perceived as a threat to people’s jobs.

In this context, basic income has been advanced as part of a wider post-productivist political project, providing a green alternative to the option of relying on accelerating growth to prevent increasing productivity from resulting in higher levels of unemployment (Van Parijs, 2001). For example, by providing greater economic opportunities for working time reductions, voluntary forms of “job sharing” and sabbatical leaves, and ways of using the basic income as an implicit job subsidy, such an approach may be used to spread the opportunities for employment more evenly across the population. Another component of such a green strategy against unemployment focuses on the potential of the basic income to help facilitate certain non-market forms of production that tend to be (not by definition but on average) less damaging to the environment (Van Parijs, 2009b, p. 4; Gorz, 1999), as exemplified by many practices of caring, sharing, and repairing (Offe, 1992).

Basic Income Sounds Nice in Theory, But Does it Work in Practice?

Much of the analysis of basic income has taken the form of a relatively speculative and philosophically driven discussion about the normative foundations of a just economy. It is striking that so many discussions of basic income simply stipulate that the basic income considered would be sufficient for basic needs, and then go on to discuss its advantages or disadvantages of such a proposal in very general terms. While this is perfectly legitimate for some purposes, many of the most difficult and important questions about the feasibility and attractiveness of basic income as a fruitful, concrete policy tool (rather than a distant, utopian aspiration) can only be addressed satisfactorily by engaging much more thoroughly with the specific reform package in question, and the empirical evidence on welfare state reform.

With this in mind, several forceful objections to basic income are not primarily concerned with the philosophical justifications discussed above. Instead, they are motivated by the more practically oriented suspicion that even though the case for basic income is guided by justified intentions, it may be difficult to find a type of basic income that would actually work out in accordance with such intentions. Specifically, when turning to questions about the economic feasibility of basic income, it becomes evident that a full basic income without a so-called poverty trap (i.e., that would avoid very high marginal tax rates in the lower income brackets) is difficult to finance even in the wealthier countries of the world (Atkinson, 2015; Bergmann, 2006). This is not to say that it is impossible but that certain trade-offs are difficult to avoid. We will not be able to fully assess the more immediate feasibility and attractiveness of basic income in any particular context until we know how specific proposals are designed to address these difficult choices (Torry, 2013).

An interesting long-term strategy to support the funding of such arrangements, without relying exclusively on taxation, is the construction of state-owned investment funds (so-called sovereign wealth funds) that would provide all citizens with a social dividend, reflecting their share of the returns to collectively owned capital (Meade, 1993; Widerquist & Howard, 2012; cf. Atkinson, 2015). While it may not be advisable to link the project of a “green” basic income directly to oil assets, the dividend program of Alaska’s Permanent Fund illustrates that unconditional payments can enjoy robust legitimacy and political stability even in a politically conservative environment when they are perceived as a form of pre-distribution.

If we focus on tax-based measures of funding the basic income here and now, the most important questions when addressing the issues of costs and economic incentives are not whether the income guarantee takes the form of a basic income or a negative income tax. The key questions (applying to both types of proposals) are (a) whether we accept a level of the guaranteed income that would be sufficient to cover basic needs in the absence of other sources of income, or aim for a more modest level (a “partial” basic income); and (b) whether the system is constructed to phase out net benefits gradually as a person’s income from other sources increases or if they are withdrawn more sharply. A full basic income will often seem socially valuable but economically unaffordable while a partial basic income may be economically feasible but fail to deliver many of the crucial advantages linked to such a reform, such as (full) freedom from poverty and exploitable dependency.

One way to tackle this challenge is to opt for a very sharp rate of benefit withdrawal. This “solution” would allow us to concentrate net benefits to low-income groups and make it much easier to fund a socially adequate basic income. However, under this strategy many of the key advantages of such a reform, relating to smooth transitions, encouraging economic initiatives, and combining incomes for different sources in flexible ways (e.g., Barry, 2005) seem to evaporate since it would reintroduce the problems of confiscatory effective marginal tax rates for low-income groups. Indeed, such a scheme would seem to magnify such problems since these taxes would now apply to all low-income earners and not just people who depend on social assistance payments. A basic income designed to improve work incentives (i.e., lower marginal tax rates) in lower income brackets is much more difficult to fund since it also provides net benefits for much larger categories of people higher up in the income scale (see, e.g., Meade, 1993, pp. 152–156; Van Parijs, 2004).

Another easy way out of this dilemma might be to specify the basic income as a replacement of, or alternative to earnings-related social insurance, and/or services that are heavily subsidized in many existing welfare states. However, while simplification and replacement are bound to play a role in a sensible basic income proposal, more far-reaching versions of this strategy are often likely to be counterproductive. In such a policy configuration, the basic income may well have a corrosive rather than supportive effect on the long-term resilience of the universal welfare state. Empirical research suggests that the potential of welfare states to reduce or prevent socioeconomic inequalities often seems to depend importantly on their capacity to build alliances between low and middle-income groups. An important rationale for universal programs, covering both rich and poor citizens, is based on the view that high-quality services and adequate income protection for all reduces demand for privately funded alternatives, and helps ensure that that the quality of the welfare state remains a concern for all (or most) citizens, thereby supporting the perceived legitimacy of a strong welfare state (Korpi & Palme, 1998; Schemmel, 2015).

In light of such considerations, the idea of basic income as a possible means for supporting the bargaining power of low-income groups needs to be analyzed as part of a wider agenda for supplementing or developing the collective “voice” and structural power of vulnerable groups. In this context, there is an important egalitarian concern that some forms of basic income may weaken rather than support the sources of power and political alliances that are crucial for contributing to high levels of socioeconomic equality. To the extent that it would imply a step in the direction away from comprehensive income-related social insurance (thereby increasing the relative importance of private insurance) and insofar as it may reduce rather than supplement the power of unions (supporting individual instead of collective bargaining power), it may have problematic repercussions on the balance of power between labor and capital and, more broadly, between politics and the market (cf. Vanderborght, 2006).

Or suppose that the unconditional basic income would be offered as a replacement or alternative to high-quality day care and forms of parental leave designed to help facilitate the combination of parenthood and work for men and women (see, e.g., Murray, 2006). Such solutions are likely to have gender-conservative implications (Robeyns, 2001, 2008) rather than enhance the social standing and opportunities of women (McKay, 2001; Pateman, 2006). Thus, the exploration of means to strengthen the voice and freedom of individuals from exploitable dependency must not be disconnected from the analysis of the collective voice or wider, structural empowerment of disadvantaged groups (Davala et al., 2015; Wright, 2004). These general considerations illustrate that the dynamic, long-term impact of basic income in relation to such objectives will depend fundamentally on the details of the basic income proposal, and the wider set of measures with which it is combined.

In conclusion, future basic income research needs to bring normative theory on basic income into closer and more systematic communication with empirical research on the welfare state. The intensified discussion on, and concrete plans for, new basic income experiments around the world (in countries like Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, and Kenya) is encouraging in this respect, and offers the potential for a new empirical phase in basic income research (for updates on such initiatives and relevant links, see www.basicincome.org). An important issue to examine in this context is the extent to which a basic income can have great social value even if it may not (initially) be high enough to fully replace social assistance type schemes. As argued above, however, future basic income research also needs to pay closer attention to the interaction between basic income and other institutions and policies, that is, by focusing on regimes or systems rather than individual policies. Can a basic income plausibly play a central and productive role as part of a strategy that provides a more radical and inclusive foundation for social equality while improving the long-term prospects for strengthening and stabilizing the relative power of the disadvantaged? While there are many reasons to welcome basic income experiments, we also need to recognize that these structural connections and the dynamic long-term effects of basic income in the wider population will not be (fully) captured by studying the impact of a temporary basic income program on the net beneficiaries of such a scheme.


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