An unconditional basic income has become an increasingly relevant and important proposal in the past decade. There is an increasing automation of work in manufacturing and services, a limitation of trade union involvement in worker’s lives, and the development of an increasingly large precariat of semi-employed workers. This has led to an increasing decoupling of productivity and wages (due both to technological developments which decrease skilled work and the destruction of trade union influence) as well as the development of a rentier economy, where income earned “does not compensate productive activities”. Of the current tranches of wealth found in the global economy, 74% comes from economic rent. Much of this rent derives from monopolistic tendencies, including intellectual property, network externalities and the concentration of wealth through technological innovation. The modern economy is extremely unequal, with the majority of people having little access to these tranches of rental income. This is the opposite of a truly free society, where one’s “opportunities are being leximinned subject to the protection of their formal freedom”. Such a society is one that guarantees a level of security while allowing for self-ownership and the attainment of leximin opportunities i.e. “some can have more opportunities than others, but only if their having more does not reduce the opportunities of some of those with less”.
Basic income fits into this “real-libertarian” freedom by helping inculcate an institutional setup where justice is accorded a “soft lexicographic priority”. It would be provided through a cash payment, paid at regular intervals, on a uniform basis. Its payment would be facilitated through a political community (not necessarily through a nation-state, but also through cities, regions and provinces) and funded via forms of distributive income, including rental income such as land values, Tobin taxes and collective assets with no individual owner. The most fundamental point is that it is provided unconditionally, irrelevant of income level and employment status. The proposition that one must work to receive this benefit becomes irrelevant as “a basic income is paid as a matter of right – and not under false pretences”.
This institutional framework, with its particular emphasis on unconditionality, helps create the foundation of this freedom. By ending the unemployment trap, and creating more subjective choices to be made by workers, leximin opportunity is increased alongside a sense of security from the vagaries of the employment market. There becomes an “absence of legal restrictions on doing whatever one might want to do” and an “absence of constraints on ‘doing whatever one might want to do’ stemming from the lack of external resources” as a basic income provides an effective security fund. This also gives autonomy to people who would now constitute the developing precariat, thus satisfying a conception of self-ownership whereby one’s choices stem from their subjective valuation. The three tenets of real-libertarian freedom: security, self-ownership and leximin opportunity, can be satisfied by an unconditional basic income.
However this raises a number of philosophical and theoretical objections. Chief among is the idea that by providing basic income unconditionally, income is being redistributed from those earned it to those who didn’t, thus creating a situation where something is earned for nothing. A “norm of reasonable mutual advantage”, whereby a member of a cooperative community who receives benefits from said community is expected to reciprocate their own benefits and not become a burden, is violated. In effect, the productive members of a society are exploited for the general benefit of free riders.
This, I believe, is a flawed objection that may hold water in certain theoretical contexts, but doesn’t adequately address the modern economy and society that individuals are currently faced with. Thus I intend to critique this as focused far too much on a labourist conception of society, where work itself is prized as an objective measure of societal worth while ignoring the destroyed opportunities that such a theoretical idea closes off. Next, even if we take the exploitation object (which underlies the labourist viewpoint) as a given, real-world conditions shows us that this objection is being consistently violated due to the levels of rentierism present in modern neoliberal capitalism. Finally, in defending a basic income, one is defending a conception of society that is more equal and contains more opportunities for everyone. In effect, it gives individuals the ability to participate both in a genuine Dworkinian auction where equal needs and desires can be met, and a Cohen-esque political community where participation is key to developing a sense of mutuality among its members. In this sense, basic income should not just be viewed as a tool of policymakers to produce new outcomes in our current societal conditions, but as part of a radical program of change that is deontological in conception, where the maximisation of mutuality and opportunity as seen as the priorities of justice.
The major objection to basic income is the exploitation objection, also known as the reciprocity objection. To articulate this objection, White presents a fictional person, who spends a fair amount of time watching TV, reading books and occasionally going out. This individual seemingly contributes nothing to society. He produces nothing, doesn’t raise children nor care for the elderly. The question then becomes: is it legitimate to provide this man with a an unconditional income? In the situation of a basic income, it would be the case that this individual receives a uniform, consistent payment even though he has seemingly done nothing that can be considered contributory or reciprocal. This person has effectively broken the norm of reasonable mutual advantage.
The reciprocity objection then is that “those who willingly enjoy the economic benefits of social cooperation have a corresponding obligation to make a productive contribution, if they are so able, to the cooperative community which provides these benefits”. It would be unfair to accept the benefits of a community while failing to contribute a return of equal worth. Exploitation comes into this when “failure to (act as a reciprocal member of a cooperate community) …treats them (fellow individuals) in an offensively instrumental way”. To achieve a situation where this objection becomes irrelevant, White prescribes that instead of an unconditional basic income, where laziness and selfishness can be rewarded, there should exist a uniform distribution of income with a “‘quotum of work’ performed by each person” as the conditional factor in receiving it. Fundamentally, the objection rests on the belief that one’s contribution to the cooperative community/society is their ability to work, as work itself fulfils the object of reciprocity.
Such a view is problematic in multiple ways. For example, by prizing reciprocity as an obligation of justice above all else, it ignores other measures such as security and equality. This itself has many philosophical and political issues which aren’t fully explored. The idea that work itself is the major contributory element to society has many similarities to the Lockean concept of societal justice and property relations. According to Locke, “the ‘labour’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his”. This legitimates then “that labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than Nature, the common mother of all, had done, and so they became his private right”. In this labour theory of property, work itself is the moral and just dimension through which ownership of wealth and its earned quality are determined. Nozick eludes to this in his concept of original acquisition, from which follows an inalienable right to one’s income that cannot be justly distributed. In terms of legitimate acquisition of the commons, as Locke defines it, how can one provide an equal share when extracting land? Further, when this land is not in use how is ownership determined? Does it fall back to the commons, or remain an exigent part of the original homesteader? These remain ambiguous.
The basic idea of recognising labour above other measures of justice is present in the reciprocity objection and in Locke’s labour theory of property. This has problematic consequences when concerning the just distribution of income. In the case of Locke’s theory, the justice of common ownership is reduced to a secondary variable behind a mythical idea of labour. What of leximin opportunity, or the provision of security? These are also subsumed to this labourist conception, with real-libertarian freedom becoming unimportant. Further, the assumptions made are unrealistic in relation to prevailing socio-economic relations. For this labourist idea to hold, there need to ample leximin opportunities, a labour market with perfect conditions of competition, and the ability for workers to have the power of exit. Labour’s contributory factor in any other condition than this leads to systems of exploitation similar to those prevailing under modern capitalism. What we see, with the exploitation/reciprocity objection and the labour theory of property that underpins certain concepts of it, is a value structure informed by the importance of individualised labour-based contribution as the general aim of justice.
In the case of existing capitalist labour markets, there are significant discrepancies and disequilibria which lead to the erection of entry barriers and the limitation of choice for potential employees. In this situation, the labourist conception goes out the window as labour is an extremely imperfect measurement of justice. One’s access to it can be severely limited in prevailing market conditions. This then pushes people into exploitative or oppressive relations of employment, thus negating any conception of security or fairness. “For a variety of reasons, justice requires that we protect people against the consequences of market vulnerability or prevent vulnerability itself”. In measuring the degree of justice, sacrificing a degree of reciprocity for an increase in effective security from market vulnerability allows for a more just society. The introduction of a basic income would introduce this security, as it provides a cushion through which choice in employment can be developed.
This can go further when recognising that in the current capitalist context, huge realms of work and social activity which are integral to the reproduction of society, such as “daily activities for household upkeep (e.g., cooking, washing, cleaning, shopping for own household, etc.), care work (e.g., care of children, the old, the sick, disabled and others that need care), and unpaid voluntary services” which make up 35%-50% of total work time in modern economies, are unremunerated. Other examples can include many forms of household production and consumption, such as food gathering and subsistence activities. With a basic income, these forms of unpaid work are given a monetary recognition which market valuation cannot provide. There also exists a plethora of “bullshit jobs”, with a ballooning in administrative jobs with the subsequent reduction in manufacturing and agricultural employment. Whole new industries surrounding marketing and advertising have been created. Where is the economic worth in this? How can labour productivity as a measure of justice and value be truly possible with the range of opportunities restricted to low-pay sectors, unpaid work and work that provides little social value or economic productivity?
The reality is that the labourist values embodied in the reciprocity objection are extremely problematic, and do not in themselves produce relations of justice and equality. In prevailing conditions, conferring more power on labour in the abstract simply furthers inequality as those with the best access to paid employment are unnaturally benefitted at the expense of vast tranches of people who aren’t in that societal position. In Van Parijs’s crazy/lazy dichotomy, this can be seen in the sense that requiring some form of work contribution inevitably creates inequality between those who can work hard, and those who can’t or don’t. In a perfectly utopian world of labour market equilibrium and a just distribution of leximin resources, a basic income that allows this distribution would still be just as by prizing socially-defined hard work over a concept of laziness, an unequal relation between the crazy and the lazy is created, and real-libertarian freedom is consequently diminished. Here then we see the deontic need for a basic income, as the best realisation of real-libertarian goals in relation to prevailing socio-economic structures of employment and exchange.
With a basic income, the subset of values which contribute toward a cooperative community can be expanded and better understood. The idea of gainful exchange becomes important instead of a simplistic understanding of work as contributory. “In conditions in which jobs affording opportunity for self-respect are scarce, beer guzzlers can be seen as engaging in an exchange with those who seek sites of opportunity for self-respect in paid employment. By staying out of the job market, beer guzzlers relieve downward pressure on wages and decrease competition for self-respect supporting jobs”. Therefore, one cannot deny their claim to distributions of wealth, as the ability to have choice in one’s life, and thus provide outlets of meaningful exchange and the provision of different forms of contribution, become more important variables of justice and provision. The examples of basic income-type provision that exist prove this to an extent. The first, the example of Mincome in Manitoba, showed little in the way of work disincentives. The slight disincentives that did occur were explained by an increasing desire to perform more unpaid labour in the home, and to move toward education rather than focus on employment. The second, the SEWA project in India, also showed similar results, with a diversification of interests becoming apparent among the women receiving the income. In particular, there was a shift from wage labour toward forms of self-employment, thus providing new outlets for equal social relations of exchange. What we see here is a basic income providing the institutional framework that allows for the maximisation of opportunity, and the provision of new forms of employment and exchange (as well as the remuneration for existing forms which are currently unpaid). It effectively provides “the real freedom to choose among the various lives one might wish to lead”.
However, when considering real-world conditions, where significant precarity exists among the labouring classes and large amounts of wealth that are not earned through a form of productive activity flow to the wealthiest individuals, one can take the reciprocity/exploitation objection at face value and still find it extremely problematic when considering the flows of wealth that currently exist. Many of these flows constitute wealth earned not through productive activity or the provision of new developments or innovations, but from situational positions of power and wealth which have no justification when prizing either reciprocity or real-libertarian freedom as the objects of justice.
As noted in the introduction, 74% of the wealth that flows to the wealthiest in society comes from rental income. Current distributions of income, with “30 percent of all the income produced in the nation…paid out as capital income” and the richest 1% receiving 10% of their income through forms of capital income, show income is being earned not through productive activity but through situational circumstances and unequal distributions of politico-economic power. The most significant cause of this comes from monopoly, which derives from capitalist market failures that “cause social harm because they stand in the way of an efficient allocation of resources”. One such monopoly-based discrepancy are stock options. Stock options “represent a situational rent, a windfall income received on the basis of where the person sits (the executive office) instead of how talented, hard-working, or risk-taking the person is”. They push CEO pay and remuneration up above levels that would represent market competition, and encourage a short-termist perspective that invests into risky, speculative projects at the expense of beneficial, long-term expenditures on labour and infrastructure. This is a non-reciprocal rent created through an unjust position of power conferred by market failure and the discrepancies of information aggregation which encourage short-termism and profiteering.
Similarly, the conferring of network externalities to the wealthiest individuals and groups represents another situational rent that provides unproductive windfall income. “Network externalities are like gold lying underground”. Their exploitation is not bad in itself, but the occurrence of wealth earned from it is not necessarily legitimate as that gold existed prior to its exploitation by a particular individual or group. An obvious example of this externality is land. The general view of land, as described aptly by Locke, is that when one mixes their labour with ‘unclaimed’ land, the land becomes theirs. However this surely is the definition of a network externality, and as a result confers a privilege upon someone that does not come through productive activity, but through the simple act of claiming land. As George notes “what is necessary for the use of land is not its private ownership, but the security of improvements”. This is another form of rent, whereby “the share in the wealth produced which the exclusive right to the use of natural capabilities gives to the owner”. With monopolisation, we see the development of unjust accumulations of wealth and power that extend neither reciprocity nor real-libertarian freedom. The private extraction of land rent encapsulates this injustice, allowing for an accrual of wealth derived not from productive activity but from holding something situationally. “Thus rent or land value does not arise from the productiveness or utility of land. It in no way represents any help or advantage given to production, but simply the power of securing a part of the results of production”.
Intellectual property is another avenue of rentierism. “Particularly since 1995, intellectual property has become a prime source of rental income…Knowledge and technology-intensive industries, which according to WIPO now account for over 30 per cent of global output, are gaining as much or more in rental income from intellectual property rights as from the production of goods or services”. In the same way land is enclosed away from its common holding, intellectual property is the siphoning of knowledge and technology from the “scientific commons” and into the realm of commercial profiteering. This has led to phenomena such as patent trolling and hoovering, where companies become increasingly reliant not on productive activity but on the rental income derived from property rights held over particular forms of technology and knowledge. The pharmaceutical industry, to name one, has engaged in follow-on patenting and ever-greening, where slight upgrades and improvements to existing drugs are patented as new inventions and more rental income is derived from it.
Finally, another significant source of rental income are those found within employment rents. In a situation of a non-Walrasian economy where “the labour market does not tend to clear” due to regulations such as minimum wage legislation or to the prevailing conditions of a situation of perfect competition, “where insider-outsider and efficiency-wage theories” show involuntary unemployment. “Both sets of theories generate the conclusion that even in a competitive context, firms will pay their employees higher wages than those they could get away with by hiring equally skilled unemployed workers”, leading us to understand that employment in the context of market relations is scarce. By treating it as scarce, the case can be made that it be treated as similar to land and capital, as endowments that need to be distributed equally. In relation to prevailing labour market conditions, with a range of bullshit jobs that provide little meaningful engagement or social value and the decoupling of productivity from wages as noted by Solow, job scarcities are extremely prevalent when understanding the need for a basic income based on the redistribution of these endowments. “The removal of a willingness-to-work condition on receipt of welfare in conditions of job abundance and job scarcity should be thought of as an acknowledgement that many jobs are menial, dangerous, degrading, exhausting, all-consuming, and exploitative”.
However, in conceiving of the redistribution of employment rents, there is a tripartite effect. You have the worker who receives a windfall due to Walrasian imperfect competition, the worker who doesn’t, and the individual who chooses not to work. In the case of the first two, the redistribution of employment rents can be seen as legitimate as illegitimate windfalls are redistributed to those who have lost out (i.e. the involuntarily unemployed). However, the individual who chooses not to work does not meet such conditions, as their situation is not involuntary, and the unequal relations of wealth do not affect them. Thus, in considering the distribution of employment rents, we have to consider White’s distinction between labourist and unconditional redistributions. In the labourist conception, one’s entitlement comes from one’s desire to work, while with an unconditional entitlement any requirement is void. In the case of employment rents, where redistribution is premised on taking unearned privilege from productive individuals to those who would be envious of them (in this case those who work but don’t earn such privilege), an institutional arrangement based around the labourist conception is necessary to not fall into the trap of simply subsidising unproductive behaviours. By taking the reciprocity objection seriously, even while rejecting its general premise, we see that employment rent redistribution is problematic when allowing it to be redistributed to those who are not envious of others who work.
However, this is a case of institutionalisation, not a full on objection to the implementation of a basic income. As noted earlier by McKinnon, work is not the only way of creating socio-economic value, as things like gainful exchange are also important. Further, in the context of real-world dynamics, unpaid work of many kinds constitute a significant part of many people’s lives, whether in housework or household production. In recognising the need for labourist distributions, one can still have loose obligations when implementing basic income, leading to a form of “participation income”, “a non-means-tested allowance paid to every person who actively participates in economic activity, whether paid or unpaid”. This does not break the understanding of basic income that I’ve described, but rather inscribes particular value structures in relation to certain assets such as the social factory, where contributory values may well work better for leximin opportunities as productive individuals would not be subject to the whims of those uninterested in using such a social factory productively.
What these multiple examples of rental income demonstrate is that in the modern world the reciprocity objection is irrelevant when thinking of just income distributions for the simple fact that values of reciprocity are regularly broken by monopoly-based rent accruing from land, intellectual property and job assets. To describe a basic income as problematic under these conditions ignores the tranches of wealth earned from windfall incomes. With a work-obligation, as recommended by the reciprocity objection, societal values are forced into a framework where work is prized above all else, irrelevant of its scarcity and the variety of alternative activities that provide value to one’s life. With a UBI, monopolisation by employers and capital-owners can be prevented/counteracted, shifting the economic battleground to a more equitable situation. With the modern economy effectively a rentier’s playground, such a situation is preferable in terms of expanding freedom and opportunity.
Basic income also becomes preferable when looking at the best way to shape and institutionalise real-libertarian freedom. In particular, it can meet two concepts of society, that of the envy test whereby real equality can be achieved, and that of Cohen’s concept of community as the shared values and mutual understandings of its constituent individuals. In recognising the deontic value of a basic income, we need to understand what values should be instituted in a society based on justice. By recognising the extent of unearned wealth, and the extent to which individuals and political communities are far from any Walrasian economy of perfect competition, a basic income can be the best mechanism through which unearned wealth is redistributed as a matter of right. In this sense basic income is not a tool of policy that can achieve better outcomes, but is valuable in and of itself as something that tackles the range of unjustified inequalities that mark the modern world.
To achieve a situation of equality, one must begin by developing an original auction of some kind. Dworkin provides the example of immigrants arriving on an island. None of the immigrants have any innate rights to any of the resources on the island, but instead these resources will be divided equally among them. Further, it is agreed they must meet the envy test, whereby “no division of resources is an equal division if, once the division is complete, any immigrant would prefer someone else’s bundle of resources to his own bundle”. In the case of the auction, each immigrant is given a number of clamshells to use as counters of value in the auction. The procedure then follows from this, with different packages of resources being bundled and each immigrant having the ability to bid on these packages. An auctioneer sets particular prices for these bundles, attempting to reach a market-clearing price, with prices being adjustable if the market isn’t cleared. Throughout the auction the bidders are also able to change their bids or propose the bundling of different lots from those originally proposed. In the end, with clearing prices set and bidders able to propose their own prices and bundles of lots, the envy test can be adequately met when distributing resources. Peoples opportunities and desires are provided for as they can price them in these situations of scarcity. This itself, in an equality of opportunity framework, allows for forms of inequality due to the ability of individuals to exploit their lots to the degree they want.
There can certainly be problems with this, including that in the real-world any access to resources is extremely unequal from the beginning, and that many preferences people hold about themselves are not necessarily borne of their agency but of the wider structures they find themselves within. A Dworkinian auction as an original position of society may well meet the envy test, but in a world of rental income and scarcity of land, technology and job assets, the envy test cannot be met. An unconditional basic income may well move society toward an auction-like situation, whereby resources can be adequately redistributed to the extent that individuals have access to leximin opportunities. “Given an initial situation in which external resource endowments happen to be distributed unequally, justice demands the confiscation of their entire competitive value, as well as the redistribution of that value in equal amounts”. A basic income achieves this by providing a mechanism for the redistribution of collective assets, such as land, the commons of knowledge and the scarcity of jobs. Funding the basic income through a uniform tax-and-transfer system that relies on these resources provides a more just footing for societal interaction and the development of individuals talents and desires. Further, it provides an effective security fund that is resilient to the pressures of a market, unlike the situation of a simple Dworkinian auction, as income is redistributed from the effects of non-Walrasian competition.
The Dworkinian auction has the capacity for significant inequalities to develop both from unequal talents which allow individuals to use resources in a manner that produces more income for them, and from option luck, where one’s choices produce unintended outcomes simply due to luck. In the context of a market society, particularly that that exists today, these forms of luck are inescapable as the market is hardly escapable itself. “The means of exiting any particular market society consist of resources that are accessible only on terms set by that market society”. Such inequalities however are compatible with what Cohen terms a socialist equality of opportunity, as the individuals involved started with similar situational positions. However, in conceiving of an integrated political community, such inequalities do prove problematic. “The requirement of community that is central here is that people care about, and, where necessary and possible, care for, one another, and, too, care that they care about one another”. In a situation of inequality, particularly those that exist in the real world, the fostering of a sense of community becomes increasingly difficult as one in a higher position (owing to forms of rental income) cannot truly relate to or care about others in a lower position of wealth and power.
With the institutionalisation of a basic income, the inherent inequalities that are acceptable under equality of opportunity in the Dworkinian auction but problematic in a conception of community can be combated and prevented. In the modern market system there are huge disparities of wealth and economic power deriving from the ability to hold particular assets and collect rental income from them. Even in the situation of a Dworkinian auction, people’s choices and option luck can lead to situations where such rental income remains prevalent. But with a basic income, with wealth being redistributed from rental assets, the full effect of these circumstances in minimising the ability to construct a sense of community can be limited. Its encouragement of self-ownership allows a more equal footing through which disparate individuals can communally understand each other, and its provision of security means that people can spend their time focused on involving themselves in the activities of a political community. “Basic income (can be) an institution which serves to include all members of society as fully participating citizens in the democratic community , rather than putting them on hold for entrance into a labour market that offers too little opportunities”.
By emphasising a full sense of real-libertarian freedom, where leximin opportunities are maximised, security is provided and self-ownership is developed, both the starting point of a Dworkinian auction and a sense of communal equality can be constructed. The huge wealth disparities emerging from the holding of assets and rent due to effective option luck can be redeveloped and transitionally changed through the institution of a basic income. A political community of equals can be developed both economically through the redistribution of resources and socially through the institutionalisation of a communal feeling of equality.
An unconditional basic income can help create new value structures in the modern world. It moves us away from the idea of work as the measure of societal contribution, and toward a better understanding of an integrated society as containing different forms of work and social value, from unpaid work in the household (such as parenting, elderly care, etc.) and the household economy of subsistence production to the different pathways of meaningful exchange which are limited in a world of artificial scarcity and huge disparities of wealth and power. In this context the reciprocity objection falls down, as it speaks of a world where work is easily accessible, and provides a meaningful outlet for individuals to engage with. However “a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line”, pushing people out of dignified work and into the precariat, where minimum-wage, part-time work is the norm. The phenomena of bullshit jobs, where one’s productivity is an irrelevance to their wage, proves that work is not a meaningful measurement of societal value or contribution.
The prevalence of rental income in the modern world also shows the reciprocity objection as having little relevance. With 74% of the world’s wealthiest individuals’ income deriving from economic rent, the claim that providing a basic income would be morally objectionable as it is taking money from the productive and giving it to the unproductive is untenable. Such a situation already thrives in the modern world, existing as it does for the wealthy who can rely on capital assets for their income. Thus I reject the premise of the reciprocity/exploitation objection as completely unrealistic. It is one thing to believe in some obligation toward a political community, where one is expected to contribute in some manner. But basing this in a concept of work simply furthers the exploitation of the ever-growing precariat, forcing them into demeaning forms of work for the simple belief this contributes toward society.
By institutionalising a basic income, the effects of work itself can be mitigated by eliminating a large amount of useless, demeaning jobs that provide little to society. Further, it moves society closer to a Dworkinian auction, as leximin opportunities can be maximised and the envy test can be met, with societal rents being redistributed uniformly and thus providing individuals the basis to meet their chosen needs and desires. As well as this, basic income can foster a true sense of community by providing a safety net that allows for choices in one’s direction in life, and fostering a universalisable sense of self-ownership which provides the framework for a communal equality.
Thus basic income must be seen deontically, as a right in and of itself that is derived from the tranches of societal rent. However, it must also be recognised that basic income is no panacea. While it can be seen as a political project in and of itself, there to replace existing welfare schemes which can be sclerotic and bureaucratic, this presents problems of its own. In the developing world of precarity, with the move toward a post-Fordist organisation of production and work, a guaranteed minimum income could come to simply replace existing forms of social insurance. Rather than recreating societal values toward those of economic and political equality, it may well serve to inculcate new forms of wage labour and production systems which continue to foster inequality at the expense of other social values and systems. Thus basic income should not be seen as an isolated policy, but as part of a wider transitional, radical project of politico-economic change that fosters the values of equality and mutuality.
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