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When an idea is embraced by the political left, right and centre, you know it has to be too good to be true. Any idea that sees no one suffering and everyone gaining just might not be the right medicine for society, let alone credible.

So it is with the idea of a basic income (also called universal pay), a concept that has been around since Thomas More's Utopia was published in the early 16th century. It was proposed by Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of the United States, in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice, and tested during the 20th century in a few unlikely spots, including the town of Dauphin, Man. Martin Luther King, Jr., extolled the virtues of basic income, as did Milton Friedman, the American economist adored by Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher.

Today, the concept is being field-tested as never before. Basic income is being contemplated, or about to be launched in experimental forms, in Ontario, Finland, Spain and the Netherlands. In June, it goes to a national vote in referendum-adoring Switzerland.

Basic income, in its purest form, would pay a guaranteed wage to everyone, including children, regardless of their income from other sources. It would be given unconditionally. The recipient would not have to prove that he or she is looking for work or even wants work; eternal sofa surfing would be allowed.

The payment amounts would be low, but theoretically high enough to lift the poorest out of poverty, allow financially struggling students to finish their studies or make it possible for a parent to stay at home to raise a kid while the other parent toils away at minimum-wage job. The Swiss plan would see every legal resident entitled to 2,500 Swiss francs a month, the equivalent of $3,350, but that would land at the very top end of the various basic income schemes being contemplated, and in a country known for its relatively high cost of living.

The basic-income model certainly has its appeal. It would streamline bureaucracy if it replaced a tangle of means-tested welfare and support programs. It would, in theory, boost demand in the economy and give people the flexibility to hold out for, or train for, high-paying jobs instead being forced into menial labour to put food on the table. And for those unable, or unwilling, to train for a better job, it could make it worthwhile to take a low-paying one because any additional earnings would not be clawed back. It just might even trigger the development of a young entrepreneurial class.

At the moment, the onslaught of the machines is providing the strongest argument in favour of a basic income. Robots and automation, from self-driving cars to drones, are destroying jobs by the millions and many forecasts say the trend will only accelerate (in Australia, Domino's is testing driverless pizza delivery machines). A basic income would help prevent half of society from sinking into eternal despair and poverty.

The great flaw with the concept is that economies might not reinvent themselves if millions of people are paid not to work. In this sense, a basic income would not be the moral economic strategy, but the immoral one. Societies and their governments and business leaders have a duty to design economies that have room for everyone, not just a select few.

If the robots, Terminator-style, are going to shred jobs wholesale, maybe some thought should be put into policies that would create new jobs. If the economy does not adapt to accommodate the needs of the unprivileged, the unprivileged can do what they often have done: Start a revolution.

Basic income could become the opiate for the unskilled masses, the equivalent of a monstrous form of quantitative easing aimed not at the financial markets, but at unskilled and semi-skilled workers: Don't worry about the robots, young man and young woman, here's your guaranteed gruel ticket; now leave the privileged alone.

No wonder both the left and the right like the idea of basic income. The left sees it as protection beefing up the welfare state and a tool to protect unskilled workers from automation-obsessed, job-killing corporations. The right sees it as way to allow job destruction to happen more easily, though you would not get anyone to admit that.

Basic income really is like quantitative easing. In QE, central banks are in effect hosing out trillions of dollars to make up for the lack of efficiency, productivity and competitiveness in economies everywhere. QE reduces the incentives for business, regulators, bureaucracies and judiciaries to clean up their own acts. Basic income might have the same effect in the productive economy. The way to reinvent economies to make them more competitive and create sustainable jobs is to help the unskilled and semi-skilled adapt. A basic income would encourage them to do the opposite.