What do we Australians ‘deserve’, exactly?

It is not uncommon, in any discussion of the ills of society and how they are to be ameliorated, to hear the word “deserving”.

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In discourse regarding health or education it’s unavoidable: our elected leaders will hasten to assure us that “Australians deserve world-class health care” or “our children deserve great schools”.

We accept this, because why wouldn’t we? Of course we deserve the best – we’re us! 

But if we ever thought about the concept of “deserving”, we might start questioning the way we do things, and the way we solve problems, and most terrible of all, we might stop feeling so great about ourselves for deserving so much. 

But what if we did ask a few questions? We deserve good health care? Why, exactly? What did I, for example, do to deserve good health care?

Moreover, if we deserve good health care, it must follow that some people don’t. Who are those people? Are they, conveniently, the people who don’t get good health care? They must’ve done something awful to not deserve it.

But it worked out pretty neatly that all Australians do deserve it – in fact, one might say it’s a startling coincidence that here in Australia we have 22 million people, all of whom, without exception, deserve good health care. What amazingly good boys and girls we must have been. 

That is the power of “deserve”. Once you tell people they deserve something, you do two things: first, you divide the world into the deserving and the undeserving, and you reassure those you’re speaking to they belong firmly in the former camp. Second, you cleverly eliminate from the conversation the word that should be there: need. 

It’s ridiculous to allocate health care on the basis of anything other than need, but “deserving” is the myth we’ve created to make ourselves feel better about the fact that so many people have more than they need while so many others have less.

The pollution of society by the concept of “deserving” is all-encompassing. It is the source of futile and counterproductive law and order campaigns: when thinking of how to treat those who break the law, the question of what would produce the most positive outcome for the community is ignored in favour of what the criminal “deserves”: thus we subordinate rehabilitation to retribution and fool ourselves that the way to stamp out bad behaviour is to prescribe ever-harsher punishments, and we end up with a prime minister urging us to “dob in a dealer” – because drug abuse, like any problem, must be attacked by giving people what they “deserve”. As long as the pushers get what they deserve, all will be well, logic and evidence and basic sense be damned. 

This approach extends to “border security”, where the distinction between deserving and undeserving is made with surgical precision. The story goes that those who are good and apply through proper channels and wait patiently for however many years it takes deserve their place here, while those who are naughty and try to sneak in are undeserving of assistance. And so when those undeserving show up, pleading for a chance to build a better life, we send them off to island camps to be jailed and tortured and even killed.

And that is okay, because we’ve convinced ourselves that it is right and proper to ignore who needs our help in favour of who we think deserves it. We treat them like criminals, because in the structure we’ve built for ourselves they’ve committed the unforgivable crime of asking for that which they have not earned. 

“Deserving” is one of the glaring examples of the great public falsehood: that the conduct of individual lives is a template for the organisation of a society. Managing a national economy is just like managing a household budget. Immigration policy is analogous to deciding who to let into your house. And obviously, just as you may reward your children for good behaviour, or gain a promotion for a job well done, governments should redistribute wealth according to who’s earned it. It’s nonsense, but it’s remarkably attractive nonsense. 

How else would you get a country to placidly accept the argument that asking the richest among us to pay more tax is “punishing success”? Rich people deserve to be rich, so it would be terribly unfair to penalise them for it. On the other hand, poor people haven’t done anything to deserve tax cuts, so why not tax them more? Obviously the sane way to do things is to tax and spend according to where resources will do the most good.

But we don’t do things the sane way – we do them the “deserving” way. 

So the rich get tax cuts, corporations get subsidised, while the unemployed get less than enough to live on and “mutual obligation”, because you can’t expect anything unless you deserve it. The odd individual story of hardship might move us, but only because the story convinces us that that individual is deserving – the great mass of dole bludgers remain undeserving. The fact that the undeserving will lose their homes and starve just as quickly as the deserving is not even a consideration. And when the undeserving pop up on the street and beg us for two dollars, we’ll brush them aside and tell ourselves we’re justified in rejecting their plea, because we deserve that money more than they do – even if we need it a whole lot less. 

Time to stop this. No, Australians don’t deserve good health care – they need it, and without it they’ll get sick and die.

Children don’t deserve good schools – they need them, and we need children to be well-educated if we want a productive and peaceful society.

People don’t deserve welfare, but they need it to keep their heads above water.

Beggars don’t deserve charity and criminals don’t deserve understanding and asylum seekers don’t deserve our help – but they need it, and if they get it the world will be a better place.

If we can start making decisions based on that measure rather than any self-serving notions of worthiness, we might make some progress. 

And maybe we’ll remember, next time we hear a politician telling us what we “deserve”, that all it means is they’re trying to sell us something.

Ben Pobjie is a writer, comedian and poet.