Julian Sanchez thinks we should stop using the word “deserve” in political or legal debates, and instead talk about what people are “entitled” to:
[T]o pick examples I think folks would generally agree with: someone who makes a heroic effort to stop a purse snatcher might deserve a reward without being entitled to any particular amount (unless the law has created some kind of “Samaritan bounty” to incentivize this sort of thing), while someone who wins a raffle or lottery doesn’t deserve the prize money (they didn’t do anything special relative to everyone whose number didn’t come up) but is nevertheless entitled to it, insofar as the organizers promised that amount to a ticket purchaser chosen by some specified procedure. If we wanted to be cute about it, we could say desert is about your due, and entitlement is about what you’re due.
He goes on,
I always find it strange and slightly grating, actually, when people say that people “deserve” healthcare or a good education or some minimal standard of living: Usually, the claim being advanced is that these are things we morally ought to have just because we are persons (or at least members of a particular society that can afford these benefits), which seems like the ultimate case of something that is not “deserved.” Language gets tricky here: We sometimes talk as though the only options are that people “deserve” X, or alternatively they are “undeserving of” X, implying that they ought to be denied it. As I hope is clear, though, I assume people will often be entitled to things they don’t deserve—like the two working eyes I was just fortunate enough to be born with.
I think all this is exactly right, and I’ve often had exactly the same grating feeling, because I think that to talk about “deserving” is sort of to cede the rhetorical and emotional terrain to conservatives, who sometimes like to indulge in the Just World Fallacy, imagining that everyone’s station in life is exactly correlated to his moral merit. Sanchez again:
My impression, incidentally, is that the facially similar economic views of libertarians and conservatives are often distinguished by the extent to which they rely on appeals to desert…. Conservatives… rely heavily (primarily?) on the idea that wealth is a deserved reward for hard work, ingenuity, prudence, and whatever other virtues they ascribe to the rich—while the poor must similarly deserve their lot by dint of being lazy, dissolute, and so on…. To the extent this view is wrong, it has the morally ugly effect of salting with blame a wound acquired through misfortune or injustice—but also of introducing incendiary judgments of personal virtue into a discussion where they’d best be left aside.
Indeed. There’s quite a case to be made for at least some of the building blocks of progressivism (universal, affordable health care, universal pensions, and unemployment insurance especially) as great bulwarks of a capitalist economy, encouraging people to take financial, creative, and intellectual risks that they might not otherwise dare to take — and this is an argument for progressivism that does not rely on determinations of who deserves what. And the other (undeniable) pillar of progressivism, progressive taxation, is based implicitly on an understanding that wealth is not purely a function of hard work or other moral choices — that it’s based on a huge network of factors, some of them biological or statistical, others social, and that to that extent, it is not unreasonable to ask those who are greater beneficiaries of life’s luck lottery to put a little more into the pot for certain useful things that benefit everybody. (Many wealthy people recognize this, of course.)
Given all that, I think talking about “deserving” is a losing game. Conservatives like to rally around the cry, “You deserve to keep more of your money!” — and you are not going to convince people they don’t, especially not compared to some low-income stranger. The point is not that people who are sick “deserve” health care, and that other people “don’t deserve” a tax break. The point is that any one of us could be sick, any one of us could be poor in old age, any one of us could lose his fortune, and that by taking modest steps to pool our fortunes we both strengthen the social fabric and encourage a more innovative and adventuresome capitalist system.