‘Deserve’ v. ‘Earn’

Every morning, God help me, I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

If I wandered into the Times news room I would feel as if I should apologize for my very being as a privileged member of the patriarchy and offer to pick up coffee for everyone — fair trade, shade grown, of course.

Stopping by the Journal would be like showing up in the back of a McDonald’s dining room at 8AM on a weekday. I’d wait for a pause in the conversation and then jump in. “Damn right!,” I’d say by way of introduction. “And here’s another damn thing that pisses me off!”

Anyway, while neither paper exactly captures my world view, these are the papers of record for the most influential people in the country and, while I am not one of these people, it’s good to know what actual influential people are telling one another.

And sometimes you pick up good stuff. Like yesterday, when a philosophy professor wrote a piece in the Journal on the overused word “deserve.” The guest column was surprisingly entertaining for having been written by an academic. It helped that the prof had the wonderful name of Crispin Sartwell, which sounds like a variety of apple, tart and crunchy. Perfect for this time of year.

It’s fine to demand our rights, but it would be better to also acknowledge our personal responsibilities.

The core of Prof. Sartwell’s argument (note the subtle apple pun) was that politicians and our society in general keep telling us what we deserve just for breathing, with no mention of what we might have done to earn any of these wonderful things.

Now, in truth, I think he takes his argument too far. For example, he writes about how we’re told we deserve good infrastructure. I don’t think decent roads and high speed Internet are fundamental human rights or that a lot of people think of them that way. Rather, these are things that make us all more productive. They’re good for society in general.

But I do think that we make a mistake when we emphasize rights over responsibilities. For example, just as a political matter, I cringe every time I hear Bernie Sanders or some other Democrat tell me that health care is “a fundamental human right.” It’s not that I think they’re wrong; I agree that it is. But the political argument is not very persuasive. Americans don’t like to be told what the government owes them; they want to be told what they can earn — even while they’ll defend their entitlements to the hilt once they’ve got them.

I don’t mean to pick on the Democrats in this regard, since the other guys are not much better. Both parties focus on grievance these days. It’s about identifying scape goats, explaining how somebody else has stolen your chance to pursue happiness. It’s the immigrants or the intellectuals or the mainstream media, on the one hand, or it’s the patriarchy, white privilege and blue collar people who just don’t understand their own self-interests, on the other.

Either way, if you lack something or you’re not fulfilled, it is most definitely not your fault. At the center of this way of thinking is a helplessness, a fatalism. Why wouldn’t people be angry and frustrated when they are led to believe that their lives are foreordained by the money power or by systemic racism?

A local example of this kind of thinking is the homeless encampment at Reindahl Park. The city of Madison is working to end the encampment only to recreate it in an industrial park, and just as cold weather is about to set in. But we have a full employment economy. Employers are begging for workers at entry level positions. Some are even paying signing bonuses. So, why not connect these homeless folks with employers? If there’s a mental health or substance abuse issue, then let’s get them treatment along with a job. But nobody deserves, or has a right, to sleep in a park. Homeless people are living at a moment when lifting themselves out of their situation is more at hand than ever. Let’s get them to help themselves as opposed to just accommodating their current plight.

What would be nice is if we could balance rights with responsibilities. Yes, in fact, we all deserve a decent place to live, food to eat, basic health care. But we also have a responsibility to the rest of society to help pay for those things by keeping a job and looking after our own health. If you’re a working age, able-bodied person who refuses to work and pursues a lifestyle that makes your body less able, well, no I don’t want to see you hungry and on the street, but I also wouldn’t say you deserve the public assistance you’re going to get. You should get that help because we’re a rich enough society where we can afford to pull you along, and we should be an evolved enough society where we simply don’t want to see people in pain, even if it’s self-inflicted.

But we’d be a healthier society if there was less emphasis on what we’re owed and more attention paid to what we owe each other in terms of responsible personal choices and behavior.

Welcome to the 212th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “‘Deserve’ v. ‘Earn’

  1. Your essay implies that homeless persons are not working. Google it.

    How many homeless have full-time jobs?
    According to a study, between 5 and 10 percent of the homeless are employed full-time and between 10 and 20 percent are employed part-time or seasonally. Some studies place the rate of employment around 45%.

    The Working-Homeless: The What?. You can have a full-time job and …https://baxleyjames.medium.com › the-working-homeless-…

    Working While Homeless: A Tough Job For Thousands Of …https://www.npr.org › 2018/09/30 › working-while-home…

    Around 44% of homeless people were employed. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the most common demographic features of all sheltered homeless people are: male, members of minority groups, older than age 31, and alone.

    Homelessness in the United States – Wikipedia


    1. The question would be how many of the homeless at Reindahl are employed full time. And, for those who might have full time jobs, what factors are keeping them out of apartments?


  2. Imagine two humans, living near each other pre-civilization. Each has a right to seek food and water and build shelter. Neither has to help the other if they don’t want, and acting to limit the other’s access to these fundamental needs is a form of violence even if the method for limiting access doesn’t involve physical force.

    Consider that in today’s context. Those same fundamental rights exist but they are complicated by private property and money. There are lots of ways to approach this in today’s context, but I’d argue that we don’t do it very well at all and have lost sight of the basics.


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