Recently, Brian Shaud argued in Georgetown University’s The Hoya that a growing wealth gap in the United States is the cause of various social ills. At the root of his argument is his conception of the American dream, “that each citizen has a chance at material and personal success, independent of the condition of his or her birth.” But does this conception reflect what people really deserve? What does it mean to “deserve” something?
Suppose that two twins are born into a poor family and live under the same conditions until they become adults, when each leaves the house to live on his own. Twin A makes choices in life that are irresponsible, reckless, and unmotivated, such as neglecting his assignments at work, partying late and often, and failing to pursue opportunities which could bring him success. As a result, he remains in poverty. Unlike his brother, Twin B is responsible, thoughtful, and motivated. He makes the opposite choices, and so acquires wealth and success. One could imagine a scenario identical in every way except it involves another pair of twins (Twin C and Twin D) who are born into a rich family. One makes irresponsible choices later in life and loses his inheritance, whereas the second makes responsible choices and succeeds in expanding his fortune.
While the successful twins were born into different circumstances, they make choices—responsible, thoughtful, and motivated ones—that lead them to become productive, for which they are rewarded. In the same way, the irresponsible twins make choices that lead them to become unproductive, and miss out on rewards. Each twin’s final condition depends on the nature of his choices, not wholly on the condition of his birth.
But there are also cases where the appropriate and otherwise expected consequences of our actions are disrupted or denied by the choices and actions of others. Suppose that in another scenario, Twin A and Twin B make the same kinds of choices as in the previous example. Suppose that they both work at the same job, and that while Twin A chooses to skip work or to shirk his responsibilities when he does show up, Twin B does the opposite. Regardless of these choices, however, their boss decides to keep them both employed, and even to pay both twins the same salary for obviously different qualities of work because he is friends with their parents. Employees will typically expect a profit-driven boss to reward a responsible employee and fire a shirker, but it’s not guaranteed; in this case, the boss fails to appropriately compensate either twin, whether by reward or punishment.
What, then, do we deserve? The twins who made the responsible choices and enjoyed greater success deserved what they got, as did the twins who made the irresponsible choices and experienced less success. In the last scenario, when the normal outcome is disrupted, what each receives is undeserved. As such, what one “deserves” is what one’s choices are ordinarily productive or virtuous enough to achieve—the result or reward for those choices (and for “undeserved,” the opposite).
Note that egalitarianism, an ideology which advocates universal equality, can be seen in the vision of the American dream which Shaud presents, in that it would attempt to equalize the material success for both twins regardless of their choices. Twin A would be aided, even though he made the wrong choices, and Twin B would be taxed to help pay for that aid, even though he made the right ones. This illustrates a fundamental flaw in the egalitarian conception of what people deserve, the view that regardless of the choices we make, we all deserve a chance at an equal outcome. This flaw is also apparent when considering the rich twins, as egalitarianism would have us aid Twin C (who made the wrong choices and ended up in poverty) while taxing Twin D (who made the right ones and expanded his wealth)!
Thus, the concept of what it means to deserve something is directly contradictory to an egalitarian conception of the American dream. Egalitarianism, in fact, is profoundly unjust. Its advocates say that the poor deserve to be aided by taxing the rich, simply because of their conditions and not because of their choices. This distorts the relationship between how people choose to act and what they deserve. As such, neither the rich nor the poor deserve the consequences of Shaud’s egalitarian American dream.
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