The 'lucky country', the 'fair go' and getting what we deserve

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We celebrate our good luck in Australia but, writes Dr Samuel Douglas, when things don’t always go our way, we’d be glad to live somewhere that values the "fair go".

YOU'VE GOT TO ASK yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?"


Even amidst a tendency to gripe, which surprises even the British, we still occasionally think of Australia as the "lucky country". Underneath our tantrums about avocados, it remains one of our foundational, if somewhat mythical, ideas.

The fact that we even talk about luck is an acknowledgement of the random and capricious nature of life. Deep down, we know much of what happens to us is outside of our control.

There’re lots of ways a person can be lucky in Australia — in the sense that good things happen that we never had any control over and that weren’t a result of good choices we made.

Being born here is lucky. Being born with good genetics is luck. Being born into some certain strata of society is luck — one that largely involves being born white.

Being born into a family where your grandfather can lend you $34,000 for your first property venture, putting you on a path that leads to you spouting devastatingly unreflective opinions about how millennials aren’t as good as you, is luck.

Being born into a family and community environment that instils good values in you as you grow up is luck. Having parents (or even just one parent) who will go above and beyond to help you learn useful skills is very lucky indeed.

These fortunate occurrences have a flip side. Depending on where it is, being born someplace else could be unlucky. Being born with genes or any other heritable factors that lead to illness is unlucky. Being born into the bottom rung of society may not be so great either. You didn’t choose your parents or your grandparents and you didn’t choose how they raised you; the universe deals the cards and you play the hand you’ve been given.

Think about the following unlucky events — are the people who experience them getting what they deserve? Does a child deserve to have a profound genetic disorder (even if they are lucky enough to be born in a country where you don’t have to mortgage the house to pay for their treatment)? Do they deserve being born in a country where they endure war, starvation, genital mutilation or inescapable poverty? How about incompetent parents? Or grandparents unable to hand out business loans or house deposits?

Unless you believe in some sort of supernatural mechanism, like karma, the threefold return, or a vengeful God, how can you possibly argue that people deserve bad luck?

Here’s a hint: You can’t.

If that’s true, then the same goes for good luck. It’s great for the individuals that benefit from it. But they don’t deserve it in the sense that they didn’t earn it. Where they went from this good starting point, maybe. But you don’t get good genes, great parents or a wealthy family through hard work, any more than being born here in Australia was a result of choices you made.

If that’s not enough for you, think about this: if you have the capacity to work hard – hard enough to succeed even if life dealt you a bum hand – where did it come from? What is it based on? Once we set aside religious explanations or unreflective hand-waving about free-will, what’s left? Biology (including genetics), upbringing and other environmental factors. And, of these things, how much do people have any control over? Bugger all! That’s how much.

Ironically, the value of luck isn’t what’s mythical. It’s that hard work can reliably overcome bad luck. And, in Australia, the fairy tale is also that we somehow earned our rewards, when it was mainly being in the right place at the right time — this is more in line with what Donald Horne, author of The Lucky Country, actually wrote.

Where do we go from here? If we want to maintain any idea of our Aussie core value of the "fair go", then how we think and act needs to change.

It’s fair that people can keep what they’ve earned. But thinking about luck tells us that collecting income and morally deserving that wealth are not the same thing. Some of our take-home pay is a result of our hard work, but some is due to luck. Same for capital gains, rent, share dividends and so on. For property investors, mining magnates and the middle-class to bitch and moan about paying tax as if they deserve every cent is either disingenuous or delusional (sometimes both).

If it’s fair that people get what they deserve, then it’s unfair when things happen to them that they don’t deserve. It’s all well and good to say this, but in the real world, this is where things are complicated by politics and self-interest.

Whatever the details, here’s the core of it: People who are lucky don’t morally earn all their good fortune. People who are unlucky don’t deserve all the shitty things that happen to them and they certainly don’t deserve to be punished further.

So, transferring some of the results of good luck to those who have gotten the wrong end of the stick isn’t theft, as hysterical pretend-libertarians like David Leyonhjelm would claim, it’s the fair thing to do. Punishing victims of circumstance, such as those who are unemployed, poor or displaced by conflict is not fair — such actions are rooted in selfishness, ingratitude and a misunderstanding of how the world works.

Of course, we could just abandon any illusion of being a fair society. Then we needn’t worry about redressing the roll of life’s dice. The lucky would do well and the unlucky would not. The thing about luck though, is that it’s sometimes hard to predict when it’s going to run out — but it always does. For an individual, this could be a bad investment that leads to total financial ruin. For a ruling class, it’s when the less-lucky get cranky enough to break out the guillotines or firing squads.

So, when the ex-CEO recalls their glory days from the bottom of a flagon of sherry, or the politician makes their last stand, knowing what awaits when the last of their troops abandon them, I’d have just one question:

"Do you feel lucky?" 

You can follow Dr Samuel Douglas on Twitter @BeachPhilsophy.

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