Last year Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey declared that the Age of Entitlement was over. It's not a message you're likely to hear from either party during this election campaign. But as Hockey said then, with our population ageing and the cost of health care rising, we won't be able to afford the same level of benefits and services and cut taxes at the same time.
While Hockey resists the idea of higher taxes, just about every Australian economist and overseas observer tells us, like Ken Henry did, that we must generate substantially more tax revenue over the next decade.
But Hockey is also right to challenge the idea of entitlement. Too many of us feel that we personally are entitled to lower taxes and better services. And that means that we're asking someone else to pay more or receive less.
It doesn't take much to convince people they're entitled. American psychologist Paul Piff has invited hundreds of people to play a rigged game of Monopoly in his lab. One of the players starts with $2000, the other $1000. The rich player gets $200 for passing Go while the poor player gets only $100. And the rich player rolls two dice while the poor player rolls only one.
Before long the rich players are streets ahead and the game is over. 'When we asked them afterwards, how much do you feel like you deserved to win the game? The rich people felt entitled,' says Piff. 'They felt like they deserved to win the game.'
According to Piff, the rich players feel their success is due to their individual skills and talents. In other studies he and his colleagues have found that real life, upper-class people are often less considerate and compassionate than those who are less well off.
The researchers argue that having more money allows people to be less dependent on others. As a result they are more likely put their own self-interest over the interests of others and are more likely to see the pursuit of self-interest as a good thing.
In some ways life is like a rigged game of Monopoly. Being born in Australia is a huge advantage. And having the parents with money, a good education and connections always helps. Some of us have an advantage before we've even started school. But like the players in Piff's experiments, those of us who do well tend to think we've earned our good fortune through hard work, talent and creativity.
The downside to Australia's recent good fortune is a growing individualism and sense of entitlement. We buy four-wheel-drives, renovate our kitchens and send our kids to private schools and then tell pollsters and local members that the cost of living is killing us.
We pay taxes and demand value for our money — not value for the nation but for ourselves and our families. Politicians read the polls and study focus group analyses and respond with initiatives like MySchool and MyHospital. They promise each of us that we'll get more for ourselves and our families.
When we see people missing out, many of us tell ourselves it's because people don't want to work. We complain that women are having babies so they don't have to get jobs, that lazy middle aged men are faking bad backs and that teenage boys are taking surfing holidays at our expense.
In one of the richest nations on earth many of us are gripped by fear that somebody is going to take our stuff. If it's not people on welfare living a life of ease at our expense it's boat people 'flooding' in from the north.
We look at asylum seekers and decide that they are 'queue jumpers' or 'economic migrants' without knowing anything about them or the societies they are fleeing. It suits us to believe they are undeserving.
Perhaps the thing we really fear is reality. What if Australia's current prosperity is not entirely the result of our hard work, talent and creativity? What if some of us have more opportunity to succeed than others?
While we shouldn't feel guilty or ashamed of our prosperity, we shouldn't delude ourselves with a false sense of entitlement either. The world is full of hard working, talented and creative people who have a lot less than we do. And there are many disadvantaged Australians whose major failing was to be born to the wrong parents or into the wrong neighbourhood. Those of us who are doing well need to learn to deal with prosperity without denigrating those who aren't.
Whoever wins the election, there are tough choices ahead. The economic boom is winding down, the population is ageing and the cost of services such as health care, aged care, and education are rising. If Australia is going to remain the land of the fair go, we need to burst the entitlement bubble.
Paul O'Callaghan is Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Australia.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
02 September 2013
I suspect our deepest joys come from a place untouched by where we finish on the Monopoly board.
03 September 2013
Perhaps, Mr O'Callaghan, the obvious inequities that exist in our society are simply a reflection of administrative inequity. The taxation system may be the biggest problem we have in so much as the poor are taxed and the very wealthy have sufficient money to avoid fair tax payments. As far as services are concerned, such as health and education, some can afford to pay their way and others can't. To buy power politicians have created a system of entitlement which has become ingrained and shoud be dispelled. I wonder how much better the world would be if means testing were introduced to determine both taxation levels and entitlement. Not holding my breath or becoming a militant in this regard, because the current breed of politician is largely gutless and self- interested.
03 September 2013
Thank you Paul. If we could all realise we pay for social exclusion and financial inequity with fear,war and crime and a fortress mentality that will not lead to harmony peace , safety and real prosperity.Isn't it time we grew up?We, the lucky country have lost our fair go /compassion for the real battlers.What are our values now?? $$$$$..we spend so much on stopping and detaining/interning refugees.. would not it be more sensible to take a capped 100,000 and grow ( especially regional) wealth? Our pride is false.Australia-fair minded? a good global citizen? No, greedy and xenophobic.
03 September 2013
Well said. Wouldn't it be nice to hear these truths on the radio, see them on the TV and read them in the popular press.
Marie O'Connor sgs
03 September 2013
03 September 2013
Well written article that expresses my own poorly articulated concerns as we are embroiled in another election focussed on financial promises rather that development of social capital. Thanks!
05 September 2013
Yes Paul, you see it, I see it, the other commentators here see it, but the people who really need to see it, don't.
How can Eureka Street get the message out to the broader community?
06 September 2013
Great article. I always suspect a politics that seeks to divide, to pit one faction against another as it is a way of explaining the social victors to themselves and their consciences. Australia will prosper only insofar it pulls together despite the desperate politicians, the tax avoiders, sectional and corporate interests in the Press, the aggrieved and aspirational whingers out west. The reality is cooperation will yield the social and emotional dividends we crave. An independent press is important here and while being critical should promote social cohesion by arguing for the common good. I think this article is an example.