Review of On Life’s Lottery, by Glyn Davis

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian.


In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison assures us, ‘if you have a go, you will get a go’. In other words, those who make an effort are guaranteed a shot at success. It follows that if you don’t make an effort, you only have yourself to blame when success remains stubbornly out of reach.  

Professor Glyn Davis begs to differ. In his short book On Life’s Lottery he argues that life is significantly crueller, and poverty more entrenched, than such sound bites would suggest. For single parents, recent migrants, Australians living alone, the elderly, the disabled, Indigenous people and others, life is not a level playing field, but a region of Himalayan extremes.

The question at the heart of Davis’ essay is what to do about this situation, or rather what it is possible to do in a country in thrall to low taxation and suspicious of the welfare state. Davis’ parents were Christian folk who volunteered for St Vincent de Paul, and Davis himself has followed their example. He feels the plight of the poor acutely. But he is also convinced that our sunburnt country is unlikely to become a European-style social democracy, and that one therefore has to be realistic about what its citizens will tolerate. There are limits, he writes, to voters’ ‘largesse’.

Davis’s solution is to combine the ethic of charity at the institutional and community level with a (moderately) more activist state. In particular, he recommends ‘collective impact’, which commits actors from a number of sectors to solving specific social problems, and ‘social impact investment’, which involves financing organisations dedicated to addressing social needs, with the expectation of a financial return. ‘Working together,’ he writes, charity and government can direct money where it makes a difference, combine talents, encourage social investment and dissolve old assumptions about welfare.’

The problem with these solutions, however, is that they do not fundamentally challenge the system that necessitates inequality. For if a society is arranged as a competition, it’s inevitable that there will be winners and losers. Davis wants to treat the problems of poverty and disadvantage as a policy challenge, and suggests that a careful recalibration of public and private is the way to go. But in doing so, he misses the fundamental unfairness of a society arranged around competition and profit.

This failing becomes particularly apparent in Davis’ occasional comments on merit. For while he is right to note that Australia is far less meritocratic than it likes to think, and right too to suggest that we cannot be held responsible for our innate gifts or for the circumstances of our birth, he never penetrates to the real problem with the meritocratic principle, which is that it justifies material inequality in the name of ‘equality of opportunity’. That’s why the British socialist Michael Young coined the word ‘meritocracy’ in the 1950s: to warn the world of an emerging moral system that would not just rationalise inequality but create resentment in the poor and hubris in the rich.

There is also an odd, and possibly telling, mix of moral registers in On Life’s Lottery. The essay begins with an account of the short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by the late speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, in which a prosperous city depends for its affluence on the imprisonment and torture of a small boy. Le Guin’s aim in the story was to counterpose two different traditions in moral philosophy: utilitarianism, which says that actions are good insofar as they maximise social utility, and a duty-based (or deontological) morality that stresses our absolute obligation to one another as fellow human beings and equals. Given his regard for Christian charity, one might expect Davis to accept the latter view and reject the utilitarian calculus, precisely because it is a calculus – because it reduces morality to a question of arithmetic. But if anything he leans towards the utilitarian view. As he puts it: ‘Our obligation to others is not an absolute moral imperative which overrides all other considerations, but a judgment about consequences.’

In the end, then, Davis appears to accept the logic of the current system, even as he laments its current state. And while I’m sure his own ‘judgment about consequences’ would land us in a much happier place than Morrison’s meritocratic mantra, I am far less confident than he is that his personal compassion will have impersonal resonance. ‘If poverty was easy to solve,’ he writes, ‘it would not long endure.’ I just don’t think that’s true.


Glyn Davis, On Life’s Lottery

Hachette; $16.99; 73pp