Thanks Shivy for the invitation to reflect. So in response to your questions –
Professor Davis, for those who may not be intimately acquainted with your work, would you be able to introduce yourself and give a brief overview of your career? What were the highlights/greatest struggles, etc. in your opinion?
A career often only makes sense in retrospect. For much of my professional life I moved between posts teaching politics at university and working in the public service. I see now these things as very connected, but they could seem quite distant at times.
Since completing my term as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, I have been working in philanthropy, serving as chief executive of the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Australia’s largest private fund seeking to break the cycle of disadvantage.
Your recent book On Life’s Lottery discusses class in Australia, the duty of the community and the steps which can be taken in order to give reparations to those who are underprivileged and have lost out in the lottery of life. How would you summarise the book and what should be the key takeaways for a reader?
An interesting question Shivy. My recent book On Life’s Lottery has little to say about class, but focuses on the 13 percent of Australians who live with significant economic disadvantage.
At the heart of the book is the question we all face – how much do the fortunate owe to those living with poverty? There seems to me an inescapable moral obligation to help. On Life’s Lottery notes that most Australians give generously to charity and support policies to assist the poor, though within some pretty strict limits.
Do you believe that there is a way to do away with the so-called ‘lottery of life’ or do you believe that a lack of privilege at birth is an inescapable sentence? Are there preventative measures we can take to ensure equity in society or must all activism and service in our era be reactive instead?
The lottery of life is inescapable. We take a ticket and are born into families, genders, and nations we did not choose. The question becomes whether society can provide enough support to those who struggle. In a democracy, that means the obligation falls to you and I. Poverty is not a subject much discussed in political debate, but in practice, much electoral contest is about the balance between spending and paying taxes. Generally, we ask politicians to provide more generous government support for those who struggle, yet also ask for lower taxes – an impossible contradiction always.
Do you believe in the concept of utopia? Is perfect equity a plausible goal? What is your opinion on the idea that socioeconomic inequality is a driving force of human life?
Utopia always sounds delightful, but the very concept signals something beyond human reach.
Perfect equity is not a plausible goal, but we might learn from eminent economist Amatyra Sen, who argues that public policy should ensure people are given the opportunity to lead the lives they have reason to value. This does not imply equal outcomes, since we all value different things, but it does stress fairness of opportunity. This must begin in childhood, with an education system that that allows participation and health services that look after those in need.
Inequality can be a great driver of ambition and innovation, but at significant cost to some. Recent studies of national outcomes suggest that more equal societies are as productive as very unequal communities, while doing more to promote the happiness of everyone. This idea is explored in detail in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
What is your view on the intersection of politics and society? Is all life politicised and would you consider the experience of being governed to be an intrinsic component of humanity? Do you believe that there will ever be the perfect establishment?
A fascinating aspect of the COVID-19 experience has been the argument between individual rights and public health – outrage from some at the suggestion we should all wear masks and stay indoors, against the blunt reality that viruses will infect people whatever their political views.
Covid is a reminder we are part of community. Politics is the instrument to shape and lead that community. Many in ancient Athens believed only participating in democratic decisions makes us fully human. Others resented the ability of the majority to set conditions on private lives – including any demand we participate in politics. The debate continues millennia later, which shows some fundamental questions have no answer.
How do you feel about the role of the youth in improving society? Is it crucial to be subversive to bring about change? What is your view on the burgeoning chaos and disquiet in the world, be it socio-political or even environmental? Might it be the harbinger for societal development or simply a forewarning for a divided and bleak future?
At the Paul Ramsay Foundation, all our programs are focused on young people. This follows the Sen notion of capability – give a young person the resources they need to participate on fair terms, and they can shape the life they want. Hence, we invest in early childhood and school participation, in transitions to employment, and in helping those in contact with the criminal justice system find an off-ramp to disadvantage.
Those programs in turn look to co-design with charities that work with young people to assess need and shape services. This aspiration has its own challenges, particularly for early years programs, but is grounded in the notion of voice and choice.
Now, for a ridiculously wide and subjective question: What do you consider the meaning of life based on your personal experiences? Is there a certain ‘golden nugget’ of advice that you could offer to the students of MLC?
Ah, the meaning of life! Clear to those who work from deeply held religious or philosophical beliefs, more demanding for those afflicted with scepticism.
For me, meaning is found through interaction with others, through the chance to love and to help, through being part of something larger than ourselves. Meaning is found, not given. Like a career, it may only be obvious in retrospect.
The audience of our newsletter, the MLC community, is generally comprised of privileged young adults, as are most private schools. In your opinion, what is our role in society? What duties do we have to our fellow Australians? How can we best fulfil those duties?
Privilege can only be justified through service to others. The question must be what private schools provide back to the community, collectively and through the work of their graduates.
To end this on a lighter note, aside from On Life’s Lottery, are there any resources/media that you could recommend to those looking to develop their understanding of the world? Is there any single book that you would deem life-changing?
The strange – and wonderful – thing about reading is how the same book speaks to us at different points in our life. Read widely, value novels, and come back to the ones which move you. Some will gain greater depth with time, others will pail, but all will add to your sense of experience and the world.