Crowded Lives ( 2003 ) by Lindsay Tanner is a book that the author is lucky only reputedly sold less than five hundred copies. I’ll prefix this review by saying that I’m a big fan of Lindsay Tanner and think he should be treasurer. When you hear or see him interviewed he is impressive, measured and well informed. This book, however, is a strange book that is disturbing to people who wonder if the Rudd government is to follow in the footsteps of the impressive Hawke/Keating governments or whether it will fall into the mire of spin, waffle, nonsense and finally disaster that the Blair/Brown government is.
In Crowded Lives Tanner puts forth the idea that government should be about ensuring relationships are central to government policy. It’s a nice sounding idea, however it is deep waffle. Or, to put it better, it is what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt defines as bullshit .It is not even wrong, it’s just fantastically vague.
Tanner writes chapters where he puts forth vague platitudes, for example:
Greed, selfishness and bad behaviour seem almost to have become entrenched as the new community standards. Courtesy, modesty and self-restraint are very definitely out of fashion.
Really? Where does he get this idea? Isn’t the self-restraint of hard work seen as important as it always has been? Courtesy, modesty and self-restraint are often admired in society. Has this changed? Who can say? What evidence is there? None of this sort of data is presented. Merely a vague, silly assertion that ‘in the past it was better’.
There are chapters on how relationships affect everything in society. I was disappointed, however, to see no chapter on relational databases. Underlying much of the book is the disturbing assumption that where there is a problem ‘government can fix it’ and that the government fix will be better than leaving the problem.
Tanner proposes some sort of ‘relationship audit’ or impact statement for every government policy. How they could possibly do this kind of thing is not discussed in detail. If it could even be put forward is questionable.
Tanner slips out of making every chapter relationship titled and writes a chapter on ANZAC day which is better than many of the others. Here he leaves the world of ideas and talks about his own experiences, which are worth hearing about. But as when John Howard would slip into his ridiculous spiel about mateship Tanner can’t help himself but talk about how unique it is to be Australian and how ANZAC day has nothing to do with militarism.
Along the way in the book Tanner does provide some interesting glimpses of himself. We learn that his mother was from Brunswick and that his father was from South of the river, he talks about coming from Gippsland to Melbourne and his divorce and his relationship with his children. We also learn that he was into computer games, which is interesting.
The book comes from a time when Lathams roamed the parliament and the ALP was deciding it needed ‘ideas’ to get back into power. Fortunately no manifesto as catastrophically silly as Fightback was concocted and only Latham’s ad hoc silliness was present in 2004.
Politicians shouldn’t try to be ‘philosopher kings’. They have an extremely important and time consuming job to do, that of running the government and scrutinising those who run the government. They really should be familiar with economic and social research and ideas but they do not need to write books that put forth new ideas. Essays are a good forum for politicians to express themselves. They are something that they can use to get a direct, unmoderated channel to the public that doesn’t require the consent of media gatekeepers. Books are harder and they require too much time. Books of essays can work, but books with a central theme are often poor books as this book by Tanner shows. There is little to take away from this book. Tanner is better in parliament and when he is being interviewed and when he shows his depth of knowledge than he is in this book. The best that can be said is that he is a competent writer and the book is mercifully short.