Fifth Columnist

New York Times columnist John Tierney brings libertarian ideas to America's big-government bible. A Reason interview

Earlier this year, libertarians greeted with enthusiasm the news that The New York Times' John Tierney had been tapped to succeed William Safire as a voice from the right on the country's most influential liberal op-ed page. A firm libertarian himself, Tierney had broken The New York Times Magazine's hate mail record with an article on compulsory recycling, infuriated fellow train lovers with a feature piece titled "Amtrak Must Die," and riffed on Robert Nozick and the immorality of rent control in his eclectic and entertaining Metro column, "The Big City," which ran from 1994 to 2000.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Tierney confounded the big-government pieties voiced by editorialists and politicians, with columns on bipartisan ineptitude in disaster management, why fires are better than floods (hint: it has to do with who insures them), and why magic markers are the secret of efficient evacuation. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with Tierney in July.

Reason: I see you've got Reason lying on your side table there; is that like the awful wedding present put out on the mantle when Aunt Millie comes to visit, or are you a reader?

John Tierney: Oh, I came across Reason early on when I was in college in the '70s, and I subscribed fairly early on after college. I was anti-war in college and was pretty conventionally liberal. Although I got sort of uncomfortable—I actually once went to a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party, and it was just so creepy seeing these people with that dogmatic, earnest, religious approach and the desire to run other people's lives because they thought they knew better. The idea of radicalism, of opposing the establishment, appealed to me, but you saw the alternative and felt like these people would be even worse.

I went to Yale, and we did a protest led by [radical theologian and then–Yale chaplain] William Sloane Coffin, and just seeing these self-anointed, holier-than-thou antiwar leaders and how much ego was involved turned me off to the whole movement. If anything, it made me pro-war by the time I came back. Well, not literally. But the movement scared me and I found Reason a real relief, someone talking about individual rights and "free minds and free markets."

Reason: What do you consider yourself now?

Tierney: I consider myself a libertarian. I'm not a card-carrying member, but it's my gut instinct toward things: Keep the government out of your wallet and out of your bedroom. I sort of evolved into it, really through working as a journalist and meeting libertarians that way. I was a science writer and would cover environmental issues, and I started to realize that if you really looked at the science you'd see there was all this dogmatism on one side. But the real influence on me was Julian Simon. I was assigned to do a story in 1985 for Science magazine about the population crisis, and Greg Easterbrook was assigned to do the other part of a double cover-story package out of Africa. It was going to be "The Problem: Population Growth; The Solution: Technology Transfer." And I was going to Kenya, the fastest growing country in history, to do a story about the crisis the country was in, and Greg was going to Tanzania to do a story about some new technology for helping low-income people survive. When we came back, I ended up saying: "Population growth is not the problem." And Greg said: "Technology transfer is not the solution." To the editors' credit, they ran it.

For that story, I had heard about Julian Simon, this kind of iconoclastic economist, and I had read some of his work debunking claims about endangered species. I didn't know much about population growth, but I knew I didn't just want to write yet another story about the "population bomb." I was hoping I could say something fresh about it, so I called him up. And I said to him: "You know, I'm going to Kenya, fastest growing country in history, the average woman is having eight children, the population is doubling every ten years," and I started rattling off all these disasters. And Julian interrupted me, he said: "Yes, isn't it wonderful that so many people can be alive in that country today?" It was just a whole different way to look at it.

His great advice was: "Don't look at it as an isolated problem, a current crisis. Try to look at the long-term trends, the big picture; try to see if things are getting better or worse, not just if someone has a problem." So I went there and there were all these foreign aid workers and the usual people getting money to study the population crisis. And I was trying to find some way to tell a story, and I found this documentary that had been made about ten years earlier called Mara Goli—a village in the fastest growing part of Kenya. It was a great documentary—there was this one woman in a pink dress who wanted to have 20 children. They're all on these very crowded farmlands, and you figure there's no more room to grow, they're all going to starve to death if they all want to have these children. So I thought I'd go back to this village and see what happened ten years later. I found the woman in the pink dress, and she had four kids. She said, "Oh, I don't want to have 20 kids, we can't do it." The interesting thing was that the families that were larger actually were doing better, which is what Julian had found, that there isn't this "more people equals less wealth" relationship.

Reason: Is that because people wait to have more kids until they're more prosperous, or because the kids are helping out with the work, or something else?

Tierney: Well, it's a complicated equation. At the time, I remember thinking it didn't make any sense. You can say that people have more kids when they have more money; when you can afford it you have the kid. Though at a certain point of development, of course, that changes and richer people don't have more kids. Another theory at the time was that having more kids makes you work harder. At the time I was single and childless and it didn't seem to make that much sense, but I have a mortgage now and I see exactly what this does to people and how it spurs them.

Anyway, after that trip Julian really became a kind of mentor to me. I wrote an article about his bet with Paul Ehrlich. I really miss him. When the latest crisis comes up, I just want to call him and say, you know, what do you make of this?" Being a debunker is hard work, because you don't get that much money for it and you don't get a great army of followers. Someone comes up with a crisis, and it takes ten years to knock it down. You can always point out a problem and say it's terrible, but it takes a lot of work to show that things are actually getting better.

Reason: You also read like a Jane Jacobs fan; are you?

Tierney: Yes. I've talked to her about Brooklyn for a big piece saying Brooklyn should have remained a separate city, that it was a huge mistake to merge with Manhattan. I love her sense of just letting cities evolve naturally. I find it ironic that after half a century of the golden age of urban planning, people all want to live in neighborhoods that were built before then—that the planners are now trying to recreate. They were built by private developers and private streetcar companies, and the market guided it. I've heard it argued that urban planning is one area where the market really doesn't work that well, that you find in great cities that there was a lot of central planning of the street grids. I'd like to know more. You obviously need someone to set some rules, but I still tend to think that the really successful cities and neighborhoods are the ones where there's a lot of trial and error, people trying things on their own. I like the analogy of a mountain range: Do you want to plan the right place to go and send the whole army through, or do you want to send a lot of scouts and see which ones find the best way?

Reason: Do you think of yourself as a debunker or a contrarian?

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