Fifth Columnist

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

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Tierney: I don't want to be just a contrarian, because that's predictable. I think a problem with libertarianism is that it tends to be negative: "Don't do anything." And while I think that's usually the best thing to be said if the government is trying to do something, it's not a terribly inspiring philosophy. Libertarianism tends to be against things; it's nice when I can be for things. That's one of the reasons I liked writing about Mars—I wrote about it for Reason—and the founding of the Mars Society. It was great to be at an event with a bunch of libertarians who are excited about something to be for: We're going to Mars, we're going to create a new society.

I remember I once did a column when I wrote the metro column in New York about a march in support of Capitalism. It was on 5th Avenue, and I agreed with the people, but there was something inherently strange about it. There was a small group of people who wanted to thank the merchants on 5th Avenue, and it was a great idea, but libertarians are not people who get together in masses to stage masses. That's what the religious left and the religious right are good at.

Reason: One could probably sum up in a sentence or two what, generally, Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman or Paul Krugman do, but you don't seem to have an obvious schtick or beat.

Tierney: I don't really have a beat the way some columnists do. I guess I tend, maybe too often, to write things from a libertarian outlook, but I want to do stuff that isn't really political. I like writing about science and social science; I like trying to do humor, writing about stuff in daily life. I at one point wanted to be a mathematician. My father's a college professor and that kind of life appealed to me. But I ended up in journalism because I just realized I'm too much of a dilettante. I majored in American Studies, so you can do history and English—I'm just not much of a specialist; I like to dabble in different things.

Reason: Your background as a science writer shows up in your columns from time to time—you've mentioned evolutionary psychology several times.

Tierney: I got interested in evolutionary psychology when a friend of mine named Bill Allman did a book called The Stone Age Present around the same time that Robert Wright did his book [The Moral Animal], and to me it's always made a lot of sense. I find interesting the opposition to it. There's something on the left that doesn't like the idea that there are these innate things in us, as Steven Pinker notes in The Blank Slate. I like science a lot, and think science and economics are great tools for understanding the world that are not used often enough in journalism. We tend to focus so much on politics. I love evo psych because it's a scientific way of looking at very interesting social problems. The problem with science is that a lot of the problems being solved don't involve humans and aren't that interesting to most readers.

Reason: How have people reacted to your columns on gender difference?

Tierney: I wrote a column about whether men are more competitive than women, and I expected a lot of angry letters from women saying: "How dare you degrade us," and that sort of thing. And I did get some of them, and the "Oh, you right-wing oppressor of women." But I was surprised that most of the mail was people saying "But of course," or "Yes, I've seen that too." I think a lot of people were glad to see someone say this thing they'd known. We've had this come up with women's sports programs under Title IX and of course the controversy at Harvard this year about why there aren't more women in all these highly competitive positions. Women surely ought to have every chance to have them, but I think it's unrealistic to think you're going to have an equal outcome.

It's tough writing about gender issues as a man. I envy women journalists who write about this, because I think they have more freedom to say "Yes, there are these differences, and we should appreciate what we have and appreciate our strengths." When a guy says it, it's easy to dismiss it: "Well, you're just trying to defend the patriarchy; you're a reactionary who won't accept these things." When I did the one column, I was trying to be conciliatory and observe that many corporations have been set up the way men like to do things, with this competitive structure, climbing the pyramid, and since we have more women college graduates joining the workforce we should think about structures they'd feel more comfortable in. Some people said, "Well, there he is on bended knee to the feminists paying tribute to them." And there's a certain amount of truth to that. When you're a guy writing about this, you're very vulnerable to charges like that.

Reason: What has response to the column been like more generally?

Tierney: I think everyone who starts in this job is surprised by how much animus you can inspire, how many people have the time and energy to tell you what a dolt you are. When I took the job, I ran into Al Hunt from the Wall Street Journal, who has the liberal slot there. He said that it's a great slot to be in, because you're not preaching to the choir, you're trying to reach across the aisle. So you can't just preach at people, you have to actually persuade them, and it's good discipline to have to do that. And then as he was walking away he said: "One thing, don't let the email get you down." Which is good advice.

You can join a discussion group on my columns on the Web site. I look at it sometimes and I'm just surprised by the vehemence of it. I find myself wondering: If you hate me that much, why are you on a discussion group on my site? I mean, I welcome them, I'm glad they're there, but it's curious to see that.

Reason: Are you worried the decision to move op-ed content behind a pay firewall will tamp down discussion?

Tierney: It's hard to say what's going to happen. I'm glad they're trying to find a way to make the Web pay. The libertarian in me thinks you've got to be self-supporting, and just giving away content is not a long term strategy. That said, I'm concerned that conservatives and libertarians may be reluctant to pay for New York Times editorial content and opinion.

Reason: What do people get most exercised about?

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