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?

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?

Tierney: Anything that is construed as defending Bush really raises people's hackles. When I was at the Times Magazine I wrote a piece about recycling that set the record for hate mail. The mayor of Pittsburgh wrote an op-ed demanding that I apologize to the city after I wrote a column about the problems with eminent domain there that I'd seen. We just have very different views of eminent domain. I was concerned—I am from Pittsburgh and I love it, it's got great neighborhoods that haven't been touched by eminent domain—that people would think I didn't like Pittsburgh.

Criticizing Amtrak too—it was bizarre, I wrote a column criticizing Amtrak after the Acela had broken down again, and there's really a diehard group of people who really like Amtrak. Or just hate the idea of privatizing anything; there's a whole base of people who find the concept just repulsive. There's actually more privatization in a lot of areas going on in these traditionally liberal countries in Europe. But that word is just the devil to a lot of the left here. After defending private accounts for Social Security, I got a lot of: "How dare you, you're just trying to take away people's pensions. Social Security is all of us together and you're just an evil, selfish person."

Reason: What do you see yourself trying to do, if anything, with the column?

Tierney: I'd like to surprise people and expose them to different ways of looking at familiar problems, call attention to new ideas that are floating around. Enlighten, surprise, amuse… it all sounds very pompous, doesn't it?

Reason: But it does seem different from the relentless public policy focus you associate with op-ed pages.

Tierney: Well, I think columns have been changing. The traditional one was just a pundit sitting there, and it evolved so you got more reporting in columns—Bill Safire really did that—and I think there's been more expansion in economics columnists and columnists who are known for taking more of a light touch with things than doing serious public policy. There isn't one mold; I'm just trying to follow the advice that older columnists I admire gave me when I started writing columns in the 90s: Write about what you're interested in and what you feel passionately about. I think you have to pay attention to the market and see what people are interested in, but beyond that you just have to look around and ask, "What am I interested in?"

When I got my first column for the New York Times Magazine, "The Big City," I was on leave at the Freedom Forum, and Sig Gissler, who had recently been the editor at a Milwaukee paper and is now a professor at Columbia, was there. He said to me: "You know what they say about columns. Everyone is born with six columns; the trouble is the seventh." And sure, I don't have seven ideas right now. When I was writing twice a week as a metro columnist and wondering how I was going to fill the space, my consolation was that if you have three ideas, after a while you get a backlog. And thank God there are always things happening.

Reason: With blogs filtering and disseminating free opinion content from a huge variety of people with expertise in various topics, is the op-ed columnist an endangered species?

Tierney: I hope it's not an endangered species. What's impressed me about the Times, which I joined in 1990… I really resented the Times when I was a magazine writer, because I would spend all this time doing my own masterpiece on a topic, and some people would notice it. But then the Times would do a two-day story on it that got noticed. I know that there are all these media out there, and I'm delighted to see all this competition; let a thousand flowers bloom. But there is a need for a sort of bulletin board, a common thing for people to do that. It seems to me that during my career, it's gotten to be even more of a bulletin board as the national edition has grown. I hope it'll stay that way. You see this with global networks, where there are all these different things going on, but there is a tendency for capital cities to get bigger. I think it's called the agglomeration theory. People have been predicting for a long time that cities like New York would start to wither because people could go live in the Rockies and do their job from anywhere, yet these capital cities have kept growing. The more that people everywhere now have access to this information about the culture capitals, so that you can be anywhere and know what the movie grosses are and what the hot thing is, the more that everyone's interested in these topics from the capitals, the more there's a niche for some common ground there. You write a column, and there are all these blogs out there, but you see they're keying off the column to start the debate.