Soundbite: Fifth Columnist

John Tierney interviewed by Julian Sanchez


Earlier this year, libertarians greeted with enthusiasm the news that The New York Times' John Tierney had been tapped to succeed the Times' William Safire on the country's most influential liberal op-ed page. A libertarian himself, Tierney once ushered an unprecedented amount of hate mail into the office of the The New York Times Magazine with a piece called "Recycling is Garbage," infuriated fellow train lovers with a feature titled "Amtrak Must Die," and riffed on Robert Nozick and the immorality of rent control in his eclectic Metro column, "The Big City," which ran from 1994 to 2000. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with Tierney in July.

Q: How did you come to have a libertarian worldview?

A: I evolved into it, really through working as a journalist and meeting libertarians that way. The real influence on me was the late Julian Simon. I was assigned to do a story in 1985 for Science about the population crisis in Kenya, and I had heard about this kind of iconoclastic economist, so I called him up and said: "You know, the average woman in Kenya 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. After the trip, Julian became a kind of mentor to me; I really miss him.

Q: What has response to the column been like?

A: 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 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 e-mail get you down."

Q: Is the 800-word op-ed column an endangered species in the age of blogs?

A: 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 look at. Think of cities: 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. There are all these blogs, but they're still keying off the columns to start the debate.