Scheiber Sects


In the most recent issue of The New Republic, Noam Scheiber takes a shot at New York Times columnist John Tierney (whom I interviewed last year), complaining that "his libertarian ideology has made him utterly predictable."

Now, here's the kernel of justice in the critique: Scheiber, like me, has been through the libertarian bootcamp of the Institute for Humane Studies' Koch Summer Fellowship Program. We've got some friends in common, so I know he still fraternises with those wacky libs on occasion. In short, he's got Libertarianism 101 down pretty well. So sure, I'm not exactly shocked if he's a bit bored by the occasional column rehearsing some of the standard libertarian arguments for transit privatization or drug decriminalization. But given that a significant proportion of the Times' readership probably thinks a "libertarian" is some kind of naughty librarian, Tierney may have his reasons for not tailoring every column to the tastes of inside-the-Beltway journowonks.

In any event, is it really the function of an op-ed columnist to have surprising stances? Does Scheiber really flip to the rear of the Grey Lady's A-section wondering what Paul Krugman could possibly think about Social Security privatization, or whether Maureen Dowd favors the Bush tax cuts? When Tierney (or those other columnists) is interesting, it's not for what position he takes, in the broadest sense, but in the details—the light he sheds on particular cases, such as that of Richard Paey (about whom our own Jacob Sullum has also written), the doctor wheelchair-bound MS patient imprisoned for prescribing buying what the DEA considered excessive amounts of pain medication.

Scheiber also thinks Tierney errs too often in the direction of oversimplification, treating "politicians" as a class, rather than dissecting the particular motivations of particular pols:

The shrewdest observers of human nature in newsprint, such as Tierney's Times colleague David Brooks, understand that there are a million forces operating on an individual at any given moment. Some are personal–resentment, ambition, empathy, to name a few. Others are impersonal–culture, history, biology. All of them make monocausal explanations of human behavior hopeless. But this is never a problem for Tierney. For him, apparently the only thing you need to know about a person is what he does for a living.

Never mind that there's something a little bizarre in the choice of David "See, There's Two Sortsa People" Brooks as the point of contrast here; surely Scheiber, who holds a master's in economics from Oxford, can appreciate the utility of a simplifying assumption now and again. Just as sometimes it's helpful to talk about markets in terms of a stripped-down model of rational choices that doesn't tarry with the particulars of why Bob Johnson of Tuscaloosa decided to buy this toaster rather than that one, it's often more illuminating to talk about the institutional incentives that drive policy than the narrow horse race considerations compelling Chuck Schumer to vote one way or another. On the soporific op-ed front, is there any thing more tedious, at the end of the day, than another explanation of some policy clusterfuck that appeals to how stupid and venal party X or politician Y is?

Schieber closes out by informing us that he'd rather read more about health care and the war in Iraq than public transit and the war on drugs. Well, fair enough; he should read someone else. But surely a guy for whom a Google of TNR for his name and "Federal Reserve" turns up about a hundred hits shouldn't begrudge another writer his hobbyhorses.