The Radical Incrementalist

Award-winning journalist Jonathan Rauch on the need for--and impossibility of--reducing the size and scope of government.


Few political journalists command as much respect, admiration, and recognition among their peers as Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer and columnist for National Journal magazine in Washington, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and a regular presence at Reason Online. Born in Phoenix in 1960, he is the author of a string of highly praised and provocative books including Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (2004), Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government (1994), and Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993).

In 2005, Rauch took home a National Magazine Award, the industry's highest honor, for his National Journal column, "Social Studies." His writings, reads the prize commendation, are "reasoned, heartfelt and persuasive even at their most contrarian, they bring Washington's policy debates to life."

Such compliments grossly understate not only the value of Rauch's analysis but the punch of his prose. In a world in which political discourse tends to veer from insane overstatement (think Ann Coulter) to plodding conventionalism (David Broder) to barely disguised partisanship (Paul Krugman), Rauch's independence of thought is incredibly rare. Whatever the topic, he consistently engages (and typically dismantles) the conventional wisdom. In a recent National Journal piece on global warming, for instance, he argues, "climate change is real and deserves action, but…the problem is nowhere near as overwhelming as the rhetoric commonly suggests, and the solutions nowhere near as difficult. As problems go, in fact, climate change appears to be one of the most convenient that humankind has ever faced."

Equally prized–and equally rare–is his dedication to digging out the facts, presenting them fairly, and then walking his readers through his analysis. Journalism, he argues, should be "fact-driven." If there's a contemporary trend he despises, it's "the idea that the journalist and the journalist's attitude should be front and center….[New York Times' columnist] Maureen Dowd is very good at what she does. But the problem is that lots of people who aren't any good at it think this is journalism."

Rauch, whose work is archived here, has written about a dizzying array of topics, ranging from introversion to bodybuilding to Japanese economic policy. He writes regularly–and always forcefully–about how government grows and grows and grows–and about the benefits of a society that defends free expression and unfettered inquiry, no matter how upsetting that process may be. The United States, says Rauch, "has always been an open society relative to the rest of the world. Compared to the rest of the world, we've always been a market leader in harnessing the power of the open society and decentralized solutions and individual and family initiatives to solve problems."

No doctrinaire libertarian, Rauch's thought nonetheless is deeply rooted in the classical liberal tradition. The particular appeal of America, he says, "has a lot to do with this being a society that's creedal rather than ethnic fundamentally and that the creed is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In February, Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie talked with Rauch about the 2008 presidential race, the Iraq War, the state of contemporary journalism, and more.

reason: You participated in our February cover package about the "long-awaited, much-anticipated return of gridlock" in the federal government, writing, "Divided government is back, and with it the check on ideological excess and political machine building that has been lacking for four wretched years. Both parties do better when each is watched and checked by the other." Do you feel confident that both parties will do better now?

Jonathan Rauch: Confident would be putting it too strongly (laughs). If I've learned anything in 25 years in Washington, it's that you should never be confident about predictions because you know only that you'll be proven wrong. But that said, yeah, it's already better.

Congress passed the pay-as-you-go rule, so that's a substantive improvement right there. That's going to really bite into spending, though [officials] haven't quite figured that out yet. By 2008-2009, that's really going to put Congress's back to the wall. Second, on Iraq, with the Democrats now sending signals that they're out of patience, that's already having a salutary effect on the government of Iraq. The bad cop has entered the room. It's now clear to [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki that he's really only got one more chance. There are now actually stakes for failure over there. That doesn't mean that the venture will succeed but I think that Democrats have already played a very positive role and, in fact, almost perversely helped give Bush a last shot at least some possibility of success when otherwise it would've had zero.

reason: What do you think will be the three top issues in the 2008 presidential race?

Rauch: No. 1, Iraq. No. 2, Iraq. No. 3, probably either Iraq or Iraq. It may be Iraq.

It's looks like a pretty foreign policy-dominated period, but you never know. We might get some kind of interesting reform through. It might be immigration. It might be taxes. The dark horse is that a reformist farm bill might happen and that would be really interesting and worth doing.

reason: You're rare among journalists that you admit it when your analyses don't pan out. In December 2005, you wrote that the pullout from Iraq had already begun. "So, by spring [2006], if not earlier, Bush will announce that progress in Iraq allows U.S. forces to start coming home," you argued. "He will say that an American drawdown is the best way to help the Iraqis stand on their own. He will argue, much as he did with his tax cuts, that whatever pace he sets is precisely the right pace, and that withdrawing any faster or slower would be the height of irresponsibility. He may also say that withdrawing is 'not a formula for getting out of [the region], but one that provided the only sound basis for America's staying in and continuing to play a responsible role.'" Your conclusion was a great kicker: "Those were the words of Richard Nixon, who, somewhere, is wanly smiling."

Two questions for you: What went wrong with that prediction? It seemed absolutely accurate and prescient to me at the time–of course Bush would realize the need to get out, especially well before the midterm elections. So what happened that changed in Bush's calculus? And perhaps more important for our purposes here: As a journalist, how do you deal with predictions or stories that go wrong? How do you address that in your work?

Rauch: I can tell you more about the second question first. Yeah, that was a brilliant column. Too bad it was completely wrong. Other than that, it was a brilliant column and by blogosphere standards, that's I suppose the end of the story. I honestly thought that Bush would look at the prospect of losing one or both houses of Congress and decide that he just didn't want that and that it would be better to get on the right side of the voters on this issue by getting some form of withdrawal. My guess-it's only a guess, it's not based on any inside information-my guess is that Karl Rove saw this coming and did not want this to happen. What I misunderstood is that not long after I wrote that column, the White House had already crossed the bridge into saying, We're going to take our lumps on the election, we're staying, and that's that. We will not hear any arguments to the contrary. I clearly underestimated Bush's determination to stay on the course.

Everybody makes [mistakes]; it's par for the course. What I have learned is not to be too sure I'm right. The world is much more surprising than we give it credit for. That's part of my political philosophy, my philosophy of life. That's really fundamental to it: Trial and error is really the only thing in life that works ultimately over the long term. Journalism is like that, too, so we need to be honest about our mistakes. We often aren't enough. Everybody makes mistakes. And we need to be a little bit cautious about making predictions.

reason: What do you think about the state of political reporting these days?

Rauch: It depends on what you mean by "political reporting." If you mean people who are actually spending their lives going out and gathering political news, following politicians around, manning the stakeouts, trying to understand what's going on in the capitols, then the situation is very good.

There's a very talented, hard-working press corps and, of course, it represents only a small fraction of the people who are doing [journalism]. I think all the major newspapers are doing it well. Not a single one is doing it badly, the ones that are committing resources to it. The larger fraction are the parasites, the bloggers, commentators, opinionizers- I don't exempt myself-who are feeding off of the real news that the press is providing. That larger sort of commentariat is not doing a very good job.

reason: What about media more generally? Do you worry about consolidation of ownership?

Rauch: It's in an intellectually healthy situation and a fiscally not-so-healthy situation, and that's what I'm worried about. I'm not one of those who yearns for the days when we had three networks doing half-hour newscasts telling us all that they thought we should know. I'm not nostalgic for the days when we covered political conventions for two days straight live on national TV. I'm much happier in a world with multiple sources and more individual ability to pick and choose.

What I worry about is what everyone in my business worries about : Who's going to fund the real reporting? The magazine and newspaper business was a cross-subsidy. You had the advertising, particularly classified, and you had a local market, which subsidized the gathering of news. That model is breaking down because the bundle is breaking into pieces and it's hard to see in the long run who funds the kind of large-scale news reporting operations that the major papers have run if the advertising is all going online and if people can all get the news for free at Yahoo.

I'm guessing that 30 years from now, we'll get to something that's economically sustainable. I hope that's the case, but I'm not liking the way the transition is looking. I'm not liking the fact that foreign bureaus are being closed left and right and I'm also not particularly liking the fact that it seems to be that that for a lot of young journalists the model is to get past reporting and into commentary as fast as your feet will take you.

reason: Do you think politics–or maybe just political discourse, which is a slightly different thing–are too extreme right now, too fragmented and divisive?

Rauch: The problem is not discourse. The discourse is in fine shape. We have good, vigorous, open, honest debates about policy in this country. Sometimes it takes a while to get there, [as it did with Iraq]. The problem also is not the public. The public is not extremist. It's not polarized. It remains, for the most part, a centrist public, maybe center-right by European standards marginally. Pretty moderate. Pretty pragmatic and I think in a democratic country, there's nothing more important than to have a pretty moderate, pretty pragmatic population.

We do have a problem with the political system. It's been increasingly rigged to favor extremists on both ends. So they're overrepresented and the center is underrepresented. They're not all extremists, but it is clear that the average Republican member of Congress is to the right of the average Republican partisan, who is to the right of the average American. You have the same leaning in the opposite direction in the Democratic Party. Reflect on the fact that until fairly recently, the House Majority Leader was Tom Delay (R-Texas) and the House Minority Leader was Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Just think about how much of the country that leaves out.

That is not a coincidence. The system has been rigged by partisan activists to their advantage. They participate in primaries. General elections don't matter because they've gerrymandered the congressional districts. They have the advantages of energy and being single-minded and they use these wedge issues which they're very good at and which both sides conspire in using in order to marginalize the middle. The result of that is the turnout among moderates and independents is down; turnout on the extremes is up. The parties are increasingly sorted by ideology so that all the liberals are in one party and all the conservatives are in another. That is a new development in American history.

The result of that is you have two quite extreme and narrow political parties talking, for the most part, over the heads of the center. That's greatly exaggerated because obviously the center remains important. We found that out in 2006. The center also gets much more important when you have divided government, which is one reason I'm so keen on divided government. It's the best way, maybe the only way, to force policymakers to notice the middle. You have to pit them against each other.

reason: What is the fix for this kind of situation? Or does it burn itself out and then something else rises from the ashes?

Rauch: That's a two-part question and the two parts are actually, in my mind, very different things. I was speaking more now of politics rather than government. Despite the polarization of the political parties, most of what government does stays the same from year to year and it's not a question of reining it in. It's a question of changing it all and that's [what I call] demosclerosis. That's a big, longstanding problem. That's our biggest, deepest problem and it's not going anywhere any time soon.

The problem I was discussing in the last couple of paragraphs is a problem of political representation and what happens when a system marginalizes centrist voters. That's when I think you get the policy overshoots. Sometimes big-time policy overshoots.

You could argue that the Iraq War and the way it was prosecuted, particularly the occupation, was a function of the fact that you had one party–actually one faction of one party, the hawkish faction of the Republican Party–in unchallenged control of the government for a period of four years. My guess is that we would've had both a somewhat more moderate and a somewhat more successful policy if both parties had had to buy in [to the war effort] and if we had had more centrist kind of policies from the start.

Politicians, particularly at the very pinnacles of power, are not always as-restraint is not always their strong point. Where restraint comes from is from someone else in the system tugging against them, reminding them of reality by saying, Here I am, I'm part of this, too. That's what we've lacked for four years.

reason: Let's talk about your politics. At various points, you've described yourself as libertarianish but not libertarian. A few years back in an essay for reason, you called yourself "a soft communitarian." How do identify yourself or characterize yourself politically and how does that guide or affect or influence or get in the way of your work?

Rauch: Well, it doesn't get in the way because I spend no time thinking about how I categorize myself politically. I don't even bother.

reason: Isn't that strange in your line of work? Most people in your position have a political identity which is not only fully articulated but is very central to who they are.

Rauch: Now, that's strange. Why would anyone want a political identity? I understand an ethnic identity, a cultural identity, a [sexual] identity, but why would anyone want a political identity?

reason: As the editor of political magazine–of a libertarian magazine–I have no fucking idea why anyone would want such a thing.

Rauch: I hope that was on the record. Put that in there. I'm completely mystified by the mindset that judges one's moral character in life by how well you fit in some political party or other. It makes no sense to me at all.

reason: Many people would say that it is part of a cultural identity–of being on a certain team, or being a certain type of person.

Rauch: I think that's right. There is the team aspect and there is also the member of the club aspect.

reason: Do you vote?

Rauch: Oh, yeah.

reason: Do you vote Democratic or Republican? Do you vote on candidate-by-candidate basis or something like that?

Rauch: I don't tell my vote, my specific vote, but over time, my votes have been pretty much esoteric, like my writing. I feel very much emotionally like part of the marginalized middle. That isn't to say that all my views are wishy-washy and that I'm halfway between Republicans and Democrats, but I do feel myself to be one of these independent voters who is kind of left behind by a political system biased in favor of people who fit into neat boxes and have extreme views. And I vote like an independent.

reason: What's your analytical frame for saying this is a good politician or a bad politician, this is a good policy or a bad policy?

Rauch: I pay no attention to partisanship on the whole, except when we've got one party control and I pay attention to getting the other party in control. I pay very little attention to political label. I pay a lot of attention to principles. Some of them are too standard to talk about. I believe in liberty. I believe in equality.

reason: What do you mean by liberty?

Rauch: I mean what everybody means. I believe in the basic freedoms of the sort that the Founders laid out.

reason: OK. So, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that the individual be given as much discretion as possible to live how they choose.

Rauch: Yeah. I also believe, on the other hand, that stability and order are an important part of life and shouldn't be taken for granted. I fully understand the need for government to be around to do what it does. I'm also something of a Burkean, or a Hayekian. Which means I've come to have a lot of respect for institutions that have evolved in society over time. I'm well aware I may not understand why they do the things they do, and that if something's been around the way it has been for a long time, that doesn't make it immune to criticism. But I think it deserves at least a second or third look, so I'm no radical. I'm very anti-radical. It puts me in an odd position because I'm a big advocate of gay marriage, but I square that circle by saying the right way is to try it in a few states, to do it slowly. Remember, we're messing with an age-old institution. I'm very much in that square.

I'm a radical incrementalist. I believe in fomenting revolutionary change on a geological timescale. Life is long. We don't have to do everything right away. I'm a little bit of a fatalist about solving problems and reforming things for the sake of it. I think we have to be careful that a lot of reform is just movement.

reason: Are there times when radical change is called for?

Rauch: Yes, but they're pretty rare.

reason: What are examples where radical, immediate change is legitimate? Slavery?

Rauch: Slavery is something I've agonized over. Someone with my temperament would say that Lincoln was a lot closer to being right than William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, or other people [who called for immediate change], despite the price. Lincoln said, My first priority is to save the Union and slavery will die out on its own over time, so let's just prevent it from expanding. That would've been my position. In hindsight, I think that there are people who say that Lincoln was too conservative on slavery and that may be true, so I agonize over that. It was a terrible, terrible evil and it was historically almost unique in this country.

Civil rights in the 1950s and '60s was another case where a radical change was justified. But I think in fact we overshot a bit.

reason: In what way?

Rauch: I think affirmative action, in particular.

reason: And by affirmative action, you mean–

Rauch: Racial preferences. I mean racial preferences. Explicit racial preferences are not a good thing on the whole and if they were a good thing at one point, they're probably not anymore.

reason: What about free speech? There was a radical move away from a very censorious culture in the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s, to one that's much, much more open in terms of free expression that is protected both by custom and law. You're a huge free speech advocate. Was that something that changed too radically or too quickly?

Rauch: I don't think it did change radically and quickly. I think it changed socially. It's pretty hard to get radical change without [use of either] private coercion or government policy. If what's happening is that the culture is loosening up and changing, that's not radical in my sense of the term. For example, women going to work. That happened very quickly in the society and you could call that radical in the sense that it's an important fundamental change from virtually no women in the paid workforce to most women in the paid workforce. But it wasn't shoved down society's throat by social engineers who thought it would be a great idea. It's something a lot of people did.

I've discovered that life brings lots of change all by itself. You really don't have to do that much to change the world pretty quickly. The world is pretty good at changing.

reason: Do you think the gay rights movement represents a similar–and rapid–change?

It's really nothing short of stunning, really, that you could go from, say, the Stonewall riots in 1969 to talking about gay marriage today. In the subsequent 35 years, there's an enormous amount of change. Did that happen too slow? Too fast? Just about right, for you? And some of that was legal, right? I mean, some of it was changing the laws-

Rauch: Most of it was cultural. I'm guessing that a lot of college students today would be amazed to know that in 13 states–I think–it was illegal to have gay sex three years ago. The law has been very much the lagging indicator. It's still the lagging indicator. It's still forbidding the military to hire gay people in uniform even if they want to. To me, the gay revolution–and it has been a revolution in the culture–is Exhibit A in what a good job the culture can do changing itself when people appeal to persuasion, to try to better their lives and change the world mostly from the bottom up because that's what happened there.

It also helps that there were challenges to these legal [regimes]. Cops used to enforce the oppression of homosexuals in a very, very savage way. Young people today just can't understand a world where you had high school assistant principals committing suicide because they were entrapped in a bathroom sexual encounter by cops with nothing better to do. That [sort of thing] used to happen all the time. It still happens occasionally, but a lot of what's happened with gay rights has been the simple opening of the hearts and minds of the American public as they've come to understand that gay people are not really so different from them. Once you've crossed that bridge, at least in the long term, not always in the short term, the compassion and reasonableness of the American public never ceases to amaze me.

reason: Your analysis in Demosclerosis and elsewhere is pessimistic in terms of reducing the scope and scale of government. What are the things that we need to do to right-size government. Is it doable or is it a lost cause?

Rauch: Right-sizing government, if you mean imposing some preconceived size that you or I or someone else might have, is impossible. Impossible, probably inconceivable and simply not going to happen ever.

When you get right down to it, there doesn't seem to be really much of a constituency in this country for reducing the size of government in painful or unpleasant ways. Even Barry Goldwater, when he ran for president, announced that he wouldn't cut any farm subsidies, for example.

Government is an enormous ecosystem. It is, in its way, as decentralized and unmanageable as the ecosystem out there in nature. You can change the input and you'll get some change in the output, but if I've learned one thing in 25 years in Washington, it's that there far too many interests and actors for any politician to do more than work the margins. But working the margins is very, very important.

In fact, it can be the difference between having a static and enfeebling government–like the government of Japan was until comparatively recently, until the Koizumi period–and a government that gets out of the way enough so that you have room for new technology, new ideas, and some reform. Those reforms are very important: welfare reform, transportation deregulation, tax reform. We'll do Social Security and Medicare eventually.

reason: Are you a booster of private accounts in health insurance, retirement and education? What's your favorite reforms for those big-ticket issues?

Rauch: I'm a booster of competition [in education] on moral grounds. I just think it's wrong for rich folks to tell poor folks that poor folks have to attend schools that rich folks would never set foot in. On moral grounds, I think there's a very compelling case and I think competition is likely to improve schools.

reason: Competition in education would be not necessarily only a Milton Friedmanesque voucher program but a series of policies that gave students of parents a lot of options, whether we're talking charter schools or public schools or vouchers?

Rauch: Yeah. There're various ways to introduce competition. I'd be for trying them. I don't have strong priors one way or the other on Social Security or Medicare. Social Security to me is an example of a federal program that works pretty well and pretty efficiently in what it's supposed to do, which is just basically eliminating poverty among the elderly. It's done a good job of providing a modicum of security late in life, but we certainly wouldn't do it that way today.

I don't feel it's extremely important to reform [Social Security]. On the other hand, I'm all for trying stuff. I think experimenting with some sort of private accounts is a good idea. Why not? I'm not sure I'd do the whole system all at once in one go.

Medicare's a different kind of problem because there you have a system which really is economically unstable. It just can't go on the way it's going without eating the rest of the government alive. I'm guessing that competition is going to be part of the answer but here I've learned to be non-dogmatic because I've discovered that the health care sector is complicated and that you actually have to know something about it to know what works, so there I'm for trying stuff.

You and I can sit here and talk about the kind of Medicare system we'd build from scratch today. It would not look like today's Medicare, but on a good day, if we're lucky, what we're dealing with in Washington is trial and error, incremental reform. When the system works, you get to try stuff and then correct it. When the system doesn't work, you either don't get to try stuff or you try it and then don't get to correct it. So on a good day, we're looking at trial and error solutions.

reason: Let's get some biography from you. Where are you from?

Rauch: Born and raised in Phoenix. There's a lot of that in my temperament.

reason: What does that mean?

Rauch: Oh, I'm very much a Westerner. I grew up two houses over from Sandra Day O'Connor who is, to this day the model of moderate kind of business-oriented Republican. Nothing radical about her.

reason: Other than becoming the first woman Supreme Court Justice, right?

Rauch: Correct. If that finger had come over two houses over, I would've been the first woman Supreme Court Justice.

I lived a mile away from Barry Goldwater. I saw his house all the time. My mother used to say he was a nice guy who used to invite the paperboy in for coffee sometimes, so you had figures like that nearby and that you had a state in which the Democratic Party was compared to, say, the California Democrats of today, a moderate kind of New Democrat kind of wing. The Bruce Babbitts of the world were out there.

The West is very congenial to a kind of laid-back openness which I'm very comfortable with.

reason: Do you believe that the West–especially Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and a handful of other states–is the coming battleground in American politics? That it is going to define the future of American politics as the South or Midwest once did?

Rauch: I hope that that's the case. I'm not yet convinced it will be the case because I'm not quite sure there are enough electoral votes out there yet. And I'm not quite yet convinced that those states are going to go all the way from trending red to true purple or even somewhat blue. But that seems to be the trend and I hope it's the case. I'm amazed that the two parties continue to be having this turtle race to be slowest to understand the potential of that part of the country.

reason: You went to Yale for college. What was your experience?

Rauch: I ended up there because I wanted to get out of Phoenix, which I thought was a hick town when I was growing up there. I didn't discover what a Westerner I was until, of course, I left the West. I wanted to go east to college. Yale was everything I hoped it would be. Some people are not well matched to their colleges, but I was very well matched to Yale.

It was intellectually very serious. The students were really interested and there was a pretty strong emphasis on classics. I spent a lot of freshman year reading things like Plato and Shakespeare and those turn out to be very important. It also had a very good History Department and history is great preparation for journalism. I majored in history.

reason: How was it a good preparation?

Rauch: It's fundamentally an empirical field. If you're a good historian, you don't start history with a grand theory and try to cram everything into it. Some people do, but most people don't. That's not true of a lot of other fields. Journalism is the same way. Or it could be. It's fact-driven and it's fundamentally narrative-driven. You're telling stories about things that could've happened in very different ways. You've got to understand why they happened in the particular way they did.

One of my strongest guiding beliefs in life is the moral duty of empiricism, of actively checking, of actively trying to discover where you're wrong. And then correcting your beliefs and not letting your preconceptions interfere with that to an undue extent. I think history and journalism both try to teach that.

reason: What did you do after you graduated?

Rauch: Two years at the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina. I will tell you I voted against Jesse Helms. That's the only vote I'll tell you.

Then five years as a staff correspondent with National Journal, covering the budget which is where I learned about federal programs that last forever. Then covering economics, which is where I learned that decentralized networks, which are really what markets are, work incredibly well. Then I went off to Japan, wrote a book on it, wrote a book on free thought, free speech. Kindly Inquisitors is still my best book.

reason: Why do you say that's your best book?

Rauch: It's extremely innovative intellectually. It's very hard working philosophically. To try to root a criticism of political correctness not just in the Constitution and in free speech, but on where knowledge comes from–an epistemology– is trying to strike an anchor right on the ocean floor. It's very ambitious for someone in his late 20s or early 30s to sit down and write that kind of book. I should have never gotten away with it so I still marvel at its ambition and ultimately its surprising success.

I went back on the job market after writing a series of books, worked for The Economist, and then became the columnist for National Journal in 1998, as well as writing for The Atlantic and other places. Wrote a book on gay marriage.

reason: Why did you become a journalist?

Rauch: I wanted to be a writer and I discovered that journalism is the cleanest path into writing. I didn't have it in me to sit down and become a novelist and I also discovered that a lot of the writers I admired most–including Dickens, Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, H.L. Mencken–considered themselves journalists to a large extent and began in journalism.

Mencken has some hilarious stuff about his life as an early newspaper correspondent, making up stories with all the other writers. [Sometimes] they all made sure they made up the same story every day so they could pass it off. So, yeah, it's a great tradition, journalism. I think Shaw actually said [something like], "All my best work is journalism and journalism is the only thing that ever really lasts."

reason: Who are some of the villains in journalism for you?

Rauch: Well, if you'll take this not in the personal sense that there's anything wrong with the people, but if you take this in a sense of having played a counterproductive role, I think I'd say Maureen Dowd.

reason: In what way?

Rauch: I'm not a fan of the idea that the journalist and the journalist's attitude should be front and center. I think that a good journalist's duty is to get out of the way. The hardest thing about journalism–the hardest thing, a much higher art than being clever–is just to get out of the way, to show the leader of the world as the reader would see it if the reader were there. Just to be eyes and ears. Calvin Trillin, another writer I greatly admired who steered me towards journalism, once said that getting himself out of his stories was like taking off a very tight shirt in a very small phone booth. He's right.

I think Maureen Dowd is very good at what she does. But the problem is that lots of people who aren't any good at it think this is journalism. It's what we should all be doing, showing off our attitude. I think that sets a bad example. The blogosphere tends to further the [notion] that journalism is about opinion and not about fact. I think that's wrong.

Most people think they know truth and think that what they know is right. They're usually wrong. Journalists are among the few people in society who are actually paid to try go out and learn things. Checking is the core of what we do. David Broder once said that the old slogan in journalism is, "If your mother says she loves you, check it."

reason: You mentioned Kindly Inquisitors as your favorite book. What's your favorite magazine article?

Rauch: "Death By Mistake," which was an examination of how often innocent people are executed. Here's an example of assumptions that were turned upside down. I proposed the story to National Journal out of curiosity. I assumed that in a country that had had capital punishment for almost all of its more than 200 years, innocent people had been executed. I wanted to know how many, and that sounded like a tidy story that I could write for National Journal.

It turned out we don't know how many innocent people have been executed. We don't know whether innocent people have been executed and it turned out that the article became an almost metaphysical grappling with a very deep kind of uncertainty. [In the case of the death penalty,] it is essential to know the truth, to know if the policy is working. But what happens when you cannot know the truth? The article tried to deal with how you deal with that, but it did not do it abstractly. The method of that article was quite particular.

It hinged on a particular case in Florida, where a particular man had been executed only a few weeks before my article was published. There was good reason to suppose he might've been innocent. I went down there. I talked to the prosecutor. I talked to the defense lawyer. I went to the site of the crime. I read all the legal documents. I drilled as far down as I possibly could to decide whether this guy was innocent and in the end, it turned out to be unknowable. So I had to write an article about what do we say about this policy and what do we say about the killing of this particular man if we're really not sure?

reason: What did you conclude?

Rauch: That John Stuart Mill had this right in the 19th century. I think capital punishment is just in principle, but I think there's a higher level of uncertainty that I'm not comfortable with. Mill had the right answer, which was we should have capital punishment and liberal commutation by governors. If there's significant doubt, then governors would commute the sentence to life in prison without parole and, in fact, that used to be what happened. It's a fairly recent and I think unfortunate turn in American life that commutation has become, in effect, politically off limits for governors. They used to do it all the time and it was not controversial. I think it was a crucial safety valve if you're going to have capital punishment.

reason: You have a favorite bit of advice to younger people, don't you?

Rauch: Don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer.

reason: That would thin the herd pretty quickly, wouldn't it?

Rauch: Yeah, it sure would.

reason: That might be the most powerful reform idea that you have.

Rauch: I was going to say you could probably dump the whole rest of the interview and just print that.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason.

Discuss his article online.