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Second Tierney

The Times' boring libertarian.

IT’S EASY TO see how The New York Times settled on John Tierney to replace longtime columnist William Safire last winter. Tierney is a veteran Timesman known for his wit and intellect. Many colleagues believed his libertarian streak would produce a quirky, iconoclastic take on the news. “He thinks outside the box, has a very distinct worldview, and I think he’ll be a lot of fun,” Times Editorial Page Editor Gail Collins told The Washington Post. Collins seemed to suggest that, in a time of intense partisanship, Tierney would be interesting because he doesn’t fit comfortably into either party.

But, if Tierney’s partisan sympathies have been fluid, his libertarian ideology has made him utterly predictable. Already, he has tallied seven columns lamenting the war on drugs, five bashing big government energy plans, and four more promoting vouchers. Other columns have savaged Amtrak and federalized airport security. No government initiative, however marginal, is safe from Tierney’s withering gaze. (Here I submit to you all four Tierney columns about privatizing space exploration.) And so, while it can take years for the punishing, twice-weekly schedule to render most Times columnists unreadable, Tierney has managed the feat in a matter of months.

One of Tierney’s most tedious stretches came just after Hurricane Katrina. Tierney’s first Katrina column blamed government flood insurance for undermining people’s incentives to protect themselves, never mind that the prospect of drowning in a toxic goulash should have been incentive enough. A second column bemoaned the feds’ dubious “one-size-fits-all strategy“ for dealing with hurricanes, as though FEMA had been forced to manufacture evacuation plans the way the Soviets manufactured Volgas. Subsequent columns rightly praised the performance of corporations like Wal-Mart during the crisis, but then proposed outsourcing FEMA’s functions to said corporations. Finally, in his sixth Katrina column in seven opportunities, titled “losing that new deal religion,” Tierney got right down to it: He had lost faith in government.

Tierney’s libertarianism is so rigid it can remind you of other philosophies purporting to explain the world with a single axiom. In many ways, Tierney’s analytical style resembles that of a staff writer at the Daily Worker. The only difference is that, where Marxists emphasize one’s relationship to the means of production, Tierney highlights the degree to which an action advances the cause of freedom. (Libertarians treat personal autonomy as sacrosanct and embrace markets as the best way to promote it.) In neither case would you need to read more than a few articles to know what the writer thinks about pretty much anything.

As a national affairs columnist, Tierney must write about politicians with some regularity. And, just as there is no more cartoonish figure in all of Marxist literature than the capitalist, there may be no more cartoonish figure in Tierney’s imagination than the politician. The politicians of Tierney’s columns are invariably corrupt, duplicitous, craven, and dim-witted—or, as he puts it, forever “hectoring us with bogus arguments,” “doling out subsidies,” “promis[ing] a cure for any problem in the news,”and, of course, “trying to sneak 100,000 wind turbines into everyone’s backyard but their own.” Tellingly, Tierney rarely identifies politicians by name; he refers to them as a class.

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.

OF COURSE, A lot of columnists have prominent worldviews. What distinguishes Tierney from his colleagues—including engaging libertarians like Dave Barry and Slate’s Jack Shafer—is that his worldview orders almost every thought, even the apolitical ones. Why did Lawrence Summers encounter trouble at Harvard? Because Harvard’s faculty is an entrenched bureaucracy insulated from market forces. How should men think of marriage? As a job: “Devote as much energy to knowing your wife as you would to an important business client.”

The most egregious example of this came in a January 14 column ostensibly eulogizing Tierney’s friend and former colleague, David Rosenbaum, who was recently murdered. Tierney opened with a recent Garrison Keillor suggestion that urban Democrats provide better social services than anti-tax, suburban Republicans. As a way of rebutting Keillor, Tierney then invoked … his deceased friend. “This week in Washington, a city run by Democrats with Keillor’s views on taxes and public services, the municipal ambulance service has been making news for the help it didn’t provide to David Rosenbaum,” Tierney wrote. “David was still alive and conscious when a neighbor found him lying on the sidewalk and summoned help, but it took 23 minutes for the city ambulance to arrive.” Finally, Tierney caught himself: “I do not mention these facts to make a case against government-run ambulance services. That would be a disservice to David. He abhorred argument by anecdote.”

This particular column notwithstanding, Tierney is right: He doesn’t abuse anecdotes the way most journalists do. His abuses are much worse. The standard reportorial technique is to lean on an anecdote to establish a trend. So, to take one example, a typical journalist might cite one or two NASA failures as evidence of a space program in decline, whether or not that’s really the case. Tierney uses anecdotes to establish something slightly more ambitious: galactic truth. In Tierney’s hands, these one or two failures prove that government is fundamentally ill-suited to the task of space exploration, as he suggests in one column. Or take Dartanian Sanders, whom Tierney met after the hurricane. “I’ve learned my lesson from Katrina,’’ Sanders told Tierney in one column. “The lesson is to save money and be self-reliant. Counting on the government in an emergency is like sending your kids to a candy store where the guy is selling drugs.” Well then, it’s settled.

TO BE FAIR, it’s easy to see how a permanent slot on an op-ed page could make someone shrill. Tierney certainly isn’t the first columnist to come down with a case of Jerusalem syndrome. But, even by the standards of the crusading columnist out to change the world, Tierney has been a disappointment. Just consider his priorities. Sure, it’s a shame we don’t have reliable train service. But what about reliable health service? And, OK, I give, the drug war is costly, irrational, counterproductive. It deserves every bit of scorn Tierney heaps on it. But what about, you know, the war war? These aren’t topics you’re likely to read about in a John Tierney column. But, then, you’ve probably stopped reading him anyway.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.