Jane Coaston – Meet The New York Times' Libertarian Podcaster
Reason magazine|August - September 2021
Jane Coaston on the polarization of everything
By Nick Gillespie

JANE COASTON IS the new host of The Argument, a massively popular New York Times podcast that seeks to showcase civil and informed discussions about the most pressing issues of the day. A 33-year-old Cincinnati native, Coaston has worked at Vox, MTV, and the Human Rights Campaign, among other places. She is the daughter of a black father and a white mother, was raised Catholic, and identifies as queer. She’s also a registered Libertarian who is “especially distrustful of efforts by the state to get people to do things.” As she puts it, “at some point, a regulation or a law with the absolute best of intentions will be wielded by people who may not have the absolute best of intentions.”

Coaston says growing up in a liberal household in a conservative part of the country made her reluctant to give the authorities a lot of power. Adding to that was an experience of being isolated because of her race and sexuality. “My libertarian sensibilities really came from a sense of: I know what it is like politically to always lose,” she says.

One of Coaston’s goals for The Argument is to bring in a lot of new voices—partly to hear different perspectives but also to model true pluralism. She says she is sick of performative politics in which people act out predetermined roles rather than actually engage with one another, and she aims to change that in her new role.

In April, Reason’s Nick Gillespie spoke with Coaston via Zoom about how her libertarianism came to be and what she sees as the defining issues of the current era.

Reason: So we have a registered Libertarian running a major podcast at The New York Times. What drew you to libertarianism, and how do you define that term?

Coaston: It’s interesting. I think of myself as an adherent to libertarianism and less so to the Libertarian Party. It’s the same way that people use the word liberal and liberal in many different ways. For me, it comes from a certain degree of circumspection and a certain degree of skepticism. That is what my libertarianism looks like, which is that I am distrustful of efforts by the state to get people to do things. I mean that even of the things I want other people to do. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges of libertarianism. I’ve talked about it before: In many ways, everyone’s a personal libertarian. Everyone thinks they should be able to do whatever they want, but other people should not.

If you accidentally run through a stop sign in your car, you’re like, “Ugh, that’s annoying, but I didn’t mean to.” Because it’s you. You see someone else doing that and you’re like, “They should lose their license; they’re terrible drivers.” That goes to extensions of state power as well. We too often think of state power as a cudgel that we can use against our enemies or a way in which we can benefit our friends. And that will flip on a dime depending on who the administration is. I joked a lot last fall that a lot of people who, in 2020, were post-liberal conservatives were all of a sudden going to become libertarians again in January. Now they’re all like, “Well, we’re spending too much money.” I’m like, “Are you? Are you now?”

In 2016 there was that brief moment, as it became clear that Donald Trump had won the election (or “Russia handed him the election”), when suddenly a lot of liberals were like, “Maybe we gave the president too much power.”

Right, right. And it was a great moment for federalism.

When I was at Vox—I was at Vox before I was with The New York Times—I focused on the GOP, white nationalism, conservatism, and the right. There were a lot of people in right circles whose understanding of what the presidency was supposed to be was very much “We won the presidency. We’ll be able to start putting all of our enemies into camps.” And I’m like, “No, that’s never—no.” But I do think that it’s interesting how we cherish executive power when our team has it. And we decry executive power when our enemies have it, even though it’s the same power used similarly.

My libertarianism really is an effort to remain skeptical and to remain challenging of the use of state power, even when it’s for stuff that I would really like. Because at some point, somebody I absolutely hate is going to do the same thing, and I’m going to be really mad about it.

What are the specific types of state power that worry you the most?

I think it’s what the ultimate extensions of state power can result in. We’ve seen that most concerningly with regard to policing. It’s very easy to talk about policing with regard to race, which is an incredibly important discussion because African Americans are in general overpoliced while being simultaneously under policed.

Yeah. That’s one of the most paradoxical things: How can people who are constantly being rousted by the cops never have a cop when they need one?

Exactly. I was doing some research last week on the police and what the police do. If you look at homicide clearance rates, they are abysmal. For instance, in Honolulu, Hawaii, serious crime, murder, assault: 25 percent clearance rate. And that just means an arrest or the case is closed. Not that the case was solved in Law & Order style, but that someone was arrested. That concerns me in a whole different way. But I think about what policing and what those extensions of state power can mean, because the state is not just an objective entity. The state is controlled by people.

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