By Brooks Clark. Photography by Shawn Poynter.
Glenn Reynolds is a big thinker with a big audience, thanks to his highly influential political blog Instapundit.
His first appearance in the blogosphere occurred in August 2001 when Reynolds, the Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law, was teaching a class on Internet law. As an experiment, he created a personal web page and started posting links to stories of the day along with his own personal take on them.
At the time, the concept of blogging was new and uncharted. But Instapundit caught on quickly due to Reynolds’s witty, conversational style, his ability to summarize stories in plain talk, and his remarkable breadth of insight into a wide variety of topics. “I have a lot of interests,” he explains. “Scholars are often divided into ‘hedgehogs,’ who know one big thing, and ‘foxes,’ who know many things. I’m more of a fox.”
At the foundation of Instapundit’s appeal is an unpredictable libertarian perspective. Says Reynolds, “I like to joke that I’d like to live in a world in which happily married gay people have closets full of assault weapons to protect their pot.”
Reynolds was surprised at how quickly he gained such a massive online following. Even early on, sites linked on Instapundit would experience a traffic spike, a phenomenon now known as an Instapundit avalanche or Instalanche.
The blog’s success led to Reynolds penning op-eds for USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, among other prestigious publications. As Popular Mechanics’ “resident contrarian,” he addresses broad issues of technology and society. He recently used the subject of license plate scanners as an entrée to mosaic theory—which he describes as “the qualitative difference between entities having all our information, which they most certainly do, and having the technical skills to put it all together, give it meaning, and do something with it.” In practical terms, mosaic theory says that even if you aren’t thinking about Google right now, Google’s algorithms are probably thinking about you.
Reynolds brings his distinctive viewpoint to bear in his books, which include The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society, and An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths. Lately he has focused his attention on issues in American education and the undermining of due process in the judicial system.
In his Columbia Law Review article “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything Is a Crime,” Reynolds argues that a culture of overcriminalization, easy indictments (the title refers to the aphorism that a good prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich), and plea bargaining means that only a tiny fraction of cases—perhaps 3 percent—actually go to trial.
“You have all this due process if you go to trial,” he says. “But few people ever get to court. Instead, if you are charged with a crime and a prosecutor indicts you, whether you are innocent or not, you face strong pressure to accept a plea bargain. As a practical matter, the only decision that matters in the judicial process is the prosecutor’s decision to bring charges.”
Reynolds admits it isn’t practical to ask grand juries to be stingier in handing down indictments. Rather, he would like to give prosecutors a personal stake by penalizing those whose frivolous indictments create the revolving door of plea bargaining while rewarding those who bring only indictments worth prosecuting.
In his book The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, Reynolds tackles the problems of education in an era of changing systems and technologies.
“In our K–12 schools,” Reynolds says, “traditional models are collapsing. In a century of rapid change, our schools have stayed the same, except by becoming much less rigorous and vastly more expensive. It’s as if we were still writing about ships the way we did when the steam engine was being developed.”
The most obvious solutions involve embracing new technologies, like the free online lessons provided by the Khan Academy. The peskier conversation, which Reynolds admits he’s just opening up, is over replacing the public school system with something else. “My book is more of a conversation starter than a conversation ender, but it starts with entertaining the idea of throwing out old paradigms and starting over.”
Ever the libertarian, Reynolds connects his ideas about higher education to its ever-skyrocketing price tag. “Most of what we hear about of the value of a college degree is crap,” he opines. “We’re spending vastly more but we are not getting more out, with the students knowing less.”
Reynolds believes higher education is in a classic economic bubble, like real estate before 2008, dot-coms before 2001, and even the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s. Prices inflate beyond reason and then, inevitably, the bubble bursts.
Citing a principle coined by economist Herbert Stein, Reynolds says, “Something that can’t go on forever won’t. The higher education bubble may have already burst. With the tough economic times, law school applications plummeted.” For their undergraduate degrees, today’s students are looking for less expensive options, including community colleges, and figuring out ways to avoid the onerous student loans that recent graduates are struggling to pay off in a tepid job market.
In line with the traditional libertarian dislike of bureaucracies, Reynolds sees a major source of escalating costs in the ever-swelling number of administrative positions in colleges and universities. His possible solution: “Along with rewarding schools with great teacher-to-student ratios in its all-important rankings, it might be a good idea for US News & World Report to penalize schools with too many administrators.”
In the history books, Reynolds’s influence on the public debate will be measured by the enduring legacy of his blog, even if the world doesn’t become a libertarian utopia.