When reason began in 1968, it was just one of many mimeographed zines then pushing a mostly obscure political and philosophical vision known as libertarianism. At the time, aside from rare outliers such as the Newsweek columns of Milton Friedman and the science fiction novels of Robert A. Heinlein, there were few places to encounter such ideas except in do-it-yourself publications.
The debut issue of reason was a few pages of typewritten text, and the topics it covered largely concerned urban violence, then a major political issue. While we don’t know for sure, the print run probably was no more than a couple of hundred. Most of the content was written by the founding editor, Boston University undergrad Lanny Friedlander.
Forty years later, long after such titles as Living Free, Bull$heet, The New Radical, The Abolitionist, and The Individualist have fallen by the wayside, reason endures. The champion of “Free Minds and Free Markets” exists as both a paper magazine (now slick and colorful) and a vibrant presence in a medium that was still science fiction in 1968: the Internet, where the reason website is visited about 2.7 million more times per month than the first paper issue had readers.
During the intervening decades, the broader civilization has, in fits and starts, heeded much of the message that reason has been pushing since that first mimeographed edition. From the deregulation of airlines to the decriminalization of sodomy, from the fall of communism to the rise of dot-coms, the world is in many ways much freer than it was in 1968. It’s easy to get caught up in those many restrictions on liberty that remain—including new ones that have arrived since 9/11—but the big picture reveals a happier story. The culture is wider and wilder, and more people than ever recognize that top-down planning by force isn’t the best way to run the world.
reason has grown from one student’s wild dream to a bicoastal foundation that advances liberty through public policy research and journalism available across a rich variety of platforms. The magazine is routinely chosen as one of the nation’s 50 best by the Chicago Tribune; its staffers appear daily on television, radio, and newsprint; and, most important, the viewpoint favoring free minds and free markets is harder and harder to ignore.
Scores of staffers have contributed to the magazine’s remarkable evolution during the last four decades. Below some of them tell the story of how reason went from a collegiate curiosity to a respected American journal of policy and culture while remaining pretty curious all the while.
Robert W. Poole Jr. was one of the founders of Reason Enterprises, which began publishing reason with its January 1971 issue. He launched the Reason Foundation in 1978 and has held many titles with the magazine, including editor, managing editor, executive editor, editor-in-chief, and publisher.
Robert W. Poole Jr.: I got a job, in order to avoid the draft, with a defense contractor, Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut, and started working as an engineer. I hardly knew anybody who had similar ideas, so I was desperate to read things of a libertarian or Objectivist flavor.
In 1968, in some newsletter or other, I saw a classified ad for reason, which was at about its third issue. I sent in a buck or two bucks and subscribed, and found that despite it being mimeographed and amateurish, the writing was pretty good.
Obviously somebody with an Objectivist orientation had started this thing, and he was in Boston. It must have been fall of ’68, that first year of publication, I drove up and met Lanny [Friedlander]. Every year [Ayn] Rand gave a speech at Ford Hall. We went to that event, and I had the idea of trying to get involved in the publication, but I wasn’t that impressed with him personally. He lived at home while going to Boston University, his house was a chaotic disaster, his mother was a shrill fishwife who yelled and screamed even with visitors in the house. It just didn’t seem like a good situation to try to get involved in, in a business sense.
I’d never written anything for publication, but because I was interested in aviation, he got me to write a piece about airlines and aviation policy, which was “Fly the Frenzied Skies.”
I did a hell of a lot of research, which was fun, but even more fun was seeing it in print, having it be the cover story of what became the first offset printed issue. A couple of months after it was out, The Freeman asked to reprint it. That got me letters from people all over the country, and that was the moment of truth: This journalism stuff really can make an impact!
In ’71, airlines were tightly regulated by an agency that’s gone, the Civil Aeronautics Board. It was a cartelized industry. To fly between point A and B [you were] limited to between one and three airlines, usually two. Prices were approved at rate hearings like telephone and electricity prices used to be. If an airline wanted to serve a new route, it would take years. So I challenged that and argued for deregulation.
I also argued for airport and air traffic privatization, got it all together in one article. My dad was saying, “Ha, ha, comes the revolution! You and I will never live to see any of this come to pass.”