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.”
I was amazed. I thought Dad was quite right: He wouldn’t live to see it. I thought that I maybe would. I have enough confidence in the power of ideas and empirical evidence that [I thought] if we banged on it hard enough we’d overcome, but I thought it would take a lot longer than the seven years from the time that article was published to the [deregulation] actually coming to pass.
Over the next year I wrote several more pieces for [reason]. In 1970 I moved to California to take a new job with General Research Corp. in Santa Barbara. Tibor Machan was getting his Ph.D. at U.C. [Santa Barbara] in those years and was writing for reason, so Lanny said, “Hook up with this guy. He’s Objectivist-libertarian, and he’s writing for reason too.”
We became friends and over the course of 1970 spent lots of time discussing the potential of the magazine while it was about to go out of business—because Lanny had no business sense whatever. He was pretty good as a writer and editor but was running out of money and begging us to send cash to keep it going. I don’t know if Tibor did, but I sent him a few hundred dollars. Eventually Tibor and I decided we’d like to try to take it over and make a part-time business out of it.
We created a business plan. We in our naive way expected that within three to five years we’d have it in the black. We were obviously making very optimistic assumptions about both costs and revenues. It’s never been anywhere close to being in the black.
But those were heady days, and we thought we’d raise startup capital. Tibor knew a number of people of libertarian or Objectivist orientation who were in business, so we sent a proposal probably to 20 or 30 people asking them to put up money as an investment. We got like $1,500 plus a few hundred each that we put in. We picked up Manny Klausner along the way. We figured if we’re starting a business we really ought to have an attorney.
Tibor Machan was one of the founding partners in Reason Enterprises. He became editor in the spring of 1971 and worked with the magazine through the 1970s and ’80s under the titles of associate editor and senior editor.
Tibor Machan: Lanny Friedlander requested that he might reprint an article of mine from [the academic philosophy journal] The Personalist. Later on he wanted to print something else I wrote, something on a fairly technical philosophical issue, the nature of the a priori. So Bob Poole became aware of me.
And then I got a call from Manny Klausner, who discovered me on KPFK [the Pacifica Radio affiliate in Los Angeles], where I had a 15-minute show every week in the late ’60s. So then the idea of taking reason a step further than it was in Friedlander’s care came up, and that’s when the three of us, including our then-wives—Manny is still married to the same woman, but Bob and I are not—decided to take it over.
Manuel Klausner was one of the founding partners in Reason Enterprises. He became editor in the summer of 1972 and a senior editor in June 1978. He remains on the board of the ReasonFoundation.
Manuel Klausner: I had experience with the NYU Law Review and New Individualist Review and the Journal of Law and Economics, which I’d worked on with Ronald Coase in Chicago. I was doing lots of speaking at the time, was very interested in achieving positive social change using the political system and print media, so it was a natural for me.
Poole: We basically took on [Friedlander’s] liabilities. He was completely out of money and had an average of nine months of issues to deliver to 400 people and no means of doing it. We took it out of his hands and got an addressograph machine. Put out our first issue in January ’71 and never missed an issue.
Tibor was working full time, as you do in a Ph.D. program. I had a full-time job, and Manny had a full-time law career. After a year we hired a full-time office manager/secretary, but until the Reason Foundation started in ’78 there was never more than one paid person.
Machan: Manny was never an Objectivist, and even Bob was more mild-mannered about it. I was the philosophically grounded one, but I stylistically repudiated the atmospherics of the Objectivist world. I was excommunicated back in 1963 from the Rand thing.
Poole: We wanted a magazine for thinking people, not Randians. As time went on and various marketing strategies were tried it became clear that Rand was some people’s cup of tea and not others’, and if we wanted to be influential being an explicitly Objectivist magazine was not the recipe for doing that.
Klausner: When we took it over, reason was in a paradoxical stage of becoming more burdensome. Instead of economies of scale, there were diseconomies of scale. When you are small you can do your own address labeling, but the bigger you got, the more outside costs you have. There were more things you couldn’t do yourself. We learned about direct mail to get a larger subscriber base. Even early on we were bigger than any other libertarian magazine in history, and that was satisfying.
Machan: Friedlander came to Santa Barbara once when we bought the magazine. We asked him to do the editing for the first year. I believe he did carry through, but he didn’t have to do much because all the legwork had to be done in Santa Barbara. He never was what you might a call a bourgeois, responsible person. Then I became editor for two years. As early as the early ’70s, I never had any further contact with him.
Lynn Kinsky joined reason in 1970 as circulation manager. She worked as associate editor, executive editor, and editor until late 1975, and was married during that period to Robert Poole.
Kinsky: reason took up all of my free time. Bob was more efficient at working than I was. I got writer’s block. I wound up doing all the copyediting. At that time every Randroid and libertarian wannabe sent in their philosophical treatises, and my job was to make it readable. I’d come home from work—I was also going to grad school—and start copyediting. For four or five years I didn’t see any TV, didn’t have any life other than reason.
Machan: We didn’t want to have anybody either overburdened or too comfortable with being chief, you know? Manny being a lawyer, a negotiator, he can handle any conflict smoothly. Bob was the one who took notes about everything, all hours and minutes and pennies recorded. I remember Bob buying a car and doing a major cost-benefit analysis. I was a little bit more the semi-bohemian but still a rather academic kind of guy.
Poole: In the original business plan it was more like what reason is today, dealing with current issues and American life from a libertarian/classical liberal point of view. But what we found actually sold in those small early days was more self-consciously libertarian-movement stuff. We were competing then with a whole gaggle of other libertartarian zines, and all we were speaking to was other libertarians.
We also didn’t have a budget. The most we ever paid for an article was $25 in the days before the Reason Foundation, and a lot of times not anything. So lots [of what we published] was whatever came over the transom that was less bad than other things would be.
Kinsky: When putting an issue to bed, we all got together, Tibor, me, Bob, Tibor’s wife at that time, Marilynn Walther, had a big social work session. Several times [academic philosopher and first Libertarian presidential candidate] John Hospers, who lived nearby, would bring us a big pot of borscht. Libertarians would show up from the community in Southern California.
And we would meet our deadlines. That set us apart from the run-of-the-mill libertarian magazine. That was courtesy of Bob. It was stressful to our marriage, but it did get the magazine out on time.
The Libertarian World
Klausner: Our biggest circulation increase in the early days was when we rented the Nathaniel Branden Institute list for the [former Ayn Rand associate] Nathaniel Branden interview. It was obviously a hot item, and we knew it. We advertised to Branden’s list and picked up several thousand subscribers. We were ecstatic about it.
It led us to do something else because we thought we were golden. We did a big promotional push to [libertarian educator] Robert LeFevre’s list. We learned quickly the concept of testing the list. We sent to the whole list. We lost money on the mailing. It could have been fatal for reason. A terrible experience. The list was not regularly mailed to. It had bad addresses; we got lots of [angry letters] that said we don’t want to read this kind of stuff. A disaster.
Poole: We had to persuade [Branden] we weren’t anarchists. Within the rarefied circles of Randian Objectivists, every libertarian was presumed to be an anarchist unless proven otherwise. After we interviewed him he allowed us to rent his list, and we went back to that several times.
That was a tremendous list; the first surge, from 300 to 400 to 3,000 to 4,000 subscribers, was mostly from Branden’s list.
Machan: A couple of things happened with [early interviews] that were an embarrassment journalistically. Nathan [Nathaniel Branden] insisted that he had to look at [his interview], and he rewrote the whole damn thing! Questions, answers, everything. We looked at it and were aghast, but at the time everything was already committed to publishing it, so we put it out there as if it was quite legit. But we were all holding our noses.
Then virtually the same thing happened with [dissident psychiatrist] Thomas Szasz. I went to Syracuse and interviewed Szasz, did a nice job, and he insisted on seeing it. Then he rewrote it. Those two people hate each other—at least Szasz hates Branden—and they both did the same egomaniacal thing. What they did was not really anything different in content or substance, but they insisted on having the tone about it kind of massaged.
Poole: We did a “new countries” issue in the early ’70s. It had an interview with Michael Oliver. Oliver was one of the important originators of the idea. A lot of people in the late ’60s, early ’70s libertarian world were disgusted with Nixon, and while [people like] Ed Clark [an L.A. lawyer and early Libertarian Party activist, who ran for president in 1980] said, “We’ve got to start a political party,” others said, “We’ve got to leave the country!”
Three or four people I knew of had separate independent projects. And we did start an attempt to find someplace to set up a new country. The New Hebrides was the third or fourth of Oliver’s tries. He tried in the Bahamas and on a reef [near] Fiji.
I put in very little effort myself, but in the years before the Reason Foundation started I was hired as a consultant by Mike Oliver a couple of times, once to go and do some agitating in Abaco in the Bahamas and a few months after that to make an initial exploratory trip to the New Hebrides. I no longer think the U.S. is going to hell in a handbasket. I was never really fully convinced, but [a new country] seemed like a prudent backup possibility.
Machan: We were interested in gentrifying the libertarian movement so there would be more suits there and less people who reminded one of the hippies. We were concerned with showing that libertarianism was serious, that it wasn’t some ragtag bullshit movement.
Poole: [The libertarian movement] very much had a romanticization of underdogs. This was the context of the Vietnam War, the New Left, and SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. The social ethos of much of the libertarian movement in the late ’60s/early ’70s was SDS-like but with free market ideas, [with activists] seeing themselves as part of an outlaw radical underground movement that was under surveillance by [the] FBI. A number of people, not many, adopted stage names. In some cases it was because they were dodging the draft and didn’t want to attract the attention of their draft board by doing libertarian speaking and activism under their own name.
There was a lot of paranoia and revolutionary comments. There was the New York Times Magazine cover story in ’71 with the guy who became editor of Wired [Louis Rossetto], with black flags and beards and hippie clothing. We were on the fringes of that, and lots of people we knew and palled around with were those sorts of folks. That’s how the libertarian movement was in that period.
Klausner: In September ’72 reason did a special issue about the Libertarian Party, that this was the alternative to Nixon/McGovern. When I was editor I did an editorial on the L.P., we published the L.P. platform in its entirety, and I started an L.P. correspondent column, which eventually broke out into a separate newsletter, Frontlines.
I ran for Congress. The L.P. was not a recognized party; I was a write-in candidate. I did the race under the condition it would not interfere with a month-long trip to Europe. I was the “candidate of principle for the thinking person.” The concept of moving to Washington if elected was not high on my list. I was a young lawyer. I’d just made partner in the firm. But I didn’t even pay the filing fee for my votes to be counted.
[Libertarian economist] Murray Rothbard said I was the only candidate he knew who, after he ran for office, became more libertarian rather than less. When I wrote the editorial in reason to announce my candidacy, I considered myself a classical liberal. I believed in limited government but supported taxation for functions considered necessary. It was not until I ran for Congress and spoke to libertarian audiences that I had to defend myself against [people more libertarian]. I was always the most extreme guy any place I went before. I was before libertarians trying to defend the case for taxation, and I found I couldn’t do it.
Poole: Since the ’70s there had been a set of financial newsletter writers who were libertarian or libertarian/conservative, strongly influenced by [Andrew] Galambos, Rand, [F.A.] Hayek, [Ludwig von] Mises, and so forth. They included Mark Skousen, Adrian Day, Doug Casey, Harry Browne, Jim Blanchard. The idea for reason’s annual financial issue was to take advantage of that natural overlap. It was [future Cato Institute founder] Ed Crane’s idea, him and this other guy who was an early cohort of his.
They came up with writers within that hard-money universe, and the first [financial issue] was a tremendous success, made a lot of money. It made the mailing lists of those newsletters more marketable; we could say the newsletter author wrote for reason. It did sell some subscriptions and continued for several years, but it became not as successful at getting ads or subscriptions after a while [and we stopped doing it].
Machan: The financial issues? I never thought one size fits all. Just because I loved philosophy I didn’t think reason should only be host to such stuff, although I thought it should be the core. Even the science fiction stuff. Although I have absolutely no interest in science fiction, I still can’t watch a science fiction movie, why not? Heinlein was a big guy, so it was fine with me. We were pretty good about never imposing one vision on reason.
Poole: Some of the other [eccentric elements] were just things particular libertarians were into and [a matter of ] trying to serve our market. Being short on money and material, we published them. I’m kind of embarrassed by some of them now, but we were amateurish in the early days.
Poole: From 1976 to 1978 I was trying to make a living as a consultant, doing work for state and local governments. That meant being available to travel to where consulting assignments were, but with the constraint of having to put out a monthly magazine, the two things were not very compatible. I said to my partners: It’s in my house; if you expect me to keep doing this I’ll have to make tradeoffs. So that was the one and only little period when any of us got any pay [before the Reason Foundation launched].
Machan: We moved from Bob’s house to a place on Garden Street and then to State Street [in Santa Barbara]. We had reasonably formidable offices by that time. I remember I used to go around and visit National Review and some other magazines, Human Events, and we were beginning to match those in terms of facilities and overhead.
Marty Zupan started as book review editor in 1975, became associate editor in 1978, and served through the 1980s as managing editor and editor-in-chief, leaving in 1989. She was married to Tibor Machan when she began at the magazine, but they had divorced by the time she left.
Marty Zupan: I had been helping line up book reviews already, basically because I was with Tibor and we were working on things together. So I did copyediting freelance for several years. Then in ’78, when the Foundation was set up and took over the magazine, the intention was to hire a staff for the first time, an editor and assistant editor. I applied for that position, and I won in Bob’s systems-engineering calculation of our strengths and weaknesses. So Bob was editor, I was assistant editor, and that was the staff. Oh, we had a secretary who sometimes showed up, but that was it in the summer of ’78.
It was obvious to me that if reason wanted to grow, it needed to do more than have libertarians talking to one another. When I joined the magazine, it was almost entirely dependent on what people sent in. It was reactive, and changing that took time, some money, and lots of effort to get to a place where you had a good stable of writers regarding you as an outlet, not just academics saying, “This is another place I can put my stuff.”
Poole: With the magazine getting bigger and becoming a bigger responsibility and needing paid staff, Manny, Tibor, and I said we need a financial base under it, or it’s not going to be able to continue. We found all of the easy subscribers, had 10,000–20,000 subscribers, and marginal gains from additional direct mail were hard to come by. We already had the biggest list in the [libertarian] world.
We were not so naive anymore to think it could be made profitable. The only thing we could come up with was to set up a nonprofit that could raise money from donors. We hadn’t thoroughly researched corporate giving, but we found a wealthy individual who grubstaked us for the first two years, gave us office furniture, and promised $25,000 a year for two years.
I took a crash course in nonprofit fund raising at USC and just buckled down and made it the No. 1 priority to figure out where to find money. We found a few foundation grants and a few corporate contributions, and if we hadn’t we would not be having this interview today.
We said, “Let’s leave movement stuff to movement zines and go back to our original vision and make reason a competitor to National Review and The Nation and engage in the battle of ideas with the whole spectrum of thinking people.” We’ve tried to stick with that ever since, with different ways to carry that idea out.
The newsletter Frontlines came from the column on the libertarian movement in reason. Our thought was we might make money, which was another delusion, by creating a spinoff product.
We ended up helping to feed factional fighting among libertarians, and some of our donors were not happy we were doing it. It went on for about four years; then we killed it.
Zupan: When the Foundation was set up, circulation was 15,000. It takes a lot of money to grow your circulation. You can’t get on newsstands until you’re big enough to make a claim to be worth noticing. When I started, reason had no newsstand presence. There were a few places like Menlo Park where you could convince an individual owner to carry this freaky magazine.
Poole: I don’t recall when newsstand sales began, but it was in the early ’80s, spurred by lots of investigative stories that created some news stories. Every other issue, we’d have a story that someone would talk about on the radio, which stimulated newsstand demand and got distributors to want to carry it. But we still sell only a couple thousand a month on newsstands.
Eric Marti served as assistant editor, then managing editor, from 1982 to 1986.
Eric Marti: When I first got there we still used typewriters to work on copy. I was set up with a desk with an IBM Selectric, and that’s how we produced copy. We hand-edited manuscripts, and we would send them to a typesetter living somewhere in the Bay Area. She would then send us back galley type in strips.
Lynn Scarlett was book review editor from 1982 to 1990.
Lynn Scarlett: At the advent of the Reagan era, there was an interest in deregulation, or at least revised regulation, so we were contacted by various administration officials for input as they tried to develop policy agendas. We had a lot of energy as a consequence. One felt we were not doing a white paper to go on a shelf but that someone was ready and waiting in a policy making context who might take the ideas and run with them.
Virginia Postrel, who started as an assistant editor in late 1986, was editor from October 1989 to March 2000.
Virginia Postrel: I had read [Norman Podhoretz’s memoir] Making It, and unlike everyone else I thought, wow, this is really what I want to do when I grow up. I really would love to edit one of these magazines. That would be the best job. I didn’t want to edit Commentary; I wanted it to be my point of view.
Zupan: I think the circulation was in the high 30 thousands when I left, and we had been on newsstands for several years. We were paying writers—not a lot, but we were. Our first forays into investigative journalism were lots of fun and a big boost for the magazine. That kind of happened by accident. Our first big thing was on Cesar Chavez’s union and how they were getting federal grants for certain things which were prohibited under federal law for unions to do. [Reporter Patty Newman] uncovered this; we did huge fact checking and published the story and got one of our first major contributions as a result of that. Dick Larry from the Scaife Foundation said he wanted to come out and visit because he was so impressed by this article. We had lunch, and he said, “How’d you like a contribution of $40,000?” Nobody was coming around even giving $5,000, let alone $40,000. We about slid off our chairs, we were so surprised. And this [money] was explicitly to carry on this sort of investigative journalism.
In ’81 we did a big Love Canal story. What [reporter Eric Zeuss] first thought it was, was business in bed with big government in a nice cozy deal, but it turned out [the chemical company] Hooker [who had polluted the land there] had tried its mightiest to keep people from building on this land but government said we’re going to run roughshod over it and take it by eminent domain anyway. I personally fact checked every single fact in that story. It got lots of attention.
Postrel: When the Love Canal issue in February ’81 [came out], Steve [Postrel, her husband] was drawn to that, read the article and started reading reason because of that. We not only liked that article; reason was one of those kinds of [political magazines we liked] but with our point of view. Then my ambition became: It would be great to be editor of reason.
Laura Main (now Laura Main Collins) was art director from 1984 to 1988.
Laura Main Collins: I interviewed with Marty. She said, “Even though you have no experience, this is the first time we’ve met a libertarian artist, and that seems very unusual.”
Bill Kauffman was an assistant editor from 1985 to 1988.
Bill Kauffman: I had been a legislative assistant to [New York] Sen. Patrick Moynihan, which was an anarchist-making experience, and I was not cut out for grad school. I had not been a longtime reader. I had no libertarian background at all, but I liked to read journals of opinion, saw an ad, appliedand came out and was interviewed and hired. The magazine was very much a Randian/Goldwaterite matrix, and my own political involvement had been liberal Democrat. By ’85 I was generally in the anti-Federalist/LocoFoco/large-P populist/Old Right/New Left tradition with a regional accent.
But I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I am eternally grateful to Bob and Marty for giving me a chance. All journals of opinion have a general orientation, and the worst of the lot have a party line, often enforced with Stalinist ruthlessness. That was not the case at reason. When I was there the rest of the editorial staff was me, Eric Marti, Lucy Braun, and Laura Main the art director. None of us were Rand fans or Goldwaterites, and it was just such a congenial and convivial group. We had a great time after work every day. We’d walk down the street to this great dark bar, Eddie Van Cleve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, and talk and drink and laugh the night away.
Collins: We’d go to Lynn’s house, go to Marty’s house and play Boggle. Bob was so young and so energetic. I didn’t realize how lucky I was working with such really smart people. Later on I worked in corporate offices where people aren’t that smart, frankly, so it was really a wonderful time. The people I worked with at reason were like family. Every time I saw Bob, I thought, “Such a good guy.” He always reminded me of Abraham Lincoln.
Zupan: Ron Bailey [currently reason’s science correspondent] was selling ads at The New Yorker and approached us and asked if we would like a review of a new book by Jeremy Rifkin. I remembered Rifkin had been in the People’s Bicentennial Commission to mobilize Americans against corporate America under the guise of a bicentennial celebration, so I had followed Rifkin’s intellectual and activist career and was interested in having someone trace it. So I suggested to Ron that this is what we really wanted. He said, “I have no experience as a journalist.” I said, “OK, we’ll work with you.” He ended up with a pretty good story on Rifkin, and from there Ron went on to work for Forbes as a reporter. Ron, whenever I see him, says, “There’s Marty; she started my career.”
Kauffman: Lynn [Scarlett] and I went up to Berkeley to interview Eldridge Cleaver. He had a big American flag flying from his apartment, and we must have been there four hours. He got up to take a piss and we’re next to his files, so why not look? Two I remember: one called “sperm” and one was “Jim Morrison: alive?” or something like that. I’ll always regret my scruples prevented me from delving into that file.
Santa Barbara was often called home of the newly wed and the nearly dead, and the question arose: Should reason move? It stayed in Southern California, which I think was wise, though at the time I didn’t think so. I had a girlfriend on the East Coast, so I said, “How about making me Washington editor?” That lasted a year and a half or so.
I’d show up at receptions to cadge free food. By the latter part of the ’80s there was a kind of soft libertarian flavoring to some of the newer Republican guys like Ed Zschau from California. Toward the last few months of my reason tenure, I would spend very long lunch hours writing the draft of what became my novel [Every Man a King] out in the park. They can’t go after me for back pay, can they?
Collins: Eric Marti loved Esquire at the time; it was the hot magazine. So we did photography to mimic that style. I remember doing a drug legalization cover; we made little packages like marijuana cigarette packs. We shot homeless people downtown and tried to make it look like a fashion shoot. We thought if we could make reason look more mainstream, we could get advertisers beside [best-selling authors on life extension and purveyors of life-extension vitamin supplements] Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. Or the radar detector ads.
Postrel: I was a big fan [of reason], but by my journalistic standards it was extremely, to put it kindly, uneven. But enough good stuff and enough new stuff—a lot of these ideas very common today were in fact new. Those privatization stories that everyone still mocks; that was all new stuff. Competing utility companies? These were almost sciencefictional ideas.
Kauffman: The magazine took collective pride in being one of the architects of the Reagan Doctrine with those Jack Wheeler pieces. [Wheeler adventured around the world with anti-communist rebels and wrote about it for reason.] I disagreed with the general thrust of those. On the other hand, I had my say on foreign policy stuff. Bob and Marty gave me a leash of decent length. I did a piece on anti-war businessmen and got a lot of hostile letters. People felt I was aiding and abetting the Marxist subversion of Central America.
Collins: Jack Wheeler really was an interesting guy who always had amazing photographs from Afghanistan, Angola, wherever he was, fighting with Sandinistas, or against them, whatever he was doing. He was like Indiana Jones.
Marti: reason for the most part was not viewed as quite legitimate by most people I knew. I was a little pleased by that in a quirky, countercultural way. At other times I was a little bit demoralized, thinking the magazine deserves to have a higher level of respect. That did change over time, and changed a whole lot more after I left.
Collins: We’d have board meetings in the offices. I remember being impressed by [Reason Foundation board member] David Koch. I mean, here was this billionaire, and this was back in the ’80s—back before we all were billionaires!—so you didn’t see many people like that. I was impressed that he made his own coffee.
The Postrel Era
Machan: When [Virginia Postrel] came to interview for a position, she sent around a proposal which she didn’t know that I would see, and it said we should circulate more op-ed pieces, but not like those of Tibor Machan, which are boring. I have never been called boring in my life—not even by my ex-wives.
Zupan: I hired Virginia Postrel at reason. Her husband had gotten a job at UCLA, and reason was about to move to L.A. from Santa Barbara, so it was perfect timing. She came with a great background for the magazine, with reporting experience at The Wall Street Journal and Inc.
Postrel: I always saw reason and myself as engaged in a mainstream intellectual and journalistic activity done by mainstream standards, but with an unusual point of view. I don’t see what I do or what reason did when I edited it as being alternative. I wanted it to be focused on policy debate, I wanted a Washington office, I wanted it to be much more prominent a place for people who participated in the public policy debate. I wanted people to leave reason and go to work in other media organizations; I wanted to have an internship program that would train people so they would be able to pursue media jobs.
Zupan: I had seen the organization grow from 2½ people to 17 or 18 when I left. I had really built it up with Bob. I loved working with Bob, and in the end I wasn’t actually editing so much anymore. I like hands-on editing, the craft, but I was more of a manager [by the late ’80s]. I was a single mom and working extremely long hours and couldn’t continue. I said there needs to be more money if I’m going to continue, so I can hire more staff. And that wasn’t forthcoming.
Charles Oliver was on staff from 1989 to 1993.
Charles Oliver: I had a group of friends in high school who subscribed to reason. At the time it was heavily into privatization, defense, and also focused on the libertarian movement, and so that was where we learned a lot about libertarianism and books to read. So for a 23-yearold, reason seemed like the perfect job. My old high school libertarian pals were always asking me about working with Bob Poole; to us it was sort of like working with Elvis. Well, maybe Gene Vincent. But it was a big deal.
Rick Henderson was on staff from 1989 to 1999.
Rick Henderson: Virginia was quite explicit: What she was hoping to do by hiring Jacob [Sullum], who had daily newspaper experience, and by hiring me, who was at least attempting to make journalism a profession, was to make reason more of a journalistic publication. She wanted to elevate reason’s profile to the extent that people would talk about it when talking about The New Republic, National Review, The Nation, or even later on The New Yorker, The Atlantic, large general-interest publications that deal with ideas seriously.
She became reason’s editor at age 29, similar to when Buckley started National Review and when Kinsley took over at The New Republic. She viewed herself that way.
She tried to bring a more journalistic approach, more original reporting, more the stuff of life in stories rather than dry policy pieces. She realized we needed to provide more compensation to get better-quality pieces. She encouraged staff-generated feature-length stories.
One I worked on continues to have impact, one I did in ’90 dealing with auto pollution. A professor in Denver named Donald Stedman, a chemist, developed a technology that could check real-time emissions of cars.
He found over many thousands of tests that roughly half of pollution comes from 10 percent of cars, those cars not old necessarily but of any age not being properly maintained. If you used his machine to test cars and notify the owners that they are polluting and force them to get the cars fixed, you can cut pollution dramatically. Then we got in touch with John Stossel, who had at the end of the '80s done a piece for 20/20 largely inspired by an essay Bob had written in the 20th anniversary issue of reason, which said that things are pretty good right now, largely because of consumer choice, less government regulation—to use Virginia’s term, more dynamism.
It took months for this to play out, but it became a thing on 20/20 and it got local news coverage, and what I find gratifying is that the move [toward using Stedman’s methods] hasn’t stopped. It’s now part of the EPA’s accepted model for pollution testing, to use remote sensing. It had an impact on pollution in a big way.
Jacob Sullum became an assistant editor in 1989; he is currently a senior editor.
Jacob Sullum: I started identifying in college as a classical liberal, picked up my first copy of reason after graduating, and saw this whole intellectual tradition of which I had been only somewhat aware. One of the best things about reason was that it gave me all these things to read. I hadn’t read any Rand, Hayek, Mises, or Bastiat. I started getting pointers about things to read in political philosophy and economics.
I thought the magazine was kind of crazy because it was very extreme. But the more I read, not just reason but things reason led me to, the more I started to see the thread of consistency. And consistency is good. You should be intellectually rigorous and have principles you apply consistently, regardless of your initial tastes or preferences.
Laws against private racial discrimination were hard for me to give up. But I didn’t have a problem with the idea that people should be allowed to say hateful things. It was the same general idea of letting people exercise freedom even if you don’t approve of what they do with it. Subsidies for space exploration were hard to give up, which seems ridiculous in retrospect because that should be pretty easy.
reason really changed the way I looked at things. That was an impressive accomplishment for a magazine. Whenever I worry about whether what I do has an impact, I think about how reason can have that kind of effect. You hear stories about people like John Stossel and Drew Carey, public figures who have a very broad reach, being persuaded by reason. It convinces me of the power of solid arguments, well-expressed, backed up by evidence.
Nick Gillespie became an assistant editor of reason in 1993 [Ed. note: Corrected from print edition]. He served as editor in chief from 2000 to 2007 and is currently in charge of reason.tv and reason.com.
Nick Gillespie: [On encountering reason while in college at Rutgers in the early 1980s] I think I had a moment of recognition similar to what transsexuals feel when they realize they are women trapped in men’s bodies. It spoke to what I felt or what I intuited about things. I had not been the type to read political magazines. I liked that it was contrarian. This was a triumph of the original ethos of the magazine: You always had a sense it was showing its math, giving enough support for its arguments that you could interrogate the argument even as you were being persuaded by it. In the first issue, Friedlander had that line about “logic not legends,” which is a shitty way to run a political movement—it’s death to widespread success—but absolutely the most interesting and appealing form of journalism.
Postrel: The problems I thought I faced at reason? The assumption that you are marginal and weird, and also an assumption that people know what you think in advance, that knowing you’re a libertarian they know everything important about you.
There is a tendency on the part of mainstream media reviewers in intellectual debate to not take libertarian ideas as seriously as they deserve to be treated, whether we are talking about taking reason seriously or taking Hayek seriously. Partly it’s not about ideology; it’s about social networks. That’s something I didn’t realize for a long time because I was young and innocent.
If I wanted to play in this world, the most important thing to have done was go to Harvard and been on The Crimson. It was always unique about our staff that we never minded where anyone went to college. Throughout my time at reason, the majority [of staff] went to big state schools.
Oliver: An example I recall of how reason was breaking into a more mainstream thing: I was watching Cinemax, one of those late-night films with Shannon Tweed. She played a psychiatrist. In a scene to demonstrate how brainy she was, she was carrying a couple of magazines, and the one on top was reason. That was the early ’90s.
Sullum: Virginia was very sweet on a personal level, but she was a bit scary as a boss, at least initially. She really is a warm person, but she could be withering with criticism. I remember things she wrote on my manuscripts from nearly 20 years ago. I wrote something about broadcast indecency and was trying to sum up Robert Bork’s view of the First Amendment. She wrote a comment to the effect that people who know anything about this subject will read this passage and think you’re an idiot.
Henderson: When I got [to D.C. as reason’s Washington editor in the early 1990s] I had to have a stock explanation as to what reason was when I called a congressional office. Within a couple of years I didn’t require the disclaimer when I talked to people. We also started getting higherprofile people to write for us, talk about us, and talk to us.
Sullum: I left reason for a while to work at National Review. My wife, Michele, had to go to New York to finish her education, and at the time no one thought you could continue to work for a magazine even if you weren’t in the same city as the rest of the staff.
I applied at The Wall Street Journal and Commentary, believe it or not. National Review asked my views on immigration. I said if people want to come here and work or live and others want to hire or rent to them, they should be able to do that. At bottom what [then–National Review Editor John O’Sullivan] worried about is that the country would not look the same. But I don’t know how you can be for free markets and not be for free movement of labor.
I got that job, and the people at NR did have a lot of libertarian leanings, more so than the folks at Commentary. We agreed on nanny state issues and drug policy, among other things. NR was one of the few conservative voices not just critical of the War on Drugs but against the War on Drugs. At the time [the mid-’90s] we didn’t have the Iraq war, didn’t have all the issues related to anti-terrorism policies to divide us.
Gillespie: I assumed I had blown the job interview when I talked to Bill Eggers [then a Reason Foundation policy analyst], and he had a picture on his desk of this young kid, and I asked, “Is that your daughter?” It was actually Toph [Eggers, his younger brother, star of the popular memoir by Bill’s brother Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius].
Oliver: I started doing “Brickbats” while on staff and have continued to do it ever since. It always surprised me with that little feature, how much attention it gets. Every month after it comes out I’d get calls, Forbes picked a lot of them up, calls from George Will, TV stations. I still get emails from people asking, “Is that true?” Now online, with links, I don’t have to mail clips to people anymore.
The Modern Era
Collins: Between when I was working there and today, those ideas Bob had have become so engrained in our society and the way people think. Even though reason was never huge, I think that way of thinking has permeated society. We [she and her husband, former reason staffer Craig Collins] have so many friends who think they are Democrats, but they are libertarians. They don’t say they are libertarians, because they think it means something other than what they believe—cold-hearted persons who hate people on welfare—but libertarian ideas are what they think. Those ideas are part of our society now.
Gillespie: On the bloody path to the top of the masthead, two stories were important. I wrote about overhyped risks to kids and how when you looked with any kind of historical context, everything had gotten so much better in the past 20, 30 years. [“Child-Proofing the World,” June 1997.] That was not an understood point then, but it got a huge response, got ripped off by The Weekly Standard; I did a National Public Radio bit. I got a sense that our viewpoint, a reality-based viewpoint, was actually on the cusp of winning. It hipped me to the idea that we were in what Wired was calling the “long boom” and people were starting to get it; we were leaving the millenarian darkness behind.
Another important piece came out a couple of years later, on cultural proliferation. [“All Culture, All the Time,” April 1999.] I set it up by playing off all the cultural pessimists saying our culture was degraded and limited. With literally an hour’s worth of research I was able to show that’s completely wrong; what was seen as a Dark Age of American culture was really a massive expansion of cultural products and the ability of people to opt out of the mainstream and opt in to whatever they wanted, and that this was all hugely liberatory. That story still gets comments, and it made me think that we had made it on a certain level, we had turned a corner, and I think that still holds up, even post-9/11.
Even in economics, things have been getting better in most ways. I certainly remembered how things had opened up with changes like trucking deregulation, the difference between being able to shop on Sundays and not. But strangely that kind of optimism actually alienated some people, even though they’d acknowledge that their individual circumstances were better, they had this gnawing dread that the clampdown is coming.
The optimism that’s part of my worldview and that of the magazine comes from a deep appreciation that freedom wins, but it can win faster or slower. For example, the Communications Decency Act in ’96 would have choked off the Internet, turned it into a fourth broadcast network subject to bullshit regulation, with the cooperation of both Democrats and Republicans. If courts hadn’t struck that down, we’d be in a much shittier place—but it would still be better than if there wasn’t an Internet.
Postrel: I would say that things improved from '89 to '99. reason became much more visible, the staff became more visible, but ultimately I don’t think I succeeded. I succeeded in putting together a good staff and a good magazine and doing interesting journalism and in a few issues having an effect on what happened in the world. But I don’t think reason during my tenure ever made it into the short list of serious magazines that people take seriously, and the easiest piece of evidence is when The Future and Its Enemies [her first book] was not reviewed in The New York Times or TheWashington Post.
Gillespie: When I took over there was this explosion not only of alt media but “alternativeness” in American culture, and everything about individuation and proliferation was big. reason was able to reconnect with an earlier sense of being alternative in a world where being alternative was the baseline condition. As a result we got great props from publications like National Journal, The Washington Post—the same way everyone wanted to be a WASP 50 years ago, now everyone wanted to be alternative, and libertarianism brought something new and fun to the table, not burdened by the historical stupidities of the left or the mean-spirited small-mindedness of the right. It offered this open-ended vision of the future.
Another sign that we were reaching people on a higher level, an experience that was both exhilarating and dispiriting, was at the American Enterprise Institute dinner in 2001. I went to introduce myself to Karl Rove, but before I could finish saying my name he said, “You’re with reason. I read it all the time. I just sent in my change of address card to Mt. Morris, Illinois.”
I thought it was great to have the ear of this guy who was a main adviser in a new administration that promised to cut the size and scope of government and push a humble foreign policy. For a while I was thinking it was cool that what we were writing was read at the highest levels of power. Then I realized early on in the administration that either Rove stopped reading reason or he didn’t understand what we were saying.
Machan: Essentially we embarked on a Commentary-like magazine that turned out to be more of a Wired-like magazine. I now call it the hip-hop magazine of libertarianism. It has an emphasis on a certain kind of light-hearted cleverness that didn’t use to be there. I admit it may very well have been market-driven. It’s one thing to say I am displeased, another to say it shouldn’t have gone that way.
Klausner: reason has evolved. It has gotten far greater stature and impact and quality. But what we have shed that makes me a little uneasy is that the magazine is less movement-oriented. We covered the Harry Browne [Libertarian Party presidential] candidacy [in 1996]. The nonlibertarian press covered Harry Browne with far more sympathetic and supportive journalism than we did. I think treating the L.P. as if it were any other party is not fair to this, not embryonic, but undercapitalized party. I think as an ideological magazine we should know who our friends are and who our enemies are and not use the same standard. We should be respectful of people on our side of the debate. We can accentuate the positive.
Machan: The only regret I have is I was eventually cast aside by the Nick Gillespie crowd completely, so they didn’t even review any books of mine, ran no letters to the editor. I thought some personnel became what I refer to as the “loft crowd”—the people who like loft parties and always dressed Hollywood-like. There was a big change in style.
Matt Welch was a staff writer from 2004 to 2005, then became editor in chief in 2008.
Matt Welch: When I wrote my book about John McCain [McCain: The Myth of a Maverick], I was still working at the Los Angeles Times. But the news organization I praised effusively in the first paragraph of the book was reason, for being the best and most consistently interesting political magazine out there. And I think that even more now that I’m back!
As I was planning my return to reason, I was also in a position to be offered a job being op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times, and that offer did happen a few months later. When I announced to my colleagues at the Times that reason had offered me a job as editor in chief, unanimously, everyone said: “That’s great! You should go.”
That’s a great sign of how far the magazine has progressed, in terms of quality of course, but also reputationally. Media professionals recognized that it’s better to be editor of reason than op-ed editor of a major U.S. newspaper. That’s something you couldn’t say in 1968. I think it’s a real testament to the ethos of Nick Gillespie in large part and also to the staff of weirdos that he and Virginia Postrel assembled over the past two decades.
Poole: What we’ve done with the magazine and with the Reason Foundation was directly inspired by Tibor and me being really energized by reading Rand at an early age. And Rand’s vision that you have to change the minds before you can change the policies was a big part of the animating vision for why we thought a magazine that promoted individualism and liberty and the ideas of the Enlightenment in a modern and hip way would be a vehicle for that kind of change—changing minds first, thus laying the preconditions for political change.
My views are modified by our success in the political arena. I learned you don’t have to convert everyone to being libertarians to get important free market changes implemented. I think our ideas are better than centralized, collectivist ideas, and to the extent that’s true and we can demonstrate it, people don’t have to buy the whole package. We’ve seen successes in selling things like road pricing, privatization, on the terms that they offer real benefits and people can adopt them without sharing our views on other things. But it takes a combination; it’s still important to do that sort of mind changing, but you don’t have to change the whole culture to make a positive difference.
I’m surprised how many people quietly tell me, “I’m really libertarian; I love that magazine of yours.” It’s also definitely true I encounter lots of people in the policy world who know the magazine and read it but don’t think of themselves as libertarians. Part of the measure of our success is we can reach people even if they don’t buy the whole package.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs).