Interview with Robert W. Poole, Jr.

On REASON's 15th anniversary, the editor-in-chief reminisces and ruminates


Perhaps the fact about Editor-in-Chief Bob Poole that most amuses the REASON staff is his hobby—model railroading. At Poole's home, an intricate miniature railroad dominates his spacious garage, and his excitement in explaining the layout often reaches delightful highs.

It is the utter lightness of Poole's hobby that so amuses his coworkers. This is not expected from a man whose professional energies they see indefatigably directed toward an enormously serious cause—promoting freedom in a world often hostile to that ideal.

It was while Poole was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned two engineering degrees, that he became profoundly interested in the cause of liberty. His initial involvement with REASON was as a contributor of articles. About his first, "Fly the Frenzied Skies," in September 1969, Poole has been heard to report: "It was such a gas seeing something of mine in print—I knew I was hooked on journalism."

In 1970 Poole, along with five others—including present senior editors Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan—purchased REASON from its creator, Lanny Friedlander. Poole became one of the magazine's editors and its general manager, and it was largely his efforts that for many years kept the issues coming out every month—working evenings and weekends as he pursued a career.

After a two-year stint as a weapons-systems analyst, Poole had taken a position in 1970 with a Santa Barbara think tank, where he analyzed criminal-justice systems. In 1975 he became an independent consultant in the field of public-services administration. Three years later, Poole gave up this career to devote himself exclusively to REASON's editorship and to direction of the newly created Reason Foundation.

We asked Boston-based writer and radio personality David Brudnoy to interview Bob Poole.

BRUDNOY: Why did you start REASON magazine?

POOLE: Well, actually I didn't start it. Several other people and I took it over after it had been going for about two and a half years. We got involved to have a national journal with basically libertarian ideas in it, helping to shape the nature of debate on public issues.

BRUDNOY: Yet the magazine has readers beyond the libertarian community. In fact, the majority must be nonlibertarians. What balance do you try to achieve between them?

POOLE: We try to aim almost all of the magazine's material at intelligent readers, whatever their political or ideological connections. What we set out to achieve, and what we think we are starting to achieve, is influencing the kind of issues that matter and fostering specific ideas that are brought to bear on them. If we were talking only to people firmly committed to a free market and individual liberties, that wouldn't really accomplish the purpose.

BRUDNOY: Has the growth in REASON's circulation fulfilled your expectations?

POOLE: Being now in the thirty thousands after 15 years doesn't indicate phenomenal growth. I remember when Tibor Machan and I wrote our original business plan, we had in mind something like fifty or sixty thousand subscribers after three years! Well, we were rather naive. Actually, we had no idea what people normally have in start-up capital when they begin a magazine—typically two to three million dollars. We had on hand a grand total of fifteen hundred dollars.

BRUDNOY: Still, given the resources and knowing what you know now about publishing, it's not an unreasonable—no pun intended—success rate.

POOLE: I think it's something. I'm pretty proud of what we've done—especially since 90 percent of new magazines fail within a few years, and most are started by people who know what they're doing. We were rank amateurs. None of us had even been editor of a school newspaper before! So the fact that we survived at all, let alone grew from 400 subscribers in 1970 to some 35,000 today, is no small achievement.

BRUDNOY: How does REASON conform today to what it was designed to do back when Reason Enterprises was formed in 1970?

POOLE: Pretty well, actually. In the first half dozen or so years of our running the magazine, it wasn't close to what we'd said we wanted—not at all. It was primarily a magazine aimed at libertarians, although we'd said we wanted to create a national magazine that would be taken seriously, like the New Republic and the Nation and National Review, And in the last few years that's started to be the case. Articles are reprinted; authors are quoted; some of our stories make the news. So we are entering into that mainstream.

BRUDNOY: What obstacles stand in the way of accomplishing your goals—I mean aside from financial obstacles?

POOLE: There really aren't any, except, as is obvious, financial obstacles. Though I should mention that we may face a bias against some issues that we think are interesting but that mainstream media outlets prefer to ignore. Here's an example: We did an important exposé of misuse of federal grant money by Cesar Chavez's union, and the major newspaper west of the Mississippi absolutely ignored that story. Wire services picked it up and NBC News did 20 minutes on it, but as far as the Los Angeles Times was concerned, the matter didn't exist. Their labor writer is and always has been pro-Chavez, and there was just no way that the LA Times would cover our story.

BRUDNOY: In the matter of civil liberties, it seems that there is an overlap between REASON and, say, the New Republic, whereas with National Review we seem to get much more censorious views. Maybe if you took the economic views of National Review and the social views of the New Republic, you'd have REASON?

POOLE: I think REASON goes a good bit farther toward laissez faire than NR. Our economic views are similar but certainly not identical.

BRUDNOY: Do you find the neoauthoritarians—I guess they'd rather be called the neoconservatives—congenial to REASON? Does that strand of thought make much sense to you?

POOLE: Well, maybe I'm naively optimistic, but I find myself agreeing with quite a number of things that, say, Irving Kristol writes, though of course not his views on censorship. Still, I find the development of neoconservativism a positive thing. Not because I agree with everything they say. Just the fact that former socialists have come to their senses. They're very bright people, and 30 years ago they and people like them helped form the welfare state. Now they have changed their minds, and they're allies in opposing collectivism.

BRUDNOY: Recently REASON published an interview with Kristol, and the question of censorship came up. He did his usual routine, which we've seen in the New York Times and everywhere else. Did you get letters from readers shrieking that you shouldn't publish that nasty authoritarian's views?

POOLE: Sure, and of course I expected some. Some people think that if we publish an interview, we thereby take the interview subject as a hero. But they'll be finding more such interviews in the future.

BRUDNOY: Why not promote the views of those who are closer to most of us within the free-market, individual liberties framework?

POOLE: Good question. But I think the answer is that there are some people who are significant enough on the intellectual scene and who some people, seeing only some of their writings, may think, "Oh, these people are on our side." And getting into a discussion with such people on a whole range of issues can be illuminating. And in fact, in addition to those critical letters, we also got a number saying that we'd done a service by demonstrating through the interview that Kristol is a far cry from being a libertarian.

BRUDNOY: Does REASON have some special ingredient giving it a competitive edge?

POOLE: I think so, though I'm not unbiased. We do have a competitive edge in that we have a consistent record of coming up with new ideas that haven't appeared anywhere else—unsuspected, exciting applications of free-market ideas to new situations, like fire and police protection, for example; innovative examples of people doing things for themselves through voluntary self-help organizations. These are things that most people assume can only be done through state coercion. We don't just play around with ideas abstractly, but we actually try to find practical applications that haven't been worked out before.

BRUDNOY: Who has influenced you most in your philosophic and political development?

POOLE: It practically started with Ayn Rand, in my case. My conversion from conservativism to libertarianism came about largely by reading Atlas Shrugged when I was in college. The majority of the active people I met while working for Goldwater in '64 at MIT were libertarians and Objectivists, and we'd get into endless philosophical arguments long into the night. Most of that ended up inconclusively, of course, except that people kept saying: read Rand. And I did, and it caused a major rethinking on my part. My real attraction to the conservative viewpoint right from the start was laissez-faire economic theory, so it was a case of junking a lot of excess baggage that seemed to come packaged with conservatism—all sorts of repressive social views and an exaggerated anticommunism that appeared to justify supporting dictatorships so long as they weren't communist. So throwing overboard a lot of that sort of stuff and focusing on liberty were the major changes that occurred in my thinking.

Within the next year or two I read Hayek's Road to Serfdom, and that was terribly important in helping me see the political ramifications of attempts to control and plan an economy centrally. Politically, that sort of thing leads to dictatorship, because each control builds more of them and builds incentives for the worst people to rise to the top. So Hayek was also a crucial influence on my thinking. So were other free-market economists, and Herbert Spencer, particularly his Man versus the State, which struck me as if it could have been written yesterday instead of 80 years ago.

BRUDNOY: How about some of the people involved with the magazine—did you read any of their writings before becoming colleagues?

POOLE: Not really, no. I had pretty much adopted all the major values I now hold and worked out general applications of them before reading any of (Murray) Rothbard or (Tibor) Machan or others who now write for REASON. I think Tibor's writings in philosophy, which I started reading only after meeting him, were pretty important in my development, making me take theoretical ideas and underlying philosophical ideas much more seriously. Rand primed me for that, but I had never really known a philosopher actually to play with ideas and draw all the connections out and apply them to specific circumstances as they came up. That was a fruitful experience.

BRUDNOY: From your perspective, is the Reagan presidency a negative or a positive?

POOLE: I was initially excited about Reagan's election, partly because I remembered that when we interviewed him in '75 he talked with a certain ease about libertarian ideas, and it seemed clear that at least on a commonsense level he did understand those ideas and genuinely believed them and wanted to make public policy decisions based on them. And then, when I saw a number of people who were either libertarians or pretty solid free-market conservatives go to work for the Reagan administration, I had a period of high hopes that we might actually see a scaled-down version of a libertarian presence in Washington, dismantling major chunks of government.

BRUDNOY: Inquiry seems to have done the best in showing that Reagan is no friend of liberty or of genuine budget cutting. Why haven't we seen in REASON a hard-hitting, validated, close, and shrewd look at the Reagan years?

POOLE: That's a fair question. I think probably it stems from my friendship with quite a number of people who had or still have jobs in the administration and from the idea that it might be wiser, at least in the first two years, to give more of the benefit of the doubt and to encourage the positive tendencies when they were so much under attack from people who fundamentally disagreed even with the best parts of Reagan's agenda. In other words, maybe we could help get more accomplished by trying to counteract that climate of hysteria whipped up by the liberals.

BRUDNOY: Are the advocates of liberty losing good young men and women because we aren't exciting enough?

POOLE: I don't think so. But it's hard to measure things that aren't there as opposed to things that are. In general, I'm reasonably optimistic. One reason is that in the time I have considered myself a libertarian, which is now probably 17 or 18 years, there's been a tremendous change in the textbooks, the professors, and the students in economics classes. The best-selling textbook when I was in school was Samuelson's—a Keynesian interventionist book, but it was year after year the top choice. It's not even in the top three any longer, and books that are much more favorable to free markets and skeptical of government intervention and control are now among the top sellers. Young economics professors whom I know have told me in effect that virtually everyone in economics today who's under 40 and doing good work is a free-market person. Now I'm sure there's exaggeration in that. There is a small group of Marxist economists that have their own organization called the Union of Radical Political Economists. But that's a remarkable statement even if it's exaggerated. And I think it is largely true.

I remember interviewing Sam Peltzman, who's one of the Chicago guys, when he was at UCLA in about 1971 for one of the very early REASON issues, and he had a sign in his door: The University of Chicago at Los Angeles. And in those days UCLA was sort of the first seed planted from Chicago, but that's no longer true. All over the country there are schools where the Chicago or other offshoots of the basically free-market anti-intervention viewpoint is a dominant view. University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, Emory, Miami, VPI, George Mason—you just keep on counting them up. It's really amazing what's happened.

BRUDNOY: Are you pleased in general about the rigor of thought among younger thinkers who are coming up? Are they first-rate compared to the younger liberal and conservative thinkers? We don't have a columnist. We don't have any of those glittery lights that are known throughout the nation because of television or the major journals. It may be because of bias in editors' and producers' decisions, or might it be because we are not as good?

POOLE: It might be because we are not as good. Although I have to say, we do have some talents that are getting a lot of exposure, like Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune is now syndicated. Walter Williams is another really good rising star who now has a syndicated column. In journalism there is a small but growing group of talented, bright people who can write well and think well. I wish there were more, and I hope through our magazine we can develop more of these. Tom Hazlett is another really sharp economics journalist who is coming along and getting a lot more exposure. Patrick Cox is another one. In philosophy, too, there is quite a good group of young—meaning, in this case, under 40—thinkers and writers. The rest of the world basically knows only Robert Nozick, but there are a dozen or more under-40 philosophers who are libertarian—people like Eric Mack and Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen, all of whom have written in REASON over the years but who are also doing solid academic work. They're teaching in philosophy departments, publishing in journals, editing and writing books, and so forth. It's easy to overlook all this, because to the average person it's completely invisible, but I think this kind of thing is extremely important for the long term.

BRUDNOY: Deregulation is an area where those inclined toward liberty have done a lot of work—the Reason Foundation, for example, did the book Instead of Regulation—and where things are moving forward. Where else can libertarian thought currently impinge—with, that is, some chances of success?

POOLE: Well, besides deregulation, we're likely to get some interesting and good results with privatization—in the near term, too, because there are so many practical applications of those ideas that can be sold on their own terms, as improving the delivery of some kind of service and as money savers. Garbage collection, for example, and other forms of "cutting back city hall," to borrow a title from a book of mine; but also a great many things that the federal government does, including such biggies as Social Security. We reported in REASON a couple of years ago and have followed it up since then that Chile, of all places, had in large measure privatized its social security system. There are innumerable functions and services that are carried out by local, state, and federal government simply for reasons of historical accident or lack of imagination or belated technology. But knowing what we know now about how government operates, which we learned mostly in the last 20 years, and with the technologies we have available and with the fiscal pressures that are now facing government at all levels, people are beginning to agree that all kinds of things can be swept from the hands of the state into the private sector. And each one of those can be sold on a case-by-case basis, apart from any grand design of moving toward a free society.

BRUDNOY: Does this mean people will be absorbing one or more of a dozen libertarian views without necessarily seeing the connection between what they are doing and, should we say, the totality of a free society?

POOLE: They may not see all the connections, but—and Jim Davidson made this point many years ago in reviewing my first little booklet about privatization, called Cut Local Taxes—most average people, who aren't intellectuals, learn not from textbooks and from theory; they learn by everyday observation. If somebody sees that a private company does a better job of putting out fires than a government bureaucracy, that's the way they learn something, a lesson about the advantages of the private enterprise system versus the disadvantages of government. And if they see enough examples like that, eventually, with a little coaching from the side, from journals of opinion and think tank studies, they may start drawing general lessons. The lessons were always there to be drawn, but I don't think you effectively make significant change by teaching the general public the theory and expecting them to say, "Oh, now I see. Now we have this, this, this, and that." You teach them by example, by building up enough practical cases where they can walk down their street and see things being done in a better way—and with their freedom enhanced. Gradually, then, they can generalize and support perhaps other measures that would move us all further toward a free society.

BRUDNOY: Where are the advocates of liberty failing? Let me give you an example. The just-retired governor of Massachusetts, Edward J. King, proposed regulation of the cable TV industry to keep "dirty" movies off the air. He almost got a bill passed. Now the governor was responding with his gut reaction to something he personally considers offensive. I wonder if Ed King isn't much more typical of the American people than are you or I, who wouldn't try to tell Mrs. Jones what she can watch on cable TV.

POOLE: In general, libertarians and their intellectual allies, who tend to be mostly free-market economists, are doing a much better job in the economic arena than in the civil liberties or social arena. Unfortunately, I think there's very little fundamental respect in America today for the sanctity of the individual. People still give lip service to the idea, but so many people seem to be easily swayed by appeals to this or that supposedly higher value. Somehow it seems okay to them to do all kinds of things to coerce others in the name of making them conform to their own personal view of what is right. Perhaps we've been way too confident that the protections of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution are stronger than they may in fact be. Those depend very much on how the Supreme Court ends up interpreting them, and we know that depends on who's on the Supreme Court. I have to confess, myself, to having been a little more complacent than I should have been on these matters over the last decade, having seen legislatures and the courts throw out blue laws, laws against consenting sexual behavior, and most kinds of censorship, and the like. I assumed these battles had been won, but now I'm not nearly so sanguine.

BRUDNOY: Aren't we in danger of letting the social and personal issues fall by the wayside, to be taken over and done in by the New Right, while we spend all our energies pushing deregulation?

POOLE: This is one of the reasons we spend a certain proportion of our resources on the philosophical groundwork, focusing on human rights and trying to validate, at the level of fundamental first principles, the sovereignty of individual rights. We've tried to draw out the implications of this to establish a very firm, principled foundation under the basic liberties that we tend too often to take for granted. And the payoff of that is not in the next year or two but over the long run, as we convince the intellectual community that these aren't just arbitrary matters; they cannot simply be decided by a head count.

BRUDNOY: I wonder if we know how to apply the principles of liberty to the real world of foreign policy and military preparedness.

POOLE: That's the area where there's the greatest lack of solid work. We have editorialized about the failures of communism and about some of the absurdities that result from the US government trying to meddle in virtually everyone's affairs and trying to arrange outcomes everywhere in the world. But we haven't been working out the connection between the fundamental principles of liberty and foreign and military policy. That's the subject of the Reason Foundation's next book, I'm happy to say.

There are really three major problems. One is, How do you fund national defense if taxation is immoral? That is a big, huge problem. Second, what kind of overall foreign policy should the government of a free society have in terms of interacting with other nations—trade, diplomatic relations, threats of war, and so forth? A third question is, What actions are legitimate for a government of a free society in the name of national defense? Do you nuke the Kremlin? Do you threaten to wipe out whole populations? Do you have military bases overseas? Do you enter into military alliances? This is the area which the Reason Foundation's book addresses, which we expect will be out by the end of this year. And it does attempt to trace from first principles what is legitimate and what is not legitimate for a government of a free society to do in defending the territory and people of that society and to make applications to various aspects of military and defense policy, including whether you should have a CIA and if so, what it should do and what it should not do, and what do you do about naval forces, and should you have things in outer space that go zap, and so forth and so on. I think it's going to be a real major step in developing a legitimately libertarian defense policy.

BRUDNOY: What is the connection between REASON magazine and the Reason Foundation?

POOLE: Well, from the time the magazine was created in 1968 through the time when a group of us took it over in 1970 as a partnership and up until the middle of 1978, it was supposed to be a profit business venture. It had never made a profit, though, and there was no reasonable projection of it ever doing so—it was in this respect in good company among contemporary journals of opinion. Given that unpleasant fact, in 1977 I did some research and discovered that some magazines are published by nonprofit organizations. We decided that if we wanted this venture to survive and grow and to have any chance of having any serious resources committed to it, setting up a foundation was really the sensible thing to do. That way we could seek donations from individuals and grants from foundations and so forth and in addition, it dawned on us, there were a lot of other things that we could do as a foundation—conferences, books, research.

BRUDNOY: What have been your biggest disappointments thus far?

POOLE: Good question! For all the success the Reason Foundation has achieved with the magazine, I'd hoped that we would be getting much more recognition for our work by now. For example, I think Instead of Regulation is such a major contribution that I'm very disappointed that it's not been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, for instance. It's been well remarked upon but not widely reviewed, and that will delay the realization of its significance. I'm also disappointed that we don't have the 75 percent or 80 percent renewal rate that folklore tells us the New Yorker has. I'd like an intense reader dedication and loyalty, and so would every editor, but we get a renewal rate of only 55 percent, and that's not good enough.

BRUDNOY: What do you attribute this to?

POOLE: I just don't know. Maybe the avowedly libertarian element in the magazine is too much for general readers. Also, we've only fairly recently taken on a full-time art director, who's done a great job improving the look of the magazine, but our budget for art is still quite low, so we can't add color on the inside at this time, use photos liberally, pay better illustrators, and so on. But it will come. REASON's history has been one of steady growth and improvement. We're now working into newsstand distribution, and that's essential to gain credibility. Other journalists who want to know what we're doing have to be able to pick up REASON easily, and to get a certain type of intellectual attention we have to be readily available on college campuses. We have a ways to go.

BRUDNOY: Do you want to be doing this job, editing the magazine, when you become a senior libertarian living in the Libertarian Home for the Aged in San Juan, or wherever? Reading X-rated versions of Ayn Rand's books? I mean, seriously, will this job sustain you throughout your working life?

POOLE: Probably. Sometimes I joke with the staff, when they worry about where we'll get the money to meet the next payroll, that they'll likely have to cart me out in a box before I can be lured away to do something different. I mean, I have a really deep commitment to this organization and to the magazine. Nothing is more important for me to be doing. But I wish I had more staff. I have to be three people, and I wear too many hats to do as good a job with any of them as I'd like. At some point I may have to choose between being the foundation's president and the magazine's editor, though I'll probably be one or the other for a long, long time. Everybody takes it for granted that I'm the maniac who's going to stick through it, thick or thin.