1968–1988–2008: Things Are a Lot Groovier Now

Some people miss the good old '60s. Our publisher isn't one of them.


It was 20 years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught his band to play.

The year of REASON's founding was a year of violence. It was the height of the Vietnam war, the war that defeated Lyndon Johnson. That summer Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, stamping out the glasnost and perestroika of Alexander Dubcek. Both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were cut down by assassins' bullets. Across the country, students protested the war and were often attacked by the police, most notably during demonstrations outside the Democratic Party convention in Mayor Daley's Chicago. On some campuses, student radicals called strikes and occupied campus administration buildings, protesting not just the war but the "system"—the university, government, capitalism, whatever.

It was the campus violence, in particular, that motivated a Boston University journalism student named Lanny Friedlander to create a mimeographed little magazine. Inspired by the writings of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand and seeking to uphold the standards of learning and rationality proper to a university—and the freedom of thought and action on which they are based—he called the publication REASON. Rather than simply criticizing the actions of SDS and its allies, he took aim at their principles. While opposing the war and the draft and the corporate state, REASON raised the banner of individualism in opposition to SDS collectivism, of free markets in opposition to SDS socialism. Neither left-wing nor right-wing, REASON was, presciently, libertarian.

What a difference 20 years makes, even in the everyday accouterments of life. In 1968 you could still get in trouble for hooking up a "foreign attachment"—like an answering machine or a designer extension—to your phone line. There was, of course, only one long-distance telephone company, and if you didn't like what Ma Bell provided, tough. Believe it or not, cable TV was banned in the largest 200 cities (to "protect" broadcast TV, of course). And if you had a package that had to be somewhere by the next day, uh, forget it.

Self-service gas stations were illegal in most places (fire hazard, you know). The typical car got about 12 miles per gallon and was made in Detroit. It had sloppy steering, soft suspension, and bias-ply tires that wore out after 12,000 miles. Sure, there were a lot of little VW beetles around, and a few of those funny looking little Toyotas and Datsuns—but mostly in weirdo California. Hondas were motorbikes ("You meet the nicest people on a Honda"), not yuppie sedans. And BMWs were nowhere to be found.

If you wanted cash, you had to go to a branch of your bank (between 10:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. on weekdays) and stand in line for a teller; no 24-hour ATMs on the street corner. (And if you were in another state, forget about getting cash, Charlie.) Unless you had $10,000 to purchase T-bills, the most you could earn on your savings was 5 percent or so in a savings account; money-market funds hadn't been invented yet, and banks were forbidden to offer higher rates on CDs.

To travel long distance, you could choose between two (or sometimes three) airlines. You asked your travel agent what the price was—not what discount fares were available but simply the price, the one set by the government. The roundtrip coach fare from New York to Los Angeles was $948 in today's dollars.

Numerous personal freedoms that we take for granted were very tenuous in 1968. Unmarried couples staying in hotels had to pretend they were married—sex between consenting adults was still illegal in numerous states. In many states, including Massachusetts, you could get arrested for displaying contraceptives or advocating their use. Condoms were kept beneath the counter in drugstores, not advertised on billboards.

Erotic films were just beginning to be tolerated in polite society, helped along by the introduction of the movie rating system. But there was nothing like today's VCR/videocassette smorgasbord. Homosexuals were known to exist but were not discussed in public. Most of them lived in fear of exposure, harassment, and the loss of their jobs.

The revolution in women's roles was only just beginning in 1968. Women still constituted only a few percent of the students majoring in engineering, law, business, and medicine. The sexual double standard prevailed, though the Pill would soon put women on a more equal footing with men.

Hanging over the life of every young man was the specter of the draft. It's difficult to convey the extent to which one's local draft board was feared for its life-and-death power.

The maximum rate of income tax was 70 percent, compared with 28 percent now; and the IRS was no less fearsome than it is today. It was illegal to own gold—that's right, illegal.

If you were a doctor or a lawyer in 1968, it was illegal for you to advertise. There were no such things as legal clinics or prepaid legal services or doc-in-a-box storefront clinics or HMOs. Competing on price was not only "unethical" in these professions; it was grounds for legal action.

Internationally, pundits told us that the real threat was no longer the Soviet Union. No, the real danger was the Red Chinese; the movie version of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger was altered from the book to make the ultimate villain a Chicom, and subsequent Bond films dropped all mention of SMERSH, the Soviet terror organization that had been a key player in many of the books. Whether Soviet or Chinese, the march of communism seemed to many to be inevitable. The idea of mujaheddin going up against the Soviet army or of anti-Soviet freedom fighters in Angola was unthinkable.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara by 1968 had won the battle to make "mutual assured destruction" the basis of U.S. strategic policy, purposely dismantling this country's air defenses and forswearing defenses against ballistic missiles. Thus began 20 years with no defense but the threat of Armageddon.

In Europe, socialism was the dominant philosophy of government. Britain's Labour and Conservative parties alternated in power, with the Tories presiding over each new plateau of nationalized industries and the welfare state. The idea of "privatizing" state enterprises, especially utilities such as airports and telecoms, was unimaginable.

The idea of the Third World as an undifferentiated mass of underdeveloped countries, made poor by colonial exploitation, was the received wisdom, not just at the United Nations (which was still respected) but among most educated people. Taiwan, South Korea, and the other tigers of Southeast Asia were still poor; to have forecast that Hyundai would by 1988 be the best-selling import car would have marked one as loony.

To be sure, some things have gotten worse in the past 20 years. The federal government now consumes 25 percent of GNP instead of 21 percent. Social Security taxes have doubled. New regulatory agencies (OSHA, CPSC, EPA, EEOC) and new bureaucracies (both DOEs) have grown up among us. Rent control has made a comeback in some cities, and land-use controls have assumed dangerous proportions.

But the past 20 years have witnessed some profound gains for human freedom, thanks to the power of ideas and the liberating influence of new technologies. The next time a doom-and-gloom friend starts telling you how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, ask him if he'd really prefer the violent, constrained world of 1968. If so, he deserves it.

Robert W. Poole, Jr., one of the partners who published REASON from 1971 to 1978, is now publisher of REASON and president of the Reason Foundation.