Libertarian History/Philosophy

Dave Nolan, R.I.P.

Remembering the great libertarian activist and the man who inspired "the world's smallest political quiz"


Dave Nolan, who died on November 20, 2010, and I were classmates at MIT. We were part of a large contingent of budding libertarians on campus, running the MIT chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and then MIT Students for Goldwater, the largest college Goldwater organization in New England. Dave chaired that group, and I was its literature director. As part of our activism on behalf of Goldwater, most of us joined Massachusetts Young Republicans, and our numbers were sufficient at its annual convention to out-vote the traditionalists ("trads") and endorse Goldwater, rather than the detested Nelson Rockefeller.

Dave and I came to libertarianism by similar paths, growing up reading Robert Heinlein's individualist-oriented science fiction and then discovering Ayn Rand's writings. It was many discussions and debates with my MIT YAF friends that persuaded me to finally read Atlas Shrugged in the summer of '64, a summer during which I spent many evenings distributing Goldwater literature door-to-door in the Miami area where I grew up.

Dave was also active in student politics at MIT, running unsuccessfully for UAP—Undergraduate Activities President—and also bringing outside speakers to lecture on campus. One such speaker was Willis Stone, head of the Liberty Amendment Committee (which sought an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to repeal the income tax). While I never shared Dave's enthusiasm for the viability of this cause, it was Stone's MIT lecture that planted in me the seed of privatization (since that was part of Stone's idea for downsizing the federal government).

After graduation, Dave went into the advertising business in Denver, and it was in Denver that he introduced what will be his two legacy contributions to the cause of liberty: the Nolan Chart and the Libertarian Party.

Dave introduced the former in a January 1971 article in The Individualist, the magazine of the Society for Individual Liberty (and an early competitor of Reason magazine). The basic idea was to discredit the typical left-to-right political spectrum as leaving no room for the libertarian position. Instead of a straight line, engineer Dave introduced a two-dimensional chart, with economic freedom on one axis and individual liberty on the other. The chart made it easy to see how liberals, conservatives, populists, and libertarians compared, and was a true breakthrough that reshaped political analysis, polling, and news reporting, helping to introduce "libertarian" as a distinct political position.

As is generally well-known, Dave and some friends created the Libertarian Party in his Denver living room in 1971, in disgusted reaction to President Richard Nixon's imposition of wage and price controls. I was sufficiently skeptical of the viability of a third party that I declined to attend the subsequent founding convention in Denver, which nominated USC philosophy professor John Hospers as its 1972 presidential candidate. After the miniscule Hospers candidacy made history by getting one electoral vote (cast by renegade Virginia elector Roger MacBride), I joined up, and actively participated in LP conventions, even serving one year on the national platform committee.

By the mid-1980s, however, I had pretty much given up on the third-party model as a viable approach toward bringing about a freer America. I remained good friends with Dave, despite our ongoing disagreement about the Libertarian Party. He stayed with my wife, Lou Villadsen, and me in Los Angeles in the late 1980s while checking out Southern California as a place to live, and once he and Elizabeth were settled in Orange County, we enjoyed visiting, talking politics and philosophy just as we had during our student days.

Dave and Elizabeth bailed out of Southern California around the same time Lou and I did, early this decade. We'd hoped to visit them in Tucson, a place I'd only stopped in overnight on my original move to California in 1970. Alas, that visit cannot happen.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at the Reason Foundation. He is a former editor of Reason magazine and a trustee of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website. He lives in Florida.

NEXT: Abandon Medicaid, All Ye Who Enter Here?

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  1. No no NOOO…

  2. The Nolan Chart is a fantastic tool in getting people to think about what they believe vs. what they vote. R.I.P.

  3. Bob, you and Dave were true intellectual pioneers.

  4. Glad I got to meet him before he passed at the Libertarian Election Night Party a few weeks ago on the 2nd. R.I.P.

  5. Wow. So few comments for such a great man?

    I will miss his stentorian voice waging Liberty from the floor of the National Conventions.

    Never met him directly, I am too much of a sidelines-slacker for that, but all those I know that did meet him, liked and respected him.

  6. Bob,
    I’m sorry for your–and our–loss.

  7. I told him he’d make a good stage actor. Great range of expression, excellent voice.

  8. That is more, and more positive, information than I had ever read about Mr. Nolan, whom I met briefly at various Libertarian Party functions in the early and mid 80s.

    I never spoke with Mr. Nolan, though I believe he gave me the evil eye at events when I was in my early 20s. He was part of the anti-“Craniac”/anti-“Kochtopus” faction of the party and I had a sort of attenuated affiliation by employment and by marriage with “the Kochtopus.”

    No one can deny the accomplishments of founding the LP or creating the Quiz, but at the same time I think that the coalition of Crane critics with whom Nolan was associated (in the libertarian public’s mind) were partially responsible for the stultification of the Libertarian Party, and perhaps the movement, in the 80s and 90s.

    This coalition, led by Murray Rothbard in his Viet Cong loving dotage, led an insurrection against anyone affiliated with Ed Crane and Charles and David Koch for control of the Libertarian Party in the mid-80s. Seemingly just because even though they were founders or prolific writers (and their graduate student groupies), they had attracted greater talents who were displacing them in organizing libertarian groups and activities. Many think that is when the growth of the LP was stunted for decades, as the people smeared and forced out went on to found, fund, and expand the CATO Institute, CEI, Americans for Prosperity and a myriad of other libertarian and tea party groups.

    For samples of the Rothbard coalitions invective one can look through the early 80s issues of his “Libertarian Forum,” archived as PDFs at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Googling my name, somewhat surprisingly, will pull up several articles with some of the most rabid anti-Crane/Koch invective (in long lists of people to be sent to the guillotine come the Rothbard revolution — where I am usually an asterisk).

  9. It’s also interesting that Mr. Nolan, like most of us who became libertarians in the 60s or 70s, usually began “with Ayn Rand.”

    In one of the more orthodox Objectivist blogs, his two dimensional graph is used, somewhat ridiculously, as proof of the lack of conceptual foundation of libertarianism (which the critic asserts is based on a doodle):…..rtarianism

  10. Even dead he is a better senate canditate than John Mccain.

  11. I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Nolan as a fledgling libtertarian coming from YAF Orange County as well. I never realized what a giant he was. The world is a poorer place now that he’s gone. RIP.

  12. People aren’t posting because they don’t know what to say.

    A generation of greatness is passing. It is for we the living to carry on the work of those who came before.

  13. I never realized Nolan (or Poole) went to MIT. I went there 1978-1982 and found out about libertarianiasm (and Reason magazine) from a an alternative student newspaper (not the official student newspaper) called Ergo or something, published by someone named Steve Wright or something like that. Does anyone know if there a connection between that newspaper and Nolan/Poole?

  14. Dave Nolan and I were friends as well as adversaries in the “Libertarian” Party during the period 1974-75. At the time I was a delegate to the national party’s conventions in Cleveland in 1974 and in Dallas in 1975. While Dave and I agreed on the principle of the non-initiation of force, we differed on what it meant in practical terms. He was a minarchist and the ultimate partyarch. I was and still am a free market anarchist. We disagreed on the legitimacy of the “Libertarian” Party. After having said all this, I must say that I respected him greatly and was very sorry that we lost touch with each other. His death should be a great loss to libertarians and radical libertarians everywhere. He certainly died much too young.
    Ken Kalcheim

  15. I got my first real Ayn Rand
    Bought it at the bookstore
    Read it ’till my fingers bled
    Was the summer of 64

    Me and some guys from grad school
    Had a party and we tried real hard
    Jimmy quit and Joey got married
    Shoulda known we’d never get far

  16. The Nolan Chart has been a big influence on me. It is what led me to Reason.

    However over some time I have developed some uneasiness with the Chart.

    It has removed some questions such as:

    “Let peaceful people cross borders freely.” and “Minimum wage laws cause unemployment. Repeal them.”

    Does that mean that David Nolan (and whoever maintains the Nolan Chart nowadays) believed that pushing such libertarian truisms regarding the minimum wage and migration makes it harder to convince others of the virtues of libertarianism?

    How about rephrasing questions such as “Businesses and farms should operate without government subsidies” to “End ‘corporate welfare.’ No government handouts to business.”?

    Does that mean that the cause of getting rid of farm subsidies dead on arrival?

  17. Dave Nolan was a great thinker and his efforts did make a difference.
    Thank you for posting the link to his bio. I had not seen that before.
    Best regards,

    Nolan the stucco guy

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