Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

reason founder Lanny Friedlander, 1947-2011


Lanny Friedlander, who founded reason as a student at Boston University in 1968, died in March at the age of 63. All of us at the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit organization that grew out of the magazine, extend our condolences to his family. Our debt and gratitude to Lanny can never be repaid, but we hope that our efforts at moving the world toward peace and prosperity honor his memory. 

Here's the strangest thing: Nobody currently working at the magazine ever met him. It's been that way for a long time. Virginia Postrel, editor of reason from 1989 until 2000, told me not only that she had never met him but that during her time at the magazine folks didn't even know if he was still alive.

When I began working at reason in late 1993, I asked about this Friedlander guy who'd gotten the ball rolling, whose name was all over the early issues, right there at the top of the mast. Lacking money and business sense but possessing great design chops, Lanny sold the magazine in 1971 to a trio of early contributors: Robert Poole, Manny Klausner, and Tibor Machan. He moved to New York, worked with design legend Massimo Vignelli, and continued to work with reason for a year or two.

Then began a long, familiar downward spiral: mental problems, substance problems, health problems, money problems. Contact became sporadic and then stopped altogether. In the absence of an official story, I started thinking of Lanny as libertarianism's answer to Syd Barrett, the mad genius founder of Pink Floyd who got something great started and then couldn't or wouldn't live in the world he did so much to create. Shine on, you crazy anti-draft, anti-tax diamond, wish you were here.

When we opened our D.C. offices a few years ago, I hunted around for a picture of Lanny to put on the wall—libertarians aren't much for shrines to fearless leaders, but come on—and nobody in the organization could find one. The only one I'd ever seen was a blurry black-and-white snapshot that had captured him sometime in the late 1960s or early '70s, wearing period chunky glasses, wind flapping around what looked to be a comb-over in the making. Even that photo had disappeared. Had he ever really existed in the first place?

Yes, and his legacy hasn't disappeared, whether in terms of magazine design or the world of ideas. One of his earliest admirers was Louis Rossetto, co-founder of Wired, the publication that not only redefined what magazines should look, feel, and even smell like back in the '90s but reshaped our dreams of what the future could be. Louis was a student at Columbia when he first encountered reason and Lanny.

Not long after that meeting, Louis and his compadre Stan Lehr published "The New Right Credo—Libertarianism" in The New York Times Magazine. Here's how it ends: "John F. Kennedy, one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties, is remembered for his famous line, 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' Today, more and more young people are instead following the advice of David Friedman: 'Ask not what government can do for you…ask rather what government is doing to you.' When Friedman's remark is as widely known and as enthusiastically received as Kennedy's, the libertarian movement will be well on its way toward the liberation of the United States."

That piece not only helped create a still continuing cycle of stories about how libertarianism is poised to become the hot new ideology of the young and beautiful; it foreshadowed Louis' later, better-remembered pronouncements at Wired about how the "digital revolution" was about to whip through the world with the force of a "Bengali typhoon." Louis says reason was his "gateway to good design, and a refreshing step beyond theory by showing how 'free markets and free minds' were relevant to the disruptive events taking place around me. And hell, it was just cool. Weird to say, but for a while when I was a college sophomore, I just wanted to be Lanny. Probably why I got involved in [the libertarian zine] The Abolitionist. So in some ways, he sent me on one of the grand adventures in my life."

Nearly 20 years after it first hit the stands, you still see Wired's design DNA in virtually every publi-cation out there. Which means there is some Lanny code recombining on the page. 

At reason, we are 40-plus years on from Lanny's pronouncement that we would, as he wrote in a gloriously typo-ridden mimeographed first issue, trade in "logic, not legends," "coherance, not contradictions." This, he thundered as loudly as you can thunder in the fuzzy purplish ink of mimeo, "is the reason for REASON."

We've come a long way in terms of circulation, visibility, and prestige. Our opinions are not merely tolerated on the nation's yak shows and op-ed pages but actively solicited. Free minds and free markets are no longer fringe, even if they are everywhere in damned short supply. Libertarian is an increasingly important signifier, both to people who agree with our ideas and people who are scared as hell of a world where freedom rules.

I wish that Lanny could have enjoyed it more while he was here, and I wish to hell that he would be with us as the future unfolds. With help from longtime reader and supporter Bob Smiley, we reconnected with Lanny not long ago and started sending him reason at the Veterans Administration facilities at which he was living. (Ardently anti-draft, he had nonetheless served in the Navy.)

As it happens, reason's longtime science correspondent, Ronald Bailey, received a note from Lanny just last December. Ron had written one of his casually brilliant pieces about how advances in genomics are lengthening and improving our lives. You can see Lanny's note below. 

To witness a short-termer writing about "the prospects of immortality in the foreseeable future" is heartbreaking enough. But there is a universe of pain and fear and hope and pride encoded in that postscript that is too vast and boundless to process.

Lanny, we may have never known you, but we will surely never forget you. You not only are with the magicians now; you were one of them all along.