Reason: An Oral History, 1968-2018

As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, listen to and read interviews with the editors of the magazine of "Free Minds and Free Markets."


Today in Los Angeles, Reason is celebrating its 50th anniversary with "a day-long, day-glo" celebration that includes panels, lunch, dinner, conversation and, among other presentations, the debut of a new song by Remy, our resident musical parodist.

Over the past year, we recorded podcasts with seven of the eight living editors in chief of the print magazine: Robert W. Poole, Manny Klausner, Marty Zupan, Virginia Postrel, Matt Welch, Katherine Mangu-Ward, and me. Here they are, arranged in order of editorial tenure. Together, these interviews tell the story of Reason and and the past half-century from a uniquely libertarian perspective.

"Libertarianism" says Robert W. Poole, is "about more than just economics and politics, it really is. It's about human flourishing and what are the conditions for human beings to have satisfying, flourishing [lives]."

Reason magazine was founded 50 years ago, in 1968, by Lanny Friedlander (1947-2011), who was then a student at Boston University.

Nobody has been part of Reason longer than PooleBob to everyone who knows him. Along with philosopher Tibor Machan and attorney Manny Klausner, Poole acquired the magazine from Friedlander in 1971, and, in 1978, the three of them founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Reason Foundation that publishes the print mag, this website, and our video and audio platforms. He is internationally known for his work as a transportation policy analyst. In the newest Reason Podcast, Poole tells Nick Gillespie about his years at the helm of Reason and what we got right (privatization, deregulation, private space flight, what caused Love Canal, and more) and wrong (including the real reason for Howard Hughes' Glomar Explorer) back in the day.

Can you imagine a lawsuit called Rand v. Reason, pitting the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged against the nation's only magazine of "Free Minds and Free Markets"? Well, it almost happened in the 1970s.

Early editor Manny Klausner tells that tale, along with many stories of the early days of Reason and the libertarian movement. Attending New York University law school in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Klausner studied with Ludwig von Mises, represented the libertarian wing of the fledgling Conservative Party, and came under the influence of firebrand economist Murray Rothbard as well. While working at Reason, Klausner (archive here) produced memorable interviews with the likes of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, economist Thomas Sowell, '70s self-help guru Robert Ringer, and future President Ronald Reagan.

Along with Poole and Tibor Machan (1939-2016), Klausner was one of the principals of Reason Enterprises, which bought the magazine from the Friedlander in 1971. He was also a co-founder of the nonprofit Reason Foundation, established in 1978, which continues to publish this website and podcast. As an attorney, Klausner participated in Bush v. Gore, the case that settled the 2000 election, and successfully defended Matt Drudge in a defamation suit brought by Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal.

"I was a college student during the Vietnam War era, but I was putting myself through college and was way too busy with that to be one of those students….When I landed with Reason…I didn't know what 'Berkeley' was…I didn't know who Goldwater was," says Marty Zupan, who started writing for the magazine in 1972. "But when I encountered libertarian or classical liberal ideas…they just resonated with me."

Zupan became editor-in-chief in 1984, helming the magazine during its move from Santa Barbara, California, to Los Angeles. In 1989, she left Reason and the West Coast to take a job at the Institute for Humane Studies, where she would become president in 2001 before retiring in 2016. Her Reason archive is online here.

In this Reason Podcast, Zupan talks with me about her experiences and growth in the libertarian movement and focuses on the unique role that the magazine of "free minds and free markets" has played over the past half-century. "One of the virtues of Reason was that it drew on the multiple strands within the libertarian, classical liberal world out there," she says. "Reason would publish a debate, say, between a non-interventionist and a, 'No, really the Soviet Union and its empire is an existential threat to the U.S. and we need to do something about it.' We had the internal debates."

"When I was in college," explains Virginia Postrel, "I developed the career aspiration to be the editor of Reason magazine." Just a few years after graduating, she had accomplished that goal (and much, much more), joining Reason's staff in 1986 and then running the magazine from July 1989 until January 2000.

No one has had a more profound intellectual and journalistic influence on Reason than Postrel. During her tenure, Reason.com was launched in the early days of the web revolution; Reason was a four-time finalist for National Magazine Awards, the highest honor in the industry; and Ronald Bailey, Brian Doherty, Jacob Sullum, Jesse Walker, and I all joined our masthead. Postrel became one of the leading public intellectuals of her generation, publishing her first book, The Future and Its Enemies, in 1998. Since leaving Reason, Postrel became a pioneer in blogging; served as a columnist for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal; and published The Substance of Style (2003) and The Power of Glamour (2013). She is, in the words of Vanity Fair, "a master D.J. who sequences the latest riffs from the hard sciences, the social sciences, business, and technology, to name only a few sources."

In this wide-ranging discussion, Postrel lays out how her vision of the magazine differed from her predecessors' and talks about how many of the issues that dominated her tenure—immigration reform, trade and regulatory policy, the biotech revolution—remain front and center in public discourse.

She also speaks to the strengths and limits of libertarian thought. "A lot of libertarians like to imagine that we can start with a clean slate…and have what I call 'libertarianism as algebra,'" she says. "But that's not how society works. We're all embedded in history."

Envisioning Reason as "a mainstream intellectual magazine with an unusual point of view," Postrel explains, "I wanted Reason to be part of a long and deep and broad and complicated classical liberal tradition stretching back through thinkers, not just 20th century thinkers like Friedman and Hayek…that stretches back not only through those kinds of thinkers but also through the Scottish Enlightenment people, Smith and Hume."

I joined the staff in 1993 as an assistant editor and served as editor in chief of the magazine and website from 2000 to 2008. Then I became editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason TV, a dual position I held until earlier this year, when I became an editor at large.

Katherine Mangu-Ward conducted the wide-ranging interview for this episode. She zeroed in on a 1999 cover story of mine, "All Culture, All the Time," as illuminating many of the themes that Reason would explore under my stewardship. The story celebrated what I called "cultural proliferation" and the breakdown of single standards of greatness, quality, seriousness, legitimacy, you name it. Just as the economic sector had been deregulated and liberalized in key ways during the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, the cultural sphere of our lives was finally deregulated. Let a 1,000 websites bloom! I likened what was happening at the turn of the century to the breakdown of state religion in 17th-century England.

From this podcast:

Religious freedom didn't mean that people gave up on standards or religion didn't matter anymore or anything like that. It meant that people could finally express themselves and create the worlds that they wanted to live in. They could debate and argue and mongrelize and hybridize things. I think that's a really powerful way to look at the world that we're in now. The other [main point in the story comes from] James Buchanan, the recently vilified libertarian economist who helped to create "public choice" economics and won a Nobel Prize for doing so. He talked about Albert Hirschman's ideas of "exit, voice, and loyalty." He used to stress in a lot of his work that when people can exit systems, it's a good thing. That's basically what I think cultural proliferation [does]. It allows people cultural exit. It didn't mean they didn't want culture. It just meant they got to embrace their own culture and their own morality and things like that. It's an incredibly liberating and better world because of that.

"In those original weeks of Ferguson," says Reason Editor at Large Matt Welch while talking about the 2014 police shooting that started nationwide protests and conversations about police violence, "we started seeing the country use terms and looking at issues that [Reason had] been using and looking at for years. So things like the militarization of police, a great Radley Balko phrase, suddenly was on the tips of everyone's tongue…. [In the] last couple of years, [we're seeing it with] civil asset forfeiture, just what an awful thing that is, or the way local cities just shake down their poorest residents in the criminal justice system as a way to fund their operations." He also points to pot legalization, marriage equality, warnings about mounting national debt, and alarm over the ways campuses handle sexual abuse as cases where Reason has been way ahead of the curve.

Welch, who was editor of the print magazine from 2008 through 2016, talks about how he became a libertarian and learned about Reason, what it was like working at The Los Angeles Times opinion page, and whether he still believes in "The Libertarian Moment," a concept that he and I came up with in 2008.

It's a waste of time to vote. Disposable plastic shopping bags are a brilliantly engineered technology that should be celebrated, not taxed out of existence. Of course we should welcome our future robot overlords. Here's a great recipe for pot brownies.

Those are but a few of the memorable, provocative articles that Reason Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward has contributed to our pages over the years. Before she rose to the top of the masthead, Mangu-Ward worked for us back in 2000 as an intern. After graduating from Yale, she worked for The Weekly Standard and The New York Times before returning to Reason in 2006 as an associate editor.

Founded in 1968 by Lanny Friedlander (1947–2011), Reason is celebrating its 50th anniversary by hosting a series of in-depth conversations with past editors in chief about how the magazine has changed since its founding, what we've gotten right and wrong over the years, and what the future holds for believers in "free minds and free markets."

I talked with Mangu-Ward about how she became libertarian, why she likes to defend the indefensible, how she came up with the masterful "Burn After Reading" issue of Reason (which teaches you how to build a Glock in your kitchen, hire an escort, hide your Bitcoin, and more), and what she thinks the world will look like in 2068.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

CORRECTION: The post originally failed to note Manny Klausner's editorship. I will be recording and releasing a podcast with him in the coming weeks, completing the Reason editors oral history project. For an earlier discussion with Klausner, go here to watch him, Virginia Postrel, Robert W. Poole, and the late Tibor Machan (1939-2016) talk about Reason on the occasion of our 45th anniversary. That conversation is hosted by Matt Welch.

CORRECTION: The podcast with Manny Klausner was added above on November 21, 2018.

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