Free Minds & Free Markets

50 Years of Reason with Robert W. Poole: Podcast

The magazine's early editor talks about what Reason got right—and wrong—in its first half-century of existence.

"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 took over financial and editorial responsibility for the publication within a few years of its founding and eventually created the 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.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: This is the Reason Podcast and I'm your host, Nick Gillespie. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there.

Today, I am talking with Bob Poole, Robert W. Poole, Jr. He is the founding editor of Reason magazine, who took over the publication just a few years after it was originally launched and served as the editor for a good chunk of time. We're talking about Reason and our 50th anniversary. Bob has been with us longer than any single employee and he knows where all of the bodies are buried and he knows where all the gold is stashed too. Bob, thanks so much for joining the Reason podcast.

Bob Poole: Glad to be here, Nick.

Gillespie: One of the things we're going to be doing is talking, to kind of flesh out a history of our first 50 years, is talking with people like yourself about the early days of Reason with a particular eye towards our journalism, where we were ahead of the curve, where Reason was prescient and was talking about things that are either still in play or where we had the right idea early on and we saw that come to fruition. We'll also talk a little bit about places where we kind of muffed up, but I'm particularly excited to talk to you because you go all the way back to 1968.

Can you talk a little bit about how you first ... Reason was founded or created by a guy name Lanny Friedlander, who was a student in Boston in 1968. How did you come across Reason at the first point?

Poole: I, as a young libertarian, having graduated from MIT and working in my first job at Sikorsky Aircraft, I was desperate for companionship, people who understood these ideas. I discovered a little, now defunct publication called Liberal Innovator that was published in Los Angeles as a libertarian thing. It had a classified ad for Reason magazine and it sounded a little bit Randian in whatever it said and so I subscribed to it. It was like $2 for a subscription.

Gillespie: That would be about $200 now right or something given fiat currency and all that.

Poole: Yeah, yeah, so I actually started with issue number three, mimeographed of course that ancient technology. It was kind of sloppy looking in the mimeograph days, but Lanny wrote some trenchant prose and very scathing critiques of government boondoggles and things. I thought, 'Wow, this is pretty good, it was worth getting.'

I did not meet Lanny until 1969. I had gotten in touch with him. We didn't have email in those days, but by letter and phone calls. He invited me to write an article because he learned that I was an aerospace engineer and thought I could write something interesting. I decided to write about why the government had created a cartel of airlines and flying was luxury, prices were very expensive.

Gillespie: Yeah, do this for a second. Set the scene in the late 60s, early 70s. I want you to do it in two ways. First, you said you had these libertarian ideas, but it was a pretty lonely planet back then for libertarians. How did you come to libertarian ideas and then also, the name Reason betrays or belies or underscores the Objectivist roots of the magazine.

Lanny and you are not doctrinaire Objectivists, but you're very into the thoughts of Ayn Rand. There was a big split going on within the Objectivist movement.

Poole: In high school, I had a senior class for a limited number of students called Mathematical Analysis. The teacher, Darrell Johnson, was also the debate coach. Since we were kind of the college-bound kids, one day a month, he gave us a lecture on political economy instead of math and could get away with it. He introduced ideas like Milton Friedman. He was probably more of a limited government conservative, but it really intrigued me.

As a result of that, I read Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative and was excited by his vision of limited government and free markets. I went off to MIT with a subscription to National Review because there wasn't any other magazine that he or I knew of that had these ideas, but also, to The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

Then, after MIT, I got involved with Young Americans for Freedom and the MIT students for Goldwater Chapter that was created for the '64 election. Most of my fellow students in those groups were libertarian and/or Objectivists-

Gillespie: What was the-

Poole: ... and they were astonished that I ... Huh?

Gillespie: Well, what was the dividing line between conservatives and libertarians back then? I realize the term 'libertarian' was used, but probably more sparingly.

Poole: Yeah, but it was not in widespread use.

Gillespie: Was it about social issues?

Poole: Conservatives were called traditionalists

Gillespie: I see.

Poole: Lord Acton was kind of their hero, whereas ours were people like Hayek and Friedman and von Mises. It turns out again that in the chapter at MIT, most the people were Objectivists and/or libertarian. In palling around and having discussions with them, they 'You've got to read Atlas Shrugged, you will love it.' In the summer of '64, on a summer job, I carried a paperback book around, read it on lunch hours, read it in the evenings and read the whole thing that summer and I thought, 'Wow, this really explains things a lot better than the arguments I was hearing from conservatives.'

I had also had humanities courses at MIT that introduced me to the ideas of the Enlightenment. We actually read excerpts from Locke, Mill, Adam Smith and others and particularly reading the guy in ... I'm sorry, I'm blanking on his name.

Gillespie: No, sure.

Poole: Hume, David Hume wrote an essay debunking the idea of miracles. That really got to me too. All that coursework and those readings reinforced the ideas I was getting out of Rand.

Gillespie: Was one of the early points, like the libertarian movement now, thanks to ... I mean we're all standing on your shoulders in the libertarian movement, but it's so much broader now. Was a key distinction, not the only one or anything, but that traditionalists or limited government conservatives at that time tended to be more interested in hierarchy and religion. It sounds like-

Poole: Yes.

Gillespie: … you guys were much more mathematical and you didn't want to argue from authority as much as, 'Let's do The Enlightenment stuff of not arguing from authority.'

Poole: Yeah, I think it appealed to us engineering students in particular because we were learning quantitative methods and how to think about what alternatives that are available gives you the best outcome. It seemed pretty clear already just from ... I had a course in History of Technology also, sort of learned about the Industrial Revolution. It seemed very clear that Enlightenment ideas led to prosperity and more freedom and so forth, as opposed to hierarchy and religious union of church and state and all that sort of stuff.

Those were very exciting times for me. I lost all that after graduating, so I wasn't in a community of people like that.

Gillespie: Because then you're working at Sikorsky, which was based in Connecticut, right?

Poole: Southern Connecticut, right.

Gillespie: Yeah, so then you're hanging out with a lot of engineers, who ... I mean, obviously, they're good at math if they're making aircraft, but they're not necessarily interested ...

Poole: They weren't much interested in these ideas. I really glommed onto Reason. I took an evening course from the Nathaniel Branden Institute, of taped lectures about Objectivism, but the people weren't very friendly. I didn't really make any friends in that. I really got more interested in Reason after Lanny invited me to write an article, which I did and it became a cover story.

Gillespie: Now, let's talk about the policy contacts. We talked about kind of the sociological and political, so you write a story about how ... I'm 54 and I remember the last days of airline regulation in any way, but mostly grew up ... By the time I was in college, The People's Express had blessedly come to play, A low-cost airline, where you could buy a ticket really cheaply, etc. This was a rigidly-enforced cartel that people can almost-

Poole: It really was. All kinds of law firms made their living arguing rate cases before the Civil Aeronautics Board, defending incumbents against new entrants and this sort of thing.

Gillespie: Yeah, and saying, 'Okay, you get to if you're Eastern Air Lines to pick one that doesn't exist anymore, you get to fly this route, and you can charge as much.' I remember you saying at one point that even the food that was served on the airlines was kind of approved by the government at that point.

Poole: Well and also, food and drinks was one of the few things they could compete on. Price competition was strictly forbidden.

Gillespie: Wow.

Poole: This became a cost-plus kind of thing. The labor union just loved it because they would negotiate the very generous contracts that would just get passed through by the CAB. That's your cost base, so of course the fares can go up to cover those costs.

Eastern Air Lines, I grew up in an Eastern Air Lines household, so my family and I could fly for free on passes. Hardly anybody of my classmates had the experience of flying, which I started at age four.

Gillespie: Right and then you would get the ... I know I took at least one regulated flight on Braniff to name another airline that no longer exists and like you would get, because it was so expensive, they would give you like a little flight bag with a bunch of junk in it.

Poole: Oh yes. It was an amazing thing.

Gillespie: Yeah, it's stunning really and that world blessedly has gone. Your article was talking about how this is a cartel-–

Poole: Yes, my motivation for the article actually stems back to my childhood and the CAB regulation. Eastern Air Lines competed to get the route from Miami to Los Angeles and lost. My cousin Tom's father worked for a national airline, which won. He and his family got to go to Disneyland on company passes. I never got to go to ... We could never afford to send four people to California, to Los Angeles, for the prices that it would cost.

Gillespie: Then, to drive would've taken two and a half weeks there and back.

Poole: Oh forever, yeah, so it was just out of the question. I had it in for the CAB starting from my childhood and I didn't know anything about how it worked or anything, other than that it seemed like a bad thing.

Gillespie: Really Reason, starting in 1968, is ... Obviously, a lot of stuff is going on in 1968 and the wheels are coming off both in good and bad ways of the post-war consensus of, 'This is what social society should look like.' Integration was disappearing, but also the kind of regimentation of essentially a war-time economy, where the government was getting to say, 'Okay, you're going to make this much stuff and you're going to charge this much.'

Then, you helped articulate the case for deregulating the airlines, mostly successful.

Poole: It only took nine years after that for it to actually happen, which was very gratifying.

Gillespie: Yeah, so let's flash forward a little bit to some of the standout Reason features that happened while you were editor in the 70s, in particular, I guess, through the early 80s. You talk about … There was a cover story that you wrote in May of 1976 called 'Fighting Fires for Profit' that ended up getting featured on a 60 Minutes episode.

Poole: 60 Minutes, yeah.

Gillespie: Yeah, which is obviously, for a magazine like Reason, a small magazine, a political magazine, to get that kind of coverage on 60 Minutes.

Poole: It was amazing.

Gillespie: Must have been watched by like 80 percent of Americans, but what was the point of that story and why was it ahead of its time?

Poole: Yeah, the point of that story was to show that practically every service provided by a city government could be purchased from the private sector if conditions were open and if there were incentives for people to start companies providing them. There was a fair amount in the 70s of contracted garbage service. That was one of the most common. I started getting really interested in that because of my work when I moved to California in 1970, started working for a think tank that was working with state and local governments on implementing minicomputer systems for things like police and fire dispatching. On one of my early jobs, I was in Phoenix, Arizona, was the city we were dealing with, but rural metro fire, which was the focus of my Reason article was providing the fire service in Scottsdale, the suburb of Phoenix on a contract basis and had been written about in The LA Times and elsewhere. It cost about a third as much as the fire services in Phoenix. This is incredible, how on the earth they're doing that.

While I was on location in Phoenix, out of the blue, I just called up the rural metro and talked to the CEO, Louis Weitzman and told him who I was and asked if I could come and visit. He was very gracious, allowed me to do that, gave me a tour and I learned all the things that they did differently from conventional city fire departments that enabled it to be much … Fire department is very labor-intensive business, so they implemented a system that was partly like volunteer fire departments. They had a core of staff a full-time paid people, but they had trained volunteers, who mostly worked for the city government and had permission when a fire alarm call came in that they would have a beeper and be notified, drop what they were doing and report to their assigned fire station and go to the fire if necessary. That dramatically lowered the cost. They also had technology innovations and things that people had not seen in fire departments before.

Gillespie: This was kind of the beginning of your bromance with privatization, a term that you helped to popularize, but the idea of-

Poole: Yes, it was, which eventually led to my-

Gillespie: Yeah go ahead.

Poole: Eventually led to my book Cutting Back City Hall and it came out in 1980, which was the first book to really talk about and seriously research and write about how governments could buy services instead of producing them all as monopolies.

Gillespie: Wow and this is something, I mean you know on a certain level, it's not the sexiest topic in the world perhaps, but it's absolutely fundamental and important. I actually kind of do find it sexy in the sense of we're living in that world now, where obviously municipal governments have continued to grow in many ways or state and local county federal governments, but they do have to explain why they're not contracting out service.

Poole: Exactly, it's become quite accepted as a mainstream technique. It's much harder to do in big old cities like Chicago and New York, where unions are very powerful and the traditions of politicians being basically partners with unions and high-cost city monopoly services, it's hard to crack. Competitive contracting really got going in the southwest and Sun Belt areas and then, gradually moved into the Midwest and the Northeast as well.

Gillespie: Another story that you talked about or that you had a hand in, in July of 1978, it was called 'Rockets in Africa' and it had to do with something again, this is hilarious to think about it now because '78 is what, that's like the year of Skylab, we've essentially given up kind of manned space exploration, but there's these kind of weird artifacts of the 1960s kind of Kennedy era space program floating around. It's about private space launch companies.

Poole: Yeah, it's what we today call new space company, German company called OTRAG came up with the idea of modular components to make very low-cost rocket launchers for launching satellites. I had been reading articles about this in Aviation Week and in Popular Science and thought, 'Wow, this could be the breakthrough that we need to revitalize the space industry and have it not be dominated by cost plus government contracts.' Then, all of a sudden, Penthouse magazine in December 1977 had what they called an expose that OTRAG was really producing cruise missiles and testing them in violation of this and that and the other thing. It was just unbelievable, the contrast between what Aviation Week had been reporting and they're very, very good on these things, Popular Science. I thought, 'There's something really wrong here.' Somehow, I don't know how I had the time, but did a lot of research and finally discovered that the author who was kind of lefty journalist had been taken in by East German propaganda that had depicted this as an evil thing. The article had some traction in France because the French and British governments were developing a space launch equivalent of NASA, government enterprise. They very much feared low-cost competition from the private sector.

Gillespie: Which of course is now where all of the energy and-

Poole: Exactly.

Gillespie: … space exploration and exploitation in the most positive terms possible is coming from-

Poole: No, absolutely, so that cover story was the first non-techie magazine to really write about again what we call now new space or private space launch. The very fascinating thing was as I was writing my memoir that's going to come out later this year and recounting writing that story, I get an email from a video journalist, documentary producer in Germany, doing a film about OTRAG.

Gillespie: Wow that's great.

Poole: The company went bankrupt because after the attacks so forth and didn't, but Lutz Kayser, the founder and CEO of at that time is still alive and they were interviewing him. They found my recent story. The guy interviewed me at length by email how on earth had I figured this out and not been taken in by Penthouse story and blah, blah, blah. They may end up coming when they do the last part of it, coming and interviewing me on camera here about that story.

Gillespie: As a sidebar on that a little bit, obviously Ayn Rand and her thought and her fiction was very important to the libertarian movement in post-war America through at least through the 70s or early 80s. Robert Heinlein is also … I've met a lot of people who come to libertarianism through Robert Heinlein, obviously, a prophet of space exploration and terraforming Mars and all of this kind of stuff or projecting humanity–

Poole: But also very much an individualist and a critic of government and so forth and-

Gillespie: Talk about how did Robert Heinlein shape your kind of vision.

Poole: I grew up reading … Heinlein wrote a series of what are called juvenile novels, actually young adult really. Some of the stories that make up those books were originally published in Boy's Life.

Gillespie: Oh, wow yeah.

Poole: I read them all, starting in elementary school and did read most of the rest in junior high. I'm sure that they gave me more receptivity as I started discovering ideas about politics and political economy and economics and so forth. One of the amazing blessings or benefits from doing Reason magazine was in the 1970s, getting on Robert Heinlein's Christmas card list and learning from then corresponding with his wife Ginny who handles all those correspondence that they loved Reason magazine and said that, 'If you're ever in Santa Cruz, why don't you let us know and stop by for a visit?' Oh my God, I had died and gone to heaven. Needless to say, I arranged a trip up to south of the Bay Area and went for an afternoon visit, swim tour of the house, but they personally designed, Heinlein being an engineer and ended up getting invited for dinner. In case something like that has happened, I had boxes of Heinlein first editions that I had been accumulating in the car, as I went out and got and he autographed a bunch of them and asked if I read any foreign languages. I said, 'Well, I had three years of German.' 'Would you like a few German paperbacks?' 'Sure.'

Gillespie: Oh God.

Poole: I still have those too, but it was just amazing, wonderful experience. He reminisced about having been at the Apollo, the one that first landed on the moon. I guess Apollo 11 I guess it was and having been NASA's guest of honor there and so on and so forth. I think when I watch SpaceX launches today, particularly the Falcon Heavy launch few weeks ago, Robert Heinlein you should be alive at this time to see the world that you gave us the vision of starting to finally happen after all these years.

Gillespie: Yeah and it's fascinating for to think about somebody like Heinlein and somebody like Rand, who both write essays, but also are probably best remembered or had the biggest impact in their fiction and Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is a novel at the beginning of the 60s, before the kind of 60s counterculture sort of, but it's essentially about exploration in space. Then, a lawyer kind of arguing due process claims back on earth to protect the ultimate immigrant or–

Poole: Right, the man from Mars.

Gillespie: … and he simultaneously a tech guy and a hippie, I mean you can see so much coming out of there. The same with Rand, one of the things that's Rand ultimately now is heavily, very, very much mostly for understandable reasons identified with the right, but when you go back and you read histories of the 60s, I mean these two people were really background thinkers for almost everybody across the political spectrum.

Poole: If you look at Rand, although people can criticize various aspects of her characters, she portrayed strong women in the business world in a way that was completely unheard of in the 1950s. A lot of people tend to forget that sort of thing and also projected sexual freedom of a kind that was completely alien to at least polite conversation in the 50s.

Gillespie: Of course Heinlein as well, I find that these guys were talking and this is another way in which their work and I think the libertarian movement and Reason remains fresh is that it's the individual versus the collective and that can be big government or big business or whatever. It's a powerful, powerful motif. Here, let's talk about the Love Canal story, which came out in February of 1981 and was covered by ABC Nightline, which had turned I guess after the successful conclusion of the Iranian hostage crisis, Nightline, it was a staple of 80s TV. It was the must watch show-

Poole: Yes, it really was.

Gillespie: … every night, but what was the Love Canal story and by the way, I'm sorry, I want to give background to people who don't know. I mean it was if you grew up in the 70s and the early 80s, everybody was convinced or the general news media that the world was being polluted beyond belief and that we were giving rise to children, who were born with deformities and everybody was having these bizarre cancers. Love Canal became kind of a shorthand like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl or thalidomide, I mean it was a locus of so much anxiety and fear.

Poole: The mainstream narrative was that Hooker Chemical, evil by definition, there's a chemical company had recklessly dumped chemical wastes and allowed them to seep out through the surrounding residential neighborhood and caused potential major harm to people, who live there. Well, we had–

Gillespie: Then, this is in Niagara Falls, New York.

Poole: Niagara Falls, New York.

Gillespie: One of the archetypal Rust Belt cities.

Poole: Right.

Gillespie: Yeah, so it's like everything has gone to shit really. I went to grad school in Buffalo and would drive to Niagara Falls all the time–

Poole: Oh, sure, so you know that area.

Gillespie: … and go through the Love Canal, yeah and I mean in the early 80s, it was–

Poole: Well, this was now in the beginning days of Reason Foundation and we had published one investigative journalism articles that exposed some illegal use of federal grants by Cesar Chavez's Farm Workers Union and that actually got some TV coverage as well. On the strength of that we had raised some money to make investigative journalism one of the main, well an important thing that we were doing to raise Reason's credibility and visibility and so forth. We got a proposal from this freelance journalist named Eric Zuesse, who said, 'the mainstream narrative of Love Canal is completely wrong and I can prove it.' He gave us some reasons of what he felt he had and we decided … It looked like he had a decent case and if he could really document it, so we gave him the go-ahead. He did his homework. He discovered that the real story was that Hooker Chemical had in the days when it dumped those wastes …

Gillespie: The Love Canal was like the dumping ground, it was the-

Poole: The dumping ground exactly.

Gillespie: … kind of chemical estuary, which because Bob, we're talking about it because we lived through it like Love Canal like if you say, 'Hey Baby, Love Canal,' people think, if they don't know the history, they think, 'It's a canal of love.' He found-

Poole: Anyway, they had followed what were then the established procedures. They put a clay cap over the top and so forth. At some point I think in the early 70s, I can't remember the details, the local school board wanted to use eminent domain to condemn the property that included Love Canal, so they could build a new school. Hooker Chemical resisted and as is documented, they resisted, they said, 'We buried chemical waste there, you should not buy the property.'

Gillespie: They were showing up at meetings to say like, 'Look, you can't put a school there.' I mean it's on top of-

Poole: Exactly.

Gillespie: … like toxic chemicals, yeah.

Poole: They eventually were unable to prevent the condemnation of the property and they insisted on including a deed restriction, saying that 'Disclosing chemicals such and such were buried there, do not interfere in any way, don't breach the clay that's underneath and on the sides and on the top because you will let chemicals leak out.' Well, the school board, after a few years after buying it decided they really need to go ahead and build the school. They excavated and built the school and the excavation led to the chemicals leaching out. All of this, he documented meticulously, Eric Zuesse did. We had learned on the first article on the Cesar Chavez thing about how to fact-check. Marty Zupan and I spent many, many days fact-checking every detail of this. There probably were a few little minor points that he hadn't quite documented, so we obviously edited to things that we knew we could stand behind.

We had a woman in Washington D.C., a freelance media consultant, who had helped us publicize the Cesar Chavez article. She did the same with this and that led to a bunch of news coverage. Larry King did programs on it, syndicated columnist wrote about it and that's what led I'm sure was to ABC Nightline discovering it, checking it out and then, interviewing Eric Zuesse, Eric Zuesse of Reason Magazine on camera, standing in front of Love Canal houses. It was a great, it was just one of those things that you live and breathe to have those kinds of successes.

Gillespie: That story also helped, I mean along with earlier stories some of which we've discussed here, but it's also that the DNA of Reason is that you know where you take a mainstream media narrative or government narrative that is saying, 'Look, there are clear heroes and villains here and we know who's who,' and really you start to dig in and you realize that often times it's almost the exact reverse. That's based on that meticulous attention to detail and to go in with a different framework, so that you're coming out with something much more like the truth.

Poole: Very satisfying too to do those kinds of articles.

Gillespie: Sure, well let's talk about some we've made it moments, over the course of your era as editor of Reason because I mean you're now a transportation policy analysts for Reason Foundation, so you're doing more of that but you were asked by the Reagan White House to brief the Secretary of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Agency Administrator on air traffic control. What was going on there because this again set the scene, I mean what was going on in 1981 with air traffic control.

Poole: Right, 1981, Controllers Union PATCO with F Lee. Bailey I think as its legal guy called an illegal strike. It was against the law for air traffic controllers to strike. This is a first big challenge posed to the Reagan administration, what would they do about this? Reagan ordered them back to work within 48 hours on penalty of being fired if they didn't. A handful of them came back and the rest stayed out. They were fired. Nothing, it was an earthquake, it was shot across the bow of the whole labor union movement, but it meant that the air traffic control system was hugely short of people. You can't operate without air traffic controllers and so, airlines were ordered to cut way back on their scheduled flights because they had supervisors who were not part of the union and a portion of the people had not gone out at all, defying the union. It was a real crisis situation, what are we going to do to rebuild the air traffic control system?

Well, turned out that a whole bunch of people who had written for a Reason or were friends of Reason Foundation had gotten jobs in the early Reagan administration. One of them was my longtime friend John McClaughry from Vermont. He was in the Domestic Policy Office of the White House. He saw an op-ed that I wrote in The New York Times, 'Maybe It's Time to Dismiss the FAA' in August of that year, shortly after the firing, which was in early August. I suggested that it should be a non-profit corporation, paid for by the users, ideas that we hear about a lot today. John circulated the op-ed and he probably also circulated a Reason cover story and from 1979 that I'd written about how bad the FAA was and why it wasn't really the right institution to have.

John got enough interest in those two things that he called me and said, 'I need you in Washington tomorrow.' I managed to get a flight and actually he gave me a desk in a vacant office and said, 'You've got today to come up with a briefing for the DoD Secretary, Drew Lewis and the FAA Administrator, Lynn Helms on why this should be privatized as the way to rebuild it.'

Gillespie: Now, of course you've been pushing that kind of corporate nonprofit, which has taken off around the world, I mean Canada has a system that essentially the system you were proposing in other countries.

Poole: Canada's was implemented 22 years ago and stood the test of time.

Gillespie: Yeah and we're actually, I mean to talk about prescience, this is a place where you've been making the case and are we getting closer to actually implementing something like that where the airlines are the ones who need the system the most, they're in the best position both to fund it and innovate etc. Are we getting closer to that moment?

Poole: We're getting much closer. This is something, since I became really focused on transportation policy, I've published about a dozen policy papers on this over the years. I've joined the Air Traffic Control Association. I speak at conferences. Since 2001, I do a monthly newsletter, all those years on air traffic control reform, basically trying to break down the old paradigm that this is something only government should do and that you get the best safety by having the safety regulators and the providers all in the same house, working cooperatively instead of at arm's length from each other, so that the safety regulators properly ride herd on the controllers just as they ride herd on the airlines and the manufacturers etc., etc.

It took a long time to break down the old paradigm, but that has pretty much happened worldwide in the last, since 1987, so that's 30 years that has been processed from New Zealand, its labor reform government in 1987, creating an Air Traffic Control Corporation, separate from the safety regulator in New Zealand. That actually became the model for the Clinton White House in the early 90s to-

Gillespie: You talked to them about this, right? I mean, it's, yeah yeah.

Poole: I talked to them. They called me and asked my advice and input. I testified in Congress guardedly in favor of their proposal, which ended up getting nowhere due to status quo position. The idea now, we are now to the point, we have 60 of these corporations in operation, we have a global trade association of air navigation service providers called CANSO that hold big annual conferences and is a player in international aviation policy. We have very much the model I proposed of a nonprofit corporation, 22 years of success in Canada as significantly more efficient than the FAA system, even though FAA should have economies of scale from being almost 10 times larger. Now, Canada has run international awards as the world's best air traffic provider. The airlines in the United States are totally onboard 100 percent for cooperation along these lines. We had legislation last year passed the House Transportation Committee, but got no further, better version-

Gillespie: What's the holdup?

Poole: Hold up has been the private pilots groups and the business people, who pay practically nothing and getting first-class services. They have huge lobbying clout. They gives lots of campaign contributions.

Gillespie: I'm sure they give lots of rides to congressmen, they're probably-

Poole: I'm sure they do and yeah, so they have managed to create a false narrative that this would be handing over a valuable enterprise to the control of the big airlines, which is ridiculous since the big airlines would appoint one seat on a 13-member board of stakeholders to be the governing body, but it's a campaign of lies and they terrorize to frighten the hell out of city leaders, mayors in small cities of small town America.

Gillespie: You're not going to get any–

Poole: You're not going to have a control tower anymore. They'll spend all the money on better air traffic at big airports, where the big airlines flying, all that sort of stuff that has proved pretty politically powerful. Because the rural states have much stronger representation in the Senate, there's currently no Senate counterpart of the house bill.

Gillespie: With air traffic in general I guess or with air traffic policy, the problem is that the airline ticket prices were deregulated, routing was deregulated mostly and also airports, airport ownership and management.

Poole: Yes, but still in the state-owned model that was okay, it was tolerable when airline industry was not dynamic and fast growing. We have forty years since airline deregulation, a very dynamic and fast-changing airline market that is constrained by badly managed airports that don't use runway pricing for example and by an air traffic system and-

Gillespie: When you go to Europe or pretty much anywhere else in the world and you see airports that are like the greatest, I mean there are like great shopping malls mixed with theme parks, yeah and they're all privatized.

Poole: Sure, Heathrow, Gatwick, Frankfurt, they're all privatized, Madrid-

Poole: … so a way that's been around the world for the last 20 years, well since Margaret Thatcher privatized the British Airports Authority in 1987, the same year is the first Aircraft Control Corporation, coincidentally. Aviation has been transformed and the United States is the last holdout.

Gillespie: Well, hopefully, we'll get there. Let's talk briefly about something that you got wrong because Reason ultimately, I mean for me part of the lore of Reason as a magazine but also libertarianism as a kind of worldview is in many ways, it's about an epistemological humility and the limits of knowledge. The private for-profit fire service was not necessarily quite the wave of the future, even though it folds into privatizing and contracting and a competitive contracting, but then here's an interesting thing that there was a Howard Hughes mystery ship that, was it about seabed mining or about CIA efforts to recover a Soviet submarine, what was that story?

Poole: Right, well the cover story, which I completely swallowed because I had written a Reason article, argue against the law of the sea treaty, which is typical UN status central planning thing that–

Gillespie: The law of the sea is basically that it gave the UN kind of adjudication rights over competing claims or what …

Poole: More than that, it actually created on paper something called the Enterprise, which was to have control over all seabed mining. We fought in the 70s that manganese nodules and other minerals on the seabed were going to be a cornucopia of new wealth. The UN quickly jumped in and said, 'Well all right, we will license who can get to mine, but we're going to tax the proceeds and distribute it to third world developing countries.' That was a significant obstacle to the entrepreneurial companies that thought they were going to make a big deal out of seabed mining. It looked as if to me and everyone else that when Howard Hughes produced a ship called the Glomar Explorer with all kinds of expensive gear on it and had it out in the ocean that he was going to be the pioneer despite the UN law of the sea treaty nonsense and so forth.

I think we had a Reason article with a photograph of that ship, talking about the potential of seabed mining and how this was going to in effect defy the UN, despite of the UN attempt. About a year after that article appeared in Reason, it was exposed as a CIA exploit to try to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. They did recover part of it, but they weren't able to get the whole thing, so they may or may not have learned a bunch of things from it. We don't know because I don't think it's ever been declassified.

Gillespie: It's amazing when you go back and there's been a new interest in what the CIA, the FBI, the NSA were up to in the post-war Europe and of course, in the 1970s, you had things like the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Commission, which exposed a mass of systemic, just completely unrestrained domestic spying by the FBI and COINTELPRO, but also the CIA and the NSA. The CIA was dosing its own people with LSD for mind-control. Do you feel like … It's an interesting thing because in libertarianism and particularly in your tenure at Reason, you were very much of a Cold Warrior. The Soviet Union was not yet morally equivalent, like it needed to be defeated and in order to do that you need a robust intelligence operation-

Poole: Right and–

Gillespie: … but then how do you restrain it?

Poole: Yes, I know it's a tough challenge and one that–

Gillespie: We're reliving that now, right?

Poole: … I never came to grips with. Well, we are in certain respect. No, one of the other big investigative journalism projects we developed was sending Jack Wheeler, a noted adventure travel guy to go with the various anti-Soviet guerrilla groups in five or six countries. We got some kind of an award for that series. It was controversial, I think the sort of Murray Rothbard-type libertarian didn't really think having a strong anti-Soviet policy was the right thing for the United States to do and were not happy with Reason for doing that but I felt very justified and the Soviet Union was a clear and present danger.

Obviously, the government can go overboard particularly in domestic spying and things like that but I think the cause was just one of the early books that I commissioned and edited that Reason Foundation published was called Defending a Free Society. It had chapters on various aspects of defense policy in an era when you had a major threat such as the Soviet Union. Nothing like that had come out from the libertarian movement at all and philosopher Eric Mack had, I think probably the first chapter in the book as I recall, explaining just war theory as it had been developed by philosophers over the centuries and saying that it still should be valid. You have to use reason and careful thinking to determine is a cause just to begin with to engage militarily. Obviously, there should be real serious criteria for deciding that and then, second, how do you carry it out in a just fashion?

They actually drew out some implications that other contributors later on took up about strategy of using nuclear weapons and so forth. We argued in the book that mutually assured destruction was very difficult to justify morally because you're basically threatening to annihilate huge amounts of population, who they themselves were not guilty parties. That was the principle tool of … Therefore, we supported a shift from MAD to a strategic defense missile interception and this sort of thing to the point, where it would be strong enough, which is obviously a matter of technology and I don't think we're still quite there, strong enough to deter a first-strike attack. This became very big debating point among libertarians around the country.

Gillespie: Well, you know that notion of defending a free society and again, this is something with the passage of time, I mean it is hard to recapture the moment when the Soviet Union, you know what Reagan briefly characterized as an evil empire was and then, even Reagan walked that back, but how much their … I mean it was a real struggle and for all we talk about China or radical Islam or Russia under Putin, it's total different.

Poole: Those things all pale by comparison to the threat that Soviet Union appeared to pose and having guerrilla movements and taking over more countries to be allies and in effect colonies, it was really an amazingly threatening and serious thing. We all grew up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation and so forth, so the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and then, the collapse of the Soviet Union were just amazing, exhilarating events that I never thought I would live to see.

Gillespie: Yeah, it's amazing and I remember both of those. I know that in the early days when I joined Reason twenty-something years ago, you often at a speech, you have a chunk of the Berlin Wall that you would hold up. Yeah, it's stunning and I get some of that sense when we talk about the legalization of marijuana, but more importantly the end of a prohibitionary regime that affects every aspect of American life, but yeah that–

Poole: Drug prohibition is something we took on from the very earliest. There's never any dissent or disagreement among the original editors that that was a just cause.

Gillespie: I mean this is what is also kind of now that libertarianism has achieved a certain level of ubiquity or familiarity I guess, it's hard to ... I mean if you go back and look at the early 70s Reason, where we're talking about drug legalization, we're talking about legalization of not just of homosexuality, but of recognition of same-sex marriages, a lifestyle-

Poole: Yes, we were way ahead of most of the country on those issues.

Gillespie: To end, let's talk a little bit about, I know and I've heard you talk about this in the past, but in the October 1971 issue, this was like an early milestone for Reason because you scored an interview with Nathaniel Branden, who had been a protégé of Ayn Rand and the kind of business and philosophical partner Ayn Rand. They had had a big breakup and the causes of that later became known, but not really for decades.

Poole: Not for many years, but it caused … The main organization that's helping the broad libertarian movement to grow, certainly The Objectivist part of it was called the Nathaniel Branden Institute that he had organized with Ayn Rand's blessing to sell books, to promote the ideas, so forth and so on. Of course when Rand denounced Branden in 1968 without giving any specific, but she's like, 'He'd done reprehensible things,' and she was breaking all association with him. NBI closed down. All of a sudden, this widespread thing with doing classes all across the country, all of a sudden was no more.

Gillespie: At the time, were you like, when you hear like Ayn Rand excommunicates Nathaniel Branden, but all she says is he did reprehensible things, he was a moral leper and all of this. What did you think though, were you like, 'Did he steal money, did he commit a crime?'

Poole: Right, well, my then wife, who was an early partner in Reason Enterprise has said, which read Ayn Rand's explanation, announcement in The Objectivist magazine said, 'This sounds to me like a woman scorned.' She was right on target. She had psyched it out, but nobody really knew and there was a lot of speculation so forth.

Gillespie: At that point just to kind of put a button on that Rand and Branden were in an intimate relationship that he broke off.

Poole: Yes, they had been, right–

Gillespie: Nobody knew, right?

Poole: Nobody knew that's right and so, there was intense wondering and speculation. Tibor and I had met Nathaniel Branden after we started up Reason Enterprises in 1971. He had the mailing list, the old NBI mailing list. He was starting to think about making it available for friendly groups to rent to market to those people. Our plan for expanding the circulation of Reason magazine, which when we got it from Lanny had 400 subscribers was to find mailing lists and that was our number one target. We talked a lot with Nathaniel about that. He finally agreed, but he said, 'I would like to give you guys an interview in Reason.' We thought, 'Oh well, this will be a bombshell.' We arranged a date and did the interview, the five or six of us there, but we had a lead interviewer who basically asked almost all the questions. We transcribed it, but Nathaniel's condition was that he get to review the transcript.

Gillespie: Oh oh.

Poole: None of us had any journalism training. We didn't really know how these things were done and it turns out instead of just correcting errors, he basically rewrote his answers. Well, what do we do? He didn't really explain about the affair, but he gave some clues and he talked about a lot of things. It was very still very, very interesting and it was the first time he said anything in print since the break three years before. We went ahead and published it. On the strength of that interview that when we made mailings to his mailing list, it was huge. I mean we ended up about a year after starting from 400, we were at 3500 or 4000 subscribers. Without that it's hard to know whether there would be a Reason today.

Gillespie: One of the things that thinking about Branden, who at the time was a kind of leading apostle of the human potential movement and again, obviously, there are all kinds of divisions and subdivisions, warfare among all these groups, but he was a really interesting figure in all sorts of ways. What do you make of … We tend to think about the libertarian movement has been dominated by economists and to a certain degree, engineers or people with a kind of engineering mindset.

Poole: Techies, yeah.

Gillespie: Then, there are people and Branden in a certain way fits into this, but certainly people like Branden, where there were psychologists, who were talking right now human–

Poole: Peter Breggin, Peter Breggin also.

Gillespie: Yeah, Thomas Szasz, is that a somewhat neglected kind of tributary to-

Poole: I think you're right, Nick. There's something there that people haven't really focused very much on, but I mean this is consistent in a way with the sort of Enlightenment roots of today's libertarianism that it's 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. Charles Murray wrote some nice book about this. Again, there's a sociologist, not an economist or engineer.

Gillespie: Yeah, then people like Sharon Presley in the early libertarian movement as well. What is the psychology of freedom? What kind of psychology do individuals need to have in order to be able to flourish in a society, where they're given more opportunities and more choices to define themselves? Branden, I mean looking back at that interview, of course, it's difficult now to not to read it through the filter of that romantic entanglement now.

Poole: What we know, sure.

Gillespie: Yeah, he remains a fascinating character and it's not surprising, I mean when you say like in a lot of ways, we might not have a Reason if it wasn't for him. It makes sense that it was about a psychologist, who had a therapist who talked a lot about becoming the best version of yourself. Well, we will leave it there, Bob. I want to thank you so much. We have been talking with Robert W. Poole Jr. He's an early founding editor of Reason magazine and everything that has come since then as Reason is celebrating its 50th year. Bob, just a complete delight to reminisce with you about the early days and some of the early triumphs and also some of the early misses of Reason.

Poole: Thanks so much Nick, it was a great fun to do this.

Gillespie: This has been the Reason Podcast. I'm your host Nick Gillespie. Thanks so much for listening.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    Whoa, big get.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Big Get was my nickname during my semester abroad in Edinburgh.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Did you wear a kilt?

  • Hugh Akston||

    Remember the good old days back when Reason advocated real libertarian positions like unlimited military spending, closed borders, trade protectionism, and women and minorities knowing their place? #MRGA

  • Hank Phillips||

    Gosh, that must've slipped my mind. Pray, enlighten. I distinctly remember a Reason cover with "The Drug law Problem" under a picture of Reagan. I up and voted for the codger, only to find out later the thing was tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and that Ronnie was a sucker for chemistry as mystical pseudoscience. Before the economy collapsed under asset-forfeiture prohibitionism I was a straight-ticket libertarian voter and avid Reason subscriber... until they hired Nick.

  • Entelechy||

    In 1968 libertarians responded to left -wing campus publications like Up Against The Wall Street Journal with papers of their own , like MIT's Ergo. Few outlived Reagan .

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Reagan lived a pretty long time to be fair.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Gillespie: At that point just to kind of put a button on that Rand and Branden were in an intimate relationship that he broke off.

    Poole: Yes, they had been, right–

    Gillespie: Nobody knew, right?

    Wow, this is some ballsy dialogue. I thought libertarians were, you know, down with sex. For those who aren't adept at reading between the lines and the awkward pauses, here is what went down: Both Branden and Rand were married, but not to each other. They became lovers, with their spouses' awkward blessings. Branden was 25 years younger than Rand, and, not too surprisingly, eventually took up with a younger woman, Patricia Scott, also with his wife's blessing. Branden was no longer sleeping with Rand at this point, but he, quite "reasonably", one might say, concealed his new affair from Ayn, who was, quite "unreasonably," furious with Branden when she found out.

    "Broke up the act," as George Burns might have said.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    And Alan Vanneman was there, watching.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

  • Hank Phillips||

    Yes, the exact technical term is "consenting adults."

  • Hank Phillips||

    It was a psychedelic flashback to be able to listen to Robert Poole... to the extent that the loudmouthed ignoramus let him get a word in edgewise.


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