40 years of free minds and free markets: an oral history of reason.

Author:Doherty, Brian
Position:Cover story


WHEN reason began in 1968, it was just one of many mimeographed zines then pushing a mostly obscure political and philosophical vision known as libertarianism. At the time, aside from rare outliers such as the Newsweek columns of Milton Friedman and the science fiction novels of Robert A. Heinlein, there were few places to encounter such ideas except in do-it-yourself publications.

The debut issue of reason was a few pages of typewritten text, and the topics it covered largely concerned urban violence, then a major political issue. While we don't know for sure, the print run probably was no more than a couple of hundred. Most of the content was written by the founding editor, Boston University undergrad Lanny Friedlander.

Forty years later, long after such tides as Living Free, Bull$heet, The New Radical, The Abolitionist, and The Individualist have fallen by the wayside, reason endures. The champion of "Free Minds and Free Markets" exists as both a paper magazine (now slick and colorful) and a vibrant presence in a medium that was still science fiction in 1968: the Internet, where the reason website is visited about 2.7 million more times per month than the first paper issue had readers.

During the intervening decades, the broader civilization has, in fits and starts, heeded much of the message that reason has been pushing since that first mimeographed edition. From the deregulation of airlines to the decriminalization of sodomy, from the fall of communism to the rise of dot-coms, the world is in many ways much freer than it was in 1968. It's easy to get caught up in those many restrictions on liberty that remain--including new ones that have arrived since 9/11--but the big picture reveals a happier story. The culture is wider and wilder, and more people than ever recognize that top-down planning by force isn't the best way to run the world.

reason has grown from one student's wild dream to a bicoastal foundation that advances liberty through public policy research and journalism available across a rich variety of platforms. The magazine is routinely chosen as one of the nation's 50 best by the Chicago Tribune; its staffers appear daily on television, radio, and newsprint; and, most important, the viewpoint favoring free minds and free markets is harder and harder to ignore.

Scores of staffers have contributed to the magazine's remarkable evolution during the last four decades. Below some of them tell the story of how reason went from a collegiate curiosity to a respected American journal of policy and culture while remaining pretty curious all the while.

The Beginnings

Robert W. Poole Jr. was one of the founders of Reason Enterprises, which began publishing reason with its January 1971 issue. He launched the Reason Foundation in 1978 and has held many titles with the magazine, including editor, managing editor, executive editor, editor-in-chief, and publisher.

Robert W. Poole Jr.: I got a job, in order to avoid the draft, with a defense contractor, Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut, and started working as an engineer. I hardly knew anybody who had similar ideas, so I was desperate to read things of a libertarian or Objectivist flavor.

In 1968, in some newsletter or other, I saw a classified ad for reason, which was at about its third issue. I sent in a buck or two bucks and subscribed, and found that despite it being mimeographed and amateurish, the writing was pretty good.

Obviously somebody with an Objectivist orientation had started this thing, and he was in Boston. It must have been fall of '68, that first year of publication, I drove up and met Lanny [Friedlander]. Every year [Ayn] Rand gave a speech at Ford Hall. We went to that event, and I had the idea of trying to get involved in the publication, but I wasn't that impressed with him personally. He lived at home while going to Boston University, his house was a chaotic disaster, his mother was a shrill fishwife who yelled and screamed even with visitors in the house. It just didn't seem like a good situation to try to get involved in, in a business sense.

I'd never written anything for publication, but because I was interested in aviation, he got me to write a piece about airlines and aviation policy, which was "Fly the Frenzied Skies."

I did a hell of a lot of research, which was fun, but even more fun was seeing it in print, having it be the cover story of what became the first offset printed issue. A couple of months after it was out, The Freeman asked to reprint it. That got me letters from people all over the country, and that was the moment of truth: This journalism stuff really can make an impact!

In '71, airlines were tightly regulated by an agency that's gone, the Civil Aeronautics Board. It was a cartelized industry. To fly between point A and B [you were] limited to between one and three airlines, usually two. Prices were approved at rate hearings like telephone and electricity prices used to be. If an airline wanted to serve a new route, it would take years. So I challenged that and argued for deregulation.


I also argued for airport and air traffic privatization, got it all together in one article. My dad was saying, "Ha, ha, comes the revolution! You and I will never live to see any of this come to pass."

I was amazed. I thought Dad was quite right: He wouldn't live to see it. I thought that I maybe would. I have enough confidence in the power of ideas and empirical evidence that [I thought] if we banged on it hard enough we'd overcome, but I thought it would take a lot longer than the seven years from the time that article was published to the [deregulation] actually coming to pass.

Over the next year I wrote several more pieces for [reason]. In 1970 I moved to California to take a new job with General Research Corp. in Santa Barbara. Tibor Machan was getting his Ph.D. at U.C. [Santa Barbara] in those years and was writing for reason, so Lanny said, "Hook up with this guy. He's Objectivist-libertarian, and he's writing for reason too."

We became friends and over the course of 1970 spent lots of time discussing the potential of the magazine while it was about to go out of business--because Lanny had no business sense whatever. He was pretty good as a writer and editor but was running out of money and begging us to send cash to keep it going. I don't know if Tibor did, but I sent him a few hundred dollars. Eventually Tibor and I decided we'd like to try to take it over and make a part-time business out of it.

We created a business plan. We in our naive way expected that within three to five years we'd have it in the black. We were obviously making very optimistic assumptions about both costs and revenues. It's never been anywhere close to being in the black.

But those were heady days, and we thought we'd raise startup capital. Tibor knew a number of people of libertarian or Objectivist orientation who were in business, so we sent a proposal probably to 20 or 30 people asking them to put up money as an investment. We got like $1,500 plus a few hundred each that we put in. We picked up Manny Klausner along the way. We figured if we're starting a business we really ought to have an attorney.

Tibor Machan was one of the founding partners in Reason Enterprises. He became editor in the spring of 1971 and worked with the magazine through the 1970s and '80s under the titles of associate editor and senior editor.

Tibor Machan: Lanny Friedlander requested that he might reprint an article of mine from [the academic philosophy journal] The Personalist. Later on he wanted to print something else I wrote, something on a fairly technical philosophical issue, the nature of the a priori. So Bob Poole became aware of me.

And then I got a call from Manny Klausner, who discovered me on KPFK [the Pacifica Radio affiliate in Los Angeles], where I had a 15-minute show every week in the late '60s. So then the idea of taking reason a step further than it was in Friedlander's care came up, and that's when the three of us, including our then-wives--Manny is still married to the same woman, but Bob and I are not--decided to take it over.

Manuel Klausner was one of the founding partners in Reason Enterprises. He became editor in the summer of 1972 and a senior editor in June 1978. He remains on the board of the Reason Foundation.

Manuel Klausner: I had experience with the NYU Law Review and New Individualist Review and the Journal of Law and Economics, which I'd worked on with Ronald Coase in Chicago. I was doing lots of speaking at the time, was very interested in achieving positive social change using the political system and print media, so it was a natural for me.

Poole: We basically took on [Friedlander's] liabilities. He was completely out of money and had an average of nine months of issues to deliver to 400 people and no means of doing it. We took it out of his hands and got an addressograph machine. Put out our first issue in January '71 and never missed an issue.

Tibor was working full time, as you do in a Ph.D. program. I had a full-time job, and Manny had a full-time law career. After a year we hired a full-time office manager/ secretary, but until the Reason Foundation started in '78 there was never more than one paid person.

Machan: Manny was never an Objectivist, and even Bob was more mild-mannered about it. I was the philosophically grounded one, but I stylistically repudiated the atmospherics of the Objectivist world. I was excommunicated back in 1963 from the Rand thing.

Poole: We wanted a magazine for thinking people, not [just] Randians. As time went on and various marketing strategies were tried it became clear that Rand was some people's cup of tea and not others" and if we wanted to be influential being an explicitly Objectivist magazine was not the recipe for doing that.

Klausner: When we took it over, reason was in a paradoxical stage of becoming more burdensome. Instead of...

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