THE NEW REPUBLIC was launched in 1914 by three of the most famous intellectuals of the Progressive era: Walter Lippmann, Herbert Croly, and Walter Weyl. National Review was introduced in 1955 by an oil tycoon's son named William F. Buckley, already notorious for provocative books criticizing Yale and defending Joseph McCarthy. The Weekly Standard was founded with Rupert Murdoch's money 40 years later by former Dan Quayle speechwriter William Kristol, whose legendary magazine-editor father Irving was considered the godfather of neoconservatism. Prestigious journals of opinion often emanate from prestige.
Not so Reason. The magazine you are reading was the brainchild of a 20-year-old Boston University student nobody had ever heard of named Lanny Friedlander, who stapled together and mailed out the first mimeographed issues from a hopelessly disorganized room at his mother's brick house in Brighton, Massachusetts. You will search in vain for any editor's note in the history of The Nation or Mother Jones with a lead like this opening line from Friedlander in January 1970: "I drive a delivery van for a living."
From these inauspicious beginnings, Reason has grown to a magazine with a circulation of over 40,000, averaging more than 4 million views online per month and producing videos that were watched 48 million times on YouTube and Facebook in the last year--in addition to a practical-minded public policy shop that helps reform public pensions, privatize government services, and build better highways. Almost all of that achievement took place after Friedlander exited the scene. In 1970, after two thrilling but erratic years, Reason's founder sold the publication's thin assets and thicker liabilities for less than $3,500 to the industrious California-based trio of systems engineer Robert W.Poole Jr., libertarian lawyer Manuel S.Klausner, and neo-Objectivist philosopher Tibor Machan. (Their significant others, who also joined the partnership at the time, were eventually bought out.) In 1978, they launched the foundation that publishes the magazine to this day.
By the time both Reason and the modern libertarian movement began to flourish, one of the key architects of both had fallen off the grid, never to return. Yet Friedlander's distinct vision is still visible, in the form of the magazine's lowercase, sans-serif logo, its willingness to gather in various strains of libertarianism for examination and debate, and a certain natural sympathy for outsiders, eccentrics, dreamers. "He was bold, amazingly gifted, socially uncertain," recalls Mark Frazier, then a high school student who helped with paste-up and other tasks on some of those early editions before moving on to a long career in the free cities movement. "He followed a compass that set many different things in motion."
Who exactly was this sui generis spark, how was he able to rise above the 1960s and '70s din of short-lived libertarian-world newsletters, and why did he flame out so fast? These elusive questions have haunted a succession of Reason captains. Upon Friedlander's death in 2011, Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of the magazine from 2000 through 2007, wrote that in the absence of any information, he had "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." Even people who knew Friedlander in the flesh are hazy on details, tending to project onto his sparse canvas the arc of their own life journeys.
A closer examination on the occasion of this 50th anniversary begins to fill out the picture of Reason's starkly minimalist origin story. Lanny Friedlander was an Objectivist who believed in big-tent libertarianism, a student protester who reviled other student protesters, and an anti-war/anti-draft activist who volunteered for the Navy. He was professionally charismatic and personally introverted, an exacting truth seeker and unreliable narrator, a systemic thinker and disheveled coordinator. ("The printed format of this issue," he wrote when announcing the magazine's first offset-press edition in September 1969, "does not represent a guarantee that the next issue will also be printed.") He will likely be remembered most for his striking sense of art direction--Wired co-creator Louis Rossetto, who first encountered Reason as an undergrad at Columbia University, said in 2011 that the publication "was my gateway to good design"--yet when describing himself, Friedlander preferred the term "writer/intellectual."
That writing contained a breadth rarely seen among young adults of any era. Friedlander made prescient and detailed predictions about the future of personalized telecommunications, argued persuasively that "pollution is theft," and applied Austrian-economics analyses to the question of "how the police would operate in a free society." At turns theoretical and practical, pedantic and poetic, his voice vibrated with a visceral rage when touching on the dehumanization of modern institutions. "Whatever reason a parent might have for leaving his children in the care of the state," he snarled in January 1970, talking about not orphanages but public schools, "it will not diminish their intellectual death, nor mitigate their emotional torture."
As fate would cruelly have it, Friedlander spent much of the rest of his life institutionalized in Veterans Administration facilities and halfway homes, chained to the dulling anchor of antipsychotic drugs--a diagnosed schizophrenic under the wary eye of the paternalistic state.
But before that sad, smothered slide, there was a bracing boldness to go somewhere truly new. "When Reason speaks of poverty, racism, the draft, the war, student power, politics, and other vital issues," Friedlander promised in his opening-issue manifesto, "it shall be reasons, not slogans, it gives for conclusions. Proof, not belligerent assertion. Logic, not legends. Coherance [sic], not contradictions. This is our promise; this is the reason for Reason."
BACK IN THE late 1960s, as the old saw goes, you could fit the entire libertarian movement into Murray Rothbard's New York apartment. So where did that leave Boston?
There was David Nolan--co-founder of the...