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20 Years on Battle Lines for Reason

May 05, 1988|JOHN GABREE

Calling itself a "think magazine for the baby boom generation," Reason, the Libertarian alternative to The Nation, National Review and the New Republic, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.

The journal was started in 1968 as a mimeographed broadside by Boston University journalism student Lanny Friedlander. A follower of Ayn Rand, Friedlander opposed not only the Vietnam war, the draft and the corporate state--as so many on campus did in the the late 1960s--but he also opposed the opposers. Reason offered what the current editors call a rationalist alternative based on individualism and free market economics to the romantic advocacy of collectivism and socialism by such organizations as Students for Democratic Society.

In 1969, Friedlander published an argument favoring airline deregulation, nine years before Congress acted in the matter, by a young engineer at Sikorsky in Connecticut named Robert W. Poole Jr. "Seeing that article in print was my moment of truth," recalls Poole, now 43. "I decided that rather than spending my life in aerospace engineering, I wanted to be writing about and helping to shape public policy." A year later, he and several partners purchased Reason from Friedlander and moved it to Santa Barbara. The publication began its slow evolution to a slick monthly.

With the May issue, Reason's circulation hit 38,000, a healthy number for an opinion magazine. (Though it reaches fewer readers than the New Republic or National Review, Reason compares favorably to such established competitors as Washington Monthly, American Spectator and Commentary.) Most of that circulation is by subscription, though the periodical has begun enjoying still minuscule but growing newsstand sales since being taken on last year by Eastern News, a national distributor specializing in non-mass-circulation publications.

The magazine has launched an ambitious $300,000 circulation drive anticipated to double distribution in two years. Revenues are also rising, though so far most advertisers are low-circulation regulars promoting discount sunglasses and radar detectors, and oddball publishers.

According to Poole, polls show that as many as 25% of Americans are conservative on economic issues but liberal or tolerant on social issues, with that figure running higher among the college-educated audience likely to be attracted by an opinion magazine. It is to this audience, labeled libertarian, that Reason addresses itself, according to Poole, who is publisher in addition to being the president of the parent Reason Foundation.

Profound Changes

In the current issue, 60 past contributors--including Robert Nisbet, Richard Epstein, George Gilder, Karl Hess, Charles Murray, Walter Williams and P. J. O'Rourke--have been asked to give their thoughts on "How Freedom Fares" two decades after the magazine's founding. In an introductory essay, Poole points out the changes profound and trivial that have occurred to alter the "violent, constrained world" of 1968.

It is hard to remember now, as Poole recollects, that self-service gas stations were against the law in 1968, that there were no automatic teller machines, that cable TV was prohibited in most cities. Government regulation thwarted fare competition between airlines. The maximum income tax rate was 70%. It was illegal to own gold. Doctors and lawyers couldn't advertise. The women's liberation movement hadn't begun to take effect. Young men lived in dread of the draft. In many places, sex between unmarried partners was a crime.

Without actually saying so, Poole seems to credit Reason with fostering the spread of libertarian ideas, and there is reason to believe that on at least one issue, the privatization of government services, the magazine and the foundation have had an effect. The foundation, for example, has testified frequently before the President's Commission on Privatization.

Other topics that absorb Reason's attention include corporate takeovers, music censorship, trade protectionism, airline safety, black self-help, arms control and the INF treaty, the space program, and the Reagan doctrine in Central America.

Investigative reporter Martin Morse Wooster has filed attention-getting exposes of what he characterized as the dubious scientific research propping up the Meese Commission Report on Pornography and of the press' easy acceptance of Mitch Snyder's off-the-cuff estimate of U.S. homelessness, which Wooster argued is off by a factor of 10. Other investigative pieces have charged abuse of federal grant moneys by Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union and blamed the Love Canal disaster on city planning mistakes.

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