Reason magazine is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and a bunch of the staff are sharing their libertarian origin stories. I think I’ll share mine.
The first time I remember hearing the word “libertarian” was when I was in high school in 1980 and Ed Clark was running for President on the Libertarian ticket. I remember that he wanted to legalize all drugs, and I thought it might make sense in theory but that really doing it would be nuts.
When I got to college, I got interested in some common political issues, and I decided to make an effort to learn more about them. This was years before the first web page traversed the internet, so my approach was to scour the magazine racks for publications that covered political issues. The magazines ranged from liberal to conservative, and they were often interesting reading, but all of them took editorial stances that struck me as inconsistent and misguided.
Except for one magazine, where I found myself nodding along with almost everything they wrote. It wasn’t so much that they agreed with my views, but that the authors thought about the issues in a way that made a lot of sense to me. I’d start reading a piece about the war on drugs or transportation policy, and at some point there’d be this mental ping and I’d realize they had found exactly the right way to think about the issue.
Unfortunately, I had read so many different magazines that next time I went looking for reading material, I couldn’t remember what it was called. I had to just continue buying a variety magazines, hoping to pick it up again. I think it was a few months before I opened up a magazine, started reading, and got that ping sensation again. This time I made a point of noting the magazine’s name.
Of course it was Reason.
This was during the years when Virginia Postrel was Editor in Chief, and I remember her editorials had a way of drawing libertarian ideas out of all kinds of topics, from contact lenses to breast implants. Every issue of Reason had articles that helped me clarify my thinking about the issues of the day. It was during this time that I really began to think about the world in libertarian terms and of myself as a libertarian. I will always be grateful to Postrel and the rest of the Reason staff for the clarity they gave me.
In the following years, four books also heavily colored and solidified my libertarian thinking:
- Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society. This is Peter McWilliams’ magnum opus. His passionate argument convinced me forever that the government has no business telling us what to do if we aren’t hurting anyone.
- The Armchair Economist This is Steven Landsburg’s easy-to-read and thought-provoking introduction to some very serious economic concepts. It helped me organize my thinking about policy analysis, and kicked off my now decades-long amateur interest in economics. (Link is to the latest edition.)
- Hard Heads, Soft Hearts: Tough-minded Economics For A Just Society. This book by liberal economist Alan Blinder argues that some public policies are so bad, and so economically ill-informed, that we can find solutions that improve on hard-headed conservative concerns about limiting spending and regulation, while also doing a better job of satisfying soft-hearted liberal goals like reducing pollution and improving the lives of the poor.
- Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. In this book, James Bovard presents hundreds of examples of how laws and regulations can get out of control when enforced by the petty and power-mad. It’s a searing and heartbreaking account of ruined lives. (Bovard turns out a ton of books like this. This is just the first one I read.)
Sorry. No Ayn Rand.