Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 30, 2005
BLOG: Choice and Reason
I got a complimentary copy about a week ago of "Choice, the best of Reason," a collection ostensibly showcasing the best of Reason Magazine, the hip monthly with a libertarian point of view. Being easily bought by free goodies, I started reading it right away so I could post about the book.
As a collection of lively and interesting magazine pieces, "Choice" doesn't disappoint. There are three pieces here I'd already read on the web - the interview with Dave Barry, Matt Welch's profile of Vaclav Havel, and the "35 Heroes of Freedom." I'd highly recommend the Barry and Havel profiles. In fact, much of what's in here is profiles, not all of people who fit in the libertarian box: there's also a perceptive and highly sympathetic profile of Clarence Thomas, plumbing the roots of his anger* leading up to the infamous "high-tech lynching" speech, as well as interviews with Milton Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, John Stossel, Norman Borlaug, and Drew Carey. More expected, there are skeptical looks at the War on Drugs, Gulf War Syndrome, the child-safety culture, and medical underuse of pain medication. The book is far less of a primer on libertarianism; you won't find anything here that reads like John Galt's speech in "Atlas Shrugged," and any number of issues are uncovered.
But one facet of the book is perhaps unintentionally revealing: while "Choice" is presented as "the best of Reason," more than half of the magazine's 35-year history is absent here; I believe the Thomas piece from 1992 is the oldest in the book. Annoyingly but tellingly, neither the table of contents nor the opening of each selection gives you the date, which appears only at the end of each article (the Hitchens interview, dated "November 2001," is either misdated or was conducted well before its publication, as I can't imagine Hitchens being interviewed in November 2001 and failing to mention the War on Terror while calling the war on drugs the most important issue in the world today). Editor Nick Gillespie apologizes, in the book's introduction, that many of the issues covered by the magazine's early years now seem "almost quaint." But it is inconceivable, by contrast, that, say, National Review would publish a retrospective limited exclusively to the past 15 years; the urge is too great, even in current issues of NR, to pay homage to forbears, recount battles won and foes vanquished, and otherwise invoke tradition and conservatism's ancient historical bona fides. I believe it was Burke (it's been variously attributed) who said, "experience is the school of mankind, he will learn at no other." Libertarianism, by contrast, seems remarkably unschooled by experience; as Hitchens notes in the interview, "I can't . . . picture a libertarian analysis of 1848 or 1914." In part, this is of a piece with the difficulty of finding a coherent "libertarian" view on foreign policy (domestic-policy libertarians are all over the map on foreign policy).
I'll write more again another day on why I'm not a libertarian, but this is part of why; libertarianism, to me, is more a useful set of questions than a workable portfolio of solutions. But those questions are worth asking, and this book asks a few good ones.
* - I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas in 1992, and while he was engaging and very funny in person, it wasn't hard to see the bristling anger still there not far at all below the surface.