Thirty years ago, the first issue of Liberty appeared. It was dated August 1987, and it emerged from an old house high on a hill in the little town of Port Townsend, Washington, overlooking the Puget Sound.
Liberty was born at the moment when technology was making it possible to create a national magazine in one’s own home — if you were willing to perform the backbreaking effort necessary to get it to other people’s homes. R.W. Bradford and Kathy Bradford, who lived in the house on the hill, were willing to do that. Timothy Virkkala was their learned assistant in the project. And this, I suppose, is where I come into the story. I was Bill Bradford’s old friend from Michigan, our home state, who was privileged to become an editor-at-long-distance.
From the start, we had attracted most of the great names in the libertarian movement, and we continued to attract them, from Murray Rothbard to John Hospers to Milton Friedman.
One of Liberty’s first gifts to me was a svelte little plastic fax machine into which I could feed my handwritten copy (or copy embodied in a bad, bad computer printout), so it could be transmitted to Liberty HQ and retyped for publication. I spent many happy nights hand-feeding paper into the clicking, purring, squeaking machine with the cheerful blinking lights, then calling Bill to make sure he could read the results unrolling from his fax.
Within a few years, all copy became digital, human and financial costs-per-word decreased, and Liberty was being mailed to thousands of readers, all over the world. We started at six big issues a year, then went to 11 or 12 big issues. From the start, we had attracted most of the great names in the libertarian movement, and we continued to attract them, from Murray Rothbard to John Hospers to Milton Friedman. We also attracted debate, hostility, admiration, and friendship (often of the much-prized “I disagree with what you say but I like your writing anyway” variety) from libertarians and others.
It was our job to promote a play of ideas, and if we disagreed with what an author said, we helped him or her to present the disagreeable ideas in the most accessible and attractive way.
One of my most vivid memories is a conversation I had with Bill Bradford, who was a very great man, about whether we should publish a certain article. I said no, the subject wasn’t very important, and what the author said would only provoke anger from certain friends of Liberty. “Well,” he said. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” So we published it.
That’s not a unique instance. And I used to say that Bill published more articles that he disagreed with than otherwise. It was our job to promote a play of ideas, and if we disagreed with what an author said, we helped him or her to present the disagreeable ideas in the most accessible and attractive way. The one thing we wouldn’t stand for (still won’t) was an error of fact. In the days before the internet and during its infancy and adolescence we spent many days checking out purported facts about the history of South American railways, the origin of dogs, the use and regulation of helium in America, and other topics that turned out to be so interesting that we were happy we had disputed our authors’ facts.
But there were millions of facts that Bill didn’t need to look up. I suppose that nobody ever knew more about American political history than he did, or more about American and world geography. Sometimes my phone would ring at 1 a.m., and I would hear Bill’s voice, reporting on his current interests.
“Say, do you know what’s the tallest mountain in the world?”
“Of course. From one point of view. But shouldn’t mountains be measured from where they start? I mean, if a mountain starts from the ocean floor, shouldn’t it be measured from the ocean floor? Well, in that case, the candidates are . . .”
Well,” Bill said. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” So we published it.
I think it was in that conversation that Bill introduced the topic of where you can see farthest on the surface of the earth, and developed a mathematical formula for calculating how far away a peak of such and such a height can be seen. He got the formula, which he supposed was the same as the one he had learned but had misplaced. Then he found that formula and discovered that it was different from his own, “but both of them work.” Not surprisingly, Bill wanted Liberty to encourage, not just articles about politics, but articles about the whole wide world. The journal should offer the best writing about liberty, or by libertarians, about anything . . .
Once, in the early days, Bill and I attended a libertarian convention called “The Culture of Liberty.” It was held in a typical conference center with a ballroom and breakout rooms, and in one corner of the ballroom there were six or seven paintings by some libertarian artist. Bill looked at them and laughed: “I guess that’s it; that’s the ‘culture of liberty.’” We both thought that if libertarianism was about getting the political power to leave people alone, so they would be free to do all the colorful and creative things they were able to do, then a libertarian journal should be warmly interested in those things; it shouldn’t stop with politics. Liberty never has — and if you want to see a magnificent exponent and exemplar of this idea, follow the contributions of Jo Ann Skousen, our entertainment editor.
When Bill and I were growing up, there were a few conservative journals, with National Review as their undisputed chief; an orthodox Objectivist journal; and a scattering of libertarian publications. At one end of that spectrum was The Freeman, an outreach publication with good analyses of economic questions. It was mailed out free, and it never, ever, reviewed a book it didn’t like. At the other end was Libertarian Connection, a cheeky product of early technology: you wrote whatever you wanted, mimeographed it, and mailed a ton of copies to the publisher, who stapled them together with other people’s mimeographed pages and mailed them out to everyone. Bill and I often hung out and discussed the latest Connection. It gave us a lot of laughs at some of its authors, and a lot of friendly feelings toward the others (and toward the first group, too).
If libertarianism was about people being left alone, free to do all the colorful and creative things they were able to do, then a libertarian journal should be warmly interested in those things.
In the late 1960s came Reason, which is still going strong, thank God, with a large foundation behind it, and a strong political agenda. And then came Liberty. Now — again, thank God — there are hundreds of libertarian online publications, pursuing various kinds of political agendas.
But Liberty was never that way. Bill was proud of the fact that, as he said, “Liberty has never advocated a single political position. Our authors have, but Liberty itself has not.” Don’t be mistaken: this is an important distinction, one of the most important in the world of journalism.
There is nothing wrong, and many things that are right, about publishing a journal whose purpose is to advocate certain specific ideas. Great political progress has resulted from the focused influence of libertarian, conservative, and civil-libertarian organs of opinion. But what is gained in influence may be lost in fun, and sometimes in trust. Liberty has never failed to publish something that’s unusual, attractive, or interesting, just because it wouldn’t help to produce the correct kind of political change.
And when you read Liberty, you may be bothered by many things, but you won’t be bothered by what I call the Church Bulletin Problem. Everything that’s written in the church bulletin may be true: the church may be doing great deeds; Satan may be on his last legs, and sinking fast; among the membership, all may be harmony and peace. But you know that if this were not true, the unfortunate fact would never appear in the bulletin. It just wouldn’t fit the agenda.
Liberty has never failed to publish something that’s unusual, attractive, or interesting, just because it wouldn’t help to produce the correct kind of political change.
Even the good stuff, the really individual stuff, the really inspiring stuff I see in some of the political sites and journals I enjoy, can make me wonder: is that really true? If not, how could I tell? And do the authors actually believe it’s true? With Liberty there has never been any question about that: our authors may have the wrong perspective, they may be making the wrong deductions, they may, at times, be riding their deductions over a cliff, but they believe exactly what they’ve written. This is especially noteworthy in cases in which libertarians are brave enough to challenge some libertarian “line.” You don’t do that unless you mean it.
But enough of preaching. The rest of the history (so far) is this. In December 2005, Bill died in his house on the hill, after a long and heroic struggle with cancer. One of his last concerns was the future of Liberty. We talked on the phone, a couple of weeks before his death, and I agreed to take the job as editor in chief. The good thing about me was that I had been an editor from the start and had been the only person, besides Bill himself, who had written something for every issue. The bad thing was that I lacked Bill’s gargantuan energy, his intimate knowledge of everything libertarian, and his . . . just everything that distinguished him as a great human being. For me, the good thing about my new job was that I got to collaborate with the amazing people who did the real work: Kathy Bradford, Mark Rand, Patrick Quealy, and Drew Ferguson.
In 2010, Liberty passed into its third technological era. Print journalism was on its way out. Fewer people wanted to wait for Liberty to arrive by mail. Bill had once been proud that we had subscribers in virtually every real country in the world, but changes in postal rates had nearly eliminated our worldwide audience. We needed to make a change, and we did: in late 2010, we became an online journal.
The effects were both good and bad. Good: we reclaimed our international audience. We became much more timely than a monthly print journal can be. We could link and be linked. We could make everything we publish and have published accessible for free. (OK, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You still have to spend time reading what we write. But you don’t have to pay any money. Although donations are always very acceptable.) Bad: we lost the wonderful heft and feel and smell of print, and with it many of our readers, who delight (as I do) in the enjoyment of words on paper.
Once we had subscribers in virtually every real country in the world, but changes in postal rates had nearly eliminated our worldwide audience. We needed to make a change.
So, we’re different today from what we were before, but we’re still the tough little boat in Captains Courageous, the “We’re Here.” We’re so substantially here that when I went looking through our online archives to find the locations of articles that I especially enjoyed, so I could recommend them to you, I got lost — lost in enjoyment of so many things I had read, and loved, and “forgotten,” and then discovered again, as fresh as the day they were written. You’re invited to go to the Liberty Archive and push the Search button and see for yourself. Substantial writing is writing that endures, and I think you’ll find that the great majority of the writing we’ve published retains its interest in a way that journal writing ordinarily does not.
I wanted to say, “If you follow this link, you’ll see the best writing by this author or that author.” But that idea was a nonstarter. There was just too much of the best, both of authors and of articles. And while I’m talking about the “best,” here’s the interesting thing about the authors of Liberty: every one of them is really an individual — which means that attempts at comparisons among them are all comparisons of apples and oranges.
Bill Bradford wanted writing that wasn’t valuable simply because of its subject or its political opinions. He wanted writing that showed you what individual people can do with words.
That is exactly what Bill Bradford wanted — individuality. A fervent admirer of H.L. Mencken — I can see Bill now, glowing with pleasure as he told me about one of the high points of his life, his visit to the Mencken house in Baltimore, where he sat in Mencken’s chair, behind Mencken’s desk — he wanted writing that wasn’t valuable simply because of its subject or its political opinions. He wanted writing that showed you what individual people can do with words.
I’ll speak for myself: If anyone asks me to identify my favorites among all the things I’ve written for Liberty, I’ll mention two items about animals: my Word Watch column on the death of Tatiana the tiger (April 2008, pp. 19–20), and my Reflection on the death of Adwaitya the tortoise (June 2006, pp. 9–11). I think those pieces are interesting because of what I did with them, not because I was expressing predictably libertarian sentiments. I also think they’re interesting because neither of them could possibly have appeared in any other journal. They are modest examples of what Liberty has always done to give liberty to its authors.
If you want more of the story of Liberty, I urge you to visit our March 2006 issue and read “A Life in Liberty,” our symposium on the life of Bill Bradford. Much of our history is conveniently available in our 20th-anniversary issue (August 2007), which offers accounts of the journal’s history written by Bill and me and the inimitable Bruce Ramsey. I hope you like what we’ve always tried to do. If you like it, please raise a glass to both Liberty and liberty. The second is always cause for tumultuous celebration. As for the first . . . we hope that it continues to merit a tumult, too.