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Circulation: 5,500
Date of Birth: 1987
Frequency: Monthly
Price: $4.00
Natural Habitat: Washington state

Circulation: 40,000
Date of Birth: 1968
Frequency: Monthly
Price: $3.50
Natural Habitat: Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles

By Garin K. Hovannisian

It is a libertarian axiom, asserted usually in that philosophy-soaked dialect that libertarians speak, that liberty is both the cause and consequence of reason. If human beings (“individuals” is more often the word) didn’t have reason, then they would not know what to do with their liberty. And if they didn’t have liberty, then reason wouldn’t matter. Each is dependent on the other.

Something similar can be said about Liberty and Reason, the two national magazines that have emerged as the leaders—chroniclers and movers both—of the libertarian movement.

This is a self-consciously awkward assertion, because any reading libertarian will tell you that the two magazines are deeply different. Of course they share a few contributors, a definite slice of readership and a general commitment to free markets. But that is where the similarities stop.

As for the differences, they are nowhere more obvious than on the covers.

Liberty’s is invariably pale blue—a pictureless façade that modestly displays in black print its four or five major headlines. The March 2008 issue, for example, presents “Who Guards Our Schools?” and “The Two Libertarianisms.” At the bottom horizon of each cover runs a liberty quote. March invokes Milton: “Behold now this vast city…the mansion house of Liberty.”

Reason, by contrast, is colorful and glossy, and its covers are graphics-heavy. Images of politicians are common. So are cartoons accompanied by blurbs such as “The 4 Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters” and “The Right to Own a Bazooka.”

There is no doubt that Reason is trying to be chic and edgy and culturally wonderful. It is as if each headline wants to fit Milton Friedman, the Nobel-winning free-market economist, into the costume of Eric Cartman, a cartoon citizen of the libertarian TV series South Park —to make libertarians cool (again).

The circulation numbers of Liberty (5,500) and Reason (40,000) likewise reflect the magazines’ attitudes and ambitions. Liberty is content to be a magazine for libertarians, and it is sustained by a charitable fund established by R.W. Bradford, its founding editor.

Reason, by contrast, strives to be libertarianism’s ambassador and PR man to the wider world. “Reason’s function is to simultaneously introduce and underscore what it means to be libertarian,” says Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com, which records 2.5 million unique visits a month. And though it is supported by the libertarian nonprofit Reason Foundation, Reason attracts more advertisers.

The different ambitions, obviously, beget different methods.

Liberty has a simple method. It publishes a few letters up front, then dedicates some 10 pages to reflections, which range (in the March issue) from confronting “the threat of epistemological terrorism” to “the economics of hookers.”

In the Reflections section, look for the monthly “Word Watch,” a language column written by Stephen Cox, the current editor, which is an easy equal to William Safire’s in The New York Times and Barbara Wallraff’s in The Atlantic. In a recent installment, Cox shows how terms like the “Nobel Peace Prize,” “fight for peace” and “peace out, man!” mask their own meanings. “Such phrases,” he writes, “may sound better than ‘the Nobel Prize for Political Activism,’ or ‘fight for nation building,’ or ‘stay with the gang or else, man.’”

Packed between the opening reflections and the closing reviews, the Features section embraces everything under the libertarian sun, and a few things it rescues from the shadows. Arguments have raged here over the existence of God, the war in Iraq and the definition of libertarianism itself. Enshrined in these pages is the true variety of—and conflict within—the movement. From church-hating anarchists to Christian capitalists, from Democrats to Republicans to Libertarians, from comedians to curmudgeons, the full spectrum of the circus is under the tent.

“We let our readers sort out the controversies,” says editor Stephen Cox. “Unlike Reason, we don’t see our role as that of converting people to libertarianism, which we are free to criticize when our writers want to do so.”

Reason has a more refined sense of shame—you will rarely find in its pages a heartfelt condemnation of public libraries or a heartless commendation of war—and yet its implied philosophy is to be far more controversial, earth-shattering and revolutionary, although the revolution, it seems to believe, will be civilized.

This is not to say that Reason isn’t controversial, but merely to suggest that its controversiality smacks more of stand-up comedy than of philosophy. Reason knows full well that the libertarian stance against gun control is controversial. And so its cover line doesn’t read “In Defense of Guns” (Liberty might have printed that) but rather “The Right to Own a Bazooka.” By packaging its arguments in an outlandishly controversial way, Reason makes them more palatable to the public it hopes to capture, entertain and, ultimately, convert.

In a sense, Liberty is libertarianism’s first draft. It is a glorious workbook of ideas—all the ideas—that have found themselves, whether temporarily or permanently, within the movement’s camp. There is no standard here but intellectual honesty, no goal but the brazen showcasing of all that is libertarian. Liberty needs no color. If it seems dry, then it is the dryness fermented by clarity rather than false scholarliness.

It is not certain whether Matt Welch, the new editor of Reason, physically picks up Liberty and uses it to create his own second draft of libertarianism. But the ideas circulated and refined in Liberty benefit Reason also.

By the time libertarianism leaves Liberty headquarters in Washington state and arrives at Reason headquarters in Washington, D.C., it finds itself more mature and enticing than ever.

Liberty brews the spirit. Reason gives it flesh. Each depends on the other.


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