The Coming of Age for the Reason Foundation : Libertarian Think Tank Is Relocating Here in Bid for a Higher Profile and Greater Clout

Times Staff Writer

Reason is coming to Los Angeles.

Next week.

But before you say, “And about time, too,” perhaps you should know more.

In this case, Reason is a magazine and part of the Reason Foundation, a think tank that seeks ways to turn the federal government into an anorexic shadow of its current self, among other things.

And in what some might consider an act of insanity, the Reason staff is abandoning the quiet, clear-aired charms of Santa Barbara for the Southern California megalopolis.


Yet there is method in this madness.

Seeking Visibility

When the foundation opens its new offices in Santa Monica next Monday, president Robert W. Poole Jr., 41, hopes his eight-year-old brainchild will have found the climate in which to prosper.

What the Reason Foundation wants, he explained, is greater visibility, access and clout among the business, intellectual and media communities of California and the nation.

“There is not a critical mass of any of those communities in Santa Barbara,” Poole said the other day, noting that most comparable organizations are headquartered in big cities. “We realize we’re paying a price in lower profile, lower visibility, by being in Santa Barbara. Moving to Los Angeles is a very big and important step for us.”

Checks with Reason’s peers around the country seemed to highlight the low visibility of the foundation and its magazine.

Nation editor Victor Navasky in New York, New Republic editor Michael Kinsley in Washington and Donald McDonald, acting director of the well-known Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions of Santa Barbara, said they were not particularly familiar with the foundation or the magazine, although their offices receive copies of Reason.

However, Kinsley, whose magazine has lately confounded some of its liberal readers, said the libertarian movement to which Reason belongs is “a very creative force in American politics. . . . In some ways, they’re more left than right.”

At the influential, conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation, the Reason Foundation proved to be much more visible, though.

Robert Huberty, who coordinates Heritage’s work with outside groups and individuals, said his organization has worked closely with Reason staffers in briefing Reagan Administration figures on privatization, the selling off or contracting out of government services.

Acknowledging that “there is a kind of tension between mainstream conservatives and libertarians,” Huberty said, “Generally speaking, we’ve found them (Reason) to be more compatible than other libertarian organizations.”

Within certain political circles, Reason is well-known, Huberty added. “Conservative movement types who are in the know are familiar with Reason,” he said.

Despite the Heritage endorsement, Poole is clearly wary of being tagged with traditional political labels.

The Reason Foundation, which has 13 full-time and two part-time staff members, frequently has been falsely tabbed conservative or right-wing in the media, Poole said, adding that such labels convey an inaccurate picture of the organization.

Baby Boomers’ Concerns

“A lot of our emphasis, especially with Reason magazine, is the concerns of the baby boomers who are economically conservative and socially tolerant,” he said. “That’s very crude but it’s kind of a working-level definition of what we are.” Other words Poole used to describe Reason included “open,” “optimistic” and “pro-technology.”

A glance through the magazine and other foundation materials seems to support Poole’s contention. Alongside fairly predictable calls for a balanced federal budget and other fiscal restraint, Reason advocates pulling all U.S. armed forces out of Europe and an end to all forms of censorship.

Poole also says he has briefed Democrats as well as Republicans, including having input to a potential 1988 presidential candidate.

Declining to name names, Poole said, “I can say that somebody who’s very close to one of those ‘new ideas’ Democrats has gotten memos from me and I sat down and briefed some Southern California free-enterprise Democrats on a couple of occasions.”

Demonstrating his practical side, Poole added, “We don’t have any particular reason to feed ideas only to Republicans. I’m very happy to try to feed good ideas to people who might be in power in the next 20 years. I’m not sure they all know who we are and I’m not sure if they really care. We like to think of ourselves as idea brokers.”

Whatever its political stripes, Reason’s move will add Los Angeles to the list of major cities--including New York, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and Washington--that have libertarian-style or “free market” think tanks devoted in large part to pushing deregulation of business and privatization of government functions at all levels.

Not unexpectedly, the primary target of the Reason foundations reports, books and magazine articles is the federal government.

In the best of all possible worlds, Poole said, the central government would practically wither away.

“I would ultimately--in the far future--I would see the federal government confined to providing national defense and running a federal court system and very little else--probably patents and copyrights and that sort of thing. But not running national welfare programs, not running the nation’s fundamental retirement security system, not dictating to states that they have a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.”

But he conceded, “I don’t have any illusions that changes of this sort can be made in five or 10 years. . . . I’m not sure they ever can be.”

Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, formed Reason in 1978 after stints with Sikorsky Aircraft and General Research, a Santa Barbara firm that evaluated federally funded programs intended to aid local governments. It was at General Research that Poole said he was first exposed to the idea of privatization, an awkward word that he claims credit for popularizing.

At the moment, Reason’s computer database contains 27,000 examples of government services that have been partly or totally farmed out to private enterprise, Poole said, noting with disappointment that “at the federal level there’s been virtually nothing.”

Rhetoric Has Hurt

Reagan Administration rhetoric about cutting back government has handicapped his foundation, Poole maintained.

“Many of the people who give to free market causes, they see someone like Ronald Reagan get elected and they hear the rhetoric and they think, ‘Gosh, we’re winning, what do I need to give you guys money for?’ It was easier to raise money under Jimmy Carter.”

Last year, according to its annual report, the Reason Foundation raised from private sources and sales about $1.6 million, a 19% increase over 1984. Reason magazine accounted for 41% of income and accounted for the biggest chunk of expenses, 67%. The move to Los Angeles is costing about $50,000 and will add about 5% a year to operating expenses, Poole said.

It’s primarily through the magazine that the Reason Foundation hopes to become more of a household word. Circulation is currently about 30,000, which Poole hopes to double over the next five years.

Random selections from several issues turned up an editorial calling for an end to “the costly and futile prohibition of drugs,” a paean to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s divestment of government-owned industries and a tongue-in-cheek column in which the Cleaver family from the “Leave It to Beaver” TV show struggles with balancing the budget. Appropriately, one of the magazine’s prominent advertisers manufactures radar detectors.

Making a Name

Poole is most proud of the fact that some of the magazine’s pieces have begun to make a name for the periodical in the world at large. A series on resistance movements in countries dominated by the Soviet Union or its allies put a new perspective on the dynamics of the Soviet empire, Poole claimed. He also touted a recent report on Ciskei, a South African homeland that Reason magazine found to be an island of free market success in the turbulence of the subcontinent.

In a survey of its readers, Reason discovered that 55% are aged 25 to 44, 89% are male, a third are sole or part owners of their own companies, average household income is $52,000, 62% classified themselves as libertarians while 23% called themselves conservatives. And about 40% own gold, perhaps a reflection of subscribers’ worry over the federal deficit in particular and paper money in general.

The foundation keeps careful track of its impact on the media. Last year its 60-second spots, called “Perspective on the Economy,” were airing on 170 stations with a potential audience of 46 million. In addition, 14 Spanish language stations had begun airing the program by last December. Also in 1985, the foundation calculated that its authors were interviewed on radio talk shows 114 times, reaching a potential audience of 80 million while articles from Reason appeared 70 times in newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times with a combined circulation of 11 million.

Within the next year or so, Reason hopes to move up to television. That will happen via a series called “The New Enlightenment,” a six-part production about the “rebirth of liberal individualism.” The series will cover the growing body of thought that criticizes big government programs and extols the virtues of individual initiative. “The New Enlightenment” will air first in Great Britain and the Reason Foundation, which helped fund the production, will try to have the series broadcast on public television stations in this country, Poole said.

Little by little, Poole hopes such bits of exposure to the ideas his foundation backs will “change the way people think about ideas, public policies, the role of government in society.” After a moment’s reflection, he added, “That’s a fairly abstract and long-term proposition and it’s not an easy pitch to make.”