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Choice: The Best of Reason, edited by Nick Gillespie

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There are dozens of American political magazines on newsstands and the internet, and most of them fall into two categories: “Democrat” and “Republican”. Few National Review or Weekly Standard writers voted for John Kerry, while an infamous Slate survey showed that only two or three (out of several dozen) contributors were voting for Bush. A similar poll conducted by the libertarian magazine Reason (slogan: “Free Minds and Free Markets”), however, showed a pretty even three-way split between Bush, Kerry and Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik, which a few contributors saying they had no plans to vote at all.

“Libertarian” is probably the most loosely defined of all political terms, and it’s unlikely you’d get five self-described libertarians to unanimously agree on five policy proposals. That’s reflected in the Reason poll results, and in the magazine itself, where you never really know what direction each issue will take. As the motto implies, the Reason writers are deeply suspicious of government intervention, but that still leaves a lot of room for debate and diversity of thought. That, and an irreverent anti-authoritarian streak (if you were a Reason subscriber when one recent issue came out, you got a cover showing a satellite photo of your house), makes the publication so much fun to read.

36 years after it was founded as a mimeographed “alternative” paper, Reason has released Choice, a compilation of its best articles. Nearly all the selections seem to come from the past decade, which is something of a disappointment; I’d love to have seen some examples of what Reason was like in its earliest days. (I say “seem to”, by the way, because the book does not say when each article was originally published – a curious oversight in a compilation like this.) And a few subjects, most notably foreign policy, get relatively short shrift in Choice.

But this is still a stimulating read, especially for someone new to the magazine who wants to catch up on some of its best work. No magazine is better at puncturing conventional wisdom and debunking cherished myths like Reason, and Choice reprints some classics. Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis’s “Typing Errors,” for example, is a skilful refutation of the “Dvorak keyboard” myth – that a typewriter keyboard invented in the 1936 by August Dvorak is clearly superior to the standard QWERTY keyboard, but that it never got a fair shot in the marketplace. Writers like Paul Krugman use it as an example of market failure – and it’s complete bunk. (Scientific studies showing the Dvorak keyboard’s alleged “superiority” were conducted by Dvorak himself – who stood to make a mint if his patented design became the new standard.)

There are other gems. Randal O’Toole’s “Dense Thinkers” is a surprisingly convincing defense of “urban sprawl”, noting, among other things, that air quality is worst in the most congested American cities, and that one of the best ways to clear the air is to reduce traffic congestion by building more freeways. Michael Fumento’s debunking of “Gulf War Syndrome” is a devastating indictment of media outlets accepting the most outrageous claims at face value, and even making things up out whole cloth. Glenn Garvin shows that immigration, even of the “illegal” variety, creates jobs and opportunity. An infuriating, heartbreaking article by Jacob Sullum on “opiophobia” shows how chronic pain sufferers have been denied the pain medication they really need because of drug-war hysteria. And on a lighter note, Joe Bob Briggs tells the story of the classic exploitation flick Mom & Dad, which scandalized straight-laced audiences all over America in the 1950s, and the producers’ underhanded – and hilarious – stunts to promote the film and to squeeze even more money out of the rubes.

In even the best compilations like this you get a dud or two, and Edith Efron’s article on the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings resembles the kind of politically-correct, jargon-clogged thesis that usually draw derisive (and deserved) sneers from the Reason readership. On the other hand, some stellar articles – such as pioneering blogger Matt Welch’s stunning refutation of the pervasive “Iraq sanctions killed a million children” myth – are left out. (Welch’s profile of Vaclav Havel is included.)

Reason has come a long way since the first issues came off the copy machine, and the magazine has never been more relevant. And of all the political magazines in America, there are few as entertaining and surprising; what more can you say about a magazine that named Richard Nixon one of its “35 Heroes of Freedom”, since he “did more than any other single individual to encourage cynicism about government and wariness of presidential power”?

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