Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication
Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication

Interview with
Robert Poole
by William & Karen Minto

Biographical note

Robert Poole

Tell us where you grew up and what kinds of early influences shaped your thinking.

Poole: I grew up in Hialeah, Florida, a suburb of Miami. My parents were moderate Republicans, though politics and ideas were not much discussed at home. My interest in these things was sparked by a 12th grade advanced-math teacher, Daryl Johnson. He was also the debate coach, and once a month he took it on himself to teach us political economy instead of math. He had quotes from Friedman and (I think) von Mises posted on the walls above the blackboards. Because of his influence, I bought and read Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, and went off to MIT armed with subscriptions to The Freeman and National Review.

Q: How did you become interested in Ayn Rand and what effect did reading her works have on you?

Poole: Several of my friends in high school were Rand fans, but I resisted reading the books for fear that they would subvert my religious beliefs (as they later did!). But at MIT I got involved with both Students for Goldwater and Young Americans for Freedom. Most of the key people in both groups (which mostly overlapped) were Objectivists, and I kept getting into discussions of Rand’s ideas without having read the books. So in the summer of 1964, while working for the phone company during the day and doing door-to-door Goldwater canvassing at night, I devoured Atlas Shrugged—and the rest is history.

Q: Do you consider yourself an "Objectivist" or just a sympathizer?

Poole: More than anything else, I’m an Objectivist. I’m certainly no philosopher—just an engineer who really loves public policy. So I would not attempt to debate the finer points of Rand’s philosophy with a professional philosopher. Did she really solve the age-old problem of deriving "ought" from "is?" I don’t know. But Objectivism seems to me to be more consistent with what I’ve learned about how humankind obtains knowledge than any other philosophy. I’m comfortable being identified with it, especially now that IOS is making Objectivism respectable.

Q: How significant was Ayn Rand in your adoption of a philosophy of freedom?

Poole: Reading Rand turned me from being a conservative into being a libertarian, and gave me a far deeper grounding for the ideas I was grappling with as I developed my political philosophy. And her vision of a better world—a capitalist utopia that is achievable—certainly played a major part in my eventual decision to make working for freedom my life’s work.

Q: You were initially an engineer—how did you get so interested in policy analysis that you would switch fields?

Poole: First of all, because of the draft and the Vietnam war, my initial career choice was to work for a large aerospace firm. It turned out to be far more bureaucratic than I’d anticipated, and I quickly concluded that this was not how I wanted to spend my life. I’d heard about Rand Corp. and similar think tanks, mostly in California, and I decided that I could apply my systems engineering training to far more interesting problems by working for such an organization. And they were much smaller and less bureaucratic—and best of all, most of the interesting ones were in California, and I was determined to get away from New England winters! So I sent out resumes and got hired by one of them, General Research Corp. (GRC) in Santa Barbara, a spinoff of ARPA.

Meanwhile, I began reading and then writing for the fledgling Reason magazine, started in May 1968 by a student at Boston University named Lanny Friedlander. My first article was a piece I spent many months researching—on airline regulation, and why it should be done away with. I found that I really loved doing that work—and I especially enjoyed seeing it published as the cover story, in the first issue that switched from mimeograph(!) to offset printing. And I was even more excited when The Freeman reprinted the article and I got letters from people all over the country. At the end of 1970, Reason was about to go under—Lanny had run out of money. So several friends and I in California scraped together a bit of money and created a hobby business to take it over. We ran it mostly out of my house for nearly eight years, until the launch of the Reason Foundation in 1978.

Between 1970 and 1978, my professional work and my involvement in Reason magazine grew closer and closer. The Public Safety Systems, Inc. (PSSI) division of GRC had me working on consulting projects with state and local governments, which exposed me to the early days of cities and counties beginning to experiment with contracting out public service delivery to private firms. I wrote articles about this in Reason, and was the first person to call this "privatization." That eventually led to a contract for the first-ever book on the subject, Cutting Back City Hall (Universe Books, 1980) which really put the idea on the map.

By 1978, the demands of putting out an issue of the magazine every month were significantly cutting into my ability to travel on consulting projects. So I went to my partners and told them we either had to put the magazine on a full-time, paying basis or shut it down. Fortunately, we decided to do the latter, which led to the creation of Reason Foundation. That was when I formally gave up my consulting career and started working full-time for the cause.

Q: How did you, Tibor Machan and Manny Klausner come together and what gave you the idea for taking over Reason from Lanny Friedlander?

Poole: In early 1970 when I told Lanny I was moving to Santa Barbara, he told me I should look up Tibor Machan, who had also written for Reason and was getting his Ph.D. in philosophy at UCSB. So I did, and we became friends. The two of us dreamed up the idea of creating a part-time business to take over Reason, when it became evident that Lanny couldn’t make a go of it. Manny Klausner heard Tibor talk about libertarian ideas on a KPFK radio program and called him up. They got acquainted, and we decided it would be a good idea to have a lawyer as part of our fledgling business, so we made Manny one of the partners.

Q: Since you were involved with the Barry Goldwater run for the oval office, can you describe your involvement and impressions of his campaign and why you think he lost?

Poole: I was the literature director of MIT Students for Goldwater, the largest campus Goldwater group in New England, with close to 300 members. Dave Nolan, who went on to found the Libertarian Party in 1971, chaired the group. I also did neighborhood literature distribution in the Miami area in the summer of 1964. My Objectivist/libertarian compatriots and I were dismayed by the campaign from day one. Many of us had fought hard to make sure he got the nomination (our forces took over Mass. Young Republicans, to be sure its delegates were all for Goldwater, not Rockefeller), inspired by the strongly pro-freedom, shrink-government rhetoric of Conscience of a Conservative. But what they ended up running was a wishy-washy, feel-good campaign based on the slogan, "In your heart you know he’s right." Whereas we Objectivists had expected a campaign that appealed to minds, here were Barry’s handlers appealing to hearts! We soldiered on anyway, though by September we pretty much knew it was a lost cause. Yet by routing the Rockefeller big-government Republicans, the Goldwater campaign did bring about a significant realignment within the GOP, moving it in a more libertarian direction that eventually led to the election of Ronald Reagan. So it wasn’t a total loss.

Q: Were you involved with the early Libertarian Party?

Poole: When my friend Dave Nolan started the LP in 1971, I declined the invitation to the founding convention. I didn’t think a third party was at all realistic as a vehicle for change. But after a year or so, many Reason subscribers got involved with it, so we started covering it in the magazine; for several years we even had a regular "Libertarian Party correspondent" column. I went to many of the conventions in the latter ’70s and the ’80s, often as a speaker on privatization (and occasionally on strategy). I also served on the platform committee a couple of times. But I was often on the losing end for opposing radical "abolitionism" in favor of more gradualist policy proposals that might actually win serious attention.


Q: Describe for me, if you will, the daily experience of being the President of a think tank.

Poole: About a third of the time I’m on the road—speaking at conferences, testifying before legislative bodies, as well as meeting with donors and prospective donors in the city where I’m speaking. Days in the office are a mixture of routine and the totally unpredictable. I come in about 7:30 a.m., read the Wall Street Journal and go through about 30 emails. Then I get on the phone to make or return calls to the east coast before they leave for lunch (at 9 a.m. our time). I’ll have meetings with other staff people, concerning research projects, fund-raising projects, magazine marketing, etc. And when I can, I still do substantive policy work—writing op-eds and policy papers on various transportation and privatization issues.

Then there are the unpredictable things—ABC News calls to sound me out about an airport issue, then calls back the next day to send over a camera crew. An investment banker friend calls to tell me she’s told a major construction firm about our work on charter schools and public-private partnerships; they’ve started to approach emerging private-school firms about financing and she thinks I should meet him and compare notes; I agree and set up a lunch meeting. The finance director of a midwest state calls and picks my brain about consultants knowledgeable about prison privatization. Some of these things take five minutes; others involve hours or days of unplanned activity. But there’s always something new and exciting.

Q: Looking back over the last twenty years later, how does the present state of the Reason Foundation reflect your initial vision of what it should be about?

Poole: When we started, we were primarily trying to create a solid framework within which to publish Reason magazine. We had some vague ideas about doing other research and educational things, including my book on privatization. In the first few years we got grants to put on several academic conferences and seminars, and we also created and got published some path-breaking books like Instead of Regulation and Unnatural Monopolies. But it took quite awhile to think through a clear concept of what the Reason Foundation’s best market niche would really be. Cato started the year before we did, with very substantial funding from the Koch family, and a very clear vision and business plan. We were much more of a by-our-own-bootstraps organization, inventing ourselves as we went along. By the end of our first decade, we’d long since abandoned academic work and decided that our real competence lies in domestic public policy research, complementing the magazine’s educational/outreach role. Today, the Reason Public Policy Institute actually has more staff than Reason magazine, though the magazine has a larger budget. The two work hand-in-hand, with the magazine doing the longer-term educational role while RPPI tries to craft workable solutions to real public policy problems in the here and now.

Q: What people have helped you the most, professionally, along the way?

Poole: Tibor Machan was the first philosopher I ever knew, and discussions with him over the years deepened my appreciation for Objectivism and for the power of ideas. Mark Frazier—who had served briefly as Lanny Friedlander’s initial publisher for Reason when he was still a Harvard undergraduate and proved to be a fount of entrepreneurial ideas—urged me to write a booklet on privatization (and found a publisher) that led to my book contract for Cutting Back City Hall. He was the co-founder with me of the Local Government Center, which we later folded into the Reason Foundation as our Privatization Center. He convinced me that even in Reason’s kitchen-table days, we needed to hire a real art director, and helped me find one right there in Santa Barbara. And I’ve enjoyed an ongoing, long-term friendship with fellow privatization pioneer Steve Savas, now a professor at CUNY’s Baruch College. Steve was the one who nominated me for the 1998 Leadership Award of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships, the leading U.S. privatization group. And from an organizational standpoint, Reason Foundation would not be what it is today without a great deal of administrative and accounting advice from my wife, Lou Villadsen. We met in the Foundation’s third year, when it was a tiny and still pretty amateurish organization. Lou convinced me we needed double-entry bookkeeping(!), helped me think through how to relate to our board, and lots of other things, based on her professional background in nonprofit management—she was director of administration at the local Planned Parenthood.

Q: Where did your passion for privatization come from?

Poole: In the late ’60s I read an obscure book from the Conservative Book Club called Uncle Sam, the Monopoly Man by William Wooldridge. It recounted story after story of entrepreneurs going into business to provide services normally monopolized by government—mail delivery, fire-fighting, etc. It really made an impression on me. A few years later I read a history of the Fabian Society, called This Little Band of Prophets. It chronicled the enormous success of the Fabians’ long-range strategy of making incremental changes in the direction of socialism. I figured that if you could gradually build up to socialism, you could probably gradually undo it, dismantling the state step by step. How? By privatizing one function after the other, selling each move as justified for its own sake rather than waiting until the majority of the population is convinced of the case for a libertarian utopia. Then in 1971, on a consulting job for PSSI in Phoenix, I took two hours off to go to neighboring Scottsdale to visit the headquarters of Rural/Metro—the country’s first serious for-profit fire department. The founder and CEO, Lou Witzeman, took the time to show me around and explain how they operated—and why they save so much money compared to traditional government fire departments. Actually seeing this example from Wooldridge’s book first-hand was another electrifying moment. From then on, I was hooked on privatization.


Q: Perhaps you would agree that there are two rhetorical strategies for pursuing privatization arguments—one philosophical or "moralist," based on the moral problems of government ownership, and one economic or "consequentialist," based on the social benefits of privatization. Which is most effective when dealing with the opinion-makers and agenda-setters you’re trying to influence?

Poole: Very clearly the latter. Even though privatization has become a huge worldwide phenomenon, and by and large a very successful process, to advance philosophical or moral arguments as the reason to privatize—let’s say a state prison or city garbage collection—is to be dismissed as an ideologue pushing an agenda, as opposed to a competent analyst who has the facts on his side to demonstrate that privatizing will produce real benefits. Most people don’t make decisions on such issues based on an overall framework of ideas and values, the way libertarians and Objectivists do. They’re much more ad hoc and short-term in their thinking. We may wish it weren’t that way, but that’s what we’re up against.

But the saving grace is that as we privatize more and more things, and prove to people that it works, it then becomes possible to teach them that there are underlying reasons why it works, basic principles about user-pays and designing institutions that are directly accountable to their customers, and so forth. What we actually find in public policy is that very often the practice comes first, and the principles to explain and justify the practice come later.

Q: Some writers have suggested that the differences here transcend rhetoric—that there are implicitly different kinds of libertarian theory at work here. Is this true? Is it nothing more than pragmatism to switch from one into the other depending on your audience?

Poole: I don’t think so—at least not if Objectivism is true. If our understanding of reality is correct, the moral and the practical should pretty much coincide. In my work, I am very much motivated by my underlying principles, and when I find opportunities to explain them, I certainly will. But to attempt to make a specific change happen by arguing primarily in ideological terms is usually a recipe for failure.

But your question also illuminates why we have two main program thrusts within Reason Foundation. The magazine’s longer-term agenda is very definitely to change people’s underlying paradigms about how the world works and how a free society should be governed. As I said earlier, we recognize this as a long-term project, like those undertaken by the Fabians in Britain and the Progressives in this country at the dawn of this century. Meanwhile, our policy researchers are out there day after day showing—in very practical, pragmatic ways—how applications of free markets, private property, privatization, etc. can solve specific problems in the here and now. The two go hand-in-hand.

Q: I find it interesting that many of the free-market think-tanks, such as our Mackinac Center for Public Policy here in Michigan, are home to both libertarians and economic conservatives. This "inclusive approach" is based on the desire to appeal to those who "recognize the importance of sound economic policy." Where are the "free-life" think-tanks—similarly inclusive organizations based on the desire to appeal of those who recognize the importance of sound civil rights policy?

Poole: They don’t seem to exist. However, Reason magazine is trying to build a community of thinkers rallying around Virginia’s stasis vs. dynamism dichotomy. We have some important supporters who are free-market Democrats and ACLU members, people who wouldn’t go near the GOP or conservative organizations, but who appreciate both civil liberties and free markets. The old Cold War coalition of conservatives and libertarians seems to be fragmenting more and more in the post-Reagan era—what do any of us have in common with a Pat Buchanan or a Gary Bauer? So while the kind of organization you suggest has not yet emerged, watch Reason magazine for the emergence of the dynamism coalition.

Q: There are many issues—gun rights, drug rights, abortion rights, Internet publishing freedom, to name a few—that are just as important as social security privatization, sound money, and capital gains tax reduction. So why isn’t there a concerted libertarian-liberal coalition to work for liberty on these areas?

Poole: Reason networks quite a lot with other groups on issues such as these, and our pages are filled with their materials. Our first Reason Dynamic Visions conference (held in February 1999 in Santa Clara, CA) brought together libertarians, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, software gurus, nanotechnologists, life-extensionists, and civil libertarians. There was overwhelming enthusiasm for making this an annual event, which we plan to do.


Q: Many of the environmental scientists championed by the free-market movement have, uncoincidentally, been skeptical of global warming. There are other libertarians who contend that the science of global warming is basically sound, and that we should be opposing the Kyoto accord and other emissions regulations on moral, not scientific grounds. But don’t we lose the argument in the court of public opinion if the science of global warming turns out to be right?

Poole: That’s an excellent point, and one that’s been made repeatedly by RPPI’s environmental scientist, Dr. Ken Green. Ken’s work (which you can find on the WWW at http://www.rppi.org) has stressed the importance of getting the science right before putting in place public policies which might be both very costly and only marginally effective. Science is a long way from understanding the complexities of climate change, and the degree to which human outputs either have or might have major impacts on it. He’s also been explaining the late Aaron Wildavsky’s argument that in situations of this kind of uncertainty, it’s better to rely on building up the means to cope with possible bad situations (resilience) than acting prematurely to head off the possible bad outcome (anticipation).

from Full Context, Vol. 11, No. 5
(May/June 1999)

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