Dave Nolan, R.I.P.

Remembering the great libertarian activist and the man who inspired "the world's smallest political quiz"

Dave Nolan, who died on November 20, 2010, and I were classmates at MIT. We were part of a large contingent of budding libertarians on campus, running the MIT chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and then MIT Students for Goldwater, the largest college Goldwater organization in New England. Dave chaired that group, and I was its literature director. As part of our activism on behalf of Goldwater, most of us joined Massachusetts Young Republicans, and our numbers were sufficient at its annual convention to out-vote the traditionalists (“trads”) and endorse Goldwater, rather than the detested Nelson Rockefeller.

Dave and I came to libertarianism by similar paths, growing up reading Robert Heinlein’s individualist-oriented science fiction and then discovering Ayn Rand’s writings. It was many discussions and debates with my MIT YAF friends that persuaded me to finally read Atlas Shrugged in the summer of ’64, a summer during which I spent many evenings distributing Goldwater literature door-to-door in the Miami area where I grew up.

Dave was also active in student politics at MIT, running unsuccessfully for UAP-Undergraduate Activities President-and also bringing outside speakers to lecture on campus. One such speaker was Willis Stone, head of the Liberty Amendment Committee (which sought an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to repeal the income tax). While I never shared Dave’s enthusiasm for the viability of this cause, it was Stone’s MIT lecture that planted in me the seed of privatization (since that was part of Stone’s idea for downsizing the federal government).

After graduation, Dave went into the advertising business in Denver, and it was in Denver that he introduced what will be his two legacy contributions to the cause of liberty: the Nolan Chart and the Libertarian Party.

Dave introduced the former in a January 1971 article in The Individualist, the magazine of the Society for Individual Liberty (and an early competitor of Reason magazine). The basic idea was to discredit the typical left-to-right political spectrum as leaving no room for the libertarian position. Instead of a straight line, engineer Dave introduced a two-dimensional chart, with economic freedom on one axis and individual liberty on the other. The chart made it easy to see how liberals, conservatives, populists, and libertarians compared, and was a true breakthrough that reshaped political analysis, polling, and news reporting, helping to introduce “libertarian” as a distinct political position.

As is generally well-known, Dave and some friends created the Libertarian Party in his Denver living room in 1971, in disgusted reaction to President Richard Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls. I was sufficiently skeptical of the viability of a third party that I declined to attend the subsequent founding convention in Denver, which nominated USC philosophy professor John Hospers as its 1972 presidential candidate. After the miniscule Hospers candidacy made history by getting one electoral vote (cast by renegade Virginia elector Roger MacBride), I joined up, and actively participated in LP conventions, even serving one year on the national platform committee.

By the mid-1980s, however, I had pretty much given up on the third-party model as a viable approach toward bringing about a freer America. I remained good friends with Dave, despite our ongoing disagreement about the Libertarian Party. He stayed with my wife, Lou Villadsen, and me in Los Angeles in the late 1980s while checking out Southern California as a place to live, and once he and Elizabeth were settled in Orange County, we enjoyed visiting, talking politics and philosophy just as we had during our student days.

Dave and Elizabeth bailed out of Southern California around the same time Lou and I did, early this decade. We’d hoped to visit them in Tucson, a place I’d only stopped in overnight on my original move to California in 1970. Alas, that visit cannot happen.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at the Reason Foundation. He is a former editor of Reason magazine and a trustee of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website. He lives in Florida. This column first appeared at