Two months ago, a group of 20 Harvard, MIT and B.U. students pushed its way through the Tremont Street offices of the Mass. Welfare Department, demanding to see commissioner Steven A. Minter. The commissioner was not in; police appeared, and the demonstrators left. Outside, they then unfurled banners reading "Welfare Is Theft," passed out papers explaining opposition to welfare, and headed off for another confrontation at a second welfare office.
Persistence, as the above incident shows, is one of the strengths of the newly formed, Boston-based New Right Coalition. In nine months, a small cadre of right-wingers has wallpapered Cambridge with 1,000 posters, distributed 10,000 leaflets, and appeared on almost every radio and TV talk show in the area. For a group with only 350 members nation-wide, such activities are feats of no small proportion, and testimony to the intense convictions of its leaders.
"We are believers in greed," says founder and chairman Don Feder, a third year student at B.U. Law School. "We are believers in self-fulfillment, and greed is the desire to be fulfilled." Members of NRC maintain, as a result, a passionate advocacy of total liberty--the right to do, peacefully, whatever one desires.
The group sprang from a dormant Massachusetts YAF last April, when eight of the most active and extreme members of YAF decided that its conservatism was no longer tolerable to their philosophy.
"YAF is basically conservative," NRC Mass. co-chairman Frank Peseckis, a freshman at MIT, explains. "NRC is different--its members are libertarians. Conservatives usually have a lot of religious neuroses--ideas about man being God's servant rather than an end in himself--and think that the 'rights of society' take precedence over individual rights in many cases. Libertarians don't--we think individual rights are sovereign. We are the New Right."
Disaffected Old Rightists flocked to the new organization, making up the bulk of NRC's membership. The organization seems to be a comfortable nesting ground for former Young Republicans, Y AFers, Buckleyites and Birchers, suddenly turned libertarian. Converted socialists and liberals comprise the rest of NRC's ranks. But one common thread is found through all: practically every member of NRC credits her or his transformation, and determination, to a 68 year-old novelist named Ayn Rand--the philosopher of greed.
Ayn Rand has been something of a terror to the American Right for 30 years. A short, thick-voiced, quick-tempered woman, she left Soviet Russia in 1923, made her way to California, found bit roles in movies, married, and began to teach herself to write. Driven by a distaste for communism and a strong desire to be left alone, she finished in 1943 a huge, finely plotted novel about an iconoclastic architect. The book--The Fountainhead--told the story of a man who dynamited a public housing project because officials had altered his design in violation of previous promises. Despite rejections from 12 publishers, the book was eventually published. It sold over three million copies and earned Rand thousands of staunch admirers.
Fifteen years later she followed it with her bombshell, Atlas Shrugged, which has since provoked a divorce of the libertarian from the conservative right and made Rand into an arch-hero or arch-villain, to those on the right. The novel portrays the fundamental issue of our time--and all time--as that of selfishness versus altruism, liberty versus tyranny, capitalism versus socialism. She begins from the premise that man is an end in himself, and that his morality should ultimately bring him happiness. The pursuit of happiness, Rand says further, is a selfish drive. If one attacks selfishness as being immoral, one attacks human fulfillment--and self-fulfillment. Her novel depicts the bitter consequences of attempts by society to deny self-fulfillment.
Rand is aware that advocates of altruism and socialism say they are for self-fulfillment. They maintain, she recognizes, that one is best fulfilled where one sacrifices the freedom to be selfish, and works for the common good.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand responds that if fulfillment is best gained through altruist or socialist systems, then rational men in free, non-coercive societies will choose these systems. If they are not the most fulfilling, men will choose others. The absolutely most important right to preserve, she says, is the right of choosing the system one wants to live under--and respecting others' rights to do the same. When altruism becomes compulsory or socialism becomes coercive, she maintains, this right dies.
Conservatives, as NRC points out, have generally found this philosophy quite unattractive. True, it does justify individual liberty and laissez-faire capitalism. But it does not leave conservatives justifications for dictating "moral" behavior to society, or enforcing Christian ethics. Laws against most kinds of sex, more kinds of drugs, desecration of flags, pornography, gambling, breaking of the Sabbath, abortions, and free speech have to go. Out of their distaste for diverse, self-indulgent, and non-conformist lifestyles, conservatives have rejected the sanctity of individual rights; indeed, many conservatives have equated Rand's libertarianism to anarchism, Led by William F. Buckley of National Review--who has written that when the state's good is threatened by individual rights, the individual forfeits his rights--conservatives have heaped abuse upon libertarian spokesmen. Individual rights, to Buckley and others, are not sovereign--and the danger of Ayn Rand is that individuals, after reading her, might start believing that they are.
The danger has proven real, to the dismay of the conservatives. A New Right has emerged, largely as a reaction against the hypocrisy of conservative "defenders" of liberty.
The New Right Coalition does not rest its belief in libertarianism on moral consistency alone. Through the influence of economists and theoreticians such as Murray Rothbard, Ludwig Von Mises, Morris Tannehill, and Edwin G. Dolan, the group has designed arguments for laissez-faire on practical grounds. The arguments are, in a number of surprising areas, persuasive.
"The solution to the ecology problem is simple," Peseckis said recently. "It is to recognize property rights. Industrialists do not have the right to dump wastes on someone else's property. If they do so, they're using another's property without permission, which is an abrogation of libertarian principles."