NRC: Radicals for Greed
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."
By the definition of laissez-faire, then, the polluters are transgressors, who should be held liable for the damages they do their victims and their victim's property.
NRC members disagree on means for assessing and collecting damages, however. They agree that rivers and tracts of ocean should be privately owned, so that dumping wastes into them involves payment of damages to the owners. They believe that air pollution can best be controlled by showing correlations between different pollutants and the harms they cause, whereupon victims sue the polluters. Ultimately, though, their notions of the mechanisms involved differ, as well as the heaviness of the damages settlements.
NRC maintains nonetheless that differing systems are possible in a libertarian society--individuals greatly bothered by pollution would set up ways of penalizing it heavily in their areas; less concerned individuals would handle the problem differently where they lived. Of course, individuals would have to take the burden of moving if they disliked the system operating where they lived--but, as opposed to today's statist societies, alternative systems would rest on the consent of those living within them, making a real choice of life-styles and societies possible.
The other Massachusetts co-chairman of NRC, Niel Wright '75, described NRC's position on education as congruent with many proposals brought up by liberal and radical critics. "If you combine the ideas of deferred tuition, the voucher system, and performance contracting, you get some sense of what we favor," he said.
NRC believes that all education--from first grade up--should be divorced from state financing and control. "Public schooling, like most public services, is generally lousy," Wright said. "And people like John Holt and Ivan Illich are even getting liberals to realize that public schools have made our society too diploma-oriented. By ending the near state-monopoly on schooling and abolishing compulsory education laws, learning would have a chance to become more efficient and fulfilling."
Specifically, NRC envisages that most children would enter private schools with their education paid for by money their parents saved from school taxes. Children whose parents could not afford to send them to schools would have the option of "deferring tuition" until they graduated and got a job. Thus, in return for schooling from grades one through twelve, a child might contract to pay the school four per cent of his annual earnings. Such a system--already being tried at the university level--has an added bonus; it gives the school an incentive to educate its students well. The better educated and motivated the child, the more he will tend to earn, and the more the school gets paid. A deferred tuition system might thus prove very popular even with families that could afford to pay outright for their children's education.
An educational system not funded by the government would further offer great varieties of approach and encouragement of innovation, in the hopes of finding new markets, NRC maintains. A parent and child could choose a "free school", a Black Muslim school, a military academy, and so on--whatever they thought best. The quality of the schools would tend to be much higher than today as well, NRC asserts, for a variant of the "performance contracting" approach would undoubtedly be adopted by most schools. Under the performance contracting system, the operators of a school are paid on the basis of improvement in children's verbal and mathematical skills--if there is less than the specified improvement, they are not paid; if there is more, they get bonuses. When an independent testing service makes such evaluations of children's performance, the incentives to educate children well, NRC argues, are nearly irresistible.
NRC's other positions range from complete abolition of welfare, an anti-communist foreign policy, elimination of the draft, drug, and sex laws, dismantlement of all economic regulation, and an end to the graduated income tax with an eye to the complete abolition of taxation. All are fixed to NRC's central contention that a laissez-faire society, a society built entirely on free associations, is the most just and productive society possible. Taken as a whole, their positions form a fairly comprehensive defense of libertarianism and the free market.
The reaction of other Boston-area libertarians is by no means totally sympathetic to NRC, however.
"NRC's philosophical tenets are correct," Juris Kaza, a co-chairman of the radical New England Libertarian Alliance, said two weeks ago when asked to evaluate the organization. "But their emphases and priorities are really off.
"Talking to some of them and seeing their posters makes me think they're taking the old anti-welfare, anti-communist line that makes them indistinguishable from pro-Nixon war hawks. They should realize that their real enemies are not in the streets of the ghetto or in the jungles of Cubs, but in Washington, continuing to lead this nation in a deceitful, criminal, immoral war...It is the welfare recipients with bombs and guns, not the welfare recipients with hungry children, whom they should be worried about."
Most other critiques by Boston area libertarian leaders are of a kinder tone. Don Stone, organizer of an informal group which intends to counterbalance NRC by using little or no right-wing rhetoric, offered the following comments:
"NRC seems to have four problems. First, the group has failed to make abstract issues concrete and real to people--it seems to have convinced no one that statism is a real problem. Second, they have scattered their resources on a lot of different topics--Cuba, the wage and price freeze, taxes, etc.--and they would get much further by concentrating on a single issue. Third, the organization's strong anti-communism is negative and distracting from the central issue of individual freedom. Finally, by taking a hard-line anti-communist stance, they make themselves apologists for the army, the FBI, superpatriotism, etc., alienating potential supporters."
"However, at present, NRC has the most effective strategy of all Boston libertarian groups, due to the hard work and enthusiasm of its members," Stone said.
For the public at large--at least the dominantly liberal public of the Cambridge vicinity--NRC's standing vies with that of the Mafia. Hardly a single one of their posters has not been visited by angry pens of thumbnails, or ripped down completely. A recent rally for "laissez-faire" in Harvard Square ended when street people drenched an NRC Revolutionary War flag with lighter fluid, lit it, and fled as pieces of the burning flag fell on an NRC member. On TV and radio talk shows, more than the normal number of hostile listeners call in.
"But people are realizing that we have something," Wright maintains. New applications come into the group's headquarters at 330 Dartmouth Street, Boston, at the rate of 20 per week. The group now has chapters in 15 states and three foreign countries. And NRC was recently invited to send spokesmen to a Marxist economic colloquium at Harvard, as the only representatives of a consistent non-Marxist ideology around.
"Who knows?" Wright said several days after the University officially recognized the Harvard NRC chapter. "Maybe the seventies will be the decade of radicals for greed."