WORKING FOR INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS
Many activists and supporters of the libertarian political movement focus their attention on the economic issues—taxation, regulation, inflation—and may lose sight of issues which are more important, more basic. The facts indicate that in recent U.S. history, the groups which were most libertarian, and most effective, were the antiwar and anti-draft organizations. If anything, the economic policies of these groups are irrational, but that failing is the fault of libertarians who might know better but are too busy keeping their names "respectable" by eschewing radicalism and left-wing associations.
One of the oldest and best known libertarian organizations is the American Civil Liberties Union, with many local affiliates. The tax-exempt ACLU Foundation carries on a number of programs in the courts, such as the National Prison Project. A pending class-action suit against Patuxent Institution in Maryland, for example, charges that the maximum-security institution is unconstitutional and seeks damages on behalf of the inmates. The Patuxent Institution was set up in the 1950's to treat "defective delinquents" by means of behavior modification psychotherapy.
ACLU attorney, Nancy C. Crisman, points out that the Maryland law provides that anyone convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve more than six months is eligible to be sentenced to Patuxent. His criminal sentence is replaced with an indeterminant sentence which can result in his being confined for the rest of his life. In order to get out, prisoners must be judged by a psychiatrist not to be a "danger to society." The suit challenges the premise of the law, that psychiatrists can predict such things. Of the men committed to Patuxent, 50 percent stay in the institution past the expiration of their original criminal sentence.
Fifteen years ago, a British lawyer, Peter Beneson, founded Amnesty International, a worldwide organization dedicated to the defense of "prisoners of conscience." The American offices are located at 2112 Broadway, New York, NY 10023 and 3618 Sacramento St., San Francisco, CA 94118. The efforts of Amnesty International have resulted in the release of over 13,000 prisoners. From families, professional associates, religious organizations, and observers A.I. learns the identity of prisoners and investigates each case, finding out as much as possible about the prisoner's background, the details of his arrest, his trial (if any), and his imprisonment. Once the report is complete, a decision is made as to whether the prisoner qualifies for help. If a prisoner has used or advocated violence, he is ineligible—except A.I. will aid any prisoner who has been tortured by the police.
The assistance is remarkably simple, and effective. Members write letters, to the prisoner, to his family, to the officials in charge, the news media, and to government leaders. At the same time, diplomatic protests are filed through friendly governments, the United Nations, and the Council of Europe. There is something about despotism which fears the watchful, disapproving eyes of those concerned with human liberties.
The International Rescue Committee, 386 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016, has been active since before the Second World War in assisting the victims of totalitarian governments as they escape. The I.R.C. has medical teams which work among displaced persons living in refugee camps, resettlement services helping escapees to obtain immigration papers and work permits in their new homes, and it locates missing relatives.
All three of the above organizations depend entirely upon private donations to operate, and all three are centrally active in projects which the libertarian political movement should support. The ideals of peace and justice, after all, were first perceived and incorporated into the political value system of our society by the same writers and intellectuals who held the individual rights of life, liberty, and property above the claims of both Church and State 200 years ago.
In the analysis of economic policies and government regulation of business, it is sometimes forgotten that a corporation is controlled by shareholders who have the right to vote on corporate policies. Whereas it would be anti-libertarian to advocate a law prohibiting trade with Communist countries, it is perfectly libertarian for the owners of a business to refuse to do business with anyone they may choose. The Stockholders for World Freedom, founded by Carl Olson, 4623 San Feliciano Dr., Woodland Hills, CA 91364 has adopted this libertarian approach to the problem of Soviet-American trade.
The program which Olson advocates involves the active participation of stockholders in forming corporate policy, submitting resolutions for the approval of stockholders to be included in proxy information materials, and actively soliciting proxies in some cases. Olson would like to see trade with Communist countries curtailed, on the theory that such trade only shores up the otherwise weak economic systems and fuels hostile military machines. If Ralph Nader's supporters can sit in on stockholder meetings and influence policy, so can Carl Olson.
The Citibank Economics Department, 399 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022, has started early in digging the fortifications against a domestic enemy. A recent mailing to thousands of stockholders and others on its mailing list contained a reprint from its corporate newsletter, "Citiviews," about privacy. In a most gentle way, the point was made that bank records are not private and that the public just might want to let their public officials know how they feel about that. Walter B. Wriston, Chairman of Citicorp, is an outspoken advocate of economic freedom and the bank is one of the few which openly endorses free markets. The Economics Department has just published a small book on Credit Allocation, explaining why proposals for this sort of regulation don't work and yield perverse results. They must expect President Carter and the economic illiterates in Congress to try something this year—and the sooner the public at large begins to understand the problems the sooner the idea will be dismissed as silly. A copy is available without charge from the Citicorp Public Affairs Department.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Frontlines".