Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Smith vs. Rand redux

The other day I provided a link to a post by Digby where she contrasted the differing ethos underlying Smithian and Randian conceptions of capitalism. Digby contrasts a Rand quote with a point made by the developmental economist Jeffrey Sachs, but I think the point is even stronger when compared to this previous quote of the day.

"All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind." - Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 3, Chapter IV

"The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life." - Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

Or if anyone wants the most succint evidence possible that Rand's absolutist ideology can used to rationalize just about anything, here's Rand answering a question about the displacement/elimination of Native Americans as a result of Old World colonization after an address at West Point, March 6, 1974.

[The Native Americans] didn't have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using.... What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.
And here's the modern Rand disciple explaining how darn thankful the American Indian should be.

Before Europeans arrived, the scattered tribes occupying North America lived in abject poverty, ignorance, and superstition--not due to any racial inferiority, but because that is how all mankind starts out (Europeans included). The transfer of Western civilization to this continent was one of the great cultural gifts in recorded history, affording Indians almost effortless access to centuries of European accomplishments in philosophy, science, technology, and government. As a result, today's Indians enjoy a capacity for generating health, wealth, and happiness that their Stone Age ancestors could never have conceived.

From a historical perspective, the proper response to such a gift is not resentment but gratitude. America's policies toward the Indians were generally benign, aimed at protecting them from undeserved harm while providing significant material support and encouragement to become civilized. When those policies erred, it was usually by treating Indians collectively, as "nations" entitled to permanent occupancy of semi-sovereign reservations. Instead, Indians should have been treated as individuals deserving full and equal American citizenship in exchange for embracing individual rights, including private ownership of land.
If they'd been more resistant to European disease, I expect they would have ended up as slaves, and some Randian would be telling them - like Pat Buchanan did blacks - they should be thankful for it. Heck, maybe the wage slaves in Saipan should be thankful for all the civilization Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff brought them. Check out this dreamer from '05, right in the middle of it.

I harbor no crazy notions that the Commonwealth will embrace free markets in some Randesque rapture. But the CNMI has a lot of free market attributes nonetheless, and things are consequently far better in the Commonwealth than in most places in the world. As for Atlas Shrugged, I think it's Rand's best work, and, in fact, one of the best books, period.


Richard said...

I suggest that Hume's Ghost (author of this post) dramatically misses the point as to the Objectivist view of Native Americans, and the discovery of America by Western Europeans. The article at the link explains the Objectivist position more clearly.

To understand the article one must fully understand that in any large body of people (say, European settlers), there are going to be some heroic leaders and some despicable types, with many variations in between. In the case of a culture, or a wave of settlers, one has to examine what the dominant ideas are.

Particularly absurd, in this post, is the equation of the Objectivist view towards Indians with that of Pat Buchanan's view towards African slaves. Western slavery was a hold over from the previous thousand(s) of years of human history. That dying practice in Western culture cannot be equated with the colonial Western disregard for primitive tribal practices (which included slavery, btw). Freed slaves and Indians have ultimately benefited from the advancements of that Western Civilization. However, the Indians cannot claim to have lost rights they never understood, let alone acted upon. Indeed, it was America's recognition of Individual Rights that ultimately ended slavery in Western Culture. It is those Rights that the Indians continued to reject well into the 1800s.

Hume's Ghost has excerpted a few sentences, without regard for their full meaning. That is, he has taken them out of context, either from his own lack of understanding, or from the prejudice & dishonesty of skimming to seek fault &/or failing to properly investigate and consider the underlying reasoning.

Hume's Ghost said...

You're right. I left out some sentences, like this one, for instance:

"Now, I don't care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man."

The objectivist's white man's burden, I suppose. And has Rand never heard of something called a "treaty"?

I don't see the difference between what Buchanan and Rand is saying. Rand is saying that Indians who are alive today should be thankful for an introduction to Western Civilization, disregarding any injustice they might not be thrilled by, and Buchanan is saying that blacks should be thankful for an introduction to Western Civilization, disregarding any injustice they might not be thrilled by.

Their underlying reasoning may be different, but the general argument is the same.

Richard said...

I rather get the notion that you did not read the article I offered.

The Indians are humans physically, but they were in no way civilized... not even toward each other. There was no justification for recognizing their Rights (to Life, Liberty, Property), because they did not recognize those Rights among themselves, let alone towards others. This argument does not justify slavery, but it does distinguish the Indian case from the Negro case, and firmly negates your charge against Rand.

You are quite right about the breaking of treaties. However, it was not only European colonists broke treaties, the Indians did too! (See below.)

In the same vein, one must not make the mistake of applying today's understanding of Rights with the understanding of Rights 200+ years ago. The idea of Individual Rights was brand new back then. One can hardly expect the average European colonist to fully act on them, heck most Americans of today do not understand those rights properly. This is why I made the point about "heroic leaders" and "despicable types". One has to see past such details to grasp the larger trends. Among all the variables & vagaries of human behavior, the trend of the early European-Americans was towards a civilized culture that was utterly superior to any aspect of the Indian culture. Despicable people and events abound in any era, but the direction the Europeans brought to America was an historical sea-change of improvement for humankind.

Perhaps the most wicked thing the Early Americans & Canadians have done is to place Indians on Reservations, and to enact distinct laws giving the Indians special exemptions and benefits on the basis of race. Those actions perpetuated 'Indians-as-race-apart'. It encouraged them to see themselves as a race (which is racist) and to act accordingly —it was an enormously uncivilized approach. Thus their members continued living as a welfare race, rather than living as sovereign, independent, and therefore proud individuals (as should Blacks). When first done, that treatment was historically understandable. The real shame is that now, in the next millennium, our culture still treats aboriginal races in the same backwards manner... and the aboriginals believe in it themselves.

Richard said...

HG, I just read this, and immediately thought of the subject of this post and comment thread.

Anyone can be a barbarian, but it takes an effort to be a human. It was not until the Declaration of Independence that that principle became political. All other political systems, including every variation and rationalization of Marxism, remain barbaric.

ColoRambler said...

"...There was no justification for recognizing their Rights (to Life, Liberty, Property), because they did not recognize those Rights among themselves, let alone towards others...."

The original context for this post was Rand's repellent idea that the Native Americans had no right to the land they used, or to the way in which they used it, because they were using it in ways she disapproved of. She explicitly supports the idea of having other people, totally unharmed by the Native Americans' land-use practices, just go in and take their land from them ("Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.")

It's hard to find words for just how horrible this is. It's right up there with the worst atrocities actually occurring in history. It actually resembles many historical atrocities (mass theft of people's land is a very common theme for despots). No amount of complaining about the Native Americans' flaws can possibly justify it.

Declaring people's rights to own land forfeit because they're living in a supposedly primitive state (and not acting like good capitalists) is every bit as evil as declaring people's rights to own land forfeit because they aren't contributing it all to the Five-Year Plan (and not acting like good communists).

Richard said...

ColoRambler: The natives did not own the land. It was NOT theirs, by any stretch of the imagination. They had no concept of land ownership other than to squat where they felt like, or where they could avoid the depredations of others like them.

The entire argument, spawned by this post, is absurd. As I said, it is the misapplication of today's understandings and standards to a time and people who had no such understanding.

ColoRambler said...

... It was NOT theirs, by any stretch of the imagination. They had no concept of land ownership other than to squat where they felt like ...

Oh nonsense. Read an actual history book sometime. But details of Native American land use are really a side issue. What's at issue is your attempt to back out of your concept of rights just because you believe the Native Americans lacked it. According to your own concept of rights, people can only acquire ownership of property by mutual agreement to transfer it. If you believe that, then you necessarily believe that property isn't yours until you've gone through that agreement. Whether it was "theirs" doesn't matter -- you cannot acquire it by force, nor can anyone who holds a similar concept of rights.

What you are defending isn't just hypocritical, it can ruin countless people's lives. This is precisely the same sort of evil that the Marxist regimes you despise indulged in regularly.

I am done arguing this -- it's amazing that anyone has to argue against mass land theft. Feel free to defend it on your own.

Richard said...

ColonRambler, unable to use reason to defend his position, commits the common passive-aggressive "you are too stupid, so I refuse to debate".

I have read historical works about N.American Indians since I was a teenager in the 1960s!

The conceptual ability to grasp the application of Rights,to both self and other, is a hallmark of civilization. The Aboriginals had no such grasp. Similarly, ColonRambler has no such grasp of Rights, else he would understand the void that is the Aboriginal position. Therefore, he only has Rights to the extent that he does not violate the Rights of others... thus he becomes a blank-minded loser of his own Rights, were he put to any serious test.

No, the "white man" took nothing from the American Aboriginal. Indeed, the Aboriginals of today, having learned what Rights are, toll wildly in the hopes that the White Man will suddenly believe the Ancestors of today's Aboriginals understood Propterty Rights.

Hume's Ghost and ColonRambler are exactly the dupes those modern Aboriginals hope for.

Hume's Ghost said...


Thankfully we now have something formalized known as "international law," under which Rand's views regarding the right to conquer constitute the gravest crime that can be committed by a nation-state short of flat out genocide.

Richard said...

So, clearly, Hume's Ghost, cares not to consider the understanding of the Aboriginals in his opinion of European Colonialists.

All sorts of animals retain Home Ranges, in the exact same manner as the Aboriginals... by fighting with neighbors without documenting property rights.

So the uncivilized Aboriginals, whose approach to property is in no way better than that of an aggressive coyote, are to be seen as understanding property rights!

Utterly absurd2. HG and ColonR have not a leg to stand on, unless they can come up with much more profound arguments, their position is utterly ridiculous.

I keep visiting such blogs, in the hope of finding someone who can think, but again and again I am disappointed.

Hume's Ghost said...

"keep visiting such blogs, in the hope of finding someone who can think, but again and again I am disappointed"

Well, you can run the whole thing by Alonzo at Atheist Ethicist and see what he thinks about it, I expect he'd be more inclined to give you the sort of response you're looking for.

I actually don't know what his thoughts on the matter are, although I'd wager with confidence that he'll find Rand's views on Indians to constitute abhorrent racism.

Richard said...

Perhaps you should examine what racism truly is.

atheist said...

The Indians are humans physically, but they were in no way civilized... not even toward each other. There was no justification for recognizing their Rights (to Life, Liberty, Property), because they did not recognize those Rights among themselves, let alone towards others. This argument does not justify slavery, but it does distinguish the Indian case from the Negro case, and firmly negates your charge against Rand.

So, if the natives didn't have an empire, that just means they deserved to be exterminated. Awesome, Richard! If anyone is 'uncivilized', they can totally be rounded up. I'm loving it!

Hey, I think you could use this exact same argument to justify the rounding up and slaughtering of millions of Jews and Gypsies in WWII. After all, they weren't really civilized like the ethnic Germans- they just had dumb little villages and hamlets. The Gypsies didn't even occupy land permanently, now that I think about it. This is just the kind of thing I've always been looking for.

Richard said...


The Indians were in no way exterminated, nor was that the major goal of the European colonial culture. That notion is a re-writing of history by leftist academics, who have learned a lot from political 'spin' artistry. One method of 'spin' is The Argument from Non-Essentials. You have done this with the idea of nomadic Gypsies & Jews living in hamlets. It has no similarity to the Indians of N. America. The discussion is about the understanding and implementation of Rights - to life, liberty and property rights. On that basis, the Jews and the Gypsies, in the context of their time and culture, were vastly superior to the American Indians' culture and understanding. Of course, the Nazis were worse than the Indians, and "extermination" of the kind you have voiced WAS necessary. Note, that the extermination was of *Nazis*, not any German. The same would apply, less radically, to dealing with the least civilized Indians, in the interest of all PEOPLE, regardless of race.

If you read the other comments I have made you would understand the broader point being addressed.

Anonymous said...

Don't be an ignoramus. Pre-columbian north (and south and central) America was a complex place full of people. I refuse to engage further than I have to, but let me just point toCahokia as an example of complex, stratified, urban settlement in north America prior to the European invasion.

Richard said...

The process of civilization is, & has been, a process of freeing every person from the tyranny & injustices of other people. That includes freeing them from the tyranny of the majority.

Neither of the arguments offered by Anonymous indicate the American native societies could be considered civilized:
1. "Pre-columbian ... America was a complex place full of people",
2. some groups developed
"complex, stratified, urban settlement[s]".

Even his example of a civilized group, the Cahokians, is further proof of the LACK of civilization in the America's prior to the arrival of (particularly British) Europeans.

The Wiki on the Cahokia makes my point clear, reporting a structure as "perhaps a temple or the residence of the paramount chief". The average Cahokian was therefore subject to the religious fervor of power-seeking shaman's/priest's working in cahoots with a paramount chief (read "dictator").

To grasp how uncivilized they were consider these archaeological findings, listed under Prestige BurialOne grave site contained a "man on a bed of more than twenty thousand marine-shell disc beads arranged in the shape of a falcon (ibid.). Beads were a medium of exchange for the Indians. How did that ruler amass such great wealth, save by taxing his subjects and pillaging other tribes? If you do not consider the beads to be a symbol of wealth, just imagine the manual labor involved in preparing twenty-thousand beads.

Then there is the "mass grave of over 50 women, all about 21 years old at death. Their bodies were arranged in two layers separated by woven mats. Researchers believe that all these individuals were human sacrifices."Then there are the men buried with their hands amputated, and others that were buried alive.

Such finds only present the kinds of injustices that leave enduring evidence (bones!). It is not hard to imagine that lesser injustices were abundant... they truly were savages.

Only a depraved mind would consider such a culture to be "civilized".

Anonymous could have read the same material and come to the same conclusion. Instead, he did not do his homework or has a deprived notion of what it is to be civil.