One of the most obvious ripostes to the doctrines of unfettered capitalism is that all private property was at one time granted to people by some type of governing entity. Depending on where you live, this was probably done either informally and long before records of such a transaction exist (if you are living in Scotland, for example), or relatively recently, and in an organized manner (in America, many people still live on property homesteaded by their grandparents). Even people who think that their current system of politics and society are fair and beneficial may come up with some qualms or confusion when confronting this issue. This is especially a question in the United States, where the removal of the native peoples was done almost within some people's living memory. This is tremendously complicated issue, both from the theoretical point of government legitimacy and property rights, and because of the emotional and moral issues of the forced removal of peoples. This question of conquest and civil power is one that many different philosophers of government have had to contend with.

With that introduction in mind, lets look at a quote from one of the foremost philosophers of individual rights. The source for this is, and if there is any evidence that this quote is wrong or taken out of context, please inform me, the sooner the better

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. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. And you're a racist if you object, because it means you believe that certain men are entitled to something because of their race. You believe that if someone is born in a magnificent country and doesn't know what to do with it, he still has a property right to it. He does not. Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights--they didn't have a settled society, they had predominantly nomadic tribal "cultures"--they didn't have rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights that they had not conceived of and were not using. It's wrong to attack a country that respects (or even tries to respect) individual rights. If you do, you're an aggressor and are morally wrong. But if a "country" does not protect rights--if a group of tribesmen are the slaves of their tribal chief--why should you respect the "rights" that they don't have or respect? The same is true for a dictatorship. The citizens in it have individual rights, but the country has no rights and so anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in that country; and no individual or country can have its cake and eat it too--that is, you can't claim one should respect the "rights" of Indians, when they had no concept of rights and no respect for rights. But let's suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages--which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched--to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it's great that some of them did. The racist Indians today--those who condemn America--do not respect individual rights.
Go ahead, and read that a few times.

One of the easiest things to comment on this is some fairly large factual errors in this statement. Native Americans all had some ideas of property rights, although they were often of a usufruct manner. The Native Americans also did not leave the land "untouched", although of course the modifications they made for agriculture were much less intensive than Europeans would make. The political structure of Native tribes was also a bit more complicated than "tribesman" being "slaves" to their chief, although that is also not to suggest that the political and social situation in Native America was egalitarian and fair to everyone. But that is all detail work, and can be put aside for the philosophical considerations of the the quote.

I have to admit that I am not quite clear on the logic behind the philosophy. Part of this is just the fact that the morality is fairly repugnant to me, and therefore I have a hard time empathizing with the argument. But there are many forms of ethical reasoning that I don't particularly like that I can still understand, such as extreme utilitarianism. Her basic argument seems to be that if people don't acknowledge their own rights, you don't have to acknowledge them either. With "their own rights" being "their own rights" as described by your system of ethics, and leaving aside what (if I am allowed to use such a common word) I would describe as common decency. There is also, as far as I can tell from this quote, no underlying moral reason why people must acknowledge their own rights before they are acknowledged by others, it seems to be a matter of "because I said so". In other words, I don't really see the philosophical substance present.

Another thing that I find interesting is the conflation here of two different American ethics. From my cursory exposure to 19th century sources, the main ethic of the time was progress. abolitionists and robber barons might not have agreed on much, but they did agree on progress. Even much of the war against and resettlement of Native peoples were done with the quite honest idea that white culture was helping them progress. In my view, during much of the 20th century, the ethic of progress was replaced with the ethic of autonomy. Things did not have to fit into a larger plan, either of the culture or of God---they merely had to allow the individual to express their utmost personal autonomy. Obviously, Ayn Rand was one of the foremost proponents of the 2nd view, but in this quote, she also expresses the first view. Europeans were morally entitled to the Americas because they would lead to something that was objectively superior to what they had before: although Rand, an atheist, didn't base that on any idea of religious progress. "Progress" in this view, is just the natural results of "autonomy". And the justification of it all seems to be because that is what Ayn Rand wants. I can't really parse this as coherent philosophy, and although philosophical confusions are certainly common enough, philosophical confusions that are so strident when addressing hundreds of years of violence are, in my mind, doubly unforgivable.

I learned long ago here that arguing with a nihilist is not a very fruitful pursuit, especially when they are coy about that being their actual belief system. There is nothing coherent in this argument, and nothing to argue against; but perhaps what I have written here could dissuade those who have confused Rand's nihilistic contempt for some type of actual thought.

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