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Ayn Rand and the Limits of Freedom

Ayn Rand. Image: Slate.comOn March 6, 1974, Ayn Rand addressed the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The following is a transcript of the Q&A following the address from a recording posted at the Ayn Rand Institute’s website. [link]

[09:30] West Point Cadet: Ma’am, at the risk of stating an unpopular view, when you’re speaking of America, I couldn’t help but think of the cultural genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of black men in this country, and the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II. How do you account for all of this in your view of America?

[17:45] Ayn Rand: As to the Indians, I don’t even care to discuss that kind of alleged complaint that they have against this country. I do believe, with serious scientific reasons, the worst kind of movie that you have probably seen—worst from the Indian viewpoint—as to what they did to the white men. I do not think that they have any right to live in a country merely because they were born here and acted and lived like savages. Americans didn’t conquer. Americans did not conquer that country.

[19:00] And, since the Indians did not have any property rights—they didn’t have the concept of property, they didn’t even have a settled society, they were predominately nomadic tribes—they were a primitive, tribal culture, if you want to call it that. If so, they 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. It would be wrong to attack any country which does respect, or tries for that matter, to respect individual rights. Because, if they do, you are an aggressor and you are morally wrong if you attack them.

[19:48] But if a country does not protect rights—if a given tribe is the slave of its own tribal chief—why should you respect the rights they do not have, or any country which has a dictatorship government? The citizens have individual rights, but the country does not have any rights. Anyone has the right to invade it because rights are not recognized in this country and neither you nor the country nor anyone can have your cake and eat it too. In other words, want respect for the rights of Indians who, incidentally, for most cases of their tribal history, made agreements with the white man and then when they got whichever they got through their agreements giving or selling certain territory, and then came back and broke the agreements and attacked white settlements.

[20:50] I will go further. Let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages, which they certainly were not. What was it that they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? It was their wish to continue a primitive existence; their right to keep part of the Earth untouched, unused, and not even as property but just keep everybody out so that they could live practically like an animal. Or, maybe, a few caves about. Any white person who brings the element of civilization had the right to take over this country. And it is great that some people did and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: a respect for individual rights.

[21:58] I am, incidentally, in favor of Israel against the Arabs for the very same reason. There you have the same issue in reverse. Israel is not a good country politically—it’s a mixed economy and uses some socialism—but why do the Arabs resent it? Because it is a wedge of civilization, an industrial wedge in part of the continent which is totally primitive and nomadic. Israel is being attacked for being civilized and being specifically a technological society. It is for that very reason that they should be supported, that they are morally right because they represent the progress of men’s minds. Just as the white settlers of America represented the progress of the mind, not centuries of brute stagnation and superstition, they represented the banner of the mind and they were in the right. [Applause]

 

This speech came exactly one decade after she wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness, “Neither geography nor race nor tradition nor previous state of development can confer on some human beings the ‘right’ to violate the rights of others.” It was also 21 years after she wrote, in Atlas Shrugged, “To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality.”

 

Read more about Ayn Rand’s views on individualism and human nature at the following sites:

Slate: Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies

Scientific American: Ayn Rand on Human Nature