In attempting to defend President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” statement, Matthew Yglesias argues against the idea that a person can deserve his property at all. In his view, “the real world human practice of property rights has very little to do with” the idea of moral desert. Instead, he counsels us to “define a set of property rights that, on a forward-looking basis, are likley to lead to human prosperity.”
That, of course, is exactly what Georgia did to the Cherokee. The entire policy of Indian Removal was based on the idea that society should be able to rearrange property rights to encourage greater social wealth on a “forward-looking basis,” regardless of whether or not the Indians were justly entitled to that land. Wealth redistribution to serve the needs of future expansion was the unceasing and explicit demand of those who expropriated land from the Indians.
Yet Yglesias tries simultaneously to invoke the dispossession of the Indians as an historic crime, while supporting the argument upon which it was premised. Indian Removal certainly was a moral crime, but only because it was contrary to the conception of moral property rights. Yglesias–whom we last saw arguing that the colonists shouldn’t have rebelled against the British in 1776–can’t have it both ways.
It’s typical of the left to argue that all property rights are somehow tainted by past injustices and therefore that government can redistribute to whatever groups wield sufficient political power to demand a share of the spoils. Of course, that is a non sequitur; past injustices do not justify new ones, against people who did not commit the original wrong. It’s true that, as Twain said, there’s not a foot of land that has not been stolen and restolen countless times. But isn’t this good reason to stop stealing what belongs to people? Instead of institutionalizing as social policy into the indefinite future a system that deprives people of their earnings, their belongings, and their substance, to serve priorities that others consider more important? The American Indian suffered terrible abuses, and stands today as an object lesson in what happens when government is given too much power to seize and redistribute property. Yet Yglesias praises that state of affairs and urges its repetition! That really is outrageous.