Is the wealth of America based on theft? This allegation lies at the heart of modern progressivism, and provides the justification for government seizure and government redistribution, not only within America but also from America to the rest of the world.
In my film “2016” I showed how Obama’s anti-colonialism presumes that the West grew rich by conquering other countries and stealing their resources. This theft critique has now been incorporated and expanded into a systematic, progressive critique of America.
America used its own treasure to rebuild Europe and Japan after World War II. These are the not the actions of a global thief.
According to this critique, America was founded in an original act of piracy: the early settlers stole the country from the native Americans. Then America was built by theft: white Americans stole the labor of African-Americans by enslaving them for 250 years. The borders of America were also extended by theft: America stole half of Mexico in the Mexican War.
Moreover, American foreign policy is, from the progressive point of view, based on theft, because America only invades countries like Iraq which have oil, while it never invades resource-poor countries like Haiti or Rwanda.
Finally, capitalism is theft because it confers unjust profits on the few while depriving the majority of Americans of what Obama calls their “fair share.”
This is a powerful critique, which seemingly rests on premises that cannot be disputed. It can’t be ignored, because it is routinely taught in schools and colleges, it is widely disseminated in Hollywood and the media, and it has now migrated into the highest corridors of government.
Finally, if the critique is valid, something must be done about it. If America’s wealth is based on stolen goods, those stolen goods must be returned. Obama’s “remaking” of America, to the extent that it constitutes theft recovery, would then be fully justified.
So, is America guilty as charged?
Let’s begin by noticing that the crimes that are alleged against America are all universal ills. In fact, they are part of a universal conquest ethic that has defined history from time immemorial.
If we look are the borders of most countries today, those borders were established by conquest. Slavery is part of the conquest ethic, for what is slavery by a forcible deprivation of life and labor? Conquest was also the way that people traditionally obtained wealth. They got it by seizing it from other people or tribes.
Consider the taking of the land from the native Americans. That certainly constituted conquest by the Spanish, the Portuguese and the British, going all the way back to the Columbus landing in 1492. But most native American tribes that were occupying land had themselves gotten that land by taking it from some other tribe. In other words, the native Americans, no less than the Europeans, subscribed to the conquest ethic. Pretty much everyone did.
I’m not attempting to justify the conquest of the Spanish, the Portuguese and the British, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame those sins on America, which was founded two centuries later.
From the beginning, the American founding represented an alternative to the conquest ethic. America represented the ethic of consent and equal rights and wealth creation.
We can see this in the example of slavery. Slavery was a universal expression of the conquest ethic. There was slavery in China, in India, in ancient Greece and Rome, all over Africa, and native Americans had slaves long before Columbus got here.
What’s uniquely Western is not slavery but the abolition of slavery. There is no history of an anti-slavery movement outside the West, anywhere in the world. And only America fought a great war to end slavery, a war in which several hundred thousand Northern soldiers died to end an institution from which they derived no benefit. This was not, as Emerson put it, the revolution of the oppressed, by the “repentance of the tyrant.”
Slavery shows how America inherited the ethic of conquest, and for a time even participated in it. But America also effected a transition away from conquest and toward equality of rights.
The founders were unable to abolish slavery in their time because if they did no Southern state would have joined the union. In that case, slavery might have continued much longer than it did.
Lincoln argued that the founders declared the “right” of equal dignity and equal rights so that the “enforcement” could follow as soon as the circumstances permitted.
It’s unfair to ask the founders to do something that was not in their power to do. They laid the groundwork for a society better than the one they inherited. They did what they could to undermine the conquest ethic.
What about today? Isn’t American foreign policy based on theft? Actually, no.
America has made its share of mistakes, in Vietnam, and more recently in Iraq. But in neither country did America intervene to steal from those people.
In fact, the Iraq war has cost us dearly. And we have turned the oil fields back to the Iraqis.
Earlier, America used its own treasure to rebuild Europe and Japan after World War II. These are the not the actions of a global thief.
To see if capitalism is a form of theft, consider the example of Steve Jobs. Who is he stealing from? He created a product, the iPhone, that most of us didn’t even know we wanted or needed. But when he made it, we lined up to buy it and freely parted with our money to get it. If Steve Jobs’ affluence increases inequality, we -- his consumers -- are responsible for that inequality.
In sum, the progressive theft critique is deeply flawed. In fact, it is a deliberately selective view of America that is aimed at shaming the American people, especially our young people.
In this way, the charge of theft makes Americans falsely believe that their wealth is stolen, not earned. Then our wealth can be confiscated by the biggest thief of all, the federal government.