The Bundy Ranch Standoff and Attitudes Toward the State


The immediate "crisis" portion of the standoff involving the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over his cattle grazing on federal land ended last week.


Whether this will be end of Bundy's troubles with the BLM, who have been in court with him over his refusal to pay fees to them for decades, remains to be seen, with the Bundys reporting that they've received registered mail from the BLM this week that they haven't opened yet.

I blogged about a lot of the factual background of the conflict here, with links to some relevant court documents.

This story really caught fire with lots of deeply emotional people on both sides of a rough "state vs. citizens" rift in American consciousness. This is even though the specifics of the story don't resonate with that many people's lives—few of us are ranchers or have armed government agencies literally stealing the instruments of our livelihood. On the other side, few of us feel that the order and safety or our lives are seriously threatened by recalcitrant ranchers or "militia members."

The specifics of the case also create many annoying ambiguities for libertarians, especially those who pay fealty to the "rule of law" over a kind of screw-you anarchism. A huge show of force against citizens attempting to peacefully protest seems like it could be overkill even if you think in general, the law has gotta be enforced. (But if you really believe that, you can't blink when recalcitrant people have to be shot dead at times.)

Depending on who you identified with, you could see people on both the government and Bundy sides as making ominous threats, either implicitly or explicitly. Those sorts of facts don't speak to who is right or wrong in principle, but in a story involving humans in conflict people like to feel sympathy for their side's behavior and demeanor, not just their position in the conflict.

It can be tricky, because the type of person who lets conflicts with the state get this far is apt to be, temperamentally, the type to do and say lots of things even a normally sympathetic person in principle might want to shy away from. Similarly, one need not believe in Bundy's eccentric political science vision of where legitimate American authority lies—to him, counties and states, not the federal government—to feel he's been ill-treated by the feds.

Very deep questions of duties to obey and the source of private property underlie this conflict. (And slightly less but still deep questions about federal land ownership and management vs. the prerogatives of states, counties, and citizens.) Let's just say I'd never seen so many people who do not consider themselves rock-ribbed conservatives rising up indignantly to defend the unquestionable value of and need to obey absentee land ownership based on the ukase of the powerful and faraway over the rights of indigenous people to work the lands before this case.

I write all this, by the way, not having done a thorough historical investigation into the specific facts that might establish proper title to the land in question. Neither am I sure about the eco-science behind exactly how and why the presence of Bundy's cattle is or is not harming in a vital and meaningful way the desert tortoise. (Please forgive me for being the only person who has written about the conflict who hasn't mastered those two topics.)

It says interesting things about where we stand as a citizenry, though, the different ways politicians and pundits have reacted to whatever version of the facts of the matter had sunk through their head.

Herewith, some interesting reactions covering the waterfront of who we are an an American people:

• Sen. Harry Reid (I have not been convinced that stories that connect this crackdown on the Bundys to a land grab for the Chinese are true) says that the Bundys and those on their side are "domestic terrorists." Well, they did stand up to oppose what was as legitimate a government orders, as government order legitimacy goes, as one could find.

•Sen. Rand and former Congressman Ron Paul, not surprisingly given that one of their core political constituencies are people who think the federal government and its agents often acts as bullies in enforcing not-always-legitimate demands, are both sympathetic to Bundy's plight. Republican politicians less inclined to want the support of the insurrectionist-minded are understandably avoiding the topic and certainly not cheering on Bundy.

•The New York Times thinks Bundy is just a deadbeat, and wonders if the right would cheer were his supporters armed Black Panthers protecting a black family from eviction. Gracy Olmstead of the American Conservative, writing at the Federalist, also sees Bundy fighting more for his own personal gain than grand political principle. Glenn Beck, often a hero to elements of the more radical American right, did one of his usual not-entirely-predictable turns on the Bundy matter, saying he wants the Bundys' angry supporters to "un-friend him" on Facebook, saying he's all about peace, man.

•My favorite opposing views, presenting the limits of this debate most colorfully, come from Kevin Williamson in National Review, who didn't mind saying that he could praise a little sedition, even if the "the law" isn't on its side:

 Is government our servant, or is it our master? The Left has long ago answered that question to the satisfaction of its partisans, who are happy to be serfs so long as their birth control is subsidized. But the Right always struggles with that question, as it must. The thing that conservatives seek to conserve is the American order, which (1) insists that we are to be governed by laws rather than by men and (2) was born in a violent revolution. Russell Kirk described the conservative ideal as "ordered liberty," and that is indeed what we must aim for — keeping in mind that it is order that serves liberty, not the other way around. And it is the government that exists at the sufferance of the people, including such irascible ones as Mr. Bundy, not the other way around….

Prudential measures do not solve questions of principle. So where does that leave us with our judgment of the Nevada insurrection? Perhaps with an understanding that while Mr. Bundy's stand should not be construed as a general template for civic action, it is nonetheless the case that, in measured doses, a little sedition is an excellent thing.

And paired with that, popping in as if from Central Casting to stand for the "Left" Williamson poked at, were the folks at ThinkProgress with a detailed think piece on, hm, what sort of excuse can we come up with, after the BLM's unfortunate standdown, to make sure that Mr. Bundy still ends up locked in a cage?

Those, then, are two of the (at least) three Americas. The third probably thinks that Bundy should have probably just given up somewhere along the line, but Christ leave him alone now, and also probably that at a certain point essentially sending in an army on such a mild form of disobedience might be overkill. But alas, that's what it all has to come down to, when dealing with a man who thinks he's in the right, and has friends who agree with him.