Believe it or not, Cliven Bundy and I have a lot in common.
We both claim to believe in limited government. We both have a deep appreciation for our Mormon pioneer heritage. In fact, both of us can look to Mormon pioneer ancestors who helped settle and tame the Mojave Desert.
That’s why it’s like nails on a chalk board to hear Bundy invoke ideals of limited government as he stands off – literally – with the federal government. Cliven Bundy isn’t a champion of libertarian ideals, but rather a limited government charlatan who has cloaked his criminal activity in libertarian rhetoric. It saddens me to see so many libertarian friends and politicians rally around Bundy. As libertarians, Bundy deserves our scorn, not our support.
This matter is simple. Cliven Bundy is a deadbeat who has refused to pay his range fees for the past twenty years. He’s a scofflaw for, in direct defiance of court orders, refusing to remove his cattle from land that does not belong to him.
That doesn’t stop Cliven Bundy from wrapping himself and his indefensible acts in the flag. From the Las Vegas Sun:
Bundy said he stopped paying grazing fees because he believes the land is owned by the state and that he has a right to use it for his cattle.
When challenged about why he stopped paying, Bundy said he attempted to pay what he considers the proper authorities — not the BLM.
The fight, Bundy said, has become more than just about cattle.
“I feel it’s a constitutional thing; it’s a state sovereignty thing; it’s a county government thing,” Bundy said.
Fortunately, ownership of public lands isn’t determined by the ignorant delusions and legal fantasies of a rogue Bunkerville rancher. In fact, this issue is explicitly resolved in the Nevada Constitution:
…the people of Nevada to form a constitution….do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States;
Emphasis added. As part of our admittance to the Union, we, the citizens of Nevada, disclaimed title to all unappropriated public lands to the federal government. Legally – and constitutionally – it doesn’t matter whether Bundy’s Mormon ancestors grazed their cattle on the same land. It belongs to the federal government.
Even more, as noted by the Atlantic, Nevada’s constitution includes a “paramount-allegiance clause,” wherein “the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen [of Nevada] is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers…” Additionally, “the Federal Government may, by warrant of the Constitution, employ armed force in compelling obedience to its Authority.” Emphasis added.
From the Atlantic:
Nevada isn’t the only state with a paramount-allegiance clause. Republicans added similar clauses to Reconstruction-era state constitutions throughout the South, although few survived subsequent revisions after federal troops departed. Even the states that retain the phrase “paramount allegiance” today, like North Carolina and Mississippi, don’t share Nevada’s explicit constitutional openness toward armed federal intervention to enforce it.
The Atlantic then notes that the Nevada constitution predates the arrival of Bundy’s Mormon pioneer ancestors by a full two decades, concluding, “It’s doubtful even the Nevada Constitution will change their minds—if legal and constitutional arguments could persuade the militia movement, there might not be a militia movement.”
Backed into the corner of this legal reality, some of Bundy defenders pivot from a misstatement of what the law is to an argument of what the law should be.
John Hinderaker at Power Line makes just such an argument:
The bedrock issue here is that the federal government owns more than 80% of the state of Nevada. This is true across the western states. To an astonishing degree, those states lack sovereignty over their own territory. Most of the land is federal. And the federal agencies that rule over federal lands have agendas. At every opportunity, it seems, they restrict not only what can be done on federal lands, but on privately-owned property. They are hostile to traditional industries like logging, mining and ranching, and if you have a puddle in your back yard, the EPA will try to regulate it as a navigable waterway.
I’ll agree that it would be better policy to have the State of Nevada own and manage public lands than the federal government. However, that is completely irrelevant to Bundy’s situation. Bundy doesn’t get to wiggle out of accountability to the law by invoking the law as he thinks it should be. We are all governed by the law as it is. Further, we don’t make these kinds of changes to law in response to or during an armed stand-off in the desert.
Imagine the year is 1975. The nation has a national speed limit of 55 MPH. Jim gets a ticket for driving 75 MPH in a 55 MPH zone. Jim doesn’t get to avoid accountability under the 55 MPH law by arguing the speed limit should be 75 MPH. Similarly, Cliven Bundy and his defenders can’t excuse his misconduct by mounting a defense on what he thinks the law should be. Like all of us, Cliven Bundy is accountable to the law as it is.
In response to AG candidate Adam Laxalt’s incredulous claim that the standoff, “is yet another example of why it’s important for Nevadans to gain more control over our lands and the decision-making process in how it is managed,” Steve Sebelius at the Las Vegas Review-Journal correctly noted as follows:
Here, Laxalt descends into the ridiculous. This is not about federal control of Nevada lands. This is a case of a rancher refusing to pay fees that are entirely legal and which all other law-abiding ranchers pay. Laxalt must know this. But instead of characterizing it properly, he panders to a conservative base in order to get votes. No, that’s not unusual, but it is always despicable.
This leads to the very core of why Bundy’s actions can’t be defended by libertarians. Critics of libertarianism often conflate our philosophy with anarchy. This a major libertarian pet peeve.
Anarchists shun the very need for the state. Libertarians, in contrast, recognize that the state is necessary to define and protect property rights, which, in turn, are required for a voluntary market based economy.
Bundy flouts these libertarian principles.
As libertarians, we balk at government subsidies and bailouts of businesses. We believe the government should not intervene into the market on behalf of one person or entity over another. And yet by taking grazing rights without paying for them, Bundy’s cattle operation is receiving a de facto federal subsidy.
Bundy has shown a disregard for legally defined property rights by grazing his cattle on land that doesn’t belong to him without authorization or payment.
Even after a Court of law ruled against Bundy, Bundy doubled down on his cowboy anarchy.
“My Clark County sheriff, Doug Gillespie, didn’t finish his job,” Bundy said. “What the mandate from we the people was, Saturday was to disarm the park service and BLM. And when he didn’t do that, and his time was up, then we the people took it into our hands and had to do the sheriff’s job and the governor of Nevada’s job.”
Bundy said his supporters marched “and they faced an army of bureaucrats, and they faced those guns with courage and faith and much danger, and they backed those bureaucrats down and they run out of this county into Utah.”
Bundy prevailed in driving the BLM out – temporarily – not because the government enforced a property right in his favor, but because he had more guns. Like medieval times, might made right.
From Elaine Hurd on Let’s Talk Nevada:
Cliven Bundy won. Through threats of violence fueled by armed militias called in by our local tea party “patriots,” he won. The Bureau of Land Management was forced to dismantle their operation to rectify 20 years of his lawbreaking with court orders to back up removal of his cows from public land because Clark County Sheriff Gilllespie made the BLM stand down. He didn’t want a shoot-out on his watch.
Law abiding citizens, especially libertarians, should be offended that in the United States in 2014, an anarchist like Cliven Bundy has been able to subvert the law through threat of violence.
Even so, some politicians have turned their back on the rule of law. Niger Innis, for example, has made the preposterous claim that “Cliven Bundy’s fight is a civil rights issue,” in this Las Vegas Review-Journal article. Explain to us, Niger, how refusing to pay range fees for 20 years, thus taking a resource that doesn’t belong to Bundy, and defying federal court orders, is a “civil rights issue.” Ridiculous. Anyone with basic critical thinking skills should recognize that this is an issue of (1) theft by a deadbeat and (2) contempt of court by a scofflaw.
The core ideals behind libertarianism include personal property rights and individual responsibility. Bundy’s actions are in direct defiance of both ideals. He is a deadbeat who refuses to pay for the use of property that does not belong to him. He maintains that he is entitled to a de facto federal subsidy for his cattle operation. He insists that he is literally above the law and does not have to obey court orders, like the rest of us. No libertarian, in good conscience, can or should support Cliven Bundy.
Bundy’s family settled what is now the northeast corner of Clark County, Nevada. My great (x3) grandfather, Charles C. Rich, for whom my newborn son is named, lead the Mormon settlement of San Bernardino, California.