The righteous indignation burns a little brighter on this side of the Atlantic than it does in Europe and beyond — the United States, per Fitzgerald, “having about it still that quality of the idea.” Forged in revolution, informed by soaring sentiment, and defined by acts of variously prudent dissidence, Americans of all sorts fancy themselves to be fighting the good fight. Judging by the rapturous reception that he has received from conservatives of late, Cliven Bundy is one of these sorts, and protests such as his, it seems, are how the West was won. After a longtime dispute with the federal government, the rebellious cattle rancher has forced the government to back down. Hooray?
Not quite, no. Sympathetic as I am to his plight — and quietly thrilled, too, by anyone standing up to the state’s endless overreach — I fear that Bundy’s champions are rather mixing up their issues. There is a veritable mountain of ugly, dangerous, and indulgent law in this country — so much, indeed, that anyone seeking seriously to diminish it will need a lawnmower rather than a paring knife. And, as we learned at Waco, where Leviathan goes, trouble will inexorably follow. Certainly, Bundy’s predicament is the product of an unlovely changing of the guard — of our statesmen having managed to transmute the unmistakable shouts of “liberty or death” into the convoluted edicts of power, and to substitute soaring charters of rights and untrammeled expressions of individual sovereignty with memorandums and edicts that determine the extent to which ranchers may encroach upon tortoises. Certainly, too, Bundy’s story is that of a family that has raised cattle in the West since before the automobile was invented being turned into a grotesque social experiment. Nevertheless, as one of the better of those statesmen once said, this is a nation with a “government of laws and not of men” — and not the other way around — and it seems to me that this principle should not be considered null and void because one of those men happens to have an agreeable tale, a photogenic complaint, and a romantic genealogical past.
History teaches us that, in all cases of rebellion, the final arbiter is success — a standard that, as a matter of raw fact, has some merit. Still, History is wrong to glue success and virtue together as if they were inextricable. George Washington is a man I admire greatly, and, in his fight against the British at least, he and his contemporaries had the distinct and happy advantage of being right. But had the signatories to the Declaration paid for their treason with their sacred honor — as they were greatly worried that they might — would they have been rendered as fools by their loss? Or would they have been a group of men who got the morals right but the fighting wrong? Likewise, if Bundy had lost in his altercation with the feds, would that have made his cause any less noble? I rather think not.
Which is to say that the stirring defenses of Bundy to which both Powerline’s John Hinderaker and National Review’s own Kevin D. Williamson have committed this week are all well and good, but that they ultimately conflate two questions that no ordered republic can have conflated for too long. Hinderaker rightly contends that the federal government has “squeezed the ranchers in southern Nevada by limiting the acres on which their cattle can graze” — the effect of which “has been to drive the ranchers out of business”; that, preposterously, “the federal government owns more than 80 percent of the state of Nevada,” a number common in many Western states; and that, ultimately, “Cliven Bundy is just one more victim of progress and changing mores.” These grievances serve as an indictment of the regulatory state, yes. But they do not serve as an executioner for our ailing rule of law. If Cliven Bundy’s behavior is legitimized by the gravity of his circumstances, how many others may follow suit, singing his name as they go?
Hinderaker concedes at the outset that “legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” that Bundy’s claim that the federal government does not own the land is flagrantly incorrect, and that Bundy has been relegated to defending himself because “no lawyer could make that argument.” (I’d quibble with the last point, but perhaps we know different lawyers.) Then he suggests that Bundy didn’t have a chance in the “age of Obama.” This is a strange claim to make. The rule of law, as my editor Rich Lowry noted yesterday morning, has been extolled by presidents for centuries if not millennia, among them Abraham Lincoln, who hoped that “reverence for the laws” would “become the political religion of the nation” and that “the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions,” would “sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.” Are we really to believe that the government’s backing up its rules with force is unique to Obama? And why would we imagine that Bundy would have a chance if he doesn’t have a case?
That there is a point beyond which the state may not advance without expecting legitimate pushback is acknowledged by even the most committed of the state’s enablers. Indeed, this principle is baked into America’s instruction manual — albeit with a caveat. “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive,” the Declaration reads, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” But it also chides the hotheaded among us, inviting us to remember that “prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes.” As far as we know, Bundy is not set on starting a revolution. (Although any shots fired would, certainly, have been heard around the world.) But then he isn’t set on civil disobedience as we understand it, either. There is a compact that governs disobedience, and it might be said to follow an old Spanish proverb: “Take what you want but pay for it.” Bundy did not ready himself for prison in order to make a point, but hoped that his obstinacy would lead to a direct change in policy with no consequences to himself. He wished, in other words, to win — nothing more, nothing less. That, in a vacuum, his winning looks good to limited-government types such as myself remains beside the point. If he can opt out, who cannot?
Setting out to make “the case for a little sedition,” my colleague Kevin Williamson ended up making a whole lot more, relying for his rhetorical firepower on wholesale revolutionaries Mohandas Gandhi and George Washington — men, lest you forget, who succeeded in bringing down the existing order in its entirety. “Mr. Bundy’s stand should not be construed as a general template for civic action,” Williamson writes, thereby demonstrating the problem rather neatly: When you change the government, you do not need to worry about setting a precedent; when you merely disobey it, you are setting yourself above a system that remains in force. Respectfully, I would venture that Williamson is here suggesting that he is to be the arbiter of legitimate rebellion — a peculiar position for a libertarian concerned with the integrity of the political process to adopt.
When can one refuse to obey the law without expecting to bring the whole thing down? Certainly such instances exist: I daresay that I would not stand idly by quoting John Adams if a state reintroduced slavery or herded a religious group into ovens or even indulged in wholesale gun confiscation. But Bundy’s case is not remotely approaching these thresholds. Are we to presume that if the government is destroying one’s livelihood or breaking one’s ties with the past, one can revolt? If so, one suspects that half the country would march on Washington, with scimitars drawn, and that West Virginia would invade the Environmental Protection Agency.
Speaking in 1838, Abraham Lincoln argued,
When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. — I mean to say no such thing.
Nor I. As government expands and civil society retreats, bad laws pile atop bad laws, and the cause for dissent is magnified and deepened. Cliven Bundy has been dealt a raw hand by a system that is deaf to his grievances and ham-fisted in its response. But this is a republic, dammit — and those who hope to keep it cannot pick and choose the provisions with which they are willing to deign to comply.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.