Tragedy was averted on Sunday when the Bureau of Land Management decided to be the adults in the room and leave the Bundy ranch before anyone got hurt. Why they decided to bring an army to a cattle roundup in the first place is anyone’s guess, but at least they had the sense to back off when it became clear things were getting out of hand. But the underlying principles of the standoff are far from resolved.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. More than one judge determined that the Bundys were breaking the law.
The tensions that grew out of the Bundy standoff and garnered national attention, however, were not about the merits of the case, but rather the underlying issue in this and similar cases throughout the West. How did we get to the point where generations-old property rights are taken away at the barrel of a gun?
The law placed the land that the Bundys had settled and ranched for generations into the federal government’s hands and placed the Bureau of Land Management in charge of those lands, and then authorized the Bureau to end grazing on those lands when it determined grazing was incompatible with threatened tortoises.
Something that’s legal is not always right, and something that’s right is not always legal. In this sense, as in so many instances across the West right now, we have a set of competing implied property rights. One set of rights goes back more than a century and originates with a promise to that land’s settlers that their family could tend and use that land so long as they did so responsibly. The other set of rights breaks that promise and is claimed by an environmental theocracy (or maybe just raw opportunism) whose members rarely have experience living, or making a living, with the land.
Neither of these rights is “real” in the sense that their respective proponents actually own the property. The federal government does. Right or wrong, that’s what’s recorded at the county courthouse.
Now, the laws and actions that put the federal government’s name on that land are rightly being contested. The regulations that removed a rancher’s generations-old property right to graze that land are also rightly being contested. The hard question is, What’s the better way to contest those laws and regulations?
The Bundys chose to fight through fairly straightforward civil disobedience. They refused to comply with laws they felt were unjust and illegitimate. That’s a dangerous course fraught with personal consequences, as they have seen and will continue to see. The people who showed up to support them were also engaged in civil disobedience and, by all accounts, were prepared to accept the consequences of their actions.
But when we go from acts of omission — refusing to comply with unjust law — to acts of commission — engaging in violence or property damage — we’ve crossed a line. Ours is a system of laws, not men. We have processes for changing policies. They’re clunky and frustrating, but ultimately superior to might makes right.
If we don’t make a good-faith effort to exhaust the political and legal processes set up by our Constitution, then we not only usurp the system that allows our society to succeed and prosper, but we undermine our own arguments — both with the law and with the public that we need to bring to our side if we’re going to win.
— Carl Graham is the director of the Sutherland Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a think tank devoted to equipping state leaders — public and private — to reclaim their powers and responsibilities under the U.S. Constitution.