Cliven Bundy and the case for saying “No”
Cliven Bundy is a Nevada cattle rancher around whom has coalesced a small campaign of armed but not as of yet violent resistance to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the heavily armed property agent for the absentee landlord that is our federal government, a near-monopolist that claims ownership of some 87 percent of all the land in Nevada and practically all of the land suitable for grazing cattle. Take it as given that the law is against Mr. Bundy, who has been involved in 20-odd years of fruitless litigation against the federal government over his family’s 130-odd years of enjoying grazing rights on public lands, a concession originally offered in the 1870s as an inducement to settlers and interrupted in 1993 by concerns over the welfare of the Mojave population of the desert tortoise. When the tortoise was listed as “threatened,” the BLM insisted on renegotiating the terms of Mr. Bundy’s deal, and he objected. He objects to a great many things, including to the very idea that the federal government has the right to manage public lands within Nevada. While Mr. Bundy is full of eccentric legal rationalizations, characteristic of the western insurrectionists who preceded him for generations, this confrontation is at its heart an exercise not in litigation but in civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience is a complicated matter in a republic that (1) is dedicated to the proposition that we shall be ruled by laws and not by men and (2) was founded by violent revolution. The challenge of the American system — and hence of American conservatism — has always been balancing the principle of liberty with the pragmatic imperative of general obedience to civil authority, the elusive quest for Russell Kirk’s “ordered liberty.” The question of civil disobedience, of which the revolution of 1776 is an extreme example, is only another expression of that most basic American dynamic, the ongoing dialogue between Madison’s law and Washington’s muskets.