© Josh Sager – April 2014
For the past 20 years, a Nevadan rancher named Cliven Bundy has been grazing his cattle on federal land while refusing to pay any fees to the Bureau of Land Management. Obviously, this refusal to pay fees for the use of federal land breaks the law, and the Bureau of Land Management has made several attempts over the years to address this in court–none have been successful and Bundy has regularly refused to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the federal government’s right to compel fees for using their land.
During the last few weeks, the conflict between this rancher and the federal government reached a breaking point, culminating in the federal government attempting to round up Bundy’s cattle which was grazing on federal property. Bundy owes over $1 million in grazing fees to the federal government and they sought to sell his cattle to recoup these losses.
Unfortunately, this attempt was met with a massive push-back from a variety of militia members, anti-government protesters, libertarian ideologues, “sovereign citizens” and right wing “states’ rights defenders,” who showed up to support Bundy carrying loaded weapons.
After a short standoff between federal authorities and the armed Bundy supporters, the federal authorities left without the cattle in an attempt to prevent armed conflict. This retreat by federal authorities has been portrayed as a victory of “small government” activists over the “big federal government,” but, in reality, this is nothing more than the temporary victory of armed extremists over the rule of law.
Cliven Bundy: Free Rider
Cliven Bundy is clearly in the wrong when he says that he should be allowed to graze his cattle on federal land without having to pay any fees; that land is owned and maintained by the public, and Bundy’s assertion that he should be allowed to graze there for free is as absurd as if he claimed the right to graze his cattle on your front lawn without your permission.
The Bundy Ranch situation is a textbook example of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” where public goods are exploited by free-riders. In the early years of our republic, farmers were allowed to graze their cattle on public commons, but nobody wanted to pay for the upkeep of the land that others would use. Eventually, the commons became over-grazed and it became apparent that the government would need to tax and maintain the land. The compulsion of taxation forces even those who would rather not pay for their use of the land to pay their fair share, thus solving the problem of the free-rider.
While Bundy attempts to cloak his free-rider status in the language of “freedom,” he has no legal or moral leg to stand upon. He is, in effect, stealing from the American public in an attempting to avoid paying for the upkeep of his cattle, which he will then sell for a personal profit.
In a sane and consistent world, Bundy is just the type of person who the right wing purports to hate: an individual who refuses to respect the property rights of others and who expects federal assistance without being willing to “pay his fair share.” He refuses to operate within the “free market” by buying grazing rights, and has exhibited “thuggish” behavior that should anger every “tough on crime” conservative. Unfortunately, our world is often neither sane, nor consistent, and the right wing fringe has rallied in favor of
Perspective on the Public Response
Ultimately, the important issue in this story is not the grazing dispute, in and of itself, but rather the response by activists and extremists who want to turn the Bundy Ranch into a cause, if not a hill to be martyred upon.
Once it became known that the federal government was attempting to impound Cliven Bundy’s cattle, hundreds of armed supporters came to “support” his cause, some from many miles away. Most of these people have absolutely nothing to do with ranching and are simply latching onto the Bundy ranch as a justification to express their preexisting hatred for the federal government. These activists are part of a persistent fringe of anti-government extremists who have regularly committed violence on our soil (ex. Timothy McVeigh) and targeted federal agents for the terrible offense of being public servants rather than “rugged individualists” (who, ironically, mooch off of the system while refusing to pay taxes).
Put simply, the fact that extremists with guns got the Bureau of Land Management to back off in this case is a breakdown of the rule of law and a terrible precedent.
Because Bundy and his cohort are white conservatives—a group that many in power are terrified of offending—the media have truly failed to recognize just how dangerous this precedent is; in order to fix this oversight, we need only translate this situation into analogs involving other groups and imagine the reactions from the public and authorities:
- A black family decides to take over a public street, without permission and refusing to pay any fees, and use it to host a public gathering for a few weeks; when the police arrive to ensure that this family doesn’t illegally monopolize a public resource, a bunch of other African Americans show up with guns and threaten a shootout if the family is kicked off of the street.
- The owners of a mosque decide to build an extension of their building into the parking lot for a federal building without permission. When the federal government tries to stop the mosque from building onto its land without permission, a group of devout Muslims gather with assault rifles to threaten violence against any federal agent who tries to stop construction.
These two hypotheticals present similar situations to the Bundy fiasco—where a group of Americans decide to illegally use public goods and, when called out, are supported by an armed group of people from a similar demographic—yet it is obvious that both would be portrayed dramatically differently. The black family would be seen as “thugs” and criminals who take public resources and threaten violence when called out on it. In all likelihood, this family would be the arrested and charged, if not shot dozens of times by an overzealous police force. The Mosque owners would be seen as terrorists and would likely be shot or detained as such (I can almost hear the drone motors revving up from here).
The Danger of Extremism
To put into perspective how extreme and deranged some of the armed Bundy supporters are, here is a quote from one of Bundy’s better-known allies, ex-sheriff and Tea Party political candidate, Richard Mack:
“It was a tactical plot that I was trying to get them to use. If they’re going to start killing people, I’m sorry, but to show the world how ruthless these people are, women needed to be the first ones shot. I’m sorry, that sounds horrible. I would have put my own wife or daughters there, and I would have been screaming bloody murder to watch them die. I would have gone next, I would have been the next one to be killed. I’m not afraid to die here. I’m willing to die here.”
“…But the best ploy would be to have had women at the front. Because, one, I don’t think they would have shot them. And, two, if they had, it would have been the worst thing that we could have shown to the rest of the world, that these ruthless cowards hired by the federal government will do anything.”
In short, Mack is advocating for using women and children as human shields so that the federal government would be blamed for shooting them in the event that there was an armed exchange. In a final irony, Mack thinks that this tactic would be the perfect way to illustrate just how ruthless, cowardly and immoral the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT is.
A group of anti-government extremists who are willing to take up arms and sacrifice women and children to their cause are extremely dangerous—anybody to reach this point has already gone far beyond reason and into a place where anything is acceptable to achieve the downfall of the opposition. In fact, we have heard virtually identical quotes from Hamas terrorists when they explain why they choose to fire missiles into Israel from schools, elderly homes, and mosques (to draw a response that kills the innocent and causes ill-informed viewers to blame the person who simply responds to an attack):
“Accordingly [Palestinians] created a human shield of women, children, the elderly and the Jihad fighters against the Zionist bombing machine, as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: We desire Death, as you desire Life.”
–Fathi Hammad: Al-Aqsa TV, Feb. 29, 2008–
While it may have been a good idea by the feds to back of temporarily and diffuse the gathering of armed anti-government extremists, this is a precedent that cannot stand. When the law can be invalidated by a small group of extremists with guns, we lose the benefits of living in a civilized society and are faced with the possibility that any well-armed minority can live only by its own rules. The federal authorities must act with speed and aggression in regard to Bundy and his supporters, taking advantage of every statute under the law.
Personally, I find myself on the side of the rights of protesters in virtually every argument, even if the person protesting is as repulsive as the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church. That said, this support changes the moment that those protesters decide to pick up weapons and threaten violence in order to force people into respecting their preferences.
The Bundy family must have its assets frozen and cattle seized until a court case can decide their culpability to the federal government for past fees; additionally, Cliven Bundy must be charged with tax evasion and face felony charges which would permanently invalidate his ability to own weapons which could later be used in future acts of anti-government aggression.
If anti-government militias and extremists decide to mass with guns and threatening violence, they must be charged with crimes that prevent them from legally buying or holding guns. While everybody has a right to protest their government and petition for redress of grievance, this does not protect the threat of violence against government officials—anybody to threaten such violence has proven themselves incapable of responsibly owning a weapon, and it becomes a priority to separate them from their means of committing violence.