In a thought-provoking article about the state of America’s “libertarian moment,” The Week’s Damon Linker makes a brief aside about the Bundy family stand-off in Oregon. He describes the group, currently maintaining an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge, as “die-hard libertarians.”
Linker’s choice of label is not unique. From Alternet to New York Magazine to Esquire to The Guardian, the implicit or explicit suggestion has been made: look at Cliven or Ammon Bundy, and you see the face of a libertarian.
And what an ugly face it is.
The elder Bundy, recall, made headlines last year for two things. One was his gross racism, demonstrated when he suggested that African Americans might have been better off as slaves.
But first, Bundy had an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over grazing fees, which he refused to pay for the right to roam his cattle on federally owned land.
Bundy said his ultimate goal—much like his son’s in Oregon this week—was to have the federal government transfer ownership of its ample holdings in the American West to the states in the name of constitutional, limited government.
Yet in the meantime, the Bundy ranch hypocritically benefits from special federal largesse, and there’s nothing constitutional or limited about that.
As I noted Tuesday, if the Bundys rented grazing land on the free market—i.e. from anyone other than the feds—their rent would be 93 percent higher than the fees Cliven refused to pay. Beyond this price distortion, taxpayers also prop up the Bundy ranch by paying the 85 percent of administrative costs for public lands that the BLM’s low rents can’t cover.
I have considerable sympathy for the cause of reforming and minimizing federal land ownership, but the Bundys are basically on corporate welfare.
Of course, though their legal argument is generally deemed lacking given current law, the Bundys’ complaint about federal land—which constitutes more than 80 percent of the area of Nevada (!)—brings up a real and serious issue. Their anger at “the government taking away land from the people whose way of life depends on it is really about the government’s attempt to enforce federal code over previously understood conventions,” argues Michael Brendan Dougherty. “All the high-flown rhetoric about tyranny and freedom barely disguises the grudge between ranchers and the feds.”
In short, to tweak the words of National Review’s Travis Kavulla, the feds are appallingly bad landlords. But Bundy is still an unapologetic freeloader.
It’s the “high-flown rhetoric about tyranny and freedom” that makes the confusion of the Bundys with principled libertarians understandable. Here’s a typical statement from Cliven Bundy during the 2014 debacle:
Well, you know, my cattle is only one issue—that the United States courts has ordered that the government can seize my cattle. But what they have done is seized Nevada statehood, Nevada law, Clark County public land, access to the land, and have seized access to all of the other rights of Clark County people that like to go hunting and fishing. They’ve closed all those things down, and we’re here to protest that action. And we are after freedom. We’re after liberty. That’s what we want.
If you told me those last three sentences came out of Ron Paul’s mouth (a far better candidate for the face of American libertarianism), I’d believe you.
But coming from Bundy, those words become messy and opportunistic. What’s more, they’re a convenient dog whistle to limited government types who lack the opportunity or inclination to dig into the inconsistency of the Bundy crusade—as well as to left-wing opinionators happy to flaunt Bundy as easy “proof” that all libertarians and conservatives are just inconsistent racists who decry the government while reaping its benefits.
If anything, the Bundys’ politics of personal gain are more reminiscent of Donald Trump’s word vomit than anything resembling thoughtful libertarianism. The saga the Bundys have created is, like Trump’s schtick, appealing at a gut level. At first glance, it’s David vs. Goliath, honest cowboy vs. the leviathan state.
A closer look reveals that’s a dumbed-down way to tell this story. To be sure, it still provides plenty to learn from—especially where land use and criminal justice reform are concerned—but it’s not a simple story, and it’s not a story about libertarianism.