Got cattle? Better pay up, then. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Got cattle? Better pay up, then. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

I haven’t been closely following the case of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who is now engaged in some sort of armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. For those who have also not been following it, John Hinderaker makes the case for the defense:

To begin with, his family has been ranching on the acres at issue since the late 19th century. They and other settlers were induced to come to Nevada in part by the federal government’s promise that they would be able to graze their cattle on adjacent government-owned land. For many years they did so, with no limitations or fees. The Bundy family was ranching in southern Nevada long before the BLM came into existence.

Over the last two or three decades, the Bureau has squeezed the ranchers in southern Nevada by limiting the acres on which their cattle can graze, reducing the number of cattle that can be on federal land, and charging grazing fees for the ever-diminishing privilege. The effect of these restrictions has been to drive the ranchers out of business. Formerly, there were dozens of ranches in the area where Bundy operates. Now, his ranch is the only one. When Bundy refused to pay grazing fees beginning in around 1993, he said something to the effect of, they are supposed to be charging me a fee for managing the land and all they are doing is trying to manage me out of business. Why should I pay them for that?

Hinderaker raises questions about whether this is part of a broad environmental mitigation plan to offset a solar development in which Senate Majority Harry Reid’s son is involved. Let’s assume, arguendo, that all of this is correct. That would indeed make me sympathetic to Cliven Bundy. But that wouldn’t make what he is doing OK.

Let’s look at another person I’d be very sympathetic to: a young man raised in a housing project by a single mother with a drug problem. This particular young man is a hypothetical, but there are many thousands of such hypotheticals in our country right now.

That young man could rightly point out that, through no fault of his own, he was born to a mother who can’t take proper care of him. His neighborhood school is bad, and many seats are filled with other children of similarly incapable mothers who make discipline, and therefore learning, nearly impossible. He is frequently hassled by police in a way that would outrage white, middle-class Americans, simply because other people of his race and economic class have committed crimes. He might add that white, middle-class kids have a whole lot of adults, and affluent communities, that gather around them to protect them from their mistakes, while he is like an Olympic gymnast: Just one mistake, even a small one, is likely to deny him a medal.

He could say, with some fairness, that the system seems to be rigged against him: A pathway that is made easy and inevitable for kids from other communities requires him to struggle, heroically alone, against terrible odds, toward a goal he has never seen. That anything he has can, at any time, be taken by government bureaucrats, who control his housing, his mother’s welfare checks and food stamps; by the teachers who control his school record; and by the police who stop and interrogate him frequently. That while most white, middle-class people experience the system as a logical and just order that protects them, he experiences it as a capricious and hostile set of rules designed primarily to keep him away from those white, middle-class people. That Cliven Bundy is getting a taste of the seemingly arbitrary government authority to which poor people are regularly subjected. That it’s not really his fault that he didn’t have a family that could bequeath him some cattle and teach him how to manage them.

For all these unfair circumstances, I am most sympathetic. Yet when our young hypothetical lets his friends talk him into picking up a gun and robbing a post office, he’s still wrong, and we quite rightly consign him to the justice system.

There are times and places when citizens are entitled to a violent stand against the agents of their government. Those times and places resemble occupied France a lot more than they do modern Nevada. What happened to Cliven Bundy may be unfair, and perhaps we should try to rectify it. But there is no such thing as a perfectly fair system, especially in a republic of more than 300 million. We owe our fellow citizens compliance with the law, even if we disagree with that law, and even if it disadvantages us … because we demand from them that they do not take up arms to pursue their own self-interest against the rest of us.

If our young hypothetical cannot pick and choose the laws he follows, then neither can Cliven Bundy -- who, let’s note, is demanding to graze his cattle on land to which he has no property rights. To say that he’s allowed to do what our young hypothetical cannot, you have to say that the sins of the mother really are visited on the children, unto the third and fourth generations -- that Cliven Bundy is entitled to take what isn’t his, while the young hypothetical cannot because of something that his great-grandfather did. Are these really foundational American values?

Whatever the abuses of the Bureau of Land Management, Cliven Bundy broke the law -- Hinderaker acknowledges that he doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on. And that law was not so morally outrageous that he is entitled to threaten “a range war.” I do feel sorry for Cliven Bundy, just as I feel sorry for all the young hypotheticals who make bad choices in situations in which what we call “good choices” are very, very difficult to make. But that doesn’t mean I have to condone what any of them has done.

To contact the writer of this article:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.