Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
They Said It:
There is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism which at the present time provides special food for thought. It is that the virtues which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those on which the British people justly prided themselves and in which they were generally agreed to excel. The virtues possessed by Anglo-Saxons in a higher degree than most other people, excepting only a few of the smaller nations, like the Swiss and the Dutch, were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one’s neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.
F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 1944.
WE STILL DON’T MEAN TO SCARE YOU, BUT. . . .
In a normal world, the case of Cliven Bundy and his cattle would be anything but newsworthy. That is, no one not named Bundy would much care what happens to him or his cows. They just wouldn’t. Some big shot rancher with more than 1,000 head of cattle on a huge chunk of land refuses to pay the government the money he owes it, which, for goodness sake, he has owed for over two decades. So, the feds get grumpy. Big deal. What’s it to anyone but Bundy and the Feds?
Of course, as we’ve noted countless times over the last 63 months, the world is no longer normal. To paraphrase what the late great Dean Martin said about his friend Frank Sinatra: “It’s Obama’s world. We just live in it.”
As it turns out, then, we do care about Cliven Bundy. In fact, that’s one of the few things upon which everyone seems to agree, liberals and conservatives alike. The cable TV news stations are ecstatic; opinion journalists of all varieties and ideologies are bursting with words of wisdom about the threats, responsibilities, and possible outcomes of this miniature reenactment of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Millions of Americans have become supporters of Bundy. Some of them have guns and seem willing to use them if it is necessary to assure the outcome that they desire. And lo, none other than the Majority Leader of the United States Senate has placed himself in the thick of the battle, insisting, quite pugnaciously in fact, that the clash “isn’t over” and will be revisited in the near future.
So everyone, it appears, cares about Cliven Bundy. The only question is why. After all, by any reasonable reading of the legal issues at stake, he is in clear violation of the law. He is freeloading on federal land. Period. He owes Uncle Sam over a million dollars and his excuses for not paying it are half-baked at best. As Gracy Olmstead put it last week for the right-leaning Federalist:
Though the story has only grabbed national headlines in the past several days, rancher Cliven Bundy has illegally grazed cattle on the Nevada land surrounding his farm for over twenty years. He hasn’t paid grazing fees since 1993, and refuses to renew the necessary grazing permit . . . At a press conference on April 14, [protesters] invoked battles against the British and shouted quotes from the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace, memorialized in the Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart.” Others are calling Bundy a “folk hero.”
Before we venerate Bundy as a freedom fighter, we might stop to consider the facts.
Back in November, the Las Vegas Sun warned that trouble was already brewing:
“Officials say Bundy and his son are illegally running cattle in the 500,000-acre Gold Butte area, a habitat of the protected desert tortoise. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Lloyd George ruled that if Bundy did not remove his cattle by Aug. 23, they could be seized by the BLM.”
By 1995, writes the Washington Post, “Cliven Bundy had racked up $31,000 in fees for grazing on federal land without a permit. Helicopters often hover over his herd, counting up the cows so he can be fined appropriately.” In 1998, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against Bundy. He ordered cattle off the land. But in US vs. Bundy, the rancher argued “that his Mormon ancestors worked the land long before the BLM was even formed, giving him rights that predate federal involvement,” says the Las Vegas Sun.
“The federal government has seized Nevada’s sovereignty . . . they have seized Nevada’s laws and our public land. We have no access to our public land and that is only a little bit of it,” Bundy told CNN at the time.
Bundy isn’t upholding state sovereignty – he’s upholding his own personal conception of state sovereignty.
The problem with Bundy’s stance is that he has no higher end in this fight than his own interests . . . . Rather than using the avenues and pathways presented to him, Bundy has staunchly declared his own law and allegiances.
Moreover, as countless commentators have noted, conservatives are supposed to care about the “rule of law,” and Bundy and his attitude make a mockery of said rule. He is violating the law, using armed supporters to prevent him from suffering consequences of his actions, and, worse yet, is doing so in pursuit of rather pedestrian ends. He is not, as some on the Right have suggested, a champion like Gandhi or George Washington, standing up to tyrants and in defense of the righteous, battling bravely against blatant abuse of “natural law.”
He’s just a guy who didn’t want to pay to graze his cattle and thought up an excuse for doing so after the fact. He is, in short, nothing at all like the hero many on the Right have made him out to be. Indeed, he should, by all rights, be considered a serious threat to country and its economic way of life, not a hero. As Hayek put it some three-quarters of a century ago:
Nothing distinguishes more clearly conditions in a free country from those in a country under arbitrary government than the observance in the former of the great principles known as the Rule of Law. Stripped of all technicalities, this mean that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand — rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge. Though this ideal can never be perfectly achieved, since legislators as well as those to whom the administration of the law is entrusted are fallible men, the essential point, that the discretion left to the executive organs wielding coercive power should be reduced as much as possible, is clear enough. While every law restricts individual freedom to some extent by altering the means which people may use in the pursuit of their aims, under the rule of law, the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action.
Or, as we ourselves put it some 15 years ago:
The rule of law and the equal application of the law are sine qua non of both freedom and capitalism, which go hand in hand. As such, the rule of law and the equal application of the law are the principal factors that differentiate civil societies from Hobbesian societies, such as Russia, and totalitarian societies, such as China.
So why, exactly, does anyone care at all about Cliven Bundy? And more to the point, why are otherwise brilliant and resolute conservatives suggesting that we should all feel “sympathy” for him, despite his lawlessness? Why do those conservatives who have called him a “hero” believe that his stand is somehow more “heroic” or more important than the rule of law?
These are complicated questions, obviously. And we agree with the many who have already said that Bundy and his specific case are, in a sense, beside the point, and that the real argument is over the poor condition of federal stewardship of western lands. When the federal government owns nearly 90% of a state, as it does in Nevada, it is incumbent upon the feds to be a good and fair steward of that land for the benefit of its inhabitants. And over the last several decades, our federal government has not lived up to its end of the agreement.
But this is not Sagebrush, Part II. Or at least it’s not just Sagebrush, Part II. There’s something else to it, we think. And in our estimation that something else hinges on those four short but critical words: “the rule of law.”
As we noted way back when, during the reign of King William of Hope, the fundamental concept in any free society that claims to abide by the “rule of law” is the notion that this law must be applied equally, to all men (and women), regardless of race, creed, wealth, or status. In order for a society to be just, fair, and free, the law, at least, must treat them all – and especially their rulers – as equals. Or as Aristotle put it nearly 2400 years ago:
When the whole state is wholly subject to the will of one person, namely the king, it seems to many that it is unnatural that one man should have the entire rule over his fellow-citizens when the state consists of equals: for nature requires that the same right and the same rank should necessarily take place amongst all those who are equal by nature: for as it would be hurtful to the body for those who are of different constitutions to observe the same regimen, either of diet or clothing, so is it with respect to the honours of the state as hurtful, that those who are equal in merit should be unequal in rank; for which reason it is as much a man’s duty to submit to command as to assume it, and this also by rotation; for this is law, for order is law; and it is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens: upon the same principle, if it is advantageous to place the supreme power in some particular persons, they should be appointed to be only guardians, and the servants of the laws . . .
If the rulers are treated differently than the ruled, if they receive special dispensation for their violations as a matter of practice, then the rule of law itself is a sham. It breaks down, collapsing into an explicit and sanctioned medieval system of privileges and connections. As Plato noted, even as he argued for a class of guardians, “Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off. . . .”
In the Anglo-American tradition, of course, the Assize of Clarendon and the Magna Carta gave birth eventually to the American Constitution and A.V. Dicey’s exposition of the uncodified British law in his opus An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution. And in all cases, the fair and equal treatment of all citizens under the law was the foundational and guiding principle.
Men being men, this principle hasn’t always been practiced perfectly, of course. But, for the most part, in the Anglo-American world and especially in the United States, the rule of law has remained the standard by which fairness and justice are measured. And in those few cases in which the rule has been corrupted and powerful men have escaped the law and been allowed explicitly and shamelessly to behave as if they were above it, the response has almost always produced a pronounced radicalization of politics.
The Social Gospel and eventually the Progressive movement, for example, arose in large part in response to the abuses of local “machine” politics – Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed, and the like. The Reform Congress and the fundamental restructuring of both legislative and executive branches – including the imposition of campaign finance regulations – grew out of the Watergate-era abuses. And perhaps most fundamental and essential of all, the Civil Rights movement was necessary only because the corrupt and wicked entrenched powers in the American South refused for nearly a century to acknowledge and accept the rights fully extended to ALL men by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (and extended to all women by the Nineteenth).
In short, then, respect for the rule of law has always been critical to the peaceable and productive performance of American society. And in its absence, that peace and productivity disintegrate rapidly.
Enter Barack Obama.
We won’t even pretend that we have either the ability or the corroboration to make the argument, as so many others on the Right have, that the Obama administration is “the most corrupt” in the nation’s history. Moreover, we think it worth remembering, when discussing corrupt presidencies, that the standard was set pretty high less than two decades ago when Bill and Hill came to town with their full coterie of what we described at the time, and for which we were defenestrated from one of our previous Big Shot brokerage homes, as “small town shysters, sharpies, flibbertigibbets and fly-by-nighters, savings and loan robbers, international thieves and schemers, impoverished Buddhist nuns with big checkbooks, Chinese spies, crooked arms dealers, dope peddlers, union plug-ugly’s, commodity market crooks, harridans, harpies, perjurers, liars, corrupt real estate magnets, and porn peddlers.”
That said, there is an undeniable and somewhat chronic air of lawlessness emanating from the men and women of Team Obama. Almost from the start of his presidency, Obama has behaved as if he and his subordinates are subject to a different set of rules than most Americans. His first Treasury Secretary, for example, who just so happened to be a prominent and well-connected economist, failed to pay thousands of dollars in taxes in the years prior to his nomination. Worse yet, he blamed his delinquency on a glitch in his tax software, about which he was apparently (and presumably blissfully) unaware. It has, unfortunately, been all downhill from there.
Over just the last 18 months or so, the Obama administration has repeatedly and unabashedly treated the law as if it were a mere suggestion, rather than an obligation to which the President twice swore a solemn oath.
In September 2012, after four Americans were killed by Islamist extremists in Benghazi Libya, the Obama administration insisted for days that the proximate cause of the attack was the appearance on the internet of an incendiary anti-Muslim film produced by a man named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. And while Obama officials were forced eventually to walk back that claim and to concede that the attack was, in fact, a well-planned and premeditated terrorist strike, the filmmaker, Nakoula, was nevertheless arrested on an unrelated probation violation and returned to prison, where he still remains. To this day, six in ten Americans believe that the President and his staffers are “covering up” their knowledge and reactions to the events that took place on that fateful night in Libya more than a year-and-a-half ago.
In June of 2013, London’s Guardian newspaper revealed the existence of a massive and growing domestic surveillance apparatus in the United States under the direction of the National Security Agency. And although the program was begun under the watch of President George W. Bush, it was expanded and amplified by Barack Obama, who, along with his national security team, has repeatedly misled the American people about the nature and the extent of the surveillance of domestic communications. James Clapper, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, misled Congress so openly and brazenly, that “lesser” men almost certainly would have been held in contempt of Congress or charged with perjury for similar deception.
This scandal, of course, came on the heels of an even larger an even more disturbing one, in which the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeted conservative non-profit groups for extra scrutiny and repeatedly delayed or denied these conservative groups official non-profit status so as to postpone or prevent their participation in the political process. The IRS scandal is ongoing, naturally, and continues to reveal more and more damning information about the abuse that was dispensed upon the President’s perceived political opponents. Just over the last week, we learned that both the House Minority staff and the Justice Department were part of a broad plan to “target” conservative groups. The editorial board of Investors’ Business Daily wrote as follows in response to these new revelations:
New emails show that both the IRS and Justice Department were involved in a probe of Tea Party and other conservative groups. This is no mere scandal — it’s a major breach of the law.
The newly released emails were gathered for a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch, a nonpartisan public interest law group. They show that former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner discussed with the Justice Department going after conservative groups that she believed lied about their political activities.
What’s shocking is that this discussion came just days before Lerner acknowledged that the IRS had investigated tea-party and other conservative groups but insisted that it was an isolated incident conducted by low-level officials in the IRS’ Cincinnati office. . . .
It’s been clear for some time that this goes beyond a mere rogue IRS operation in Cincinnati. But until now, we didn’t know how far it went.
As the emails show, it was a high-level conspiracy to use the offices and powers of the federal government — including the IRS, FEC and Justice — to falsely prosecute and harass the tea party and conservative political groups that opposed the Obama administration.
How do we know that the groups were “conservative?” Just two days after her email to Flax, Lerner admitted in an email to a Washington Post reporter that she “can’t confirm that there was anyone on the other side of the political spectrum” targeted by the IRS.
In short, it was a politically motivated witch hunt.
As if all of this was not bad enough, on top of all of the scandals, there is, of course, Barack Obama’s “signature achievement,” namely the health care “reform” law known as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. Even if one ignores the mendaciousness of the public relations campaign employed to sell the law – including the 36 times that Obama himself declared that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” – the implementation of Obamacare has been a case study in lawlessness. According to the Galen Institute, a non-profit health-care and tax policy think tank, the health care law has been changed some 40 times since its passage, with more than half of those changes – 22, to be exact – having been made unilaterally by the Obama administration, with no Congressional sanction whatsoever. The law is the law is the law – unless of course the law might be harmful to Democratic political aims, in which case, the law can be flexible, at least where the Obama administration is concerned.
Now, as we said above, we have no idea if any or all of this combined makes the Obama administration the “most corrupt” ever. But nor do we care. All that matters in this context is that the American people have come to see Barack Obama as an untrustworthy man in charge of an untrustworthy government in which untrustworthy men and women act as if they can do anything that they want without repercussions. And you don’t have to take our word for it. Just last week, in fact, Fox News released a new poll that shows just how far the Chosen One has fallen. As Fox reported:
About six in ten American voters think Barack Obama lies to the country on important matters some or most of the time, according to a Fox News poll released Wednesday.
Thirty-seven percent think Obama lies “most of the time,” while another 24 percent say he lies “some of the time.” Twenty percent of voters say “only now and then” and 15 percent “never.” . . .
The number of voters saying Obama lies “most of the time” includes 13 percent of Democrats. It also includes 12 percent of blacks, 16 percent of liberals, 31 percent of unmarried women and 34 percent of those under age 30 — all key Obama constituencies.
In a separate write-up on the same poll, Fox also noted that the scandal/rule-of-law business is hurting the President badly, and again, even among his core constituencies:
Nearly half of American voters think the IRS targeted conservative groups at the request of the White House, and most want Congress to keep investigating the matter.
The latest Fox News poll also finds 69 percent don’t feel President Obama has followed through on his vow to “find out exactly what happened on this.”
By a 49-41 percent margin, voters believe the Obama administration “intentionally had the IRS target conservative political groups.” That includes 26 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of independents and 71 percent of Republicans.
Meanwhile, 67 percent of voters want Congress to keep investigating the IRS until “someone is held accountable.” . . .
The poll shows agreement across party lines: Majorities of Republicans (77 percent), independents (67 percent) and Democrats (57 percent) favor Congress continuing to investigate until “someone is held accountable.”
Now, does any of this justify the actions taken by Cliven Bundy or his supporters on or about his ranch in Nevada? Of course not. As we noted above, Bundy is in clear violation of the law, while his supporters risk escalating an already tense situation in the name of a cause that is troubling at best. So again, why does anyone care?
The answer, we think, is that the American people generally have a difficult time accepting actions, and particularly violent or potentially violent actions, from their government directed against their fellow Americans. And that difficulty is intensified exponentially when these actions are justified in the name of the “rule of law” by men and women who themselves have shown contempt for the rule of law, as it applies to their own selfish prerogatives.
Or to put it another way, no one in this conflict is at all confused by the law that applies to Cliven Bundy, but a great many are certain that men and women who insist that they must enforce this particular law – at gun point, no less – refuse to enforce a great many other laws when the violators happen to be their friends and allies. To Bundy’s supporters, this is just another case of “targeting” of the Obama administration’s opponents. Tim Geithner cheats on his taxes and not only serves as Treasury Secretary for four years, but parlays that into another lucrative private-sector gig. Cliven Bundy, by contrast, lets his cows graze on PUBLIC lands, and the Obama administration shows up to taze the guy’s son and to take his cattle.
It doesn’t help the case of law and order in this particular instance that the primary local politician involved in aiding the administration’s cause and pleading its case is the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is well known as one of the nastiest, most partisan, and most unscrupulous men in either Washington or Nevada – which is saying a great deal. Reid, like most of his Senate compatriots, is a multi-millionaire – in his case despite having worked in and for the government nearly all of his adult life. He is also probably best known as the guy who declared, on the floor of the Senate and with no corroboration, that he had been told by a Bain Capital investor that Mitt Romney, then the Republican nominee for president, hadn’t paid any taxes for an entire decade. Mitt’s late father would be ashamed of his son, Reid declared, sinking to depths not even plumbed by the universally hated Joseph McCarthy.
We have no way of knowing whether any of the outlandish-sounding allegations regarding Reid’s involvement in the Bundy affair are true. Still, we are hardly surprised that Reid’s name has surfaced with regularity in the conspiracy theories that have become a part of this melodrama. For a handful of obvious reasons – including his role as Democratic Party’s attack dog – Reid has become a reviled figure in many right-leaning circles.
Moreover, the fact that a former longtime Reid aide, Neil Kronze, took the reins of the Bureau of Land Management just as its siege of the Bundy cattle herd began has only exacerbated tensions and fueled conspiracy-mongering. Reid’s history of questionable land deals and his insistence on maintaining a personal involvement in this case have greatly exacerbated the sense in some circles that this is less about the rule of law and more about the exercise of the privileges of power. All of which is to say that Reid has become a near-perfect villain to those who are already inclined to see overreaching and morally dubious federal authorities as the cause rather than the solution to the problem of Cliven Bundy.
As you may have heard, over the weekend, Reid, who is manifestly unhappy that the standoff ended with the BLM backing down and the Bundy family winning a victory of sorts, called the rancher and his supporters “domestic terrorists.” This was, of course, a cheap and petty charge levelled by a cheap and petty politician. Worse, it was a cheap and petty charge levelled by a man who wanted only to rouse his supporters, regardless of the effect that his words might have on an already tense situation. Even worse still – and far more frightening – it may well have been the most prescient thing that Harry Reid has ever said.
We want to be very careful about what we say here, wishing neither to defame any of Bundy’s supporters nor to justify any acts of violence that may arise from this or similar standoffs. It is important to remember, though, that this is not the first time that the federal government’s various bureaus have overreacted in addressing an otherwise minor and discrete incident only to fuel broader anger about disregard for the rule of law and fear of government oppression.
In the early 1990s, you may recall, the federal government – in the form of the BATF, FBI, and various other bits of the alphabet – conducted operations against Randy Weaver and his family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. In both of those cases, as in that of Cliven Bundy, the federal government was largely justified in its concern about the activities at the respective compounds (though less so in the case of Weaver, who was your run-of-the-mill racial separatist). Unfortunately, and again in both of those cases, the federal government overreacted and handled escalating tensions very poorly, resulting in several unnecessary deaths. Weaver’s wife Vicki and his 14 year-old-son Sammy were both killed at Ruby Ridge, while some 76 men, women, and children – including the patently vile David Koresh – were burned to death outside of Waco.
These two incidents, coupled with the palpable sense of lawlessness and corruption wafting from the Clinton administration in Washington, gave rise to a sense of paranoia in certain segments of the population and a broader fear of government overreach among the population in general. In the end, a handful of sick and twisted paranoiacs took it upon themselves to avenge the dead from Ruby Ridge and Waco and to put an end to government overreach. And so to strike back at what they saw as an irredeemably corrupt government, these contemptible and evil men took their “revenge” by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols murdered 168 people, including 19 children.
Now, none of this is to say that the McVeigh and Nichols were justified in their actions, any more than it is to say that al Qaeda was “justified” in attacking the Pentagon and World Trade because of the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. It should go without saying that there is no justification whatsoever for murdering anyone, but especially innocent men, women, and children.
Unfortunately, for some people, it does not go without saying that such hateful acts of violence are never justified. And if you’re looking for possible long-term byproducts of the Cliven Bundy affair, the agitation and encouragement of some sick individuals may be one such outcome. Already, we have seen reports that various “militias” around the country are responding angrily and vocally to the Bundy standoff and promising to “defend” themselves and their interests against government overreach.
We don’t suppose that Harry Reid was thinking about the long-term implications of the standoff in Nevada when he called Bundy and his supporters “terrorists.” But perhaps he should have been. The folks at the BLM and various other federal agencies are really in a no-win position here. They are merely trying to do their jobs, as directed by the law of the land. And yet, if they do so, they run the risk of agitating some people who may be prone to violence and itching for a “heroic” fight with the “lawless” feds. Over the weekend, for example, Fox News reported the following from Oklahoma City (ironically enough):
Organizers with the Oklahoma Militia say they have members in Nevada who claim Bundy’s cattle were unlawfully herded by the bureau.
The Oklahoma Militia says it is made up of nearly 50,000 volunteers. Members say they are taking Bundy’s side and fear this practice could spread to the Sooner State.
Scott Shaw said, “Evidently in America we don’t actually own the property anymore if you ever did.” Shaw says Oklahoma Militia members are ready to take up arms against the federal government if needed. He said, “It’s up to the feds. The ball’s in their court! You can do this legally or if you want to try to do a land grab violently, you can do that. We’re going to resist you!”
Shaw says the militia has not had to defend Oklahoma from the government yet but members are becoming concerned. Shaw said, “Just look around the country, they are doing it everywhere. If they can do it in Nevada, they can do it in Colorado, Texas. I mean, what’s to stop them from coming to Oklahoma? The only thing to stop them is ‘We the People’.”
This is disconcerting, to say the very least. And it’s an attitude about which it is difficult at this point to do very much. These opinions were formed long ago, and they have hardened considerably over time. One suspects that changing them now would be next to impossible.
Just about the only thing that could, in theory, alter the otherwise hardened attitudes of the radical anti-government types would be a concerted and explicit effort on the part of the American ruling class to reinstate and reemphasize the rule of law. Unfortunately, most members of the ruling class – in both parties – are both unaware of the effect that their tactlessness has had on the people at large and on certain segments of the population in particular and unwilling to amend their behavior by sacrificing some of the privilege they have accumulated over the years.
And that, we suppose, is the key to all of this. Over the course of the Obama administration, the appearance of “privilege” among the members of the ruling class has grown considerably. This is not to blame Obama himself for the long-term trend that has distinguished the ruling class from the country class and exacerbated tensions between the two based on the former’s privilege. It is, however, to suggest that Obama is rather exceptionally tone deaf when it comes to the accumulation and perceived abuse of these privileges. Maybe George W. Bush was just as bad as was Clinton and is Obama at abusing privilege, but if he was, he hid it better, given that his entire adult life he had been taught to conceal his privilege in order to “fit in” politically. We don’t know.
What we do know, though, is that a majority of Americans don’t trust their own president, even as he tries desperately to extend the reach of the federal government considerably. Taken together, this is a recipe for disaster.
Whatever happens on Cliven Bundy’s ranch, the ruling class and the rest of the country are slowly but surely drifting further and further apart, largely because of the perception and the reality of ruling class privilege. And this will not end well, we’re afraid.