In Nevada, a cattle rancher named Cliven Bundy has assembled an armed mob to prevent the government from confiscating his cattle. The cattle are being confiscated because Bundy refused to pay fines for illegally grazing them on government-owned lands. Bundy represented himself and argued the government's rules about land use were unfair and therefore illegal. Like most fools who have themselves for an attorney, he was laughed out of court.
Bundy cloaks himself in the conservative rhetoric of liberty, and unfortunately some prominent conservatives have been suckered in by his nonsense. Sean Hannity had Bundy on for two softball interviews, and articles in conservative publications like the National Review and American Thinker blamed the federal government for the Bundy situation. Most conservatives see Bundy for the dangerous knave he is, but that even a few sympathize with an armed rebel is troubling, since armed lawlessness is the opposite of conservative values.
Conservatives value freedom, but understand that freedom is only possible in a lawful society. Lincoln, a conservative and the first Republican President, described lawfulness as a civil religion. Edmund Burke, arguably the first modern conservative, criticized the French Revolution for many reasons, but one was that the revolutionaries ignored the laws of their society and instead enforced their moral principles.
Modern American conservatives have always understood this part of Burke's philosophy. In 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned against race riots and chaotic student protests, casting the Democrats as apologists for the lawlessness. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, one of Republican's most reliable campaign arguments was that liberals made excuses for criminals while conservatives punished them.
Even assuming that Bundy and his supporters are correct that the laws about cattle grazing are unfair, overly bureaucratic, and oppressively burdensome to farmers, Bundy is a selfish radical, denying the rule of law because it is inconvenient for him.
The arguments conservatives are making for Bundy -- that he is being provoked by the government and reacting against unfair laws -- are exactly the same arguments some liberals made to support violent black power movements and to argue for leniency for common criminals. The arguments were weak then and are just as weak today. As a democratic citizen, Bundy can fight unfair laws by voting for candidates who oppose them. If they truly offend him, he can move to another country. But as long as he chooses to live in America and get the protection of our laws, he agrees to live by them.
Democracy has a place for social disobedience, but not for armed insurrection. Democratic social disobedience must take place in the model of Socrates, who willingly submitted to his execution after being convicted by an Athenian jury of subverting the youth through his teachings. Socrates's supporters urged him to flee, but he explained that as an Athenian citizen he must obey the laws of Athens no matter how unfair.
Bundy is free to be a martyr for his beliefs, but martyrs accept punishment. What Bundy and his followers are doing makes them violent, radical criminals. In a sensible world, an armed mob that confronted federal agents would be asked to disperse, and then arrested if they refused. If the mob resisted arrest, they would be put down as quickly as George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion.
But the government was not sensible. Instead, Bundy's cattle were returned and armed intimidation defeated the rule of law. Hopefully, that mistake will soon change and Bundy and his followers will end up where criminals belong -- a cramped prison cell.