Cliven Bundy’s Legacy: Peace or Rebellion

There is a difference between a common criminal who breaks the law and a conscientious objector who raises awareness to an unjust law. I would make the distinction between selfish gains and the greater good of humanity. History has set aside a special place for some who acted defiantly in the name of a higher moral code such as Martin Luther, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name just a few. Today, some would add Tim DeChristopher, Pussy Riot, and Cliven Bundy to that elite list. But before reaching any conclusions one must understand what civil disobedience is in American tradition and the delicate balance one walks when they engage in it because it is breaking the law.

“Political theorist John Rawls argued that civil disobedience has a constitutional role in a just society. It is an appeal to the shared values of a community, aiming to persuade a majority that it is wrong. Civil disobedience is not an appeal to political expediency or self-interest. It is not a legal right, but an appeal to justice. Citizens have a general duty to obey the law, but in some cases some feel that the law is wrong and must defy it. But they do so first with the aim of changing the law and second, cognizant that they face legal retribution for their defiance. The act of civil disobedience has the potential to change the law because one is willing to go to jail or be punished for one’s act. One of the most basic principles of American democracy is majority rule. Majorities get their way so long as they do not violate the constitutional rights of minorities. Majority rule settles decisions until such time as a majority reaches a different conclusion. Similarly, majority rule is the rule of Congress. At some point votes and elections have settled issues and it is time to move on. (1)”

Tim DeChristopher and Cliven Bundy offer two sides of the coin regarding the difference between breaking the law and civil disobedience. Both men broke the law when dealing with the BLM. Tim DeChristopher upset an oil and gas land lease auction by illegally bidding on land leases, and Cliven Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees and allowed his cattle to graze illegally. That is about where the similarities end. When Tim went into the oil and gas auction he knew what he was doing, he knew he was going to disrupt it somehow, and he knew there would be consequences. When he saw acres of land being sold for $8 and $10 dollars he knew what he had to do. He started bidding to raise the prices on those parcels of land. Tim DeChristopher is concerned about global warming, not because of what will happen to the planet, but because of what will happen to people. He said,

“I would never go to jail to protect animals or plants or wilderness. For me, it’s about the people. And even my value of wilderness is about what it brings to people. I have a very anthropocentric worldview.”

He believes that we have a moral obligation to address climate change and mitigate it because of the negative impacts it will have on people. His actions of disrupting the auction were meant to raise awareness and hopefully encourage a change in our laws. He thinks that as a Nation, we are acting immorally. His plea was to our sense of ethics. Tim had nothing to gain from his actions. In fact, he spent two years in federal prison despite the fact that the auction was later found to be an illegal auction and all of the leases were dropped. It seems to me that in that instance, when the BLM was found to be acting illegally, the charges against him would be dropped. But they weren’t, he was still accountable for his crimes. Since the courts often consider the actions of a reasonable man relative to a precise standard of obedience to the law, I personally believe that Tim’s punishment was excessive. That being said, according to the letter of law, the time between his actions and his punishment was swift, and by all rights, just.

In the case of Cliven Bundy, I cannot find a just or moral cause for his act of defiance. He did not like that his permit was changed and stopped paying for it and then continued to graze his cattle illegally. What I see is an unfortunate situation, perhaps unfair for him personally, and yes, sad. But unfair situations happen all the time to people and while I can sympathize with them, I would never succumb to the belief that everyone with a grievance is entitled to break the law. There is a difference between not liking a law and disobeying it on ethical grounds. If everyone decided to disobey any law they did not agree with chaos would follow. So, while many argue that Cliven Bundy is standing against tyranny in an act of civil disobedience, I would argue that he is not. The reason is first and foremost that he does not believe he is breaking any laws. All civil disobedients intentionally and knowingly break the law. But the rest of the reasons are as follows:

• He has a selfish motive
• He broke the law before seeking redress in court
• He does not acknowledge the rights of others
• There is no clear injustice
• He has threatened violence
• He has a disregard for federal law, and has no fidelity to it
• He is not submitting to the penalties of breaking the law

Cliven Bundy, as well as his defenders, are pointing to natural law as their justification for defying the law. They state that the federal government cannot take his “life, liberty, or property.” From what I can see, the only property in danger is his cattle, and that is because they are illegally on public land. As for the land in question, it is not his land and he has no right to it. Furthermore, the 5th Amendment says that no one can “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Mr. Bundy did receive due process. The bigger problem with his argument, however, is that it ignores other principles, such as equal rights under the law (another natural law as well as legal one), and all legal precedent established between the founding of our democracy and now. One cannot make a sound argument by taking a principle and arguing it in a vacuum, it has to be argued in context. That context is the law. “Within a democracy, even the moral right to civil disobedience is hedged with numerous qualifications. First, there is the standard of just and fair behavior. There must be an apparent and socially significant reason for the action taken and it must relate in some way to the law that is to be disregarded (2).” A claim to family tradition and heritage has value, but it does not have legal standing.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” What made Martin Luther King Jr. and others like him so effective was their reasoned appeal to the public to change unjust laws. The use or threat of violence is incompatible with a reasoned and articulate appeal to people’s sense of justice. Like an ad hominem attack, you encourage people to ignore your argument when you invoke violence. But further than that, when you state you will resort to violence, it moves from civil disobedience to civil rebellion. Cliven Bundy said in the Moapa Valley Progress that he was “willing to defend his rights at all costs.” When asked whether the matter might come to violence he said, “Why not? I’ve got to protect my property. I have a right to life, liberty and property.” In the LA Times he said,

“I’ve got to protect my property. If people come to monkey with what’s mine, I’ll call the county sheriff. If that don’t work, I’ll gather my friends and kids and we’ll try to stop it. I abide by all state laws. But I abide by almost zero federal laws.”

While his language has strong emotional appeal, it hurts his cause. There is great debate over whether violence is ever justified and the case can be made on both sides of the argument, but I believe the moral high ground belongs with those who peacefully protest. When asked if violence is ever justified, Tim DeChristopher said,

“Well, it’s justified. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense. I mean, if you’re talking moral justification, yeah—to prevent the collapse of our civilization, and the deaths and suffering of billions of people, it’s morally justified. But violence is the game that the United States government is the best in the world at. That’s their territory.”

In response to Bundy’s threats, the government has shown up prepared for violence. The BLM halted their roundup in 2012 due to his threats because they did not want anyone to get hurt, but this time, they tried to cover all their bases in case Bundy decided to act on his threats. They closed roads and access to the land where the roundup is happening to ensure the safety of the public; they have set up First Amendment areas for people to peacefully protest in order to ensure their rights, but also to ensure their safety. As of yet Bundy has not acted on his threats, but threats are real and must be taken seriously. As Ayn Rand famously asserted, “Words have an exact meaning.”

All that being said, I do not believe that Cliven Bundy has a just or moral case, or one with general appeal, but I do sympathize with him and his family. If I were to make an argument in favor of Cliven Bundy I would appeal to the public on grounds of American tradition and heritage. I would argue that if feral horses and burros are protected as symbols of the west, shouldn’t ranchers also be? Ranchers and farmers are a dying breed and that is not a desirable end. I would argue that due to development and competing interests, ranchers deserve special protection under the law in terms of preserving a living part of American history and heritage. There is immense value in heritage and tradition. Most people see this inherent value and I believe, would support it. There is room in this great country for ranchers, and wild species. It seems to me that a reasonable compromise could have been reached 20 years ago had Cliven worked to that end. It is not too late to get this ball rolling, however, though it may take a long time. Why not leave a lasting legacy of improving the West rather than a legacy of inciting a range war?

Since the law changes with time and adjusts to new social and economic conditions, Cliven Bundy must realize that his family’s tradition of ranching is not a static state guaranteed forever. But he should not lose heart, the government can adapt and adjust to appeals for new laws. Mr. Bundy has shown himself to have great strength and stamina, as well as the ability to rally people to his cause. He could use those traits to do something good and lasting for many people, not just himself. Rather than inciting anarchy and violence, Bundy and his supporters could seek something reasonable and edifying for everyone. He could turn this ugly situation into a good one and leave a lasting legacy that promotes peace and healing. If his threatening language turns to action, or incites others to action, he will be culpable in any injury or harm that takes place, as will anyone else promoting such tactics. While the government is not free from critique and does not always do what is right, we do have ways of addressing it. In the marketplace of ideas, the best ideas rise to the top. Bundy should make a reasoned case and bring it to the people rather than appealing to people’s emotions and baser instincts. So much of how this plays out rests on his shoulders. As George Bernard Shaw said in Maxims for Revolutionists,

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”


1. The American Society for Public Administration:
2. The Legitimacy of Civil Disobedience as a Legal Concept:
3. Tim DeChristopher’s Interview in Orion:
4. Should we Ever Disobey the Law:
5. Moapa Valley Progress:
6. LA Times article:,0,1480936.story


Posted on April 9, 2014, in Nature and the Environment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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