US right needs to reflect on its fight for ‘freedom’
Opinion: rancher Cliven Bundy’s racist ranting has given American conservatives an easy out
Rancher Cliven Bundy, who became a right-wing hero after refusing to pay fees for grazing his animals on federal land. Photograph: David Becker/Getty Images
It is, in a way, too bad that Cliven Bundy, the rancher who became a right-wing hero after refusing to pay fees for grazing his animals on federal land and bringing in armed men to support his defiance, has turned out to be a crude racist. Why? Because his ranting has given conservatives an easy out, a way to dissociate themselves from his actions without facing up to the terrible wrong turn their movement has taken.
For at the heart of the standoff was a perversion of the concept of freedom, which for too much of the right has come to mean the freedom of the wealthy to do whatever they want. Start with the narrow issue of land use. For historical reasons, the federal government owns a lot of land in the west; some of that land is open to ranching, mining and so on. Like any landowner, the Bureau of Land Management charges fees for the use of its property. The only difference from private ownership is that the government charges too little – it doesn’t collect as much money as it could, and often doesn’t even charge enough to cover the costs of these private activities. In effect, the government is using its ownership of land to subsidise ranchers and mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.
It’s true that some people profiting from implicit taxpayer subsidies manage to convince themselves and others that they are rugged individualists. But they’re actually welfare queens of the purple sage. And this means that treating Bundy as some kind of libertarian hero is crazy. Suppose he had been grazing his cattle on his neighbour’s land and had refused to pay for the privilege. That would have been theft. The fact that the public owns the land shouldn’t make any difference.
So what were people like Sean Hannity of Fox News, who went all in on Bundy’s behalf, thinking? Partly, it was the general demonisation of government – if someone looks as if he is defying Washington, he’s a hero. Partly, one suspects, it was also about race, not Bundy’s blatant racism, but the general notion that government takes money from hard-working Americans and gives it to Those People.
Most of all, it seems to me, the Bundy fiasco was a byproduct of the dumbing down that seems ever more central to the way America’s right operates. American conservatism used to have room for fairly sophisticated views about the role of government. Its economic patron saint used to be Milton Friedman, who advocated aggressive money-printing, if necessary, to avoid depressions. It used to include environmentalists who took pollution seriously but advocated market-based solutions rather than rigid rules.
But today’s conservative leaders were raised on Ayn Rand’s novels and Ronald Reagan’s speeches, as opposed to his actual governance, which was a lot more flexible than the legend. They insist that the rights of private property are absolute, and that government is always the problem, never the solution.
The trouble is that such beliefs are fundamentally indefensible in the modern world, which is rife with what economists call externalities – costs that private actions impose on others, but which people have no financial incentive to avoid. You might want, for example, to declare that what a farmer does on his own land is his own business; but what if he uses pesticides that contaminate the water supply? You might want to declare that government intervention never helps; but who else can deal with such problems?
You could answer with denial – insistence that such problems aren’t real, that they’re invented by elitists who want to take away our freedom. And along with this anti-intellectualism goes a general dumbing-down, an exaltation of supposedly ordinary folks who don’t hold with this kind of stuff. Think of it as the right’s duck-dynastic moment.
You can see how Bundy, who came across as a straight-talking Marlboro Man, fit into that mindset. But, he turned out to be a bit more straight-talking than expected. I’d like to think that the whole affair will cause some people who backed him to engage in self-reflection, and ask how they ended up lending support to someone like that. But I don’t expect it to happen.