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Conservatives Hold the Line, Offer Weak Defense of Racist Rancher As Martyr for Liberty

George Frey/Getty Images

I had assumed that Cliven Bundy's lapse into slaver nostalgia would augur the end of his martyr status on the right. But I was wrong.

National Review writer Kevin Williamson, for one, is sticking to his guns. Whether Bundy's a racist or not is irrelevant to the central questions of whether he's right to refuse to pay federal fees for the right to graze on public land, and whether he's less heroic or more heroic than the men who died fighting Santa Anna for an independent Texas.

"I very strongly suspect that most of the men who died at the Alamo held a great many views that I would find repugnant," he wrote in an email to TPM. "[W]e remember them for other reasons."

Setting aside the weirdly worshipful language, it's perfectly fair to note that the rightness or wrongness of Bundy's cause doesn't turn on his opinions about black people. It also doesn't turn, as Williamson puts it, on whether "the federal government's acting as an absentee landlord for nine-tenths of the state of Nevada."

It turns on the peculiar conservative metaphysics of taxation and subsidization. Bundy should be paying the feds, but he's not, and for now they're not stopping him. But let's imagine that Bundy started paying his fees and then the federal government turned around and sold the land to a wealthy black person who decided to jack up fees by 1000 percent, to the market rate. I guess at that point Williamson would relent and say Bundy must put up or shut up. As much as conservatives mythologize the struggling old western rancher, they value the distinction between public and private land even more, and would never argue that Cliven Bundy's within his rights to trespass upon another rancher's property and feed his cattle without paying the required fee.

But another way of phrasing that would be to say he'd previously been enjoying a federal subsidy, and the elimination of that subsidy doesn't entitle him to steal from other private citizens.

I happen to agree. But by the same logic, the government's imposition of relatively low fees or other cost-sharing requirements doesn't entitle Bundy and other ranchers to just ignore the new law, no matter how frustrating they find it. The "fee" or "tax" or whatever you want to call it is actually just a reduction to an existing subsidy.

If Bundy were a food stamp recipient, and Republicans in Congress cut his SNAP benefit, and he responded by walking into a public high school every afternoon and stealing a subsidized lunch, Williamson wouldn't compare him to a freedom fighter. He'd call him a lazy deadbeat.

But it's the same infraction. The question of whether you think the federal government should own so much land in Nevada in the first place has nothing to do with it.