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WILLIAMS: States’ rights, slavery and the strange symbolism of Cliven Bundy
Question of the Day
America is a land of stories. We love to use stories about individuals to extract general principles about society as a whole. The story of Cliven Bundy is no exception. His standoff versus the federal government this past April illustrated to many the principle that we are a government of the people, that individual rights are sacrosanct, and that states have the right to decide how to govern the lands and people within their territories.
But the story didn't end there unfortunately.
Given the bully pulpit for the first time in his life, Mr. Bundy foolishly squandered his opportunity to have America hear his story. Instead, he launched into a misguided and racist diatribe about African-Americans, stating that he believed the fact "they never learned to pick cotton" accounts for the current social ills of single motherhood and high male incarceration rates.
He went on to speculate, "And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life?" The entirety of his rant has been relentlessly reported, and the real principles undergirding his story have been lost in the ensuing media feeding frenzy.
But that does not mean there's not a story to be told here, and an important one. In fact, Mr. Bundy meandered right into one of the essential fault lines of American society: the relationship between states' rights and slavery, and more generally, the relationship of majority rule to the protection of individual civil rights.
A cursory review of history reveals inextricable links between early states' rights advocates and proponents of slavery. In fact, some would say the Civil War, still called by some the War between the States, was not over slavery per se, but whether states had the rights to enact laws governing slavery within their territory. That might seem to be a minor distinction for some, but the issue continues to rear its head in American law and politics to this day, and not just on issues of race.
In fact, the expansion of federalism has run rampant into areas such as health care, banking, and environmental protection — virtually every area of authority once reserved for the states. In fact, under the guise of protecting racial minorities' rights, endangered species' rights, women's rights, and a whole host of other individual rights, the federal government has engaged in a decades-long power grab that has made a sham of the notion of local government and individual rights in America.
And the consequences have been catastrophic. It is now mandated that if one chooses not to purchase mediocre health care from the government, often at a higher price than existing private plans, you'll be taxed.
Gone are the days when people who live in an area in which a species is being threatened can get together and decide an appropriate land use policy that supports the environment while enabling people to use the abundant resources our country has afforded us. In fact, the Bundy case illustrates the absurdity that arises when a bureaucrat in Washington writes land use policy that purports to save a desert tortoise — at the expense of using grazing land that has been managed for over a hundred years in a way that enables high quality beef to arrive at the American table. Oh, and by the way, there's significant evidence that cattle ranching helps, rather than harms the desert tortoise.
But the real harm here, and the reason why power was devolved to the states under the Constitution, was not merely to avoid the harm caused by government incompetence. It was to prevent the destructive effects, but of government corruption — otherwise known as tyranny. The smaller and more strictly enumerated the powers of the central government, the founding fathers reasoned, the less harm it could do if captured or compromised by special interests.
The circumstances of the Bundy case seem at least very suspicious when viewed in that light. Federal land being claimed for private contracts to build wind farms in the areas adjacent to the Bundy ranch suddenly make it much more valuable to the government than is grazing land, and somehow make protecting that tortoise worth aiming guns at American citizens.
The line is clear. The bigger the reach of government, the more resources it controls, the more susceptible it is to corruption, and the more tyrannical the effects of that corruption become.
Mr. Bundy inadvertently highlighted this issue in a misguided way, but virtually no one took him up on the challenge to make a statement distinguishing states' rights — really the principle of localism — from an excuse to engage in racism and abuse of minorities. Instead, almost every Bundy supporter cut and run when the controversy got too hot to handle. Instead, we should have condemned Bundy's ignorance — states do not have a right to violate with individual civil rights — and outlined principles of a new federalism that enables protection of minorities, while protecting the will of the democratic majority.
If we let Bundy's story get lost in the noise — admittedly noise Mr. Bundy himself helped to create — we are at risk of squandering a real opportunity to make a statement about how the encroachment of government and diminishment of the rights of all Americans, especially minorities. It is really an opportunity to restate the states' rights thesis as an enabler of freedom, not a tool for oppression.
In fact, it is critical that we do so. With an emerging majority-minority electorate, it is more important than ever that principles that will appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans come across as clear and unsullied by the mistakes of our past.
• Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee Online Magazine.
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