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States’ rights, slavery and the strange symbolism of Cliven Bundy

Armstrong Williams | 5/29/2014, 3:30 p.m.
America is a land of stories. We love to use stories about individuals to extract general principals about society as ...
Armstrong Williams

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 of government corruption, otherwise known as tyranny. The smaller and more strictly enumerated the powers of the central government were, the founding fathers reasoned, the less harm those powers could do if captured or compromised by special interests. The very 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 Bundys’ ranch suddenly make it much more valuable to the government than 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.

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 the 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 individual civil rights—and outlined principles of a new brand of federalism that enables the protection of minorities while protecting the will of the democratic majority.

If we let Bundy’s story get lost in the noise—admittedly, noise 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—an ethnic plurality—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.

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