A Contrarian View of the Bundy Ranch Case

The much publicized confrontation between the Bureau of Land Management and supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy concluded earlier this week when BLM officials decided to release Bundy’s cattle. Though the confrontation had risen to notoriety in the last two weeks, it was more than two decades in the making, beginning in 1993 when the federal government altered the terms of Bundy’s grazing allotment to include certain protections for an endangered desert tortoise.

Bundy, whose cattle had grazed on federal land, refused to pay his public grazing fee for twenty years since that time, and repeatedly ignored court orders to pay the fee or remove his cattle from federal property. His obstinacy prompted federal officials to move ahead with two 2013 court orders to seize the cattle, garnering him the title of “welfare rancher” from detractors. 

Since the roundup began, various fringe groups and online sites had encouraged armed resistance and violence against federal officials in defense of Bundy and his property, leading to sharp denunciations and stern warnings from sources like Glenn Beck and Nevada’s congressional delegation to protest peacefully. Militias and armed protestors continued to arrive at the scene and tensions continued to escalate. After repeated clashes between Bundy relatives, supporters, and federal officials, the BLM made its decision to release the cattle, according to BLM Chief Neil Kornze, out of “serious concerns about the safety of employees and members of the public.”

Outrage and vitriol has accompanied this issue from the beginning, stoked by Americans’ already fervent distaste for government intrusion into their lives. While such contempt for government overreach is understandable, the Bundy case was a poor choice of occasion for Americans to vent their anger, as a careful and rational analysis will make clear.

First, examine Bundy’s argument. He stated on numerous occasions that he does not recognize federal authority over the land he uses to graze. Instead, he argued that the land properly belonged to the state of Nevada, and so he owed no public grazing fees to the federal government.

While Bundy may have no shortage of well-armed supporters on his side, the facts are on the side of the federal government. The land is legally under the control of the federal government and has been since the state was founded in 1864 – per the Nevada constitution that Bundy claims to follow.

A lot of discussion has been devoted to issues involving federal land use, protections of certain tortoises, etc., but the actual legal issue at hand is whether Bundy owed public grazing fees to the federal government or not. He did. He did not pay them, and his ignorance of the law as it stands does not shield him from suffering its consequences.

Nevertheless, what is to be made of the sudden surge of support for Bundy in spite of his faulty legal arguments? Chiefly, it is a manifestation of the frustration of the anti-intellectual right. The sorts of individuals who showed up in support of Bundy are the same who are unhappy with the state of politics and who want “smaller government” without really understanding what that means or how to achieve it. What they saw was a rancher in a battle against the federal government, so they jumped to his aid, never pausing to examine the nature of the conflict or whether it was worth getting involved.

That aside, most did not heed or closely follow Bundy’s argument. They simply supplanted it with their own. States’ rights advocates maintained their erroneous line of reasoning that the federal government could not regulate land in that manner while Nevada was free to do so if it desired, supposedly per the Tenth Amendment. Libertarians employed the same argument they used to defend the Occupiers – that because the land was “public,” Bundy could use it as he wished and that the government should not interfere (another issue entirely). Some made the false claim that the federal government was violating Bundy’s property rights when the land he was using did not properly belong to him in the first place, and so his trespassing was subject to punition. Many more simply contented themselves with reading a headline and drawing their conclusions without so much as glancing at the article (or, worse, actually reading articles from specious sources). Among the last group are a dangerous faction ready and willing to begin shooting government officials simply because they are federal officials — dangerous and cowardly, declaring openly their willingness to use women as a human shield.

For an issue that should have been minor (a failure to pay grazing fees), the response was unwarranted. Whereas our forefathers had no legal recourse for a policy they disagreed with when they dressed as Indians and tossed tea into the Boston Harbor, Bundy and his supporters have such recourse when it comes to the public grazing fees.  Unlike the American colonists of nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago who could not choose their representation in Parliament and the British government, Bundy has the ability to choose new elected officials who will support policy changes in favor of a reduction of fees, he has the ability to speak his mind under the First Amendment, he has the ability to lobby his lawmakers, etc., thus rendering an appeal to arms dangerous and unnecessary. Such was, be it remembered, also the principle of America’s Founders when faced with a similar rebellion in 1794 when none other than then President George Washington led an army into Pennsylvania to suppress the three-year-old Whiskey Rebellion.

Worse, the raucous behavior of the protesters and the counter-productive discussion from others have obscured a very legitimate point: that the federal government should not own that land in the first place. The land ought to be sold off to private landowners (not the state of Nevada, as states’ rights advocates argue) to manage as they please. It is contrary to the principles of capitalism for the government to engage in land management, and the government should instead confine itself to setting forth rational, objective laws to protect property rights and settle disputes when those rights are infringed.

Regardless of the flawed legal basis of Bundy’s argument, the government should begin to drastically reduce its ownership of land – particularly in the American west. If it would do this, the issue would have solved itself. Either Bundy would own the land on which he grazes his cattle, he would pay a grazing fee to the proper landowner who does, or he would move his cattle elsewhere or have them removed for violating the rights of the property owner.

Such arguments were not made, from Bundy or any of the armed protesters hoping that the incident would start a violent revolution. Instead, a man who behaved in a manner not drastically different from the Occupiers of years ago (using public land contrary to public regulation, never pushing for its proper privatization) was turned into an opportunity for the anti-intellectual wing of the right to vent its frustration and hinder legitimate reforms. As the struggle for individual rights in this country moves forward, the right must learn the difference between real pushes for a rational government and incidents arising from a misunderstanding of the law. The incident involving the welfare rancher of Nevada, unfortunately, falls into the latter category.

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