Cliven Bundy: Both Right and Wrong, Emblematic of a Deeper Problem

EspañolDuring the first weeks of April, Cliven Bundy, a 68-year-old farmer in Clark County, Nevada, emerged as the protagonist in a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He dared to resist the agency’s heavily armed agents as they sought to confiscate his cattle.

BLM Officials, the agency responsible for administering more an 200 million acres of government-claimed land, descended on the Bundy Ranch accompanied by several armored vehicles, 200 SWAT team agents, and “hired cowboys.” Their goal was to confiscate 900 of Bundy’s cattle, arguing the land they grazed on was a prohibited area.

The land on which the Bundy cattle graze is the same land settled by his family in the late 1870s. At the same time, however, federal officials claim over 80 percent of Nevada as their property. In 1993, the BLM — an agency created 70 years after the Bundy family settled on the disputed territory — decided to modify grazing permits in the area by setting limits to cattle-raising, in an effort to protect the desert tortoise. Bundy then decided to stop paying his grazing fees to the BLM, and the problems began.

After more than 20 years of court-room battles, the operation to seize Bundy’s cattle, as spectacular as any Hollywood production, was met with resistance from dozens of people who sympathized with the Nevada rancher’s defense of his property.

Without hesitation, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), described Bundy as a “domestic terrorist,” while the press chorus marked him as a man with a distorted view of reality — a libertarian, right-wing extremist, ignorant of the basic rules of society. Many condemned Bundy for defending his rights, and he fell victim to the stigma associated with those who do not sufficiently idolize the federal government’s authority.

It may have been different if Cliven Bundy — a white, Mormon, 68-year-old farmer — were instead a member of a Native American tribe from whom the government sought to strip away the land his family had peacefully lived, worked, and improved upon for the last 130 years. Unfortunately for Bundy, the same people who would oppose the unfair treatment of American Indians confined to reservations — the conditions for which the federal government arbitrarily changed on several occasions — decided to look the other way on this occasion.

“The federal government has seized Nevada’s sovereignty … they have seized Nevada’s laws and our public land. We have no access to our public land and that is only a little bit of it,” Bundy said during an interview with CNN. However, he acknowledges that he is not the owner of the land and must pay a fee to the government for its use.

His main concern is that these lands are under federal control, and he is dissatisfied with the administration and destination of the funds he is being asked to pay. However, he has recently stated that he has no problem with the land being considered public, so long as it is the state of Nevada, and not the federal government, who holds ownership and collects the grazing fees.

Cliven Bundy is both right and wrong, at the same time. The intimidating actions on the part of the government, including the killing of his livestock and the use of a stun gun on his son, constitute an unnecessary show of force. However, Bundy’s argument as to the state’s ownership of the land does not hold up to scrutiny.

The western United States is characterized by large tracts of government-claimed land. In fact, 47 percent of the region is under federal control, and represents 93 percent of all the land administered by the government, so his legal case has an uphill battle.

However, government ownership of land always brings controversy over who should use it and for what purpose. The absence of a free market value, in particular, prevents us from knowing how best to allocate these resources. Voluntary exchange and subjective evaluation is replaced by the threat of violence and government force as the methods to determine its most efficient use. Meanwhile, the lack of incentives generated by the nature of government-owned property — that belongs to everyone and no one simultaneously — affects the quality of the land and endangers the wildlife in the area — the familiar tragedy of the commons.

The privatization of land ownership would put an end to potential controversies like the Cliven Bundy Ranch or the Sagebrush Rebellion. There would be no more reason for the tension that currently exists between the “owners” of the land — the federal government based in Washington, D.C., about 2,000 miles away from Nevada — and the farmers who have worked the land for generations.

Its use would no longer be determined by acts of extortion and state bullying, but by who most values the land. Privatization and the enforcement of property rights would not only alleviate this tension, but it could also be an important step in easing the financial situation of the United States government, whose debt now exceeds US$17 trillion.

Despite several federal court rulings now against him, Bundy will continue to resist what he considers an overreach of federal jurisdiction. Whether or not his legal arguments have merit, we can be sure that the government has no moral claim to kidnap his property with 200 agents armed to the teeth. The federal siege at Waco and Ruby Ridge taught us important lessons about the recklessness and abuse that breeds with the acceptance of an “omnipotent government.”

This time, tragedy was avoided out in Clark County, but there is no assurance that the conflict will not be renewed. Meanwhile, let’s hope the Cliven Bundy case sparks debate over the central administration of land and its negative consequences on the economy and environmental protection.

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time