Bundy Ranch the Wrong Hill for Libertarians to be Dying On

Here is something I find deeply ironic:  On the exact same day that Conservatives were flocking to the desert to protest Cliven Bundy's eviction from BLM land, San Francisco progressives were gathering in the streets to protest tenant evictions by a Google executive.   To my eye, both protests were exactly the same, but my guess is that neither group would agree with the other's protest.  I think both protests are misguided.

In the case of Cliven Bundy, I agree with John Hinderaker, right up to his big "But...."

First, it must be admitted that legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The Bureau of Land Management has been charging him grazing fees since the early 1990s, which he has refused to pay. Further, BLM has issued orders limiting the area on which Bundy’s cows can graze and the number that can graze, and Bundy has ignored those directives. As a result, BLM has sued Bundy twice in federal court, and won both cases. In the second, more recent action, Bundy’s defense is that the federal government doesn’t own the land in question and therefore has no authority to regulate grazing. That simply isn’t right; the land, like most of Nevada, is federally owned. Bundy is representing himself, of necessity: no lawyer could make that argument.

It is the rest of the post after this paragraph with which I disagree.  He goes on to explain why he is sympathetic to Bundy, which if I may summarize is basically because a) the Feds own too much land and b) they manage this land in a haphazard and politically corrupt manner and c) the Feds let him use this land 100 years ago but now have changed their mind about how they want to use the land.

Fine.  But Bundy is still wrong.  He is trying to exercise property rights over land that is not his.   The owner gave him free use for years and then changed its policy and raised his rent, and eventually tried to evict him.  Conservatives and libertarians don't accept the argument that long-time tenancy on private land gives one quasi-ownership rights (though states like California and cities like New York seem to be pushing law in this direction), so they should not accept it in this case.   You can't defend property rights by trashing property rights.   Had this been a case of the government using its fiat power to override a past written contractual obligation, I would have been sympathetic perhaps, but it is not.

I would love to see a concerted effort to push for government to divest itself of much of its western land.  Ten years ago I would have said I would love to see an effort to manage it better, but I feel like that is impossible in this corporate state of ours.  So the best solution is just to divest.  But I cannot see where the Bundy Ranch is a particularly good case.  Seriously, I would love to see more oil and gas exploration permitted on Federal land, but you won't see me out patting Exxon on the back if they suddenly start drilling on Federal land without permission or without paying the proper royalties. At least the protesters in San Francisco likely don't believe in property rights at all.  Conservatives, what is your excuse?

I suppose we can argue about whether the time for civil disobedience has come, but even if this is the case, we have to be able to find a better example than the Bundy Ranch to plant our flag.


  1. FelineCannonball:

    Not only is he legally in the wrong with respect to property rights and doing lasting damage to public desert range land through overgrazing, he's costing the public shitloads of money through state and local police efforts, BLM manpower, interior department lawyers, federal judges and clerks, and bullshit congressmen press conferences.

    The analogy on the left is probably better with respect ot Occupy camps in city parks. Except Occupy protesters mostly don't have guns.

  2. kidmugsy:

    purpresture is the crime in question: personal appropriation of public land or of common land.

  3. Shawnesy:

    I think you're missing something important: Libertarians (esp. anarchists) are completely against public ownership of anything. They support Bundy because they don't see the Federal government as the rightful owners of the land.

  4. Bram:

    I have no sympathy for this guy. There are federal agencies trampling all over farmers' and ranchers' rights on privately owned land.

  5. John O.:

    I see the Bundy ranch issue to be not be a libertarian issue but an issue of the culture of the rural Western United States, they're deeply suspicious of the federal government and they resent them considerably and view the government with contempt to the point of making their personal legal problems multitudes worse by their behavior in and out of court. In addition, despite the facts, many of the protestors that showed up were far more interested in, my opinion, of avoiding the next Ruby Ridge and Waco where the heavy handedness of the government killed people over what is really just a bunch of stupid petty crap.

  6. bobby_b:

    I think you're right. I also think that many - most? - people have come to the same conclusions about the correctness of Bundy's arguments, both the explicit ones and the underlying necessary assumptions.

    But, damn, this one looked like it could be so much fun!

    It had everything: cowboys, Western property ownership issues, The BLM as occupying force, nasty brutish sunglassed Feds With Guns, cows turning into desaparecidos, and (and this is the really big part) the feds were managing to lose the battle! And to quite a motley-appearing crew!

    So, intellectually, we'll all wince and hope it passes quick, but there's still a tiny gleeful high-five that we'll do privately, for the fun.

  7. bigmaq1980:

    Even if one opposes government ownership of anything, or of greater limits, it is hard to find a base to support Bundy in all this.

    Folks who side with Bundy ought to consider the implication of their stance on the case Native Americans try to make with their land claims. Would they be in their rights to occupy territory they claim and our governments do not recognize?

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    I have a little sympathy for him, His family has been there for 100 years and the fees and restrictions imposed by BLM have already driven all of the neighboring ranches out of business.

    However, I don't have enough sympathy for him to support his methods. He seems determined to drive the government into another Ruby Ridge/Waco situation. That will not end well for him, and as you point out, all the drama he is creating is distracting from worse abuses by the government elsewhere.

  9. Matthew Slyfield:

    If the fees being charged by BLM are so nominal, why have all of the other ranches surrounding Bundy's been driven out of business?

  10. Nehemiah:

    Warren hit on a solution. Why should the Feds own more land in a state than the state itself or the state plus all the residents of that state. Something just seems wrong with that scenario. At a time when we are going deeper in debt why not auction off some Federal land? Or deed it over to the states under some long term repayment schedule? Having the giant bureaucracy reaching out from Washington DC to dictate use seems inefficient and even sinister.

  11. Chris:

    On another blog I read I can't remember which, there was a quote from Bundy's daughter where she spoke of all of the improvements the family has done to the land over the last hundred years, including roads and drainage. I'm not saying I believe in adverse possession but I do think the family makes a stronger case for Lockeian ownership than the feds do.

  12. Chris:

    found it:


    I have had people ask me to explain my dad’s stance on this BLM fight.

    Here it is in as simple of terms as I can explain it. There is so much to it, but here it is in a nut shell.

    My great grandpa bought the rights to the Bunkerville allotment back in 1887 around there. Then he sold them to my grandpa who then turned them over to my dad in 1972.

    These men bought and paid for their rights to the range and also built waters, fences and roads to assure the survival of their cattle, all with their own money, not with tax dollars.
    These rights to the land use is called preemptive rights.

    Some where down the line, to keep the cows from over grazing, came the bureau of land management. They were supposed to assist the ranchers in the management of their ranges while the ranchers paid a yearly allotment which was to be use to pay the BLM wages and to help with repairs and improvements of the ranches.

    My dad did pay his grazing fees for years to the BLM until they were no longer using his fees to help him and to improve.

    Instead they began using these money’s against the ranchers.

    They bought all the rest of the ranchers in the area out with their own grazing fees.

    When they offered to buy my dad out for a penence he said no thanks and then fired them because they weren’t doing their job.

    He quit paying the BLM but, tried giving his grazing fees to the county, which they turned down.

    So my dad just went on running his ranch and making his own improvements with his own equipment and his own money, not taxes.

    In essence the BLM was managing my dad out of business.

    Well when buying him out didn’t work, they used the indangered species card.

    You’ve already heard about the desert tortis.

    Well that didn’t work either, so then began the threats and the court orders, which my dad has proven to be unlawful for all these years.

    Now they’re desperate.

    It’s come down to buying the brand inspector off and threatening the County Sheriff.

    Everything they’re doing at this point is illegal and totally against theconstitution of the United States of America.

    Now you may be saying,” how sad, but what does this have to do with me?” Well, I’ll tell you.

    They will get rid of Cliven Bundy, the last man standing on the Bunkerville allotment and then they will close all the roads so no one can ever go on it again.

    Next, it’s Utah’s turn. Mark my words, Utah is next.

    Then there’s the issue of the cattle that are at this moment being stolen. See even if dad hasn’t paid them, those cattle do belong to him.

    Regardless where they are they are my fathers property. His herd has been part of that range for over a hundred years, long before the BLM even existed.

    Now the Feds think they can just come in and remove them and sell them without a legal brand inspection or without my dad’s signature on it.

    They think they can take them over two boarders, which is illegal, ask any trucker. Then they plan to take them to the Richfeild Auction and sell them.

    All with our tax money.

    They have paid off the contract cowboys and the auction owner as well as the Nevada brand inspector with our tax dollars.

  13. FelineCannonball:

    Desert, drought, and losing a hundred year water war with Las Vegas, St. George, and some Arizona golf courses.

    I guess the free market perspective is that other people with more money have better uses for water in Clark county. In a free for all, Las Vegas would win. In a pure free market Las Vegas would win. In a somewhat corrupt representative democracy with lots of water rights lawyers, Las Vegas wins. If the ranchers have water rights they get paid in return, but they are on their way out.

    Actually, beef is at thirty year high and its all about the water, drought, and the people with more money who want the water, all across the west.

  14. Stan:

    "The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of
    one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that
    oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the
    beginning if it is to be stopped at all." Mencken would urge you to fight the battles you have, not the ones you want to have.

  15. marque2:

    I don't know. Why is the government driving all the ranchers out? To save some cricket that is only hypothetically endangered on the weakest of grounds? Maybe this guy is doing the right thing - bringing attention to the land grab (which is what it is - if you allowed ranchers for 100 years and then try to take away grazing rights for no apparent reason.)

  16. Craig Hamilton:

    If the argument is over the rights of cattle versus desert tortoises, then you may have a point. The original decision may have been stupid, but the government does stupid things all the time. There are legal and political methods available to fight this.
    However, this situation has recently escalated into a full-blown range war, with the government bringing in hired gunmen from all over the country. It has been suggested that this escalation is due to a deal with a Chinese company to build a federally subsidized solar power plant. This deal was apparently brokered by the lobbying of the sons of the Senate majority leader.
    If true, this kind of slimy influence peddling is not just stupid, it is corrupt, and corruption should be fought whenever and however possible.

  17. marque2:

    Beef was at a 30 year production high because farmers were slaughtering cows early because of drought and harsh winter. This last month we have seen prices rise so inflation adjusted beef prices are higher than any point since 1987 because fewer beef cattle are being slaughtered.

    It is not as rosy as you implied.

  18. FelineCannonball:

    An allotment confers rights but not ownership. Grazing fees don't even cover grazing management. Allotment buyouts are optional and paid for by your tax dollars. Chris Shayes was trying to set one up for all of Arizona a while back with the support of a lot of ranchers. Some 20 percent planned to immediately take the deals because of money, drought, hardship, and federal red tape.

  19. marque2:

    How do you know he is overgrazing? Seems like one of the plethora of government excuses to try in an attempt to permanently entomb this area.

  20. FelineCannonball:

    It's not a production high, it's a price high, and its not rosy. I have several ranchers in my family, and it's most definitely not rosy.

  21. mlhouse:

    That is my point. What are the alternative uses of these lands? I don't think the Federal government has an answer for that (except to make a deal that enriches the Reid family). As the taxpayer owners of the lands we should want to make sure they are properly managed. How driving Western ranchers out of Nevada is "our" policy goal remains a mystery to me.

    While legally I do not think he has a leg to stand on, it is appropriate civil disobedience to confront Federal government policy choices that are ill designed.

  22. marque2:

    Why should the feds auction off land that they grabbed from the state to begin with. It should actually be given to the state gratis.

  23. johnson85:

    I think Bundy is still sympathetic for a few reasons:

    (1) As the largest landowner in Nevada, the federal gov't is basically playing political favorites to determine how the land is used. If they wanted to bid out the right to lease the land, that'd be fine, but instead they are determining which favored groups get to use the land by political clout.
    (2) If the federal gov't isn't going to do the right thing and divest or at least bid out the rights to the land, some consideration should go to the fact that ranchers have been operating there for decades.
    (3) There is no effective means for Bundy to seek redress. If it was an elected official making this call he could at least seek redress at the ballot box, as ineffectual as that would likely be. Or if administrative agency decisions were subject to more scrutiny than Chevron deference, he could use the court system. Yes, he does have the opportunity to seek favor with the right connected politicians through political donations or other unofficial quid pro quo arrangements, so that they could properly pressure the administrative agency, but even ignoring the fact that it would likely take a substantial sum of money, the process by necessity has to remain murky, so he doesn't even have anyway to know how to do it.
    (4) He's putting his money where his mouth is so to speak. There was a dangerous escalation over this issue, but he was the one facing the consequences of the escalation. He wasn't advocating that other people go take up arms or doing something cowardly like terrorism. He presumably knows that if there is a firefight, he will be killed or at least end up in jail, and he is still standing his ground. I worry about the precedent of people risking potential violence simply because they disagree with a gov't decision, but I worry a lot less about the precedent when to follow it people have to face their own death or imprisonment.

  24. FelineCannonball:

    Generally you defer to a rangeland specialist. It's pretty obvious on the ground if the plants the cows want to eat are gone, and the plants they don't want to eat are dominating.

    I have no doubt that grazing is in the way out on the Virgin river. You could suck the river dry and take out all environmental restrictions and it would still be on the way out. Las Vegas will suck up any excess.

  25. Matthew Slyfield:

    Starting a;range war against the Federal government that he can not possibly win and that could potentially get himself, his family and his employees killed is not a smart move.

  26. m1shu:

    The conspiracy theory is that Harry Reid wants to appropriate the lands for corporate solar energy farms.

  27. marque2:

    "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country"

    --Nathan Hale

  28. marque2:

    The conspiracy has been debunked - even on conservative talk shows. The farm was suppose to be a "close" 60 miles away.

  29. marque2:

    Again - people say things to justify their cause. If these people have been successfully raising cattle on the same land since 1870 - they probably aren't over- grazing unless you are using some hysterical green group definition of over grazing.

  30. FelineCannonball:

    I'm not familiar with this ranch, but my great uncle has had a ranch since 1880. Quite a bit of it got overgrazed during his later years due to neglect (cows make more cows) and lack of management. It's easy to have happen with free range cattle like the Bundys have if you just fail cull the herd. It's not uncommon for ranches in rough terrain to have 2x or 3x more cattle than they think they have. Technical definition is when the carrying capacity (number of cattle that can be raised on a unit of land) starts dropping on its own because of weeds, erosion, proliferation of poisonous plants, but a manager will try to predict this and account for potential droughts, weather variability. There is an art to it, but the idea that Nevada rangeland hasn't seen historical overgrazing in real terms is ridiculous. It's a desert and cows with supplemental water can have a big effect.

    Sort of beside the point though. Trespass cattle are trespass cattle.

  31. mlhouse:

    I don't disagree with you on that matter.

  32. mlhouse:

    I don't think it is totally debunked. I am not saying it is the case, but 60 miles is close by ranching standards and the issue isn't necessarily the actually land. Instead, it is that to get the land for solar energy farms they need to get waivers on endangered species and such, and the way they want to do that is to migrate the endangered species to this other area, closing it off for ranching.

    Knowing how Nevada politics works, it is more than plausible particularly with the Reids involved.

  33. Chris:

    Like I said below. I'm not a fan adverse possession, and understanding that an allotment does not mean ownership, I do find their claims to the land to be more worthy than the feds who have done no improvements and seem to be bent on driving all ranchers off this land for less than clear motives.

    I disagree with Warren for both the Mencken quote above and also because I don't think anyone should abide by "1st Amendment areas" or the general heavy handedness of the feds in this situation. I can think of no conceivable reason for the BLM or the US Park Police to have SWAT teams. But then again I can think of no conceivable reason for either of those two agencies to exist in the first place.

    Living in AZ and knowing the vast amounts of land here that are controlled by both state and feds bothers me.

    I don't know why these lands haven't been divested via something like the homestead act that worked in the plains a 150 years ago.

  34. Chris:

    I have, and I find your equivocation lacking.

    As a Anarcho-capitialist I believe (as did the writers of the DoI) in the Lockean Labor Theory of Property. Land belongs to those who improve it. Bundy clearly has.
    Indians, as much as I think they have received a raw deal for 200+ years didn't.

  35. mahtso:

    For Nevada, I've heard that the feds own that land because it was quid/pro for admission to the Union when Nevada did not meet all the other requirements.

  36. mesocyclone:

    I think Coyote makes a mistake in applying private property rights principles to public land. Certainly Bundy is not right, legally. But morally, I'd say he has a heck of a claim. He had a reasonable expectation that grazing could continue on the same basis as it had for a century. The government violated that, simply by changing its mind. Bundy is a victim of government misbehavior.

    None of which justifies an armed standoff, and he will eventually lose. But if his actions serve to re-awaken the sagebrush rebellion (non violent version), that's a good thing. The feds own way too much western land, and no longer manage it responsibly.

  37. bigmaq1980:

    No equivocation here...whether we like it or not, Bundy lost his case in court.

    If all one goes by for facts is what Bundy's daughter says, I'd say one is missing a good amount of the case. If it were that black and white, I'd be with the Bundy's without hesitation.

    I've not come across any reports online that discusses the facts without some significant taint from the usual sides.

    For instance, I see a pretty good case here against Bundy, which cites the law and Bundy's position (including the "improvements entitle ownership" theory)....

    But, consider the source.

    My sentiment is for a drastic reduction in scope for government, and against the increasing heavy handedness we find with government and law enforcement.

    That said, we do currently live in a society with a set of laws already defined - we cannot escape that. We also have some opportunity to get involved and have those laws shaped to our liking. We have the courts as a dispute mechanism.

    Ignoring the law and two court orders, and having a standoff seems a very unproductive way to get any settlement in the Bundy's favor.

    Imagine if this is how we all resolve our grievances now? Would we find acceptable the same behavior from Native Americans because they got a "raw deal"?

  38. MingoV:

    One of the hallmarks of libertarianism is enforcement of contracts. Bundy had no contract with the federal government.

    I'll give an equivalent, and real, situation. Mr. A has pastureland that he isn't using. He lets his neighbor, Mr. B, use it without charge for many years. Now things have changed. Mr. A is strapped for cash, and he tells Mr. B that pastureland use no longer is free. How many of you would say that Mr. B should tell Mr. A to piss off and put his cattle in Mr. A's pasture without paying?

  39. J Calvert:

    Thank you! I completely agree. The Federal Government should be forced to divest of it's ridiculous land holdings in the west, AND Bundy should be evicted for not paying his grazing fees.

    The BLM is a disaster of an agency. Flipping a coin for every decision they make would produce better results that the BLM currently gets.

  40. Shane:

    Ask yourself this, if the government owns the land, is the land private property? Do the same rules apply when the government owns the land as when Mr. A owns it? Also why is it that the government would need to own property? And what if the government decided that it was going to own all of the property?

    Bundy doesn't have a legal leg to stand on, but isn't that the point. The apparatus of the state can be pointed at anyone, and then all of a sudden that person is in violation of the law. That is the modus operandi of government. Aren't the imment domain cases that transfer property from one private owner to another for the public good also legal? Where is the line drawn? When is this ok when is it not?

  41. Shane:

    As I recall, The Coyote took up the cause of gay marriage. At first I was skeptical, because the appropriate libertarian response is that the government shouldn't be involved in the unions of two adults. The Coyote made several salient points about that amounted to this is the real world and the best way to handle this is to work for civil unions between consenting adults vs. removing state involvement. This reminds me heavily of that post. Only in reverse.

    I am still working out myself why the Bundy issue struck me so viscerally, I guess that is good that my notions and half formed ideas are challenged so that I can either discard them or find a solid footing in them.

  42. joe:

    this does raise the question as to whether Bundy and the other rangers had a perscriptive easement (spelling error).. Can you have a presriptive easement on federal land (vs private property)

  43. mesaeconoguy:

    My superficial understanding of the case is that the adjacent land to Bundy’s ranch, where the solar plant is being built, has already had the tortoises evicted from it, pushed (more) onto the land where Bundy was grazing his cattle, without payment.

    If this is true, then there is an obvious government double standard here: why is the land where the solar plant to be located any less critical to the priceless desert tortoises than Bundy’s ranch?

    Beyond this fairly trivial argument, we probably need to ask do we trust the federal government to “own” or even stay within current agreed boundaries?


  44. Gdn:

    The law is rather more complicated in much of the rural west in regards title. One can own land and thus the right to build on it, without the mineral rights to what sits under the surface, nor the water rights to water flowing through it, or in ponds within it, nor grazing rights...and may still be subject to easements/right-of-way for utilities and roads to go through it.

  45. obloodyhell:

    I believe this expresses my own point of view on the matter:


  46. Harry:

    Thanks for the take, Coyote. The guy does not own the land.

    Now, how about the Army Corps of Engineers asserting their jurisdiction over a wet spot in the pasture on my land, because it is a navigable water? Is that what the Clean Water Act contemplated? That question among others is worth fighting for in the courts and the political arena. They have not come after me yet, but permissiveness with federal officials, unelected, like Lois Lerner, sure makes me hesitate before I might do something to anger them and risk ruin by lawyer.

  47. marque2:

    Then why does the government own 57% of California?

    Utah Arizona and New Mexico all have large land tracks owned by the federal government as well. Seems to me it has to do with something else since every western state couldn't have had the same problem.

  48. Micha_Elyi:

    Welcome to Politics, USA where you don't always get to pick your hill to die on. Sometimes the hill picks you.

  49. Micha_Elyi:

    "[T]he appropriate libertarian response is that the government shouldn't be involved in the unions of two adults" until the photographer says "I don't take pictures of sham marriages," or the baker says "I don't make cakes for sham marriages," or the landlord says "I don't rent to people in sham marriages" or the employer says "I don't hire people in sham marriages." Then the libertarians ain't so all-fired libertarian anymore.

  50. Micha_Elyi:

    Some parlour know-it-alls said something like that in 1775.

    "May your chains rest lightly upon you."--Thomas Paine.