The Cliven Bundy in all of us

April 17, 2014

At first glance, Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle-rancher who has been fighting the Bureau of Land Management tooth and nail for over twenty years, might strike you as an anti-government radical. He has, after all, led an armed rebellion against federal land managers, who contend that he owes over $1 million in back fees, penalties and other costs for grazing his cattle on federal land.

But the truth is that Bundy’s underlying beliefs are quite common, and not just among self-styled scourges of federal overreach. Once we understand what Bundy is really trying to pull off, we can understand why our country is plagued by sky-high rents and crumbling roads, and why our streets are choked by congestion.

First, it is worth recalling that Bundy has deep roots in Nevada. His family homesteaded the ranch that he owns and operates in 1877. Bundy’s ancestors were quite happy to work with the federal government when it was offering settlers the opportunity to claim federal land as their own, provided they were willing to work the land. Homesteading was an ingenious idea, as the federal government didn’t have the manpower to do the hard work of settling these vast expanses. Tempting young families westward had the added effect of making America a more dynamic, ambitious, upwardly-mobile society.

Yet in their wisdom, the lawmakers behind the Homestead Acts limited the size of the claims a family could make under its rubric. At first, families were granted no more than a one-quarter-section, or 160 acres — the exact size, as it happens, of Bundy’s ranch.

For years, Bundy has behaved as though the public lands bordering his property are an extension of his property. While other cattle-ranchers pay for grazing privileges on these lands, Bundy has decided that he is under no obligation to do so. This is despite the fact that if everyone chose to act as Bundy has, these lands would soon become a grassless wasteland.

As Travis Kavulla observes in National Review, what Bundy is really trying to do is unilaterally annex a vast new swathe of federal land to the property his family lawfully claimed from the federal government way back in 1877. Indeed, Kavulla goes so far as to describe Bundy as a squatter, who is no different from a “dreadlocked freegan who sets up living quarters in an abandoned building in Brooklyn.”

There is another comparison that is just as apt, if not more so. Cliven Bundy is a lot like the wealthy homeowners in San Francisco and New York City who fight new construction in their sought-after urban neighborhoods just as tenaciously as Bundy and his cohorts have been fighting the Bureau of Land Management. These women and men, whom I’m sure vote differently from Bundy and who tend not to brandish firearms, are treating a commons — the cities in which they live — as though it is their private property.

The whole point of a city is to bring people closer together to lower the transaction costs associated with economic activity. When we make it harder to develop new homes and new offices in the most desirable cities, we force people, particularly poorer people, to live further and further away from the economic action, and this leads to longer commutes, lower incomes, and lower productivity, as Ryan Avent argued in The Gated City.

Of course, wealthy homeowners could just buy all of the land around their homes so that no one else can develop it. Yet that would be appallingly expensive. So instead they use their political muscle to create historic preservation districts, or to press for zoning restrictions that make it all but impossible for the non-rich to afford homes within easy reach of their jobs. Just as Cliven Bundy refuses to pay for grazing privileges on other people’s land, these homeowners refuse to pay full price for their spectacular views, and for not sharing their sidewalks with the great unwashed.

Or consider our hatred for toll roads and congestion charges. We tend to think of roads as the kind of thing you pay for just once, when you first build them. In reality, roads are a depreciating asset. Over time, as cars and trucks drive over them, and as the elements take their toll, they deteriorate. The most obvious way to pay for roads would be to, well, charge for grazing privileges, or rather to charge a user fee. Those of us who actually use roads the most — by driving many miles in extremely heavy vehicles, like big rigs, let’s say — would pay more than those of us who drive a small number of miles in light vehicles.

Ideally, we’d also charge people on the basis of when roads are at their busiest, as doing so would nudge people towards driving when traffic isn’t quite so heavy. Gas taxes have long functioned as a kind of user fee, but as gas mileage has improved, we’ve seen a disconnect between the wear-and-tear vehicles cause on the road and the gas these vehicles consume. Many ideas have been floated to address this disconnect, like taxes on vehicle-miles traveled, but our refusal to acknowledge that roads need to be maintained and maintenance isn’t free keeps getting in the way.

In a way, all of us who grouse about paying for the services we use are Cliven Bundys. We just don’t have the guts to have a standoff with the federal government, or the chutzpah to claim that we’re fighting for freedom. Before we judge Bundy too harshly, we ought to first consider our own sense of entitlement.

PHOTOS: Protesters fly a sign in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 11, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart 

Cattle that belongs to rancher Cliven Bundy are released near Bunkerville, Nevada April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart 

Rancher Cliven Bundy gestures at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart 



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I think it’s a bit ridiculous for Salam to compare people who use political influence to further their social aims to a common thief like Bundy.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

The land that Bundy grazes on is my land too. Let the freeloader graze his cattle only on his own land. Then maybe he’ll keep his herd at a manageable level.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

Bundy is not only a thief, but has now committed treason, having raised arms against the U.S. I fully understand how leasing government land for raising cattle works – my family did so in the past. There is no justification for his actions, and those who stand with him are just plain crazy.

The author’s comparison of zoning issues to what Bundy is doing is false. Zoning is used to prevent someone acquiring neighboring properties from destroying the value of your property. An example would be putting a slaughterhouse in a neighborhood of residences. Paying to use land that is not his does not harm his property. I will grant you that zoning is frequently abused by developers that have corrupted local officials, but bribery is a different crime from theft.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

I agree with @QuietThinker. Mr. Salam is just pandering to the left on this one. The media wanted desperately to make another Wako out of this. They need new material as everyone is bored with flight 370.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

” the guts to have a [an armed] standoff with the federal government,”

Guts? “Guts” is a positive term, implying courage or bravery.

Bundy doesn’t have “guts” — he is a dangerous traitor.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

Mr. Salam, get a grip. You can’t whitewash what Bundy is doing. And no, there isn’t “a little Bundy” in all of us. There certainly isn’t any of his character in *me*. I don’t break the law, and I don’t take up arms against the government no matter what profit would be in it for me.

Bundy is nothing but a nut-case who wants something for nothing for personal profit and gain.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

What I don’t understand in the whole episode is the guy with the rifle on the overpass – shown in pictures all around the internet, and in many news stories on this issue. What was he aiming at? He was supposedly there to ‘protect’ Bundy in case the Feds opened fire ? ? ? But the Feds didn’t, so why is this guy not arrested for threatening a federal official?

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Honestly Mr Salam, what drivel is this… Extremists I don’t mind because at least they are honest to their crazy ideas. It’s moderates like you – that know better yet still enable these crazies – that drive me mental. I realize that the Clinton regime crippled the right wing by stealing the center but the answer isn’t to keep staking out ground in crazytown, but to actually try and WIN BACK THE CENTER! Given how people are generally disappointed with Dems in America it wouldn’t be that hard a push to retake power that way.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Mr. Salam seems to have hit a nerve, judging by the comments. I agree with some of the posters that the comparison of Bundy’s aggressive resistance to the government’s response to his overreach with the nature of the actions of upper income urban land seems a false equivalency. But I think Mr. Salam’s point is about the motives we share in common with Mr. Bundy. The lengths we will go to act on those motives are constrained by the norms of those around us. Those norms are different for those of us living in and near urban centers. But we tend to do what we can to gain and preserve what advantage we can. And we shouldn’t pretend that we don’t flex political muscle to do it.

Posted by Heyoka | Report as abusive

This article seems biased and incomplete to me. According to other reports that I’ve read this is a ‘land grab’ by certain others, like Harry Reid and his son, who stand to make money brokering a deal to get Bundy off the land so that it can be sold to a Chinese company to build a solar plant there. Why no mention of this?

Posted by Eric93 | Report as abusive

Cliven Bundy is an American hero, one of the few left along with his supporters who are willing to stand up to a corrupt and tyrannical federal government. How ironic that the Feds have the money and manpower to send a small army with heavy firepower to deal with some guy in the middle of nowhere and some grazing cows yet let millions of illegal foreign criminals enter and roam free, and to go even further support and aid them to further break our laws and have full access to taxpayer funded services that they contribute nothing to therefore robbing American citizens of their tax money and their sovereignty! Where are you libs? What do you have to say about your hypocrisy! It sure does make you happy to pick on some poor guy trying to mind his own business and make a living along with little girls setting up neighborhood lemonade stands but let foreign criminals come in and let the excuses fly about how the rules don’t apply, and they are just here for a better life crap.

Posted by CountryPride | Report as abusive

Bundy is a poor example for the issues examined here. He is not entitled to anything. If economics dictate that he his a poor manager, or in the wrong business, then like any business he has the right to fail, to liquidate his assets, and move on.

He failed to make his grazing payments–period. His so-called “rights” to the land his family has historically leased from the government are only those of a renter–period. The owner of the land (us) , and its manager (BLM), have the right to be compensated for the use of the asset under the terms they define. If Bundy does not make his payments, or violates the terms of use, then he is a squatter and should be evicted–period.

The problem is that the federal government is utilizing means that would place any other property owner in legal jeopardy should they execute the same tactics on a renter. Try evicting a tenant by force, or destroy his property in doing so, and you will see what few, if any, protections you have to protect the use of your property.

The real issue is that the federal government is a poor manager of the land. Federal lands in the west should be transferred to the states, to be used to benefit the citizens of that state. Under the current management, they are a valuable, yet poorly utilized assets. The best management decisions are made at the local level, and not by centralized, and politically motivated, bureaucrats who couldn’t find most of the properties they are responsible for on a map.

The west is not a biology project. It holds vast resources that can be responsibly used to benefit all. The west is not some playground for the political elitists to use as leverage to secure their Beltway status. Government overreach imbedded in time? Yes. Irresponsible and ineffective management? Yes. Too much oversight from those least prepared to make the right decisions, where rules are first defined by a political agenda versus commons sense. Absolutely.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Don’t go saying there’s Cliven Bundy in all of us, I’m no racist republican, nor am I a thief who steals public land and expects to get off scot free.

I’m glad Bundy’s embarrassed the republicans who were standing by him until he shared his racist views with the world. And how nice of him to do so in an election year.

It’s so much fun watching them desperately scrambling to distance themselves from him now that he’s outed himself, and the GOP, as they racists they really are.

Make no mistake, this is who republicans really are and what they really think. Remember in November, folks.

Posted by Rick_FromTexas | Report as abusive

Hey Rick. Agreed, Bundy is an idiot. But how do you defend a POTUS who backs the racist philosophy of his AG? Every action of Holder has a racial agenda associated with it. Nope, I am not afraid to discuss race issues with Holder or any one else.

However, i do take exception that should I disagree with him that I am automatically categorized as a racist, notwithstanding his arguments are driven by more by emotion and victimhood, and less by the facts. So whose the racist there–Holder, the POTUS, or both?

Both Holder and POTUS are ideologues who believe the Constitution they promised to preserve, defend and protect is malleable to support their political agenda. There, you now have the opportunity emote “racist”.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive