The Cliven Bundy ranch incident has given us occasion to review just how systematic, multi-sided, and deeply entrenched are the problems in this country. Unfortunately, the “whole truth” is not clearly as simple as we are led to believe. Like with many of the issues in Restoring America One County at a Time, some of the very forces we are led to support are also complicit in the tyranny. As such, the fix is simple, but not easy, and not even easy to accept.
I purposefully did not jump on the “defend Cliven Bundy” bandwagon because I smelled a stink in the whole thing. After a couple interviews and a bit of historical research, I found out why I was uncomfortable. I would like to give you the “yes” and the “no” of the Clive Bundy Ranch issue.
This story is so multi-faceted that nearly every group has presented it as a completely different issue, including those stories that promise “the truth” about the Bundy Ranch standoff. To Liberty movement types, it is about government involvement where there should be none. To other libertarians, the focus is on BLM thugs with assault rifles provoking tension and tasering little old ladies. To mainstream conservatives, this is about ridiculous endangered species laws, or Harry Reid’s solar-company crony schemes. Civil liberties folk were alarmed at the relegation of protest to a small, orange-fenced “free speech zone.” To liberals like Harry Reid, this is about direct rebellion against lawful government, taxes, and court orders, and the protestors are like “domestic terrorists.” Common law proponents noted all the classic hallmarks of “civil” and “admiralty” law tyrannies behind all of this, and gasped as just how brazen and how advanced it has become in America. Bundy himself had a very complex states’ rights argument about land transfers during the Nevada statehood process; he basically refuses to recognize federal ownership of his property, even though he did up until 1993 (which just so happens to be the year the feds started pinching ranchers with tighter regulations).
All of this, and average people have hardly any idea what’s really going on. It’s just another political melee and standard fodder for Glenn Beck.
Gary North and a couple others cut through all the nonsense and got straight to the point: the problem is government ownership of the property—a problem throughout the west. “The federal government exercises ownership over land that it should not own. If the federal government auctioned off this land to the highest bidders, using the money exclusively for paying off the federal debt, the nation would be a lot better off. But the government refuses to do this.”
Among liberty advocates, activists, and some conservatives, the story is that the government just needs to get its nose out of private individuals’ business, and these ranchers like Clive Bundy would be free, left alone, and a lot better off. But aside from the government refusing to do this, there is one other class of people opposed to privatizing the federal grazing lands.
Now let me hasten to add that I don’t speak for Bundy, and certainly not all ranchers feel this way, but the one detail that has not been emphasized in any of the news stories I’ve seen is that the BLM ranchers like Bundy enjoy a massive subsidy not available to private ranchers. That fact alone makes Bundy’s little predicament a little less tea party and all that.
I spoke with a life-long rancher at length the other morning. He’s primarily a private rancher, but did say he had a little experience with a couple small BLM lands. He is on a large scale. He owns several thousand acres, has owned two sale barns in the past, and has done this his whole life which, I estimate, is around 70 years. He schooled me on ranching in the American west.
There are two types of ranchers in the U.S.: those that own their own land, and then BLM ranchers. Those that own their own land pay property taxes and expenses and support themselves. BLM ranchers pay a relatively small fee in comparison in exchange for grazing on federal lands. Without going into all the numbers, the bottom line is that BLM ranchers can do business at about 1/10th the cost that private ranchers can.
The groups are roughly evenly split, and that makes them politically entrenched. The BLM ranchers, at least a controlling number of them, have no interest in having the land privatized, because they would lose their subsidy—i.e. their welfare.
They don’t want to own the thousands of acres they graze because then they would have to pay property tax on thousands of acres instead of a tiny per-acre lease fee.
Government ownership of the land is indeed the root problem, but government itself is not alone to blame. Bundy, and BLM ranchers in general, are welfare queens.
The downside of the BLM system is that BLM ranchers must comply with all other federal regulations. And like all government agencies, the BLM follows the iron law of bureaucracy: it grows. Years ago, there were few regs; today, with dozens of endangered species acts, EPA regs, etc., etc., there are so many that no one can follow them all. Even the tiniest details are regulated: where you can place a salt lick, what you can or can’t feed, where you can water, etc. Satellites, probably drones too, monitor herds, and transgressors can receive fines in the mail, or even visits from agents.
In such a situation, it comes down to enforcement at the government’s whim. In some places of the country, BLM ranchers haven’t seen an agent in years. In other places, the BLM are like Nazis.
It was not supposed to be like this.
In the earliest days, the federal government opened western lands to settlement with the intention of turning large tracts of land over to private owners. This was the original plan under the Homestead Act of 1862. It was modified to double allotment areas to 640 acres by the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1909.
The problem was, in the arid west, 640 acres proved too small for effective ranching. Private owners began grazing their herds also on the vast remainders of federal properties. They did this for free for a long time, but as with all common properties, conflicts ensued. Range wars ensued. Wars between sheep farmers and cattle farmers ensued.
The federal solution came with the executive power-hungry FDR administration, in the form of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. It would create a system of leases and fees to establish boundaries and order. But the Act kept ownership with government instead of requiring purchases over time to establish private ownership.
The ranchers were hesitant at first, not because they wanted to buy the lands, but because they had already been enjoying a huge subsidy in the form of free grazing on so-called common lands. As irony would have it, they had begun to feel entitled as well: they feared a formal lease system would strip them of grazing “rights” they felt they already had to the land—land they didn’t own and had no contract to use.
But with tongue-in-cheek promises from the government to protect their “right,” the ranchers gave in. A historian from the era, Virgil Hurlburt, wrote at the time that “the livestock industry is very much in favor of the act” as along as its impositions “are decidedly in favor of the individual ranchmen.”1
The ranchers of the period enjoyed their free grazing privileges so much they wanted them enshrined as “rights” and perpetuated: “Stockmen have had free use of the public domain for so long they question any suggested change or regulation in its use. A vested interest has been built up.”2
So because of a combination of the socialistic New Deal and a welfare mentality among enough ranchers, we have gone from a system in which the government actually was headed in the right direction (transferring lands to private homesteaders) to a culture of welfare in which BLM ranchers enjoy massive subsidies and don’t want to let them go, yet don’t want to have burdensome government regulation either.
The free market solution is for total privatization of the property, and a level playing field in regard to taxation. You all know my enmity for property taxes, so I don’t advocate them here in general; but neither should one group get a subsidy at the expense of others, no matter how that system is set up (currently through federal leases). Private ownership and property tax would at least have the advantage of keeping tax monies in local counties.
Current BLM ranchers need not necessarily worry about being pushed out by larger ranchers, though some would be. In many cases, lands would be purchased by investors willing to maintain continuity with current ranchers, only under new private lease agreements—much like privately-owned croplands are rented all across the U.S.
There would be uncomfortable short-term shifts in the cost of ranching, but with such realignments would also come shifts in the price of land (probably downward), followed by readjustments in assessments and tax revenues. There are other economic balances which would suffer short term turbulence; but the current equilibrium has been artificially created and sustained by government intrusion, inequity, and mistakes from day one anyway.
Like all solutions for recovering freedom discussed in my book, the path is simple, but not easy. Fixing the problem will require sacrifice, but the long run will feature greater liberty.
In this regard, the Cliven Bundy standoff is a yes: I stand with the protestors, the mediators, the Chuck Baldwins, the Oath Keepers, and the common law guys. But when it comes to Bundy’s practice and the BLM ranch system in general, the principle is welfarism and it has become as entrenched a culture as anywhere else in America. And to that we say no just no, but no way!
F. R. Carpenter, “Establishing Management Under the Taylor Grazing Act,” Rangelands 3/3 History of Range Management (June 1981), 105–115.
Virgil Hurlburt, “The Taylor Grazing Act,” The Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics, 11/2 (May, 1935), 203–206.
Virgil Hurlburt, “The Taylor Grazing Act Amendments,” The Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics, 11/4 (May, 1935), 410–411.
Frederick W. Obermiller, “Did Congress Intend to Recognize Grazing Rights? An Alternative Perspective on the Taylor Grazing Act,” Rangelands 18/5 (Oct. 1996), 186–191.