At first glance, Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle-rancher who has been fighting the Bureau of Land Management tooth and nail for more than 20 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 more than $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 grass-less 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 toward 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.

Featured Publications