I'm Ambivalent on the Bundy Ranch Case
[A follow-up this Mises Daily article.]
I think we can all agree the Feds, in their usual fashion, have employed unwarranted thuggery in their attempts to shut down the Bundy Ranch. Just as the Feds could have arrested David Koresh when he left his compound (which he often did) they instead chose to employ the usual shock-and-awe tactics that are so beloved by federal agents.
Bundy lost his case in federal court, and he lost the appeal, so as Judge Napolitano points out here, the feds could simply have put a lien on the property, but they instead resorted to violence by stealing cattle and knocking around protestors. As far as the legal case goes, however, it's pretty clear that Cliven Bundy has unambiguously lost his case as far as federal law goes.
Bundy has already made it clear that, at least at some point, he thought the feds had a right to charge management fees, since he did it for many years before stopping twenty years ago. He has tied his refusal to pay fees not to the fact that the feds own or manage the land, but that it now manages in a way that does not meet his approval. In other words, a government entity that manages the land properly, would deserve payment, according to Bundy's own account. Meanwhile, the issue of government ownership itself is not an issue, it seems, since Bundy has declared that he would pay fees if the land were administered by the state of Nevada.
While I delight in the images of federal troops being thwarted in their recent attempt to bully Bundy and his allies, I'd be more understanding if Bundy were calling for outright privatization rather than what he appears to be calling for: a mere modification of the status quo in which Nevada rather than the US takes control of the land in question. Remember that Bundy only disputes ownership by the federal government. Government ownership in general is apparently fine. Bundy then attempts to base this assertion on his belief that the US government cannot legally own land, which is a sketchy argument at best.
This is a fool's game, of course, as understood by anyone who realizes that the US Constitution (apart from the Bill of Rights) is not now and (and possibly never has been) designed to actually limit the power of the federal government. (As Rothbard explains here.) While a decentralist move in which the land is transferred to Nevada instead of the US is certainly an improvement (from the radical decentralist perspective), it really offers no economic solution since the land will continue to be assigned through political rather than economic means. The only way to determine the actual market value of the land, and to ensure that it is used most productively, is to privatize it immediately.
The feds (or Nevada, depending on the scenario) should auction off the lands in question, and if the Bundy family can come up with the capital to buy those lands, great. If they cannot, the ranch will have to lease lands from the new private owners or sell the cattle to someone else with sufficient resources.
Some have argued that the Bundys have already "homesteaded" the land, but this is not at all clear. Even Bundy only claims to have established an easement (a sign he himself doesn't claim to have homesteaded the land), and there is no indication whatsoever that Bundy has established anything other than surface use rights or has the capital to obtain the same land were its market value to reflect the full value of both surface and subsurfare real estate. Regardless of the method of transfer from government land to private land, though, the market solution will at least finally put the land in the hands of who is best suited to own it, use it, and invest in it, and it will no longer be the personal plaything of ranchers, or Harry Reid, or whoever else has pulled strings at the BLM, the State of Nevada, or any other political entity.
Meanwhile, the federal attempts to violently end the situation are far from over, as Ron Paul points out below. Naturally, Paul advocates for the privatization of the land.