Rancher Cliven Bundy speaks at a protest area near Bunkerville, Nev. Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, John Locher)

A welfare queen in a cowboy hat

The tale of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada cattle rancher, had all the elements of a certain type of political theater, making it inevitable that he would become a hero in the conservative blogosphere and a fixture on Fox News.

The story line, as told in those forums, went something like this: Heavy-handed federal bureaucrats, having seized Bundy's cattle, were forced to back down after being confronted by cowboys on horseback toting nothing more than their side arms and an unshakable faith in the U.S. Constitution. (A little-told detail: A sniper or two were concurrently taking aim at the federal agents.)

Bundy was painted as a man being "squeezed" by the federal government and deserving of our sympathy. Or, more profoundly, he was cast in the same mold as Mohandas Gandhi and George Washington, men who disobeyed unjust laws to bring about revolutionary change. The word "tyranny" was used so often it became background noise in the news coverage.

Let's dispense with niceties: Bundy is a freeloading scofflaw, a welfare queen in a Stetson who claimed what wasn't his. He took subsidies from U.S. taxpayers and refused to pay the $1.2 million he owed for using federal — make that our — land.

Bundy has neither history nor law on his side in his long-running dispute with the U.S. government. He asserts that his grazing rights were established in 1880 when his ancestors settled the land where his ranch sits. By some reasoning understood only by him and his range-war sympathizers, the federal government has no constitutional right to interfere with his grazing cattle.There is a gaping flaw with this argument. As several writers have noted, the Nevada constitution, adopted in 1864 as a condition of statehood, trumps Bundy's right to graze on public land. It says: "That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare, that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States."

Bundy no doubt is pining for the days, which he never actually experienced, when cattlemen could let their herds roam at will on public lands. That changed in 1934 when federal control of grazing was formalized under a law designed to prevent overuse and degradation of the range. The legislation was backed by ranchers (it was drafted by a rancher turned congressman), in part because it made it that much harder for newcomers to get into the business.

The law, the Taylor Grazing Act, gave existing ranchers permits allowing them to run their herds on federal land. In turn, ranchers paid user fees, which were lower than what most private landowners would have charged. Because those fees capture only a bit of the costs of the grazing program, it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy to ranchers of as much as $1 billion a year. Subsequent court rulings clearly established that the law didn't grant ownership rights to ranchers who used federal land.

Bundy's specific complaint dates to 1993, when regulators began a program to protect the endangered desert tortoise. They placed certain grasslands off-limits for grazing, and the government bought out the permits of some ranchers. Among others, Bundy refused to sell and kept grazing his cattle on restricted federal land without a permit.

The fees and fines kept mounting, and Bundy kept losing in court. In 1998, a federal judge permanently barred him from letting his cattle graze on protected federal land.

Finally, agents of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees grazing rights, began rounding up Bundy's cattle to remove them from federal property a few weeks ago. Things got hot when Bundy's family and other ranchers confronted the agents. Wary of the standoff escalating into another Ruby Ridge or Waco — totemic events for some Americans — federal officials backed down and released Bundy's cattle.

Where it goes from here is unclear. But what shouldn't be in dispute is the nature of the conflict. This wasn't a matter of capricious enforcement on the part of the federal government but the steady ratcheting up of pressure on a defiant lawbreaker.

There is no grand principle here, just the poor judgment of a man who has helped himself at the public trough while believing he has a right to pick and choose which laws to obey.

James Greiff is an editor for Bloomberg View.

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