Federal officials appear to be waiting out Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters.

Two days after a dispute over grazing rights, cattle and $1 million in fees and fines threatened to spin into a Wild West shootout, officials with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) promised they weren’t finished with Bundy.

“The BLM will continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially,” BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement that followed the bureau’s decision to release nearly 400 head of Bundy’s cattle that had been seized as part of a fight over grazing fees…

“They can afford to play the long game,” said McCarthy, who suggested the government could wait six months or longer for its next action.

***

The simmering truce between the Bundys and the Bureau of Land Management comes after high-profile raids last year by armed federal agents on small-time gold miners in tiny Chicken, Alaska, and guitar makers at the Gibson Guitar facilities in Tennessee.

That doesn’t include more subtle threats, such as recent efforts by the Obama administration to raise grazing fees or pressure permit holders to transfer their water rights as a condition of renewal, said Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau.

“Some have called it a culture of intimidation,” Mr. Yates said. “It’s issue after issue, threat after threat. It’s becoming harder and harder to keep those operations in business.”

***

This Wednesday, DeLemus remains in Nevada. He is now running the makeshift “militia” of conservatives protecting the ranch, some of whom are armed with handguns and rifles. DeLemus said about 100 conservative activists are still there, three days after federal agents returned hundreds of cattle they had taken from the ranch.

To DeLemus and these other activists, the Bundy ranch standoff is one of their most important fights yet over what they consider to be an oppressive federal government.

“We are willing to give our lives,” he said in a phone interview…

“Lawlessness,” DeLemus said of the situation. “You look that up in the dictionary, and you’ll see the definition of our government right beside it. They all are. Congress, both houses, and the White House.”

***

He is a squatter, a right-wing version of the dreadlocked freegan who sets up living quarters in an abandoned building in Brooklyn. If everyone did as Bundy does, the concept of property rights would be diminished.

Testing Bundy’s claim is simple. If he has a right to do what he is doing on public land to which he does not have title, then so should you and I. What would happen if a hundred other people each put a hundred head of cattle on the same property? The grass would run out; every animal would, eventually, starve…

That said, Bundy’s truculence has created one positive outcome. It has focused the wider public’s attention on a fact that few in America’s urban centers have to grapple with: that in most of the largest states of the union, an enormous amount of land is publicly owned, and under the control of an alphabet soup of federal agencies…

Bundy has argued that the property under control of the BLM really belongs to the state government of Nevada. This is a dubious argument regarding the law as it is, but as a policy suggestion, it’s not so bad. States have an incentive to make productive use of these lands, and they are closer to the people who those land-use decisions affect. And there are also solid legal arguments for it. As a recent Federalist Society paper has pointed out, it seemed the agreements under which Western states were admitted to the union intended for many of these lands to be turned over to state or private ownership.

***

“The situation in Nevada stands as an example [of] the federal agencies’ steady trend toward elevating environmental and wildlife issues over livestock grazing,” the [“Nevada Cattlemen’s Association] said. “Well-­intentioned laws such as the Endangered Species Act … are being implemented in a way that are damaging to our rights and to our Western families and communities.”

The cattlemen’s group added that ranchers such as Mr. Bundy have had their “backs against the wall as, increasingly, federal regulations have infringed on their public land grazing rights and the multiple-use [land] management principle.”

“This is not only devastating to individual ranching families; it is also causing rural communities in the West to [wither] on the vine,” the group said.

***

“They’re just thieves,” he said.

“Over the last 55 years I’ve watched with an eagle eye, I’ve watched them wipe out thousands of small miners, thousands of small farmers,” he said. “They’ve basically wiped out the family farm.”

The Bundys lost in court because the federal government has held title to the land since 1838. The BLM did not begin managing the land until 1946, when the agency was founded. Believing the agency doesn’t have Nevada’s interest at heart, the Bundys want the land to be ceded to the state, and are hopeful their state government will work to make that happen.

“I think our state elected officials are going to completely take over from here,” Ammon Bundy told the Washington Free Beacon. “And they’re going to protect the people in most areas, and in ones that won’t, they’ll be replaced.”

“We’re gonna get this right,” he said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time, but we’re gonna get it right.”

***

The Obama Administration was not unique, however, in its eager, early, and extended embrace of policies anathema to the American West. On that score it followed the examples of the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both of whom heeded the demands of those President Reagan called “environmental extremists” or “modern-day Luddites.”

In the late 1970s, Carter’s “War on the West” spawned the Sagebrush Rebellion, which Governor Reagan welcomed by saying, “I am a Sagebrush Rebel.” Reagan, as governor of California, a vast public-lands state (nearly half is federally owned), knew what most Americans do not; that the federal government owns a third of the country. Most of that land is in the eleven western States and Alaska. In rural western counties, Washington owns upward of 60, 70, 80, and even 90 percent of the land…

Little wonder that there is talk of another Sagebrush Rebellion, that Utah has passed enabling legislation to secure title to federal lands it needs for its citizens, an effort in which other States have joined to one degree or another, and that legislation proposed by Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to sell 3.3 million acres of federal land deemed by the Clinton Administration as “suitable for disposal” was reported out of committee…

Westerners know they could do better.

***

The underlying assumption of our belief in the rule of law is that we are talking about law in the American tradition: provisions that obligate everyone equally and that are enforced dispassionately by a chief executive who takes seriously the constitutional duty to execute the laws faithfully. The rule of law is not the whim of a man who himself serially violates the laws he finds inconvenient and who, under a distortion of the “prosecutorial discretion” doctrine, gives a pass to his favored constituencies while punishing his opposition. The rule of law is the orderly foundation of our free society; when it devolves into a vexatious process by which ideologues wielding power undertake to tame those whose activities they disfavor, it is not the rule of law anymore…

When law becomes a politicized weapon rather than a reflection of society’s shared principles, one can no longer expect it to be revered in a manner befitting “political religion.” And when the officials trusted to execute law faithfully violate laws regularly, they lose their presumption of legitimacy.

***

If we are to have the rule of law, then, by all means, let’s have the rule of law: Shut down those federal subsidies and IRS penalties in states that did not create their own exchanges under the Affordable Care Act — the law plainly does not empower the federal government to treat federal exchanges identically to state exchanges. And let’s enforce the ACA’s deadlines with the same scrupulosity with which the IRS enforces its deadlines. Let’s see Lois Lerner and a few hundred IRS employees thrown in the hole for their misappropriation of federal resources, lying to Congress, etc. — and let’s at least look into prosecuting some elected Democrats for suborning those actions. And if you want to get to the real problem with illegal immigration, let’s frog-march a few CEOs, restaurateurs, and small-time contractors off to prison for violating our immigration laws — and they can carry a GM product-safety manager and a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration executive under each arm. Let’s talk about enumerated powers.

Tell you what: We can have a nice, interesting debate about the rule of law — but not while Lois Lerner is at large and Charlie Rangel is a prominent feature of public life. Not until a guy who owns a car lot in Waxahachie gets the same deal on his back taxes that Tim Geithner did. But I have the strangest feeling that a great many residents of Washington would not fare especially well under any robust interpretation of the rule of law. It all makes you not want to think too hard about the fact that President Obama has ordered the assassination of more than one U.S. citizen with no obvious legal authority for doing so.

Cliven Bundy may very well be a nut job, but one thing is for sure: The federal government wouldn’t treat a tortoise the way it has treated him. Harassing a tortoise is a federal offense. But harassing the country? That’s federal policy.

***

That there is a point beyond which the state may not advance without expecting legitimate pushback is acknowledged by even the most committed of the state’s enablers. Indeed, this principle is baked into America’s instruction manual — albeit with a caveat. “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive,” the Declaration reads, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” But it also chides the hotheaded among us, inviting us to remember that “prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes.” As far as we know, Bundy is not set on starting a revolution. (Although any shots fired would, certainly, have been heard around the world.) But then he isn’t set on civil disobedience as we understand it, either. There is a compact that governs disobedience, and it might be said to follow an old Spanish proverb: “Take what you want but pay for it.” Bundy did not ready himself for prison in order to make a point, but hoped that his obstinacy would lead to a direct change in policy with no consequences to himself. He wished, in other words, to win — nothing more, nothing less. That, in a vacuum, his winning looks good to limited-government types such as myself remains beside the point. If he can opt out, who cannot?

Setting out to make “the case for a little sedition,” my colleague Kevin Williamson ended up making a whole lot more, relying for his rhetorical firepower on wholesale revolutionaries Mohandas Gandhi and George Washington — men, lest you forget, who succeeded in bringing down the existing order in its entirety. “Mr. Bundy’s stand should not be construed as a general template for civic action,” Williamson writes, thereby demonstrating the problem rather neatly: When you change the government, you do not need to worry about setting a precedent; when you merely disobey it, you are setting yourself above a system that remains in force. Respectfully, I would venture that Williamson is here suggesting that he is to be the arbiter of legitimate rebellion — a peculiar position for a libertarian concerned with the integrity of the political process to adopt…

As government expands and civil society retreats, bad laws pile atop bad laws, and the cause for dissent is magnified and deepened. Cliven Bundy has been dealt a raw hand by a system that is deaf to his grievances and ham-fisted in its response. But this is a republic, dammit — and those who hope to keep it cannot pick and choose the provisions with which they are willing to deign to comply.

***

***