Saturday, February 19, 2022

Sovereign Citizen

Update below.

I associate this movement with a sort of extreme libertariansim. and therefore suspect we have more than our share here in NH. The Free State movement eventually chose to come here. They elect some officials and have a festival every year in Lancaster.  I've never been to it, but I've been to the area a few times, even though it is up at the top of the state. 

I have heard lots of folks down in Concord grumble about the Free Staters, called Porcupines, but I haven't seen much actual problem with them. It's pretty obvious that a group of people committed to moving and settling on the basis of politics alone are going to include a higher percentage of cranks, but I haven't actually heard of much in the last 20 years. The news outlets are usually eager to make the connection if anyone doing something foolish or irritating is associated with the Free Staters in any way, but that's not the same thing.

I didn't know any among my patients or the staff in almost two decades, if that means anything.

But sovereign citizens are a different matter. They are making a quite distinct philosophical argument from actual libertarians. They are hangers-on. Free staters do not deny that they are citizens of an area and that the government has authority.  They argue instead that governments arrogate to themselves too much authority and should be curtailed.  They are seldom anarchists, though anarchists sometimes try and wrap themselves in a libertarian mantle for legitimacy. Sovereign citizens insist that the place that they were born and the place that they live are unimportant accidents, and not binding in any way upon their behavior. They are "citizens" of themself only. 

The opinion draws strength from its superficial reasonableness.  So you were born in Vermont.  So what? That is mere happenstance and does not give the State of Vermont, or the City of Montpelier, or the United States of America any necessary hold on you. One can easily step back from our usual assumptions and think Hey yeah, I never thought of it that way. Mere existence does not obligate us to anyone. Just because a government says they have authority over me doesn't make it so. I'd just as soon be independent of that, and why not? 

A trapping game in which every possible reason for the state to have authority is easily shot down, often by mere denial. Nope, nope, and nope.

Yet the refutation of this comes from the other direction, bottom up not top down.  Our relationship to the rest of human society, somehow, somewhere, is so deep and profound that it is difficult to express (at first) because it is so automatic.  You would not exist without the human society of at least two people, likely many more as auxiliary help. You hear, understand, and speak. Those are utterly dependent on your having grown up among humans somewhere. It is not a question of learning values and loyalties - it is a question of learning anything at all. Your personality and the very abilities by which you argue that you belong to no one derive from all those no ones you deny.

If a person has no known history and appears in town unaccompanied and without reference to any known person, they might insist that they have no date of birth, because they don't know that date and the town can produce no evidence for February 19, or June 21, or October 31 as a date which you must be assigned to. Yet even if it is entirely unknown to any living soul, the individual does have a date of birth. In the absence of exact knowledge, it is reasonable to arbitrarily assign on of the 366 possibilities and call it a day. 

You did not clear the land of dangerous fauna and inconvenient flora.  You did not discover what can be eaten and what not. If it is arbitrary which place you belong to, fine. Wherever you choose to be has some claim on you.  We might argue about the extent and details, but entering into a society binds you to it.  If you live alone in the wilderness then your ties may be attenuated and not noticeable in the ordinary course of the day. But that does not make them nothing, try as you may. Paradoxically, if you enter into such an arrangement, even if unwritten and unspoken, then you have adopted some of its rules. Notably, you also cannot ask very much of others either. You cannot ask that they defend you from criminals, or invaders, or poisons, or diseases. This initially seems like no big deal.  But that distant network of obligations creeps in in so many ways.

You will find when dealing with such folks - and I did have patients drawn from that pile - that they try to evade the obvious by redefinitions of terms in bizarre fashion. They will insist that invented and artificial distinctions have great meaning, in the same way the tax protestors insist that your name typed in all caps is somehow different from what we think of as the name that identifies you. It is the typical reasoning of conspiracy theorists, such as the insistence that the 13th amendment is not valid because the notification was not quite the way they think proper over a century ago.  That everyone involved accepted it as a mere slip and unimportant they regard as being of no account. They have found the technicality, the secret combination that undoes it all!  Look on me and despair! As Chesterton said, the madman is not one who has lost his reason, as we commonly say, but one who has lost everything else.

Recently, there is this animation

A few years ago, there was this hearing.  The hearing officer is known to you, as he is a sometime commenter here, and his daughter an even more frequent commenter. They are both known to me for many years.


I would not encourage that you watch the whole two hours, even though poor Mike had to sit through it. However, sampling here and there should give you a flavor of what happens when a small group of people who are absolutely sure they have the goods on everyone else because they know overlooked technicalities, haha! increasingly unravel as their supports are patiently removed, one by one.  They were fortunate to have someone like Mike, who has an obsessive quality and need to get it right sufficient to be interested in looking up such things as what the "wheat and tares constitution" is, to see if it might indeed have some bearing on the issue.  Few would bother. 

I have noted before that religious cults often work by redefining common religious terms in order to confuse.  Sovereign citizen reasoning is much the same.

Update from correspondence: There is flexibility at the edges, as with most things.  If one is a visitor one has the obligations of a guest, which can vary, while retaining the practices and values of where one is "really" from.  If you are in exile, you likely assign some authority to both places, and those can be in tension. The place you are "really" from may no longer exist, yet you continue as well as you can. One might even be in rebellion against a place and not follow its authority.  Yet even to do that, you must have an idea of what is legitimate authority you are working from - a place you are from, however theoretical. One can pretend to be from nowhere - one of my sons has spent a third of his life in three different countries - but belonging to a place is then merely mixed and confusing, not nonexistent.



Grim said...

I've been thinking about this post for several days. I don't have encounters with 'sovereign citizens,'* but the ideology you describe has a lot of things in common with more powerful ideologies. The idea that one is not bound by a natural loyalty to 'one's people' is at the heart of the elite model in which citizenship is not treated as being of special importance; e.g., in New York City they are now allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections. The same people think it is fine, or even praiseworthy, if a vast number of noncitizens enter the country -- and indeed, whether or not they obey the existing laws of the nation in conducting that entry.

This transcending of national citizenship is part of a general idea that transcending traditional boundaries is a good thing. One is encouraged to transcend sex and gender boundaries; not to feel any special loyalty to your hometown, but to move where the work is (Kevin Williamson wrote about how he hopes that the small town/rural parts of America will die, and people will just move from their churches and communities to more economically vibrant areas). Wherever you were born, you can leave those people and go somewhere else -- conveniently providing cheaper labor for the local factory owners. Whatever you were born as, you can leave it behind as well, being bound neither to the demos nor the nation nor the physical facts of one's own incarnation.

In the process they not only leave behind centuries of moral philosophy, including the whole Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions of morality, but also an obvious source of human meaning and belonging. It's a cold, lonely world they are building that takes no thought of human nature, or even of recognizing that we have a nature that must be considered if we are to flourish and be happy.

* I do find the name 'sovereign citizens' annoying because it causes problems for discussing real citizenship's relationship to national sovereignty. Citizens -- at least according to the Declaration of Independence -- exercise the sovereign function of deciding when an existing government needs replacement. This is most often done via elections, but (again, per the DoI) sometimes entails casting off an old, corrupted form of government and then designing a new one -- 'setting new guards for their future security.' The fact that this power is entrusted to 'the People' rather than to some elite or to some king is the way in which we know that this is a form of 'government by the many' rather than 'by the few' or 'the one' on Aristotle's model. Thus, the assignment of this sovereign function to the citizenry is of crucial practical and philosophical importance.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That's good stuff, Grim, following threads I had not. Frankly, I was surprised you had not weighed in earlier! It seems right up your alley, at the intersection of rights and duties both theoretical and practical.