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The Sovereign Citizen Movement’s Challenge to Governmental Consent

By Samuel Richter '20, Staff Writer

· Samuel Richter

Central to the idea of democracy is the belief that the government is guided by the will of the people. The stability of democracies therefore depends on individuals recognizing that their will does not always agree with the will of the people. There may be protests, demonstrations, and criticisms levied at political opponents, but on the whole Democrats recognize the legitimacy of Republican victories, and vice versa. Revolutions and civil wars in democratic countries, therefore, can be understood as mass breakdowns between the government and the will of the people (or between the people’s competing wills). However, revolutions depend on collective action; no single person could compete against an entire government or large segment of the population. In this way, an individual cannot repudiate the will of the people, no matter how repressive it may be. 

What hope, then, does the oppressed individual have of disengaging from the will of the people? According to the Sovereign Citizens Movement, the individual can declare themselves as being completely independent from, and therefore not subject to the rules of, the government. Its followers believe, as sovereign individuals, they can pick and choose which laws to follow. A major tenant of their belief is that taxation is theft, so they opt not to pay it. Additionally, they think that government officials do not have the authority to punish them. As can be imagined, this feeds into violent behavior. The Anti-Defamation League points out that Terry Nichols, an accomplice to the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, was one of the founding members of the movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center likewise identifies anti-Semitism and racism as being central to the movement. For this reason, the Sovereign Citizens Movement has been labeled a hate group and domestic terrorist organization by the FBI and the SPLC. 

There are reasons why the Sovereign Citizens Movement is untenable besides the ugly violence its members display. The first is what is considered “the free rider problem”: the “sovereign” citizens, even if they don’t care to admit it, unfairly benefit from the United States’ infrastructure, economy, and defense without paying for it through taxes. Because nearly every facet of our lives depends on government regulation, an individual cannot say that they do not benefit from the government in one way or another; declaring oneself a sovereign and going off the grid does not change this fact. Additionally, sovereign citizens often justify their behavior by arguing that American common law once recognized self-declarations of sovereignty, and the United States government still recognizes such declarations when worded correctly. Such arguments, of course, rely on nonsensical conspiracy theories: a U.S. civilian could never surrender their citizenship while remaining in the country. There is no legal justification for becoming a “sovereign citizen.”

However, there may be political justification. Put aside the racial and violent foundations of the movement. Ignore the free rider problem and the conspiracy theories. At its core, the Sovereign Citizens Movement is about citizens separating themselves from a government they disagree with. According to the logic of democratic society, this should be warranted. Democratic governments legitimize their power by appealing to Social Contract theory and principles regarding the consent of the governed: the government's use of power is justified because they have the consent of the people. The implication is that a democratic government practices illegitimate power on somebody who does not consent. The “sovereign” citizen expressly rescinds their consent; what justification, then, does the government have for exerting power over the individual?

Of course, it seems like the “sovereign” citizen’s declaration does not matter much if they stay in the country. If the individual truly hates their government, they should leave. Yet, this option doesn’t offer much of a solution to most people: without enough capital and personal connections in a foreign country, an individual will not be able to thrive in this new environment. Besides, immigration depends on cooperation between governments, so the “sovereign” citizen would have to implicitly recognize the legitimate power of the government they dismiss as illegitimate. Instead of immigrating, the “sovereign” citizen can illegally escape to a different country, but that option depends on the goodwill of the foreign country they are escaping to. When the individual is born into a government whose policies they do not agree with – even if that country readily allows for emigration – it is not easy to escape. Additionally, the individual may feel a deep connection to their homeland without feeling loyalty to their government. All considered, the Sovereign Citizen Movement reveals an uncomfortable truth about the United States. Though we like to think that individuals reign supreme in our government, the truth is that the government’s power over us stems less from our consent and more from our being born into it. 

Though the FBI, SPLC, and ADL all make reference to the violent foundations of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, this isn’t why they label the Sovereign Citizen Movement as a hate and terrorist group. Instead, they consider the movement dangerous because they engage in something called “paper terrorism.” The Sovereign Citizen Movement clogs the system with needless lawsuits, nonsensical paperwork, and unpaid taxes and fines. Though these actions certainly place an unfair burden on governmental administration, they should hardly be classified as acts of terrorism. There are no real victims in their nonviolent crimes, at least not immediately. In this way, the acts themselves are not dangerous. However, what the acts represent is extremely dangerous. If America’s democratic government depends on the idea of popular consent, even in times when the will of the people is fractured, then the idea that individuals can opt out of their consent is very dangerous. In other words, the Sovereign Citizen Movement’s declaration represents the possibility of the government being delegitimized. Most of all, the Sovereign Citizen Movement demonstrates that consent-of-the-governed principles are dishonest: if my consent is assumed, and I cannot revoke it, what exactly does my consent really mean?

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