Freeloaders on the Land

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Lecture date: Sun, 2nd Feb, 2014
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The Freemen on the Land (FOTL) ideology is based on risible misinterpretations of legal concepts which are employed in the hope of giving the follower immunity from the law. Freemen beliefs change over time due to the conspicuous failure of their arguments in court, but the following ideas are typical.

Freemen believe that statute law has no power over them unless they give their explicit consent. They believe that the only law that everybody is obliged to obey is what they call ‘common law’, which normally refers to case law but in the minds of Freemen is actually closer to ‘natural law’ or ‘universal law’. Their conception of common law bears some resemblance to a crude version of John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’ in that it says that the only real crimes are to directly harm another person or his property. Beyond these limitations, the individual is free to do whatever he likes. Freemen not only believe that the law should operate on this principle, but that it does operate on this principle. They think that statute law has no force and that a vast legal-political-corporate conspiracy tricks people into consenting to statutes in crafty and subtle ways.

The belief that most law is based on personal consent leads Freemen to see legal issues in terms of contract law. If there is no contract, they will not obey. They regard the government, the police force and other state institutions as corporations and view courts as places of business. For reasons that are not entirely clear, they also think that courts mischievously practice maritime law— as we shall see, Freemen are strangely drawn to the ocean.

An important strand of FOTL thinking is the belief that there is a distinction between a person as a legal entity and a person as a human being. They refer to the former as a ‘legal fiction’ or ‘straw man’ while the latter is a man or woman ‘of flesh and blood’. Since the former has all the obligations while the latter has all the rights, they wish to discard the legal fiction and live as freemen on the land, paying no tax and ignoring laws as they see fit. However, they fear that the legal conspiracy is constantly attempting to get them to admit that they are their ‘legal fiction’. In Freemen mythology, any such admission creates ‘joinder’ and therefore consent (in fact, ‘joinder’ means bringing multiple charges, or multiple defendants, together in one court case).

Are Men and Women Made of Straw or Flesh and Blood?
Freemen efforts to distance themselves from the ‘legal fiction’ are childishly simplistic. Most commonly, they involve making minor amendments to their name or using meaningless punctuation. For example, I might describe myself (a man of flesh and blood) as ‘christopher of the family snowdon’ or ‘the man commonly known as christopher’ or christopher john:snowdon. In Freemen mythology, my legal fiction’s name is CHRISTOPHER SNOWDON (all in caps). This rests on the (incorrect) belief that people’s names are always put in capital letters in birth certificates and legal documents. Freemen are keen to avoid the use of capital letters for fear of creating ‘joinder’.

When, as frequently happens, Freemen find themselves in court, they will go to great lengths to deny who they are. Since they refuse to employ lawyers (thinking them part of the conspiracy) they will often represent themselves while talking about themselves in the third person. For example, I would say “I am christopher-john of the family snowdon representing the legal fiction that you call CHRISTOPHER SNOWDON.” Other unusual behaviour that they think prevents the court having authority over them includes not standing when the judge enters the court, not fully entering the dock and claiming common law jurisdiction. They will repeatedly ask the judge if he is acting under his oath and will endlessly repeat phrases they have heard in TV courtroom dramas (such as “for and on the record”) in the hope that the use of quasi-legal verbosity will make the judge take them seriously.

Freemen put great value on their time and frequently issue apprehending officers with ‘fee schedules’ which declare that the official will be invoiced for thousands of pounds per hour for the privilege of talking to them. Similar demands are sent to the courts, often demanding payment in gold or silver coins (Freemen are suspicious about fiat currencies). In at least one instance, a Freeman has demanded $100 million (Canadian) to reproduce his name in print. They do not recognise the irony of making these demands without the other party’s consent.

Lawful rebellion Insofar as FOTL beliefs are based on evidence, two documents are most frequently cited. It is doubtful whether many practitioners have read, let alone understood, either. The first is Article 61 of Magna Carta. This clause, which was repealed three months after King John signed it in 1215, gave 25 barons the right to overrule the monarch. For reasons that defy explanation, Freemen believe that this clause gives them the right to enter what they call ‘lawful rebellion’. Lawful rebellion typically involves the Freeman creating and signing what he (mistakenly) calls an ‘affidavit’ in which he ‘officially’ announces that he will no longer obey statute law and has instead sworn his allegiance to the Queen, the (fictional) Baron’s Committee or some other authority. Some Freemen will inform the DVLA that they have revoked their driving license since they do not believe they need permission to ‘exercise your right to travel’.

In a further twist of logic, they think that ‘register’ means ‘hand over to’ and therefore believe that registering their car with the DVLA means giving it to the government. By revoking their licence, they believe that they are reclaiming their property. Similarly, they believe that registering a birth means handing over one’s child to the government (which is exchanged for a ‘berth’ certificate— another nautical reference). Most peculiarly of all, some Freemen think that the government uses its own people as collateral to borrow money and that the birth/berth certificate is some sort of bond which can be exchanged for a large pot of gold.

The Cestui Que Vie Act of 1666 is the other legal document that has somehow assumed enormous importance in the Freemen belief system. This brief piece of legislation simply states that a person missing at sea is assumed to be dead after seven years. No reasonable person could interpret it in any other way, and yet Freemen believe that it means that the government assumes everybody to be dead from the age of seven (or some variation thereof) and has taken possession of their person and/or property. Since the Act was passed in the same year as the Great Fire of London, Freemen mythology has been embellished with the claim that the Act was passed at the height of the blaze and that the Great Fire was an early example of the ‘false flag’ attacks that are so beloved of conspiracy theorists.

‘Legal Numerology’
FOTL been described as ‘legal numerology’. Time and again, Freemen misinterpret not only legal terms but simple English words. They believe that ‘legalese’ is more than a slang term for long-winded legal texts but is an actual language. They think that the dock in a court has some nautical significance. They believe that words such as ‘consent’, ‘contract’, ‘control’ and ‘consequence’ are all derived from the word ‘con’ (which, of course, is actually a shortened form of ‘confidence’). They are suspicious of any word ending in ‘- ship’, such as citizenship, because of the maritime connotation of the suffix. They think that a summons is an invitation, a demand is an offer and ‘must’ means ‘may’. They also think that ‘understand’ means ‘stand under’ (ie. obey). This leads to rapidly escalating problems for Freemen when they receive a summons or a tax demand, or are asked by a policeman if they understand that they must get out of their car.

The origins of many of these misconceptions are mysterious. Others can be explained by the FOTL’s reliance on—and misreading of—Black’s Law Dictionary. Black’s is now in its ninth edition and only applies to US law, but British and Canadian Freemen nevertheless rely on the second edition, published in 1910. Their use of a 104 year-old legal dictionary from an irrelevant jurisdiction can only be explained by its open access availability online. It contains no laws, only definitions, such as its definition of the word ‘driver’ as “one employed in operating or conducting a coach, carriage, wagon or other vehicle”. Misunderstanding the meaning of the word “employed” in Black’s, Freemen sometimes tell traffic police that, contrary to all appearances, they are not driving a car because they are not being paid to do so. They insist that they are merely travelling in an automobile, for which they believe they need no insurance, tax disc, licence or MOT.

Needless to say, this sort of gibberish gets short shrift in a court of law. Numerous videos on Youtube (filmed by associates of Freemen) are entertaining testimonies to the failure of FOTL ideas when it matters. For most who dabble in this way, the outright rejection of their Freemen defence in court is sufficient for them to reconsider their beliefs, but there have been cases of gullible or arrogant individuals turning trivial offences (typically motoring offences or non-payment of council tax)into prison time. The wheels of justice turn slowly and Freemen can spend a year or more believing that victory is just around the corner before the hammer finally falls. For the most hardened believers, even a gaol term is not enough to make them lose faith in FOTL. Instead, they blame the judge and the police for not knowing the law and cite their imprisonment as evidence that, as ‘roger of the family hayes’ put it after serving 21 days, “We’ve basically got a judicial system now that’s very scared of us because they know that we know what going on.”

The financial limits on FOTL Growth
There is much about the FOTL movement that is comic, but there is a serious side when Freemen gurus sell their services to hapless clients who are frequently desperate and/or mentally unwell. They advertise ways to ‘get out of debt free’ and their ideas have found pockets of support amongst both the political far-left and far-right as well as amongst those who have no coherent political beliefs. According to one estimate, there are 30,000 self-described Freemen on the Land in Canada where they have been clogging up the courts to such an extent that Judge J. D. Rooke wrote a comprehensive and witty 200 page document in the hope of debunking their nonsense once and for all (Organised Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments, Meads versus Meads: 2012).

In my view, FOTL lacks the potential to become a truly mass movement because the private cost of being a practising believer is too great. Those who believe that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’ or that the moon landings were faked do not generally pay a price for their irrationality. The worst that will happen is that they might suffer ridicule, but several conspiracy theories are sufficiently popular for ridicule to be avoided in many social circles. FOTL beliefs, on the other hand, will lead to bankruptcy and imprisonment if followed through in the way the guru recommends. Unlike the average conspiracy theorist, the Freeman must pay a heavy price for being wrong. These private costs limit the number of active participants even if it does not prevent people believing FOTL ideas in theory (while encouraging others to put them to the test). Freemen arguments have never succeeded in court and it must become clear to even the most wide-eyed disciple that the judge is utterly unmoved by them. Although there are no signs of the FOTL movement disappearing completely, the cost of irrationality imposes a limit on its growth potential.

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Human Rights, Moral Philosophy & Ethics, Philosophy of Science

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Christopher Snowdon is director of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. His research focuses on lifestyle freedoms, prohibition and policy-based evidence. He is an occasional contributor to City AM and Spiked, and regularly appears on TV and radio discussing social and economic issues. Snowdon’s work encompasses a diverse…