A Note on Magic Words and Secret Formulas

Last Sunday, I was invited to appear as a guest on “Anarchy Time,” an Internet Radio talk show. Three guesses as to the topic. I had a great time and look forward to future appearances, but I’d like to revisit the particular topic that a caller pointed this episode toward.

The caller claimed that it’s not necessary to eliminate the state because those who desire freedom can get what they want by doing what he’s done: Filing paperwork declaring one’s self a “sovereign,” after which one is immune to those depredations of the federal government which violate natural law. The details were kind of fuzzy, but that doesn’t really matter — the idea is of a general type which is worth discussing.

The general type I’m speaking of is the “magic word” or “secret formula” scheme, under which adherents claim that government can successfully be held to a particular interpretation of laws which restrains its powers to those which are “legitimate.”

The particular interpretation and the set of “legitimate” powers varies from theory to theory, but all of the schemes have something in common: They assume that there’s some standard to which government can be held merely by invocation of that standard.

I’m not going to go into the details of these various theories, which run the gamut from “the 14th Amendment created a new type of citizenship, and I’ve declared myself an old-style citizen” to “the 16th Amendment wasn’t ratified” to “this or that section of the tax code proves that I don’t have to pay.”

I’m not going to go into those details because there’s no reason to. The assumption on which all such schemes operate is a false assumption, and therefore all such schemes fail before the details become important.

One of the theories underlying the American system of governance is “separation of powers,” which supporters of the Constitution assert creates a system of “checks and balances” which ultimately serve to secure our liberty. If the President becomes a tyrant, Congress or the Supreme Court can put him in his place. If Congress passes unconstitutional laws, the President can veto them or the Supreme Court can overturn them. If the Supreme Court upholds bad law, Congress can pass better law or the President can appoint wiser judges when vacancies occur.

It’s a nice theory … but one that simply doesn’t describe the real world. In the real world, politicians have more in common with each other than they have in common with those whom they claim to rule. They’ll occasionally limit each others’ power, but only by way of striking a balance of power that leaves them all more, rather than less, powerful … and you a little or a lot less free.

America’s jails and prisons are overflowing with defendants who’ve broken no law which the US Constitution could conceivably be interpreted to authorize.

The obvious example of that is marijuana smokers and dealers. There’s no specific constitutional provision for outlawing marijuana, nor is there any reasonable argument for “original intent” allowing it to be outlawed (George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787 before he presided over the nation that convention created, grew the stuff himself). Yet hundreds of thousands are arrested each year on marijuana possession or trafficking charges.

Another obvious example is prosecution on “gun charges.” The text of the Second Amendment is not unclear, nor is there any serious question as to its original intent — what’s there to misunderstand in “shall not be infringed?” Every last “gun control” law on the books is plainly and irrefutably unconstitutional. And yet gun sales and possession are held hostage to “permit” schemes and “violators” receive long vacations in the Graybar Hotel.

The idea that invoking “the rules” against a government will force it to lie down obediently at one’s feet and accept a leash around its neck is beyond superstitious — it’s foolhardy. There are no magic words. There is no secret formula. The relationship between government and governed is inherently adversarial. Even the most determined efforts to make it otherwise have historically failed (usually sooner rather than later). Appealing vainly to those efforts rather than accepting the reality (that it’s them or you) and acting accordingly is a fool’s errand.

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