By Colin McRoberts
Would you like to stop paying taxes? Just renounce your 14th Amendment United States citizenship and claim ownership of the secret cestui que (beneficiary) trust that the US government created in your name on the day that you were born. Credit card debt? No problem, the trust is flush with millions or billions of dollars that you can use, just as soon as you establish ownership of your verified birth certificate and the corporate entity that has your name – but in all-capital letters.
These are some of the claims advanced by the self-styled experts who insist that everything you know about the legal system is wrong. These days, we are distressingly familiar with alternative, conspiracy-theory versions of science and medicine. Less well-known is the legal version of this phenomenon, not as visible as creationism or anti-vaccine activism but in many ways as destructive. Just ask the residents of Harney County, Oregon, who recently saw militants occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge emboldened by ‘judges’ and ‘citizen grand juries’ who had less to do with actual law than fantasy football does with the US National Football League.
Pseudolaw resembles pseudoscience in both its methods and applications. Believers are typically intelligent and motivated, and capable of constructing complex edifices that sound superficially credible. A talented snake-oil salesman pitches miracle cures based on things such as DNA and nutraceuticals; likewise, pseudolegal gurus deal in tax relief or other schemes based on similarly serious-sounding concepts such as jurisdiction and legal personhood. Either way, believers feel more in control over forces that otherwise make them feel powerless – illness or the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), for example.
A typical pseudolegal scheme promises to help you avoid ever having to pay taxes by invoking some obscure legal principle, such as the (false) belief that the IRS has authority only over employees of the federal government, or that spelling your name in all-capital letters means the government can’t put you on trial. The application of these ideas typically involves complex rituals such as using precise punctuation and lowercase letters when writing your name (‘john-stephen :smith’) or putting particular stamps and endorsements on your birth certificate. Dubious but serious-sounding Latin is usually involved. Some pseudolegal gurus charge steep fees to teach these concepts; other true believers put them online for free.
Picture: Tim Evanson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons