13 votes

Secessionism versus sovereign citizens: my inner confusion.

I recently uncovered a seeming inconsistency in my thinking, and I thought I’d air it here for people to discuss.

I support secessionists. If the Catalans want to secede from Spain and form an independent country, good for them. If the New Caledonians want to secede from France and form an independent country, good for them. If the people in Western Australia want to secede from Australia and form an independent country, good for them. I don’t believe anyone should be forced to be governed by a government not of their choosing.

Meanwhile, I don’t support individuals seceding from a country and becoming sovereign citizens (or freemen on the land, as they’re also known). In my mind, this is effectively anarchy: if everyone secedes, then there’s no government and it’s everyone for themselves. I don’t support this at all. I’m definitely pro-government.

However, both these movements share something at their cores:

  • Secessionists are people who refuse to be governed by a government they didn’t choose and don’t want.

  • Sovereign citizens are people who refuse to be governed by a government they didn’t choose and don’t want.

During a conversation today, I realised the inconsistency in my supporting one form of separatism but not the other. I’m okay with a million people seceding from a country, but not a single person seceding. And I can’t find the dividing line, or the principle, which underlies this inconsistency. I know that I believe in government, so a secessionist group must be just that: a group. However, while a group of two million seceding is reasonable, a group of two seceding is just ridiculous.

What are your thoughts? Are secessionists and sovereign citizens effectively the same at the core (or not)? Do you support either or both of these movements? Why or why not?

12 comments

  1. [7]
    Silbern Link
    The problem I've always had with sovereign citizens is that while they proport to want to secede, they continue to draw support and benefits from the society they're theoretically not a part of...

    The problem I've always had with sovereign citizens is that while they proport to want to secede, they continue to draw support and benefits from the society they're theoretically not a part of anymore. They still drive on public roads, they're still protected by a publicly funded military, they're still protected by the legal system of the country in which they live. When a million people succeed, they build and support alternatives to these, and they function independently of their original society, which sovereign citizens don't do.

    That's while I generally support separatist movements (though conditionally, it depends), I don't support the right of individual citizens to exempt themselves from the society in which they continue to live in. You can't build an alternate society as an individual, because, by definition, societies are comprised of many; therefore, the recourse for an individual is to either join other people in creating a new society, or transfer to a different society that is more compatible with that individual.

    22 votes
    1. [5]
      planetJane Link Parent
      This is the right idea. I'll go further even. Not only do Sovereign Citizens / Freemen on The Land not secede from society, they don't have any actual desire to do so. It is purely conspiratory...

      This is the right idea.

      I'll go further even. Not only do Sovereign Citizens / Freemen on The Land not secede from society, they don't have any actual desire to do so. It is purely conspiratory bunk that people either believe in or claim to believe in so they can get out of inconveniences like paying their taxes and things like that. I think the most sympathetic of these people are, at best, very gullible, and invariably they've bought into some huckster's gobbledeguuk.

      I once read a thorough dressing-down by a judge of a sovereign citizen defendant and what stuck with me most was that he said that SCs seem to think that the law works like magic where if you can find the right specific words in the right order you can just make stuff happen. That's not how it works, obviously, but some people trick themselves into thinking it does.

      4 votes
      1. [4]
        frickindeal Link Parent
        I know a man who is very industrious and could be a fantastic businessman if not for his drug use, and his belief in sovereign citizen concepts. He firmly believes that you don't need a license or...

        I know a man who is very industrious and could be a fantastic businessman if not for his drug use, and his belief in sovereign citizen concepts. He firmly believes that you don't need a license or plates to "travel" on public roads; that if you sign your name in red, it doesn't constitute a contract, even if it has the legal requirements of offer, acceptance and consideration; that the Articles of Confederation still apply legally, and "they just don't want you to know that," etc. Because of those beliefs, he's lost his legal right to drive; he's had vehicles and trailers impounded and lost to fees; he's done serious jail/prison time, all because of violating basic laws. I really consider it a shame, because he's the one guy I could call at three in the morning and know he'd come to my aid. A good man with some demons, and some really twisted beliefs.

        1 vote
        1. [3]
          planetJane Link Parent
          Yeah that's the kinda thing I was referring to. That's just depressing. Your pal reminds me of a neighbor I used to have. Real sweet lady for the most part, ended up voting for Trump because she...

          Yeah that's the kinda thing I was referring to. That's just depressing.

          Your pal reminds me of a neighbor I used to have. Real sweet lady for the most part, ended up voting for Trump because she somehow became convinced that he would personally buy all of his supporters a new house. Suffice it to say she was kinda torn up about it a few months post-inauguration when she realized it wasn't happening.

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            frickindeal Link Parent
            Makes me curious what her source was for that information. I'd need a pretty rock-solid guarantee to vote for a guy like that, given what we already knew about him before the election.

            Makes me curious what her source was for that information. I'd need a pretty rock-solid guarantee to vote for a guy like that, given what we already knew about him before the election.

            1 vote
            1. planetJane Link Parent
              I tried asking her at one point but she just said that a good friend of hers had told her. Which might be true, but she's one of them old Pennsylvania Dutch grandma types who has about 10 trillion...

              I tried asking her at one point but she just said that a good friend of hers had told her. Which might be true, but she's one of them old Pennsylvania Dutch grandma types who has about 10 trillion other grandmas she's friends with, so "good friend" could mean almost anyone.

              1 vote
    2. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
      Thank you. I think you and @spctrvl have hit the nail on the head: the difference between the two types of secessionist is the ability to form a self-sustaining society.

      Thank you. I think you and @spctrvl have hit the nail on the head: the difference between the two types of secessionist is the ability to form a self-sustaining society.

      2 votes
  2. spctrvl Link
    I don't think it's necessarily inconsistent, the two cases are very different, key difference being that two million people can form a functional society, separate from its parent society, and two...

    During a conversation today, I realised the inconsistency in my supporting one form of separatism but not the other. I’m okay with a million people seceding from a country, but not a single person seceding. And I can’t find the dividing line, or the principle, which underlies this inconsistency. I know that I believe in government, so a secessionist group must be just that: a group. However, while a group of two million seceding is reasonable, a group of two seceding is just ridiculous.

    I don't think it's necessarily inconsistent, the two cases are very different, key difference being that two million people can form a functional society, separate from its parent society, and two cannot. This leaves the aspiring sovereign citizens with the options of either returning to something more closely resembling a state of nature, or being free riders who reap the benefits of larger society, while not subjecting themselves to the rules, regulations, and financial obligations that allow it to function. Obviously going the latter route is going to make its adherents unpopular, since their quality of life is relying on work done by the rest of us that they refuse to contribute to.

    6 votes
  3. [3]
    tindall Link
    The secessionist movements you mention involve groups of people who used to self-govern a particular area of land and were conquered seeking to regain that independence. With secessionism, "the...

    The secessionist movements you mention involve groups of people who used to self-govern a particular area of land and were conquered seeking to regain that independence. With secessionism, "the aim is to redraw boundaries", specifically "on the basis of an existing claim to independent sovereign status [...] instead of moving out of control of the host state." [1]

    On the other hand, so-called "sovereign citizens" (generally) don't claim to be the rightful rulers of a particular piece of land, oppressed due to forceful occupation; they just don't want to obey the law. This distinction places them firmly in the "separatist" camp, in the sense that they simply demand formal autonomy rather than seeking to establish a claim of sovereignty. [2] In fact, this makes the term "sovereign citizen" seem (as it is) completely meaningless.

    1: Pantazopolous, Panagiotis, "Secessionist Movements: An Analytical Framework" (1995).Honors Theses.Paper 183
    2: Heraclides, Alexis. 1992. "Secession, Self-Determination and Non-Intervention: in Quest of a Normative Symbiosis." Journal of International Affairs 45:399-420.

    5 votes
    1. [2]
      Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
      I've always understood the phrase "sovereign citizen" to mean that the person is sovereign over themself. Just like we can use the phrase "sovereign state" to describe a country that is self-ruled...

      I've always understood the phrase "sovereign citizen" to mean that the person is sovereign over themself. Just like we can use the phrase "sovereign state" to describe a country that is self-ruled (rather than being a colony or territory), we can use the phrase "sovereign citizen" to describe a person who is self-ruled. Actually... now that I look at it... it's the word "citizen" which is meaningless, because they're claiming to not be a citizen of any country.

      That is a good point about some secessionists wanting to rule an area of land while some secessionists don't. That helps. Thanks. However, this reminds me of the Principality of Hutt River, where one man claimed to secede from the Commonwealth of Australia, and ruled his farm as its prince. Was he a secessionist? He claimed to rule an area of land.

      1. tindall Link Parent
        Yes, indeed. Either one is a citizen or one is a sovereign, not both. I think you're right to say that this is what they use the phrase to mean. Unfortunately, this makes no sense, because even...

        Actually... now that I look at it... it's the word "citizen" which is meaningless, because they're claiming to not be a citizen of any country.

        Yes, indeed. Either one is a citizen or one is a sovereign, not both.

        I've always understood the phrase "sovereign citizen" to mean that the person is sovereign over themself. Just like we can use the phrase "sovereign state" to describe a country that is self-ruled (rather than being a colony or territory), we can use the phrase "sovereign citizen" to describe a person who is self-ruled.

        I think you're right to say that this is what they use the phrase to mean. Unfortunately, this makes no sense, because even under a theory which says that people have right to sovereign governance of their own bodies (not, I should say, one to which any modern nation-state subscribes), they do not have the right to do as they please on land ruled by another entity, which is all land, unless they claim to be the ruler of a nation encompassing some land on which they plan to practice their sovereignty, which few do.

        Regarding Leonard Casley, I would say that under the U.N. definitions of the terms, he is not a legitimate secessionist, because he has no "existing claim to independent sovereign status".

        This is admittedly a very restrictive definition and does not gracefully handle the case of non-indigenous repressed groups seeking independence or peaceful splittings of national territory, but then again the U.N. is not particularly concerned with making it easy to change national boundaries, since their whole raison d'etre is the maintenance of the geopolitical status quo.

        1 vote
  4. Sahasrahla (edited ) Link
    Other posters have covered many salient points but I think there are some interesting questions to expand on this. Like you, I support people's right to self-determination and generally think that...

    Other posters have covered many salient points but I think there are some interesting questions to expand on this. Like you, I support people's right to self-determination and generally think that means supporting the rights of democratic secessionist movements. As an example from my own country I support Quebec's right to hold a referendum on independence even though I would prefer for them to stay. However, when I've thought about this issue in general there are some questions that I don't have answers for.

    1. It is ridiculous for a "sovereign citizen" to declare independence, but what about a small town? A single city? Where do we draw the line, and is it just about population size or are there other considerations?

    2. What if the majority want to separate but that's only because of recent migration to the area? There is, for instance, a movement for American libertarians to move to New Hampshire to try to take over state politics. What if their goal went further and they wanted to form an independent anarcho-capitalist nation? If they had the majority, should they be allowed to do that? Does it make a difference if the migration to the area is from long-term citizens, recent immigrants, or people without citizenship?

    3. What if the majority want to remain but that's only because of colonialist policies? If, for instance, the government of an annexed territory encouraged migration from the dominant ethnic group or forcibly removed many of the previous residents. Would it matter if this was recent (within a generation) or further in the past?

    4. What if the residents of an area mostly want to separate to exploit a natural resource to all become rich? Say, if the residents of northern Alberta disliked Canadian climate policy and decided to become an independent petro-state where they extracted as much oil as possible and distributed the profits among themselves.

    5. What constitutes a majority? Is it a simple 50%+1 majority vote, or should it be a "clear majority" and what would that mean?

    Edit: Bit of a tangent but a fantastic book on the potential aftermath of a successful secessionist movement is The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was. I linked a review of the book that's worth reading even if you have no interest in Canadian politics. One thing that really struck me when reading the book was how there really wasn't a unified plan on either side and even on the "yes" (sovereigntist) side the issue of whether or not a "yes" vote meant independence was disputed.

    4 votes