Credit: Illustration by Slug Signorino

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I’ve heard you can avoid paying a tax bill, traffic ticket, or other debt by writing “accepted for value” on it. I understand that’s nonsense, of course. But I’m curious: how is this supposed to work? I’ve always found the theories of tax protestors entertaining—for example, the idea that U.S. income tax is invalid because Ohio was never legally granted statehood. “Accepted for value” seems to be propelled by some similar notion, but I’m damned if I can figure out what it is. The websites I’ve consulted offer a convoluted explanation involving the gold standard and the Uniform Commercial Code, where nothing is what it seems—it’s like reading Heidegger or Leo Strauss. I know it’s all jabberwocky at bottom, but surely there’s some superficially logical thread. —Taylor G.

You’re right, there’s a logic at work here. Granted, it’s logic that only a psychotic can fully appreciate. However, we live in a country where the Supreme Court has interpreted the 14th Amendment, which was intended to protect the rights of former slaves, to mean that corporations are the legal equivalent of humans. Acceptance for value, A4V for short, involves reasoning only marginally more bizarre.

A4V is a core gambit among so-called sovereign citizens, who, depending on whom you listen to, are either homicidal anarchists or upholders of America’s bedrock values. They’re philosophical descendants of the anti-federalists, the losing side in the 18th-century debate over the U.S. Constitution. Briefly put, they deny the power of the centralized state.

The sovereign citizen draws a distinction between a human being and a U.S. citizen, also known as a person. A U.S. citizen, in A4V thinking, is a legal fiction, or “strawman.” It’s to this strawman that all laws apply. As a sovereign citizen, it’s your choice whether the law also applies to you, a creature of flesh and blood.

You’re thinking: These people are crazy. No question there. From their perspective, though, they’ve merely embraced the founding principle of the republic as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence—namely, that the government derives its “just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Did anybody ever ask you if you consented to be governed? Me neither. Sovereign citizens believe that, until such time that you do, you’re a free man, or free woman, as the case may be.

Don’t get me wrong—I understand the concept of representative democracy. Even among the Tea Party crowd I doubt you’re going to find many who think you could run a country in which people could simply choose not to participate in the body politic and thereby exempt themselves from the law. The fact remains that, even in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the consent of the governed is a pious fiction. As a practical matter you play ball or else.

Looked at in that way, sovereign citizenship has a certain crackpot nobility to it, provided you ignore the racist and anti-Semitic aspects. Once you delve into the details, though, you see the whole thing is just crackpot, period. Here’s a rundown:

• Sovereign citizens contend that in presenting you with a tax bill or traffic ticket, the government is simply making you an offer. By responding with “accepted for value” you’re making a counteroffer. If the government doesn’t make a counter-counteroffer, you’re off the hook. This is based on a bizarre reading of the Uniform Commercial Code, which sovereign citizens for some reason regard as holy writ.

• The counteroffer you’re supposedly making is that whatever debt you owe should be charged against the secret account maintained on your behalf by the U.S. Treasury. The premise is that in going off the gold standard in 1933, the U.S. switched from real money to fictional money. As collateral for its worthless cash, the feds pledged the future labor value of U.S. citizens to foreign investors. This value is maintained in the secret account created when you, or rather the fictional person established in your name, receives a social security number at birth. In essence, by writing ”accepted for value” on a debt notice, you’re telling the government to put it on your tab.

• Sovereign citizens believe the legal basis of fictional U.S. citizenship is the 14th Amendment, which created “14th Amendment citizens” under the federal thumb. The feds use tricks such as zip codes to trap the unwary into signing up for 14th Amendment citizenship and its attendant obligations. To avoid this, sovereign citizens write “TDC” next to zip codes, indicating they’re using them only under “threat, duress, or coercion.”

I won’t even get into theories about admiralty law vs. common law, the crucial use of capital letters in legal documents, etc. Rolling our eyes, are we? Now, now. It wasn’t sovereign citizens who dreamed up the idea that the 14th Amendment created fictional persons. It was that hotbed of extremism, the Supreme Court. —Cecil Adams

Have something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at