Free To Be Deluded

Some strange ideas about freedom and land.

Freedom has always been a powerful rallying cry, and the idea has been routinely appropriated and abused by those seeking converts to their cause. Perhaps because everyone wants to claim it as their own, countless millions of words have been written about it without ever getting close to any sort of agreed definition. Some would say it's more about a feeling than an idea - and for many, the feeling of freedom is connected one way or another with access to land.

This connection is close to the core of what this magazine is all about. So we've been intrigued by the emergence of a curious movement calling itself, among other names, 'Freemen on the Land'. However, apart from wondering what happened to the Freewomen, there are other reasons why we find ourselves unable to lend the 'Freemen' our support. Their ideas about actually getting onto the land illustrate the problem.

Certain editors of The Land sometimes find themselves giving talks on how the planning system deals (or not) with low impact development. Perhaps surprisingly, these can sometimes be quite emotional affairs. As we plough through the minutiae of appeal procedures, functional and financial tests, and how the government has thrown the whole deck of cards in the air with the new National Planning Policy Framework, some understandably frustrated person will often exclaim that engaging with the system is not the way to go, and that surely we should all just tell the authorities to bog off, or words to that effect.

At this point we usually point out that even if you don't go knocking on the council's door, it's quite likely that sooner or later your local planners will come to you. If and when they do, it will help a lot to understand what they're on about. If you then want to tell them to bog off, some ways of doing so are more effective than others. Presumably, we may delicately mention, that's why you came to the talk.

It's also common to encounter cherished myths and misunderstandings, such as the idea that if your house doesn't have foundations it doesn't need planning permission, or that a caravan without wheels is no longer a caravan. Understandably, people are often reluctant to take on board the potentially depressing fact that we live in a society where 'residential use of land' in pretty much any form requires planning permission.

The 'Freemen' however, seem to combine the 'bog off' response and the 'doggedly held myth' one. At one such event, two determined gentlemen in the audience demanded that the speaker should open his closed mind, stop "thinking inside the box", and spread the word that in reality, planners have no power over us at all.

As free human beings, they insisted, we are bound only by common law and never by statute law, including planning law, which is basically an oppressive conspiracy from which we can escape at any time simply by refusing our consent. This, they claimed, means that everyone is in fact free to do whatever they please as long as they respect common law, especially on their own land. To be really safe, they went on, anyone who owns land should go through an arcane legal process to claim 'allodial title', meaning that the Crown no longer has any claim on it and no-one can ever take it away.

There was more, but that's plenty to be getting on with. Unfortunately, of course, none of it was true, or useful. Anyone unwise enough to take this sort of advice would get nowhere. The statutory frameworks of the state still apply to those who refuse to accept their authority - even if they refuse to confirm that they are the person named on their birth certificate.

It might be unpleasant, but the reality is that we're not governed by consent. Law is enforced by the state monopoly of violence. Ultimately, as Mao memorably put it, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. This is not an argument against standing up for what you believe to be right, nor in favour of also resorting to violence. The point is simply to be clear and realistic about the situation.

More specifically, 'common law' is not the same as 'natural law', and it's certainly not a magical get-out-of-jail-free card that you can play to opt out of the system. Statutes and caselaw are layered on top of common law. Nor can you cherrypick legal concepts from days of yore and claim that they invalidate current legislation.

The key test, of course, is whether any of these strategies have ever succeeded. They haven't. Judges can and do throw out incoherent arguments pretty swiftly, sometimes imposing contempt of court fines (or worse) to boot. Sympathetic lawyers concerned at the spectacle of dangerously useless advice being offered to vulnerable people, particularly in debt cases, have repeatedly debunked these confused beliefs. But their patient explanations of the facts have simply been dismissed on the basis that 'all lawyers are part of the system'. Anyone who has ever met a legal aid lawyer working in areas such as immigration, housing or benefits will know what a blinkered claim this is.

The 'Freeman' movement has its origins in misinformation put about by charismatic right-wing libertarian North Americans, in an attempt to profit from the desire of gullible people to get out of paying debts and taxes. It is easy to understand its appeal, but it has little to offer as a way of achieving freedom, and nothing as a way of securing access to land.

The Land is heartily in favour of DIY action, and of principled stands against unjust laws. It is not in favour of people being misled by half-baked wishful thinking. 

Free To Be Deluded
This article originally appeared as 'Free To Be Deluded' in The Land Issue 13 Winter 2012-13