Back in 1978, when the world was young and “Saturday Night Live” was only in its third season, a young comedian named Steve Martin took to the stage and told his audience how to become millionaires and never pay taxes.
“First ... get a million dollars,” he said. “What do [you] say to the tax man when he comes to [your] door and says, ‘You have never paid taxes?’ Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: ‘I forgot!’”
Porter Stansberry, an “investment advisor” with a knack for lining his own pockets, used a slightly different strategy in 2003. When the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) came to his door and accused him of making over a million dollars selling false “inside tips,” the self-aggrandizing financial guru claimed that it was his First Amendment right to tell his subscribers whatever he wanted — even if what he wanted to tell them was, as the SEC put it, “baseless speculation and outright lies.”
The courts disagreed. In 2009, after years of very public litigation, a federal appeals panel upheld the SEC’s charges and fined Stansberry $1.5 million.
Stansberry — who had enjoyed some respect in financial circles and whose First Amendment argument (though not his conduct) was endorsed by respected news outlets who feared the case would set a precedent for punishing the press for publishing incorrect financial analysis — did not take the verdict well.
He did not stop peddling advice — but these days, it’s about more than get-rich-quick schemes. Evidently soured on the government by his brush with the law, Stansberry has turned from scam artist to antigovernment radical, using various Internet publications to mix dubious investment advice with apocalyptic warnings about a coming era of tyranny that will destroy America.
His most recent insight? According to a YouTube video distributed across a multitude of far-right websites and discussed with great seriousness by figures like antigovernment conspiracist Alex Jones, President Obama is planning to overthrown the Constitution, implement socialism, and seize a third term in office.
According to Stansberry, Obama won’t even have to use force to do it. Instead, the president plans to buy his third term with untold profits gained from mining America’s vast shale oil deposits, which will lead to an era of extraordinary prosperity unlike anything America has seen before.
“All of this new wealth,” Stansberry says, “will seem like a gift from the Prophet Muhammad to the administration of Barack Obama.”
And his supporters will eat it up. Once the black gold really starts flowing, Stansberry claims, the president will execute a Hugo Chavez-like power grab, distributing money and favors to friends, cronies, and political allies, who in return will cheer for him in the streets as he seizes an unconstitutional third term — and, possibly, even a fourth — in office. During his reign of terror, Obama will replace America’s market economy with a socialist dictatorship and “punish and tax those who work hard,” using the wealth they create to “buy favors and luxuries for millions of Americans … who have done nothing to earn it.”
America, of course, will be ruined.
Stansberry is not the only ultra-libertarian to promote such ideas. One of his most prominent fellow travelers is Doug Casey, an antigovernment “investment guru” who on Nov. 29 told subscribers to his newsletter that being a taxpayer in America today is analogous to “being a Jew in Germany in the mid-1930’s.”
On the surface, Casey (who often cross-promotes Stansberry’s articles on his various websites and newsletters and who is described by Stansberry as a friend and mentor) seems a cheerful misanthrope, whose breezy manner and self-deprecating wit (he often says Uncle Scrooge McDuck is his hero) is a refreshing change from the pompous grandiosity of his close cousins in the far-right “Patriot” movement.
But scratch that surface and it’s clear that this self-described “anarcho-capitalist,” who in 2009 outlined a plan to privatize a small country and take it public on the New York Stock Exchange, is courting the same audience of government-fearing radicals. Though he puts a fresh face on tired conspiracies and a new spin on old animosities, Casey’s message is the same: The government is your enemy, and if you don’t prepare, it will destroy you.
If you stripped the Patriot movement of its pseudo-legal rhetoric, conspiracist malarkey and allusions to supposed Christian virtue, you’d end up with an ideology much like the one espoused by Stansberry, Casey and their compatriots. Often described as “anarcho-capitalists” or “voluntaryists,” their belief in essence is that government — any government — is by its very nature tyrannical and unnatural. They propose instead an essentially stateless society in which all relationships, economic and otherwise, are voluntary and untaxed. Services like roads and mail delivery would be built and maintained by private entities that would charge market-based fees for those who desired to use them. Government in any recognizable form simply would not exist.
In some respects, Casey and Stansberry’s rhetoric sounds like laissez-faire capitalism taken to its logical extreme. But Casey, Stansberry, and similar ideologues espouse beliefs that are even further out than that.
Mainstream conservatives often allege that the balance between states’ rights and federal power has tipped too far towards the latter, with the federal government exercising powers the framers of the Constitution never dreamed of. But Casey actually believes that the Constitution itself “was essentially a coup.”
Explaining this assertion in the same Nov. 29 newsletter in which he compared being an American taxpayer to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, Casey said: “[T]he delegates to what we now call the Constitutional Convention were not empowered to replace the existing government — only to improve upon the Articles of Confederation between the then-independent states. The framers of the Constitution drafted it with the notion of a national government already in place.”
They “calmed fears of loss of state sovereignty by calling the new government the ‘United States of America’ – a verbal sleight of hand that worked for over half a century. Then the southern states decided to exercise what these words imply, their right to leave the union … and the wrong side won.”
In other words, as Casey sees things, the Constitution and its built-in plan for a national government caused the Civil War.
“I’ve always suspected that U.S. and world history would be different – and better – if those delegates had done as they were told and just smoothed over the rough spots in the Articles rather than replaced them with the Constitution,” Casey explained in an April 2012 article. “Greater independence among the states could have led to more innovation, and I doubt there would have been the unpleasantness of 1861-’65. People with differing ethical values and economic interests would not have been forced to obey the same laws.”
Translation: Confederate partisans — people whose “ethical values and economic interests” included buying, selling, beating, raping and killing other human beings whose skin color happened to be different from their own — were unjustly stopped by overweening federal power that was built into the Constitution from Day One as part of a long-acting stealth coup to steal power from the states.
This is one place where Casey and portions of the Patriot crowd very definitely part ways.
Patriot ideologues tend to revere the Constitution — at least up to the 14th Amendment — as an almost divinely inspired document, and talk about the founding fathers as near-infallible prophets. In some ways, Casey’s pseudo-history of the United States is the political inverse of the one promoted by Christian pseudo-historian David Barton, who contends that the American Revolution was fought to free slaves and that the founding fathers “already had the entire debate on creation and evolution” and chose creationism. Casey, who once described Santa Claus as “God on training wheels” and who jokes about saying grace to Crom, the fictional deity featured in Conan the Barbarian, would not likely get along well with Barton.
Yet in a Venn diagram of antigovernment extremists, Barton is one of the few who would fall clearly outside of the overlap between Casey- and Stansberry-style anarcho-capitalism and Patriot ideology.
The areas of overlap, particularly with the radical “sovereign citizens” movement, are significant – and not unknown to adherents of anarcho-capitalism, or “voluntaryism,” as it is called by some. Carl Watner, who has been publishing a newsletter called “The Voluntaryist” since 1982 and who appears to be the godfather of Casey and Stansberry’s hyper-antigovernment ideology, grapples with many of the same issues that sovereign citizens do.
In a 1994 article titled “Un-Licensed, Un-Numbered, Un-Taxed,” Watner wrote approvingly of what he called “conscientious objectors” (sovereign citizens, as readers of this blog would call them) “who prefer to remain individuals rather than embrace a statist system which licenses, numbers and taxes them in hundreds of ways.”
Watner’s essay focused on the “Embassy of Heaven,” an Oregon-based sovereign citizen group and church that sells fake passports and licenses for so-called “Ambassadors of Heaven.” As Watner explains it, members of the “Embassy” consider themselves to be residents of Heaven and subjects of Christ – and like ambassadors from anywhere, they reason, they are entitled to live within the United States without being subject to its jurisdiction.
Voluntaryists and sovereign citizens are not identical. One difference Watner identified between his approach and that of the Embassy of Heaven “is that the church relies upon the Christian religion as its bulwark in resisting the State.”
Not all sovereign citizens belong to an organization like the Embassy of Heaven, but many do carry licenses identifying them as members of nonexistent nations – a concept Watner does not approve of, as it suggests that people properly ought to carry identification in the first place.
“Whereas the Church says its members are not residents of the state, thus escaping its jurisdiction, the voluntaryist says that the state should have no jurisdiction over any one at all,” he wrote. “The state is a coercive institution, completely at odds with the moral laws that decry thievery, slavery and murder. Evil in any form should not be legitimized, so the voluntaryist refuses to grant validity to the state's claim of jurisdiction, even over residents.”
Still, he managed to find common ground with the “conscientious objectors” of the Embassy of Heaven: “Voluntaryists believe in challenging the state head-on, yet they and other conscientious objectors share a common philosophical insight with the members of the church: might does not make right. The state rests on might: therefore it should be rejected.”
The Embassy of Heaven, therefore, “will then receive our praise for living by the voluntary principle, even if we do not choose to personally endorse it by becoming a member.”
Today, Casey, Stansberry, and other like-minded ideologues continue Watner’s tradition of conceding overlaps between themselves and Patriots, even as clear disparities exists. The two ideologies do appeal to much the same audience – and sometimes, their representatives share the same stage.
At 2012’s “FreedomFest,” for instance, Casey was listed as a keynote speaker together with a plethora of Patriot bigwigs, including Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News personality and 9-11 “truther” who thinks the government was behind the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and G. Edward Griffin, co-author of a popular Fed-bashing tome called The Creature from Jekyll Island. FreedomFest was organized by Mark Skousen, a friend of Patriot ringmaster Glenn Beck and nephew of the late W. Cleon Skousen, a hugely influential figure in Patriot conspiracist circles.
And at “Libertopia 2012,” Casey was a listed speaker along with Larken Rose, a blogger who made news in 2011 with an post titled, “When Should You Shoot a Cop?” which proposed that it is acceptable to kill law enforcement officers if you perceive them to be violating your constitutional rights. Also featured at Libertopia was Ryan William Nohea Garcia, an “ambassador” for the ultra-libertarian SeaSteading Institute, which envisions building custom floating countries in international waters.
Stansberry also has shared platforms with Patriot nabobs. For years, he was a financial columnist for WorldNetDaily, a Patriot-leaning online publication with a theocratic bent that specializes in antigovernment conspiracy theories, end-times prophecy and revisionist histories of the Civil War. And this November, he appeared on the “Alex Jones Show” to promote his prediction about Obama’s supposed secret plan to run for a third term. The same episode featured commentary from Edwin Vieira, a Patriot grandee and militia supporter who in 2005 called for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, saying that the conservative jurist's opinion striking down an anti-sodomy statute “upholds Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law.” Also appearing was Lew Rockwell, a libertarian commentator and blogger with a long history of promoting neo-secessionism and other extreme-right ideologies.
The Patriot movement is noteworthy for its followers’ forceful assertion of the right to bear arms, and form private militias willing to face down tyrannical government forces when the time comes. In contrast, Casey, Stansberry, and their sympathizers make a lot of noise about opposing violence, stressing the need to bring about their desired revolution through education and activism.
But in a 2011 essay titled “The Corruption of America,” Stansberry began to sing a very different tune. “The nation will soon face a choice between heading down the path toward fascism … or turning back the power of government and restoring the limited Republic that was our birthright,” he wrote. “What gives me confidence for the future? Gun sales, for one thing. U.S. citizens legally own around 270 million firearms – around 88 guns per 100 citizens (including children) today. That’s a hard population to police without its consent.”
Sounding very much like his Patriot cousins-in-arms — and very little like a proponent of nonviolent resistance — he continued: “[I]f the government attempts to take our guns … my opinion would change immediately. … But that’s one right the Supreme Court has been strengthening recently.”
“It gives me hope,” Stansberry said, “that most people in America still understand that the right to bear arms has little to do with protecting ourselves from crime and everything to do with protecting ourselves from government.”