Very simple. A citizen has rights, a subject has privileges.
Some believe that one can be free in a monarchy, if the laws are structured properly. That in fact, their societies can be more free than more democratic ones, because the head of state can overrule any law that would violate the freedoms of the people.
Others believe that since no government, no matter how it is structured, can be depended upon to not vote itself more power, more money, and more control; that anarchy is the solution, and in fact only under anarchy can people be free.
I have to make clear, both of these thoughts are entirely mistaken.
There is no monarchy, even a constitutional monarchy, where the people are truly free. It comes down to the difference between a citizen, and a subject.
There is no way that anarchy can exist without the weak becoming subject to the strong.
It is as citizens, participating in a free state, where we are subject to none but ourselves, but where we are citizens bound by justifiable laws, that we are most free as a people.
As individuals we may be more free under anarchy for a time, but as a people, the strong will dominate the weak, and our society as a whole will suffer for it, as will each individual member within it eventually; But that's a second order effect that anarchists don't tend to see. They don't follow their argument to its eventual end.
It all comes down to the difference between a citizen, and a subject.
Even though our government has overreached greatly, and grown into the monster it is today, we are still at core free men, different from almost all others in this world.
Taking as an example Britain; as a subject of the queen, technically speaking you don't have any rights, you have whatever privileges the queen allows you.
Though the royals haven't ruled that way since the early 19th century, and their absolute control was curtailed by the manga carta, and again after the failed republic (and the somewhat disastrous but thankfully short Stewart restoration) the freedoms of the British peoples are entirely a matter of tradition, not of law.
Britain is often referred to as a constitutional monarchy, but this isn't actually true. There is no written guarantee of either the limitation or structure of government, nor of the rights of the people.
Britain is governed according to the principle of common law, where tradition and precedent are the primary means of enforcing structure and shaping legislation; but that's all there is. The only real limitations as to what parliament can or cannot do are tradition, prior acts of parliament (which can always be changed or repealed), or the will of the crown.
Americas governmental structure is radically different. In America we have a constitution which defines the form, and structure of our government, and very strictly limits how that government can restrict our liberty as free men. The constitution itself makes explicitly clear that the governments powers are limited, and that power rests in the people.
We are not subject to anything, or anyone but ourselves, as free sovereign men.
As free men, we have no obligation to comply with laws, or regulations that are unconstitutional.
Sure, there are situations where folks disagree(or pretend to disagree) about what the constitution says, or how it says it, or what it means. Here's the thing: Nuance and subtlety are not in the language of the constitution.
Let me say this again, there is no nuance in the language of constitution. If you think there is read the federalist papers for reinforcement. The constitution was written quite plainly. There is without a doubt both subtle and profound genius in the concepts of the constitution, but it's only because it is written in 18th century high cant that anyone can legitimately see any ambiguity. Again read up, you'll figure it out.
Of course lots of folks pretend, or convince themselves there's real ambiguity, but they are either mistaken or they are lying.
Oh and the spot in the constitution that says we shouldn't follow any laws that are not explicitly authorized by the constitution?
Well you can't get more explicit than the 10th amendment:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.Not surprisingly, that ones not too popular among legislators, liberals, or far right conservatives, because it very clearly states they aren't allowed to make any law they want to.
The government cannot under any circumstances make law that is unconstitutional. If they do so that law is not legal, valid, or binding.
In most countries, you are only allowed to do what the government lets you. Almost all countries in the world other than the U.S. are like this (even Australia, the second freest country in the world).
In America we can do anything we like, so long as it is not specifically limited by the government, and the government can only restrict us in ways that are in the constitution. That's a pretty radical concept, and when it was first instituted, it had never been tried before. In fact everyone predicted it would fail quite spectacularly. Instead, some 230 years later (I'm from Boston, we remember the revolution started on April 19th 1775, not July 4th 1776), we have the most stable and long lasting government since the roman empire.
Of course the government has taken upon itself to intrude, and to regulate far more than the constitution explicitly allows, both for good and for ill.
The vast majority of federal law and regulations flow from a few basic statements in the constitution, which I'll paraphrase here: The federal government has the authority to promote the general welfare, secure the peace, negotiate with foreign powers, make war, ensure the full faith and credit of articles (licenses, marriages etc...) between the states, to resolve disputes between the states, and to promote and regulate interstate commerce.
The problem lies with that last one, promoting and regulating interstate commerce. It's a pretty vague clause, ad it can (and has) be stretched to encompass almost anything. This isn't really in the constitution as such, but if a judge allows it...
As our government was conceived, the states were for most purposes their own independent entities. The states had all the power to tax, and control of all laws and jurisdictions within their states, except in matters that would conflict with other states, or with the constitution. The federal government had EXTREMELY limited power and authority.
Even up until the early 20th century, the average citizen in America would have no contact or interaction with the federal government in any way their entire lives, except perhaps through the military, or during wartime.
Then, as a result of the growing tensions between the states, and several wars, there were a series of rulings by the supreme court in the 19th and through the early 20th centuries that were very questionable as to their constitutionality, but very clear in their intent to grant the federal government ever increasing authority and control.
During and just after the civil war the president and the out of control congress did many things that were blatantly unconstitutional. They also packed the supreme court with justices that would allow them to do so, or simply ignored, or didn't allow to go to court, issues they didn't like. After restoration things calmed down significantly (though not back to where they were before).
It wasn't until World War 1 that the federal government laid any sort of regular permanent tax on citizens. In fact their authority to lay this tax was successfully challenged (several times), and they had to pass a constitutional amendment to get the right to re-institute it.
The last straw as it were for our original intended system of federal government was Franklin Roosevelt, who used the circumstances of the great depression to multiply the size, and power of the government by quite literally a factor of 10. Before 1934 most people never heard or saw the feds in their entire lives, afterwards, the feds became the dominant force of government eventually relegating the states to near irrelevance.
This continued apace through the second world war, then Korea, and into the 60's; until by the time Lyndon Johnson was done, the federal government was over 20 times the size it had been before 1934, for a less than doubled population. In this time frame the number of federal laws and regulations expanded to over 1000 times it's original size.
Almost all of these things were in fact unconstitutional, but they were done while the country was reeling through 40 years of continuous crises; from the great depression through the cold war. Anyone who challenged the government during this time was totally marginalized as a cook, or their point was acknowledged and ignored because "these things have to be done for
By the time anyone thought to mount serious challenges, there was a huge bulwark of time and precedent surrounding the changes, and we've been trying to chip it down ever since. Anyone who has protested too vigorously has been declared crazy, made illegal, harassed, or even been killed (Randy Weaver was a racist POS, but he was deliberately targeted for being anti-government, and what they did to his family is wrong in every way).
Meanwhile the sheep continue to munch away; but even with all this intrusion, we are still free men, subject to none but ourselves.
A very graphic, and simple illustration of the structural differences between America and Great Britain, and what that means, to be free, and not be a subject:
In America all elected officials, and all military officers and enlisted men swear an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States. They do not swear to the president, or even to the constitution. They swear, to THEMSELVES, and to their fellow men, that they will uphold the code that is the constitution.
In Great Britain elected officials and military officers serve at the pleasure of her majesty, and officers commissions are granted by her majesty. Each man swears his oath to the sovereign, who he is subject to. He is not a free man, but a subject.
All prison sentences and court decisions are at her majesties pleasure as well. The final recourse of justice is in all cases a petition of right, which supersedes all courts, where one directly appeals to her majesty for a decision, and that decision has the force of law.
So here's where we stand. The British, most liberals, anarchists, and some conservatives seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding, and make some improper assumptions about American government.
The British are subjects. They have been raised as subjects, and do not perceive how any government can be any other way. They are bewildered by our talk of unconstitutional law, and limitation of government, or of the thought of disobeying the law not being wrong, or not being a crime.
So are many liberals. They have the mentality of subjects.
Anarchists believe that one cannot have any government without being a subject.
We are not subjects, we are citizens. We do not have privileges granted us by the government, we have rights inherent to our nature as men.
A subject is required to obey all laws propagated by those he is subject to. A citizen is able, and perhaps morally required to disobey, and in fact to actively resist all laws that infringe against his fundamental rights.
A subject is raised to believe that government is ultimately in power. A citizen knows that it is himself, and his fellow men who are in power, and he is answerable to none but his own soul.
Liberals want us all to be subjects. I wish to remain a citizen, and I will die before I am made a subject.
From the declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
--That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.