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Does this look like a United States coin to you? Federal prosecutors said it did and called it a counterfeit.

I don’t see the similarity. It’s too pretty in the first place and in the second place it is composed of one troy ounce of .999 silver. There hasn’t been any silver in circulating U.S. coins since 1964.

The Liberty Dollar, as it is named, was designed and promoted by Bernard von NotHaus, a self-described “monetary architect.” He promoted it as a “private volunteer barter exchange currency.” From 1998 until his arrest in 2008, thousands of Liberty Dollars were issued, sold, and collected.

A few of them may even have been spent. That struck me as supremely dumb. They are beautiful pieces of numismatic art. I collected them. Only an idiot would want to actually spend one.

But spend them is precisely what von NotHaus wanted people to do (yes, some detractors have suggested “NutHaus”). He wanted to do with the Federal Reserve System what FedEx did with the postal service: compete. That required a circulating “voluntary alternative” currency. (He also minted one ounce copper “Ron Paul Dollars,” but maybe that was just for fun.)

An automotive repair shop owner in my neck of Kansas City accepted them, along with almost every other sort of silver token or medallion, U.S. or not. But you wouldn’t receive a Liberty Dollar back in change if you paid conventionally.

Von NotHaus incidentally wants to abolish the Federal Reserve System and the Internal Revenue Code along with it, and, I dunno, maybe some other things, too. He is not without ambition.

It was the “currency” part that got him in trouble. The Liberty Dollar is not “current” money and cannot be used as legal tender. Federal prosecutors said he promoted it in that exact way. He was convicted in 2011 on counterfeiting and, among other charges, of conspiring against the United States. Prosecutors described him as a “domestic economic terrorist.” He is free on bond pending sentencing and has filed appropriate appeals.

The Liberty Dollar has turned out to be a precursor to the contemporary “community currency movement.” Liberty Dollars inspired a lot of wannabes who have produced an array of alternative if not exotic currencies: Lakotas, Texas Republics, Cabools, Dixie Dollars, Boulder Gaians, and”this will warm Randian hearts”Galts. (The Lakota coinage, if you were wondering, has no connection with the Republic of Lakotah, but that’s a whole different story.)

Many of these alternatives are loosely leagued with the American Open Standard Currency project and, in some historical sense it can be said to replicate the “hard times tokens” that appeared during the Civil War when circulating coinage all but disappeared under the weight of paper currency used to finance the Union cause. Each to a degree is a challenge to the Federal Reserve System. You would think these enterprises could find happy lodging exclusively on the right of any political spectrum, yet Occupy Dollars have been proposed. When left meets right, it messes with my world view.

I do tend to put all this in my “interesting notes from the fringe” folder. It’s gotten pretty bulky and includes but is not limited to: Angel sightings, A Secret History of the World (can it still be secret if it is published), the entire cast of “ancient astronaut theorists,” a “miraculous natural holy image of Jesus & Virgin Mary on petrified wood” (available at eBay for fifty thousand dollars), cold fusion research, Zecharia Stitchin’s Earth Chronicles , Immanuel Velikovsky, most of the guests who appeared on the 1970’s era WNBC radio talk show hosted by the late Long John Nebel. I don’t mean to neglect Nessie and Bigfoot so let’s say I need a folder marked “I wish it were true.”

Occasionally, though, maybe fringe folks deserve a better hearing from the rest of us; from me at any rate. I knew a very sober, stable couple, church-goers, who swear their car was buzzed by a UFO and stopped dead on I-29 near Omaha. Had it been anybody else I might have just laughed. Once, I had a parishioner whose first words upon sitting down in my study were, “Now, I’m not crazy.” Her husband had died some weeks before and she was being haunted (her word) by a strange man appearing in front of her. I urged her to see her doctor, first, and go from there. It turned out, even stranger, to be a rare yet harmless medical syndrome related to vision, diagnosed by a very sympathetic physician. So I’ve learned to never dismiss anything immediately. It all goes in that bulky folder I keep.

Yet there is one thing that nags at me about von NotHaus’ Liberty Dollar. The one pictured is denominated at twenty dollars, roughly the price of spot silver when it was manufactured in 2005. I bought it for that plus a premium. With fake money, the victim is left stuck with nothing. But chart the value my Liberty Dollar against the price of silver, and I have made out like a bandit. That hasn’t happened with my ordinary dollars.

Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church , an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays . His previous On the Square articles can be found here .


Liberty Dollar

American Open Currency

Republic of Lakotah

eBay petrified Madonna and child

Occupy currency

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