The Free State Project: Political Migration in Our Time
If you are willing to look past mainstream media coverage of American politics, you can actually find exciting and interesting activities taking place that rise above lobbying, voting, graft and corruption.
Consider the Free State Project. It is an attempt, and a surprisingly successful one, to inspire a political migration by lovers of liberty to New Hampshire. It is not about lobbying, forming a political party, populating a real estate development or anything like that. It is about seeking a place to live and let live in these times when the political culture seems to be about everything but that.
The idea is to gather people with some consciousness of the idea of liberty so that they can live peacefully among friends and influence the political culture in a way that brings more freedom or at least protects what we have. As the statement that Free Staters sign says: “I will exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of civil government is the protection of life, liberty and property.”
I had heard of this movement for years, but, frankly, didn’t pay much attention to it. I suppose that with only a passing glance, it seemed sort of cranky and unworkable, just another scheme. I was completely wrong. This is a serious movement that is achieving real results, as I observed when I was invited to attend the annual Liberty Forum in Nashua, N.H.
Why New Hampshire? It is the “Live Free or Die” state without a sales or income tax. It has low population density, which increases the chances that the influence of the libertarians can be felt in the culture and the Statehouse. It has lower business regulations than the rest of the country, and wonderful homespun culture that turns out to be highly tolerant toward cultural and political eccentricity.
The whole notion really began in 2001 with research by political scientist Jason Sorens, who was then studying at Yale University. He observed that the influence of the libertarians was muted by their sheer geographic diffusion throughout the country. If they could gather together in one place, they could achieve that critical level of influence over political affairs that would create a tipping point against statist-style management toward individual liberty.
It turns out that there is a huge tradition in American history for this type of political migration. The Mormons did this in their trek across the West to finally land in Salt Lake City. The Amish did the same. But it doesn’t have to be about religion. This migrating impulse also populated Texas in the early 19th century, when the pioneering spirit drove a whole generation to settle this wild country.
Actually, if you think about it, the entire Colonial period was shaped by cultural groups arriving to settle in coherent communities formed around certain themes of safety and liberty. Puritans, Catholics and borderland immigrants all coalesced in geographically defined areas. Then there were the Quakers, the Mennonites and innumerable anarchist sects of the 19th century that formed their own communities. In all these cases, they found the liberty and security they were seeking. Rather than merely dreaming of a new life, they worked to put their dreams into practice in whatever way this world allows.
The Free State Project is different from these only in the sense that the invitation is to move somewhere within the state. And the driving force is simply to be left alone. It turns out that being around others who share your values helps that goal. If the police pull over a Free Stater, I’m told, a dozen others show up within minutes with video cameras. If you go to jail, there are people to defend you to the press. And there is something to say for living among people you can trust, especially in these times when the government is urging everyone to rat out their neighbors, friends and family for any reason.
There is a huge diversity among the 4,000 people who have identified themselves as Free Staters. In my trip, I met attorneys, teachers, bakers, software application developers, people who mint coins, welders, natural statesmen, bloggers, physicians and people from every walk of life one can imagine. Some are religious and some are not. Some look like crazy mountain men, some have oddly dyed hair, some wear suits and ties. They are single, married, young, old, whatever.
Free Staters take any job that suits them. Some run for office, and win, which is not entirely difficult in a state with 400 representatives in the state legislature. Others stay out of politics completely. Some are independent contractors who can relocate, so they choose this state. Others are craft makers who sell their wares from their house or online. Some are wealthy; some are poor.
Their reasons for coming to New Hampshire are all over the map. I met one young person who had graduated from high school two years ago with straight As and a perfect transcript for going to any college she wanted. But she didn’t want to deal with the debt, was tired of the indoctrination and had seen too many people waste four or eight years in school and not find any work afterward. She didn’t want that for herself. So she works various jobs, pays the bills, enjoys a rich social life and is completely happy. Most kids of her generation can’t say the same.
Some of the currency in use in New Hampshire
At the opening reception of the Liberty Forum, I stood back, studying the huge crowd with puzzlement at first — the culture of the event might best be described as bourgeois bohemian — but then it became clear to me what was going on. These people were extremely well-read. They had developed a love of liberty, and it became a passion in their life. They realized that freedom is the precondition for everything else in life we love. Without freedom, all dreams die. But they weren’t satisfied to read and reflect. They wanted to do something real, something practical. Moving here and joining this movement was best hope they found.
Human liberation never happens in a social or cultural vacuum. The great steps forward in the history of liberty were preceded by periods in which the social and practical infrastructure had undergone years of development and maturation. The American Revolution was the culminating moment of 150 years of Colonial experience with liberty. The abolitionist movement was preceded by many years of the development of a robust culture and experience of free men and women in both slave and nonslave states. The repeal of Prohibition was made possible because of the giant network of speak-easies and bootleggers and the ever-increasing demand of the population for the freedom to drink.
Perhaps, then, it is necessary that people take up the charge to live their own visions of liberty in whatever way they can, even in open defiance of our overlords, in order to prepare the ground for a brighter future.
A film has already been made about the movement: Libertopia. News coverage is increasing. And the movement is clearly growing as trends in the U.S. get worse and worse. And after this election season, when it becomes very obvious to disillusioned liberty lovers around the country that national politics are now and will forever be hostile to the philosophy of individualism, I can easily imagine that the Free State Project will have another wave of immigrants ready to wave the flag: “Live Free or Die.”