A History of the FSP
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
A History of the Free State Project
On Its First
by Jason P. Sorens
The Free State Project is one year old today - its official beginning was September 1st, 2001. On that day the Statement of Intent and Participation Guidelines (at that time we called them "bylaws") were presented to the public.
However, the origins of the Free State Project go back to a The Libertarian Enterprise article published on July 23. In this article I argued that libertarian political activism was failing miserably, and that we needed a new alternative. To carve out a sphere of liberty within our lifetimes, we need to take advantage of America's not-yet-dead federal system. States remain a locus of sovereignty and legislative power. I figured that if 20,000 freedom activists got together in a single state, they could make a major difference. Furthermore, there didn't seem to be any alternative strategy with nearly the same chance for success. The core idea that would make the Project work was that we would gather signatures before the move; by getting commitments from people we would solve the coordination dilemma (no one wants to move if he fears that others will not move with him), and by concentrating on membership rather than asking for huge investments we would avoid the pitfalls of failed "free nation" projects. I called for supporters of the idea to e-mail me and help with organising a "Free State Project." I summed up,
It is exciting to me that we might have a real shot at true freedom in our lifetimes. Certainly, there will be inconveniences. We might have to move away from friends and family; there might be spells of unemployment; we might have to take careers that are not our first choice. But I can't believe that we've gone so soft that we won't tolerate these inconveniences for a possibility at attaining true liberty. Our forefathers bled and died - because of the Stamp Tax! The Free State Project requires nothing of that kind, and the stakes are so much higher. How much is liberty worth to you?
Our first supporter, besides a friend with whom I'd been discussing the idea, was The Libertarian Enterprise editor John Taylor, who wrote me back after receiving the submission and said "sign me up!"
Within a week I received over 200 emails expressing support and variations on the theme, "It's about time someone came up with an idea like this!" I wrote a followup essay which was published two weeks later. It appeared we were already over 1% of the way toward our goal of 20,000.
Our main task was to discuss suitable "bylaws" and a "pledge" that we could circulate for signatures. Within days we had also come up with some criteria for choosing a state: obviously it needed to have a low population, and a cutoff point of no higher than 2 million had immediate support; we also recognized the usefulness of coastline, a decent job market, a native pro-liberty culture, and a negative fiscal balance with the federal government (that is, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in expenditures will be more open to radical autonomy proposals).
By July 31 one interested participant, Robert Vroman, had set up a Yahoo club. This club was to be the major locus of discussion for people interested in the FSP, and its archives are invaluable for anyone researching the FSP's history. Robert also paid for domain name registrations, freestateproject.com and freestateproject.org.
Until last month, August 2001 was by far the busiest month on our Yahoo group (then a club). Today, we have a variety of options for discussion, and people interested in free-ranging discussion usually find our web community and "FSP crackerbarrel" e-mail list more inviting, as the old discussion group is now moderated and limited to discussion of FSP business.
On the basis of their contributions in the club, I invited several people into an informal "brain trust" that would be responsible for undertaking publicity efforts and making day-to-day decisions. Some of these people ended up being the directors and officers we have today.
Discussions in the club yielded many fruitful results. On August 2 I suggested giving people the right to opt out of certain states when they sign the Statement, and making the Statement void three years after signing unless it is renewed, proposals that were eventually accepted by overwhelming majorities in member polls. The catch-phrase "liberty in our lifetime" was developed in the club, and Steve Cobb's suggestions in particular led to the adoption of cumulative count as the mechanism for voting on a state. Joe Littlejohn designed the porcupine logo, approved in a website poll on September 9th, along with various banners still in use. Elizabeth McKinstry was the main motor behind getting ad rates compiled and Internet recruitment going.
From August 10 to August 21 we ran a series of web polls. The "leadership" of the FSP, such as it was, did not necessarily get its way on important policies. We favored considering states under just 1.2 million population, but no clear majority existed for this policy at that time, 45% voting for considering all states under 2 million population. At the time I also opposed consideration of non-coastal states, but I lost that vote, 56-44%. In retrospect, it is good that I did, for some non-coastal states have turned out to be good candidates. Finally, we strongly supported making a decision on a target state soon. This issue remains controversial, but we are sticking with the plan that emerged from the poll. In the poll, which ran from August 22 to August 29, 32% favored delaying the choice until we reached 20,000 members, 18% favored waiting until 10,000, 13% favored waiting until 5,000, 18% wanted to take the vote after 1,000 members, and 20% wanted to take the vote immediately. The group was therefore somewhat polarized, and we chose the median position, waiting until 5,000. This decision was encoded into the Participation Guidelines and there it has remained. Amending the Guidelines is hazardous, because it requires notifying the entire membership that they may withdraw their signatures, so changing this provision has not been seriously considered since.
Another poll held at the same time confirmed cumulative count as the vote mechanism (67% to 20%, 13% voting "doesn't matter"). Today we have a cumulative count "practice poll" on the website, which lets visitors see how the procedure works.
On August 28 we got some unexpected publicity when Brian Wilson, a libertarian radio talk show host in California, joined the Free State Project on the air.
Thus, we were optimistic when September 1 came and the final versions of the Statement of Intent and Participation Guidelines were posted on the website. We had an online form so that people could sign up instantly online if they wanted.
But when it came down to it, people were reluctant to sign up at first. We had over 300 people who had signed up for the email list, but only about 50 of them signed the Statement of Intent in the first 10 days of September.
Then September 11th hit. Understandably, people's minds were on other matters for quite some time. For a month very little happened in the Free State Project, and all our momentum was dissipated. A couple of people even withdrew their Statements, saying they did not support a "secession" movement after 9/11 (despite the fact that we are not a secession movement).
However, this was not totally lost time. I sent a letter to Walter Williams to let him know of our Project and the fact that his writings were one of the inspirations for our efforts. He replied in a friendly note, and several months later my letter was to bear fruit.
Several things helped us to begin getting out of the doldrums. Claire Wolfe wrote an article about us for the Sierra Times on September 15th, and we eventually reproduced a quote from the article at the top of our website - and there it has remained. We put the website on a dedicated server, eliminating the unreliability that had previously plagued it. Next, we changed the mission statement to an upbeat and positive one; it remains our mission statement, with a couple of tweaks, today:
The Free State Project is a plan in which 20,000 or more liberty-oriented people will move to a single state of the U.S. to secure there a free society. We will accomplish this by first reforming state law, opting out of federal mandates, and finally negotiating directly with the federal government for appropriate political autonomy. We will be a community of freedom-loving individuals and families, and create a shining example of liberty for the rest of the nation and the world.
October and November were involved with improving the website: adding a Frequently Asked Questions section, developing a printable flyer, and changing from format to format in search of the best one. We also e-mailed Libertarian Party officers in every state, asking them to let us know of publicity opportunities in their state and, if in a state under consideration, to let us know what the political, economic, and social climate of the state was like. Finally, we asked them for the opportunity to print an article about the FSP in their newsletters. Only a minority took us up on this offer, including Maine, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Virginia. However, the Florida LP invited us to send a speaker to their convention in January, and that invitation gave us the idea to send speakers to other conventions.
We tried to get on the agenda for as many conventions as we could, generally only for states that were in driving distance for one of the organizers. In the end, Elizabeth McKinstry was the main convention speaker, taking on Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Colorado, and Ohio. I spoke at a Manhattan LP meeting in May. The convention appearances helped get the word out, but we quickly discovered that they were too expensive for the coverage we got. Typically, a convention appearance would result in something like five new members, but having a table cost anywhere from $50 to $100, and the Florida convention cost hundreds more because of the airplane and hotel expenses.
In early December I concluded some research that was to be the foundation of future state research and decisions about which states were viable. The resulting essay, "What Can 20,000 Liberty Activists Accomplish?" was picked up by Freedom Daily News on free-market.net and brought us a couple hundred website visitors, which at that time was a substantial number. In this essay I calculated that 20,000 activists could essentially "take over" any state under about 1.2 million population and where Democrats and Republicans combined spent less than $10 million in most election cycles. The research was also important because it showed that the Free State Project was viable: if we could just get 20,000 committed freedom-lovers into a single state, they would have an immense impact.
Around the same time, a short yet intense controversy erupted on the Yahoo club over whether the FSP should consider American commonwealths, specifically the Virgin Islands. An advisory website poll was put up, the "no" side squeaked by with victory. Given that result, and the fact that including commonwealths would invalidate all previously signed Statements of Intent (which state that you agree to move to a "state" specifically), we decided to rule out commonwealths definitively. We decided that if for some reason we failed to reach even 1000 members, then taking over the Virgin Islands might be a last-ditch option. However, given that we have now passed 1000 members and are growing rapidly, the idea of taking over a commonwealth is a dead issue.
In January we started a new partnership program with free-market.net. Under the terms of this agreement, we have placed banner ads on free-market.net and gotten our materials included in the FMN database, and sometimes also on Freedom Daily News. We are fortunate in that the editor assigned to cover us for free-market.net, Mary Lou Seymour, is also one of the longtime activists for the FSP.
At the beginning of February we started to reap the fruits of long-laid plans. Josh Corn volunteered to design a Cumulative Count practice vote for the webpage, which got a good deal of attention and is still in use. We set up an e-gold account, and donations started to trickle in, covering our free-market.net partnership and convention expenses. New essays were posted on free-market.net. We settled on a final website format, the one you see now, which was designed by Debra Ricketts. Finally, I went back and personally emailed all those people who had signed up for the email list back in July, August, and September, but who had never made a commitment to the FSP. This effort alone yielded about a hundred new signatures.
In early March Walter Williams mentioned the Free State Project briefly on the Rush Limbaugh program, in response to a caller from New Hampshire. However, he did not give out the website address: this was probably fortunate, for who knows whether our server could have been able to handle a sudden burst of tens or even hundreds of thousands of visitors?
In the same month LP News published a little blurb on the F.S.P., based on a short e-mail interview between an LP News reporter and myself.
From mid-February to mid-March our daily signup rate reached about 4, much better than the previous rate. During this same period, the organizers were working hard on Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws for Free State Project, Inc., a nonprofit corporation. We decided to incorporate in Nevada because among the states where the organizers lived, it had the easiest rules for incorporation. Debra Ricketts, Robert Vroman, Elizabeth McKinstry, Joe Littlejohn, and I were the first Board of Directors, Mary Lou Seymour and Amanda Maxwell deciding they'd rather continue as activists in an informal role, while Steve Cobb could not be a Director because of his international residence. The Board elected me as President, Elizabeth as Vice-President, Debra as Treasurer, and Steve as Secretary. Debra was Treasurer because she maintained the official corporate address, and from a legal point of view it is best for a corporation to maintain its bank account in the same state where it is incorporated.
A couple of people - not members of the FSP, but libertarians I suppose - wrote and denounced us for incorporating, saying that it would give the government control of us in some unspecified way. Never mind that almost all major libertarian, classical liberal, and constitutionalist organizations are incorporated, and that this was a method of holding the group decision-makers publicly accountable, as well as allowing us to open a bank account.
Soon afterward, we got to work designing new committees. Originally, there were to be 3 committees: Research, Publicity, and Finance, but Publicity and Finance were combined into a single committee, with Elizabeth McKinstry and Debra Ricketts as co-chairs. Robert Vroman was first chair of the Research Committee, but at the end of May he had to drop out due to other commitments, and I took over his spot. Membership in all the committees was open, and indeed many people who were interested in seeing the FSP succeed but were not signatories to the Statement of Intent joined the committees.
Setting up the committees was a necessary step in the FSP's evolution. We had gone from a relatively modest-sized group in which a hard core of volunteers could get everything done to a large and rapidly growing group in which that hard core of volunteers was increasingly overworked. Setting up the committees was a way to get more people involved and to reduce the burden on the old organizers. However, our growth has been so rapid that today I probably spend 30-40 hours a week on the Free State Project, even though my responsibilities have been cut dramatically. For example, I no longer participate much in publicity and finance decisions, and many of them are even undertaken without my knowledge. That is a good thing.
In May I left for Scotland for six weeks, and Elizabeth took over as acting President. During this time the website received some new departments, such as sections describing current advertising, a section describing the committees, and a section describing the forums. In July an FSP store was added, where you can get merchandise with the FSP logo, profits going toward the FSP for publicity efforts. An outstanding web community was also set up on our own server and now boasts over 230 members.
I returned at the beginning of July to find that controversy had wracked the Yahoo group once again. This time a few posters had grumbled about admonitions to keep conversations on topic. The Yahoo group had grown to an unwieldy size (it now has over 430 members), and volume was accordingly high (10-20 messages a day). In this environment some members were leaving the group because they could not handle the volume, and the moderators tried to put on some restraints, including moderated status for new subscribers. A new Tech Committee was formed to deal with this situation and to handle issues relating to the website and the web community; Debra Ricketts is chair, and some of the former grumblers are key members of this committee.
The controversy on the Yahoo group continued in fits and starts while I was there, until one weekend in August while I was away. Some members felt they were being threatened with censorship, and one threatened to get all the Westerners together and secede from the FSP to form their own project. Fortunately, we got things cooled down, and the new solution has been to make the old Yahoo group fully moderated (under Philip Boncer) and restricted to FSP business, while the "fspcrackerbarrel" list on Yahoo handles general discussion. Still, August 2002 was the highest-traffic month ever, surpassing even August 2001 with almost 1200 messages.
Our major publicity efforts to date have been banner ads in free-market.net, rationalreview.com, the Sierra Times website, the About.com civil liberties site, and anti-state.com, per-click ads on Google searches, several radio interviews, convention appearances, and a full-page ad in LP News. We will have a full-page ad on the back cover of Liberty in November, paid for by a single member's donation. Over the past few months, we have received favorable coverage in unsolicited essays on websites as diverse as lewrockwell.com, anti-state.com, enterstageright.com, The Libertarian Enterprise, and Backwoods Home Magazine (a second article by Claire Wolfe). Recently the Free State Project has begun to reach out to college students in a systematic way, with George Hale chairing a new "Students for the FSP" committee.
However, the biggest publicity bonus was something unlooked for: Walter Williams' endorsement of the Free State Project in a widely syndicated column and on the "Hannity and Colmes" TV program. On the day of Dr. Williams' column, August 7th, the website had over 7000 unique visitors, shattering the previous record. The next day we had over 3700 visitors. Before the column, we had 566 signed-up FSP participants; three weeks later, on August 28th, there were 976. The column and TV appearance were probably worth at least 300 signups. Below you can see a chart plotting our monthly growth over time.
Obviously August is an aberration; however, we do seem to be experiencing an upward trend in growth rate. Thus, linear growth projections are far too conservative. A purely exponential model, by contrast, is probably a little too optimistic. At any rate, we hope to reach 5000 participants by the end of 2003 and 20000 by September 1, 2006. We need about 14 signatures per day on average to reach this latter goal. Last week, after the Walter Williams euphoria had worn off, we averaged about 7 signups per day. Contrast this figure with about 0.5 signers per day in the last four months of 2001.
State research has grown by leaps and bounds since the beginning of July. The Research Committee has determined that "all states under 1.5 million population at the time of the membership vote will appear on the ballot, excepting Hawaii and Rhode Island, which have been eliminated outright due to their big-government tendencies." Currently, ten states meet this standard: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Delaware. Barring unforeseen circumstances, all these states should make it to the final vote.
The Research Committee has drafted in-depth research reports on most of these states already, though these reports will need to be updated as new data come in and as new variables are suggested. The Research Committee has also designed a spreadsheet that allows anyone to weight the most important quantitatively measurable factors according to his own preferences, yielding an absolute ranking of states. I have performed various permutations on the data, and I feel confident in stating that no matter how you weight the data, a few states consistently end up near the top: Alaska, Delaware, Wyoming, and New Hampshire especially, but Idaho, the Dakotas, and Vermont also do fairly well. Maine and Montana tend to be laggards in this dataset, but some have presented convincing arguments - for Montana especially - that subjective, non-quantifiable factors weigh heavily in their favor and should make them serious candidates.
The question of "which state?" has dominated discussions among FSP members and prospectives since the very beginning, and that is to be expected. However, we should realize that any of these ten states would make an excellent candidate, and that no matter which state we pick, we should have a very good chance at developing a truly free society in at least one state, perhaps the best opportunity the freedom movement has enjoyed in America in a century.
September 1, 2002
The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent those of Free State Project, Inc., its Directors, or its Officers.