Free New Hampshire
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.
Free New Hampshire: How Libertarians Can Win in the Marketplace of Ideas
By Jason Sorens 6/12/05
Published in the May 2005 issue of the Yale Free Press
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on secessionist and autonomist movements in advanced democracies, such as the Parti Quebecois, the Scottish National Party, and the Basque National Party. One of my findings was that advanced democracies are decentralizing, sending more powers to their regional governments. This implies that there is something about the contemporary political economy perhaps globalization or ideas such as subsidiarity and "market-preserving federalism" that demands decentralized government. (One common way of saying this is that the state is being eroded from below, through decentralization, and from above, through economic integration. The European Union's economic confederation actually stimulates decentralization by providing regions with guaranteed access to markets.) In the United States the historical trend has been in the reverse; but if the trends in Canada and Europe hold true, then decentralization may be coming to American shores as well.
If state governments are set to gain more powers in the future, political activists in the U.S. need to refocus their sights on state capitols. This implication of my research stimulated me to write an article in July 2001 in the online journal, The Libertarian Enterprise, proposing a "free state" strategy. The idea was to identify the best state in the country for libertarians to move to, and collect signatures from people willing to move. I proposed that once 20,000 signatures had been collected, the participants would have five years in which to move to the state of choice.
Within two weeks after I wrote the article, I had received over 200 e-mails from people wanting to participate. After weeks of public discussion, we set up a website, freestateproject.org, and presented a Statement of Intent. The Statement of Intent says simply that the signer agrees to move to the chosen state within five years after we reach 20,000 signatures, and that the signer will exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of life, liberty, and property.
The Free State Project (FSP) is libertarian in a broad sense. We have left-wing libertarians who would like to create egalitarian communities through voluntary organization, and right-wing libertarians who have strong moral and religious views but believe that government should enforce only those moral obligations that have to do with respecting the equal freedom of others. Free Staters disagree on some policy issues, such as abortion, immigration, foreign policy, and the ideal strictness of pollution regulations. Interestingly, most areas of disagreement are on policies controlled at the federal rather than state level. Free Staters also belong to many different party affiliations; we have independents, Libertarians, Republicans, and even some Greens, Democrats, and Constitutionalists.
We had just a few hundred participants in August 2002 when Walter Williams, George Mason University economist and syndicated columnist, wrote about the FSP on worldnetdaily.com and was interviewed about the article on FOX News' "Hannity & Colmes." Our signup rate rocketed upward, and we received wide national and local coverage, in outlets ranging from MSNBC through the New York Times to Mother Jones and Reason magazines. By August 2003 we had over 5,000 participants.
These first 5,000 voted on which of ten low-populations states would be best for the fulfillment of our goals. We used a voting system called Condorcet's Method, which virtually eliminates the wasted-vote problem whereby voters vote for a less-preferred candidate because they believe their most-preferred candidate has no chance of winning. In October 2003, New Hampshire became our winner, defeating second-place Wyoming 55% to 45% in their head-to-head comparison.
New Hampshire had several advantages. According to the Tax Foundation, it has the second lowest state and local tax rates as a percentage of income in the U.S. Residents of the Granite State receive only $0.64 in federal expenditures for every $1 they pay in taxes. This lack of federal dependence makes voters more likely to support devolving federal economic policy to the state. The state is also strong on gun rights, has no adult seatbelt or motorcycle helmet laws, and is the only state in the country that does not require a purchased auto insurance policy. New Hampshire has so far resisted the trend of violating the property rights of private businesses through draconian anti-smoking legislation.
The FSP has never been a takeover movement, attempting to move in an absolute majority to "outvote the natives." A small but savvy and dedicated minority can put libertarian ideas at the forefront of political debate, and then it will be up to New Hampshire voters whether to accept or reject those ideas.
Those 100 or so Free Staters who have already moved to New Hampshire are having a significant impact on the state's political climate. Mike Fisher, a 23-year-old who moved to New Hampshire from Vermont last year, is a good example. Since moving, he has founded a successful computer troubleshooting business and the nonprofit Liberty Scholarship Fund, which awards funds to low-income families for private or home schooling. Just this month, he held a civil disobedience protest outside the state Cosmetology Board headquarters:he gave a manicure to another Free Stater for $1 and was arrested. The protest called attention to the absurdity of state licensing laws, which restrict competition in over 100 New Hampshire professions. Licensing hurts both consumers and workers who have skills but no formal education; libertarians have for years favored repealing these laws in favor of private-sector certification. The massive media attention Fisher's protest generated undoubtedly has many Granite Staters wondering why their state government interferes with their interests in this way.
Several Free Staters have already been elected to school boards and budget commissions across the state. Most see their role as supporting the native Granite Staters, including elected state legislators who have long been promoting the cause of liberty in their state. After the FSP chose New Hampshire, native Granite Staters formed the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance (nhliberty.org), a nonpartisan organization dedicated to influencing the state legislature in a pro-freedom direction. The NHLA has been instrumental in defeating a red-light camera bill that made it to the Senate floor, and in writing and passing a homeschooling deregulation bill, currently being debated on the Senate floor.
By supporting sensible, incremental reforms, Free Staters can move New Hampshire even further in the right direction. In the long term, a whole host of desirable policies could be implemented at the state and local levels: cutting property taxes, privatizing education, resisting abuses of eminent domain and asset forfeiture, eliminating state licenses and mandates that increase the cost of health insurance and other services, repealing certain kinds of zoning ordinances, eliminating "victimless crimes", and so on. These goals are ambitious, but great revolutions in thinking always start small. The Free State Project's motto is "Liberty in Our Lifetime," and I truly believe that is possible. Check out freestateproject.org and see what's going on.