My Missoula Experience
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.
My Missoula Experience
by Jason S.
I arrived in Missoula by plane near midnight on Friday. I was on the same plane with Vin Suprynowicz, Rick Tompkins, J.J. Johnson, and Nancy Lord Johnson, as well as Amanda Phillips, who made it out from Massachusetts. Ben and his son Guy picked me up, and we drove over to Gary Marbut's homestead, about five miles outside Missoula.
Despite its proximity to town, Gary's house appears remote. It's halfway up the side of a mountain, and when you step out onto the back porch, all you see is woods and mountains (several of which were still snow-capped).
His home is a geodesic dome and uses solar panels for heat. He says he only has to pay $10 a year for heat. Gary is the founder of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, which is not associated with the NRA but has essentially replaced it, as far as its political activities go, in the state. MSSA is arguably the strongest private lobbying group in Montana.
Gary & I talked about Montana politics well into the night. (I didn't get much sleep all weekend.) He laid out his successful model in getting legislators to sponsor and vote for legislation that he writes. I won't describe the strategy here, because I don't want to take the chance that it will help some statist organization monitoring this forum, but if you're interested in hearing about it, email me privately. (I don't mean to make it sound overly esoteric; it's very simple & commonsensical actually.)
Heather James & her husband Corey were camping on Gary's land, some others did the same the next night. In the morning, we went to the conference center and heard Jerry O'Neil, a Montana state senator, describe his work for liberty. He's basically a "Ron Paul Republican": ran a few times as a Libertarian and could never get elected, then ran on the same issues as a Republican and won. His main interest is judicial reform - a particularly critical issue in Montana where the state supreme court is extremely statist. I get the feeling there are some folks in Montana who would just as soon hang 'em for treason as try to reform the system. Someone asked Jerry what he thought 20,000 libertarians could do in Montana. His response: "If 20,000 libertarians came to Montana and were just couch potatoes, they would have no effect. 20,000 libertarians - if they were active - would own the state legislature, the governor's office, and probably the U.S. Congress from Montana."
Gary Marbut gave a brief presentation regarding a secession initiative that he had drawn up in 1994. Because the Montana constitution specifies that the state retains the right to become "free, sovereign, and independent," this resolution would have replaced the clause of the state constitution specifying that the state is a part of the United States with a clause declaring its nationhood and national powers. The initiative was registered with the Secretary of State, but signature-gathering was delayed because of the Republican sweep that year. Many Montanans believed that the Republicans could turn things around. The initiative is ready to go whenever the need arises again, however.
J.J. Johnson was next and gave a fiery and humorous speech in which he predicted the eventual demise of the United States due to the instabilities of the welfare state. Following the economic collapse, the Free State could be a refuge.
His wife Nancy Lord Johnson (the 1992 LP Vice-Presidential candidate) gave a short but needed talk urging libertarians to stay out of trouble and not take needless risks that could wind them up in prison. She is an attorney and has represented many libertarians, patriots, and the like who run into trouble.
I ate lunch with Quincy and Rae OrHai, who are Orthodox Jews living in Bozeman and ranching. Quincy also wrote the second Montana report on the website. They take no government subsidies for their ranch and say they basically break even. They are interested, if Montana is chosen, in getting Orthodox Jews in the FSP to move near Bozeman and participate in constructing a "kosher organic beef" industry. Such an industry does not yet exist - there's kosher beef, and organic beef, but no kosher organic beef. To support a ritual butcher who can certify the meat kosher, however, they need a sizeable Orthodox Jewish community.
The first day, there were two TV stations who interviewed me, and one reporter, from the Missoula Independent (alternative paper), was there. He also came the next day, and I think his story will be very extensive.
After lunch, Vin gave his talk on the erosion of individual liberties and the need for a freedom community. This is something that the Free State can offer. He urged libertarians not to compromise their principles, as such compromise is equivalent to a "stab in the back" to their fellow activists. (I expect Joe Swyers knows something about being "stabbed in the back" by libertarians who compromise.) We may accept interim progress short of our ultimate goals, but we should never deny our ultimate goals.
After the last speaker there was plenty of time for people to do fun activities. As for myself, I drove with Ben and Guy through the Salish-Kootenai Reservation north of Missoula, up to Mission Valley. The Mission Range is spectacular. When you come over the crest of a hill, you're suddenly faced with a wall of craggy, snow-topped, immense mountains. In the valley below is a small town with a mission church. I expect that the fact that this beautiful valley is part of the reservation has prevented it from becoming heavily populated with retirees. The Salish tribe has been undertaking some interesting activities. The tribe has the highest per capita income of any tribe in the West, and their average per capita income is higher than that of Anglos in Montana. They are currently pushing to have the Bison Range returned to tribal control, but the federal government is stalling. This is one area where we could heartily endorse and help advance Native claims.
There's been a lot of discussion about whether "rural" means the same thing in northern New England and the West, or whether New England really doesn't have rural areas. In my opinion, the East does have rural areas like those in the West; there just isn't as much of them. Unicoi County, Tennessee, the entire eastern side of Vermont above Brattleboro, northern New Hampshire, and northern Maine are not qualitatively different from the rural areas of Montana that I saw. But where you can drive for 20 miles without seeing evidence of human habitation in parts of the East, these stretches can be much longer in the West. I think what surprised me most about the landscape in this part of Montana was its lush green color and the many rivers. It looked like my part of North Carolina, except that the mountains were higher, the valleys flatter, the trees all coniferous (spruce and firs, I believe). The weather also surprised me - the high on Saturday was 96!
Afterwards, I returned to Gary's homestead where a barbecue was underway. Quite a few people dropped by the barbecue, and I know other groups of people held get-togethers elsewhere. (Amanda rented a plane and flew some people over western Montana and northern Idaho.) Here I met Jim Turnbull, a northern Alberta rancher who is leading the civil disobedience movement against Canadian gun registration. His most exciting project, I believe, is the "Republic of Alberta." This is a "free county project" for Canadians. Several hundred Canadian libertarians are moving into a county in Alberta bordering Montana, where they are setting up a government. Jim believes they will have an independent republic by Christmas. I also met and spoke with quite a few activists from northern Idaho who were at the conference. Hari Heath was there, but I didn't know who it was because he was using a pseudonym. It wasn't until right at the end of the conference that I actually knew who he was! (Hari, some of you may remember, wrote a piece on the FSP for the Idaho Observer and the Sierra Times.)
We also watched one of the TV news spots on the conference. It lasted only 30 seconds at most, but it was a good spot. There was another TV station from Idaho at the conference on Saturday. A third station came by on Sunday and did some extensive interviews. This station is actually an NBC national news feed, and the cameraman said that he expected the piece would be picked up by several stations around the country.
The next morning, Claire Wolfe was the first speaker. Her talk emphasized the need for a true libertarian community, in which we could help each other avoid government mandates and maintain privacy. She argued that significant political reform will come only after fundamental cultural change. She said that there will never be a consensus among libertarians and that there shouldn't be.
After Claire came the state presentations. Representatives from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota gave talks on why their respective states were best. For the Montana presentation, state representative Joe Balyeat gave a talk about his role in getting a pretty significant tax cut passed in Montana this year. Hearing from Joe and state senator Jerry O'Neil I think influenced a lot of people to think more highly of Montana, given that they were elected officials welcoming us - just as the welcome from "insiders" in Vermont and New Hampshire has likewise benefitted those states. Frankly, I think we could find allies in strategic places in whatever state we chose.
After the state presentations, I gave my talk. Even though it was written mostly before the conference, it touched on many themes found in the other presentations. I also argued that there was unlikely to be a consensus within the Free State Project on the best political strategies, but my talk was centered around getting a discussion started on building the political infrastructure of the Free State. I made a plug for my favored strategy, the non-partisan voters' league, which would give us both critical distance from and active engagement with the two major parties. I recognized that we need people working on all fronts, however: nonelectoral cultural change, Libertarian Party politics, and major-party politics. I also summarized the state of state research and answered many questions.
After my presentation, there was a period of questions and answers for the state advocates. There was also a little poll on which state was favored. It was also a demonstration of Instant Runoff Voting, a system that some of us favor for electing the governor and other statewide positions. Not surprisingly, the two states with the greatest number of residents in attendance - Montana and Idaho - finished first and second, respectively. I do think these two states increased their standing in the minds of many because of their strong presence at the conference.
I met so many people at the Grand Western Conference I can by no means name them all. Two newspapers covered us: the Missoulian and the Missoula Independent. About 150 were in attendance at any given time. Sunni Maravillosa and I strategized about how to promote the FSP in free-market.net. Vince Miller and Jim Elwood of ISIL made the trip up from California, and said there will be a piece on the FSP in the next issue of "Freedom Network News" (hooray!).
After that, Debra, her husband Torry, and I went with Gary and his son Ty to a shooting range in Missoula. I'd never shot a gun before but had always wanted to know how. Gary's training was invaluable. I tried a Glock semiautomatic pistol and two types of revolvers.
Then it was off to the airport for an overnight series of flights back to Asheville, and a Monday of napping. It was an exhilarating, invigorating, fun conference. Who says being around a bunch of libertarians is a drag? I heartily envy Elizabeth and Tim for being able to go to the New Hampshire event next month.