Finding the Right States
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.
Finding the Right States for State Rights
by Sean Scallon
This article first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (www.ChroniclesMagazine.org).
It seems more than a bit ironic that a man so identified with the cause of states rights and the South's quest for self-determination would have attended a school in the heartland of Yankee centralism.
Yet, John C. Calhoun was Yale man, a graduate of an institution set up by Congregationalists that was part of the intellectual center of what would be New England's eventual domination over the rest of America, something that Calhoun was opposed to and fearful of.
And yet, in irony still, a Yale man, a graduate student attending part of the intellectual center of the new multicultural America, is trying to carrying on Calhoun's work today, even if the Elis would be loath to admit that Calhoun even attended school in New Haven.
"My wife's a South Carolinian and she grew up not too far from where Calhoun lived and worked," Jason P. Sorens said. "From that, and my time here at Yale and through own my own views on states' rights, I'm quite aware of his legacy."
For that legacy of states rights and nullification is part of Sorens' Free State Project (FSP), a libertarian group that has a plan to put Calhoun's views on the states' right to act independently of the federal government in defense of their own interests into action. What Sorens' group hopes to do is to attract 20,000 or more liberty oriented people to join his group and agree to move to a single, small U.S. state to be able to influence that state's body politic towards the principles of a free society. The group was formed in 2001 in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, as once again Libertarians were stuck in the mire of national third party politics.
"I was thinking about this idea after the 2000 election," Sorens said. "A column written by Walter Williams, which talked about the possibilities of secession, influenced my thinking in this direction, as did a round-table discussion in Liberty magazine about what strategies the Libertarian Party should pursue. I talked to friends and also wrote an essay in The Libertarian Enterprise, an online Libertarian magazine, and got an excellent response. That's how myself and several others first came together to form the FSP."
There are currently 40,000 paid Libertarian Party activists according to Sorens' figures, of which he believes half of that total is a potential pool for recruits to the FSP, at least from within LP ranks. It's these 20,000 members which Sorens hopes can be the activist cadre for an existing state Libertarian Party or within a new political organization, or in coalition with other existing parties within the state they choose. Using the example of the Parti Quebecois, (which the FSP cites frequently in articles on their website) Sorens estimates that the PQ had 100,000 paid members by 1976 in a Quebec that had a population of 6.2 million, or, a ratio of one member for every 62 persons when it won control of the provincial legislature. Applying the same mathematics to a state with a population of 1.2 million or less and where the two major political parties spend less than five million each for political campaigns at all levels, Sorens believes it is possible their group could achieve the same results as the PQ.
Utopian? Naive? Madness? Certainly there are those who would give this plan a first glance might think so, having seen every crackpot political venture before, like finding a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean and declaring themselves their own little nation, complete with anthem and flag and the leader enthroned as Napoleon. Or giving money to fund coups or rebel groups in third world countries in the name of democracy. Or the more usual direct mail schemes for political causes that wind up benefiting those behind them and the U.S. Postal Service rather the contributors. As a disclaimer, when this writer first ventured upon their website and read their premise, it reminded one of Jim Jones taking his People's Temple followers in the jungles of Guyana to make a socialist paradise that became a living hell on earth.
But is the FSP any more or less insane than third party politics in this country? Is it any more or less insane than Libertarians or Constitutionalists or Greens trying yet once again to elect a president, especially one that will likely be without Congressional or state office support? Is it any more or less insane than spending another year toiling in the political fields trying to cultivate another rich harvest of grassroots support just to elect an alderman? Or is it more or less insane than the old, proverbial "working with our two-party system?"
"Third parties don't work on a national scale," Sorens said. "Not just because the system is against them but the culture is too. If you look around the world, the parties and movements that are new and dynamic are the ones promoting regionalism and autonomy."
And if one looks back through American history, one finds the idea of the FSP hardly so insane after all. The migration of 20,000 or so activists into a small state pales in comparison to the migration of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities through half the 20th century. It certainly would be on par with the migration of Mormons from Navuoo, Ill. to their desert kingdom in Utah or at least on the level with recent political migrations of New York liberals to Vermont, which changed the political orientation of that state changed from cantankerous Yankee to Ben and Jerry hippie, or California conservatives to the Rocky Mountain states and Texas, which made these places even more pro-Republican than they already were. Certainly Southern politics (and culture for that matter) were never the same again with all the Yankee migrants from the East and Midwest settling there since the end of World War II to the present day.
So what would these activists in the Free State Project do with their "freedom?", i.e, what would they do in the event they were ever elected to hold public office in the state they were migrating to? For starters, they would like to repeal state taxes and wasteful state government spending programs. Then they would move to ending collaboration between state and federal law enforcement officials in enforcing unconstitutional federal laws. They would end asset forfeiture and abuses of eminent domain along with privatizing utilities and ending inefficient state regulations and monopolies. They would negotiate directly with the federal government for more autonomy, opting out of national programs and receive tax rebates or block grants instead as some provinces have done in other countries. They could also adopt electoral reform with instant runoff and preferential voting methods to elect public officials rather than first past the post. And there's more.
"There should be no federal role in land ownership and we would give federal lands back to states and local communities for more productive use," Sorens said. "We also would want to give Indian tribes living within our states full autonomy. Most of us feel that states should eventually enjoy the right to control immigration. States that would want to have a large immigrant population should have the right to do so and those that do not wish to should have the right to put up barriers."
Such autonomy, if obtained, could go in fascinating directions. Take foreign policy for example. A state that did not favor an undeclared war or military action far away from its borders could prevent the members of their national guard from taking part in it. Or not allow their citizens to participate in any reintroduction of the military draft unless war has been declared by Congress or allow their citizens tax money to fund it. They could also reject treaties that directly went their economic, political or cultural interests, especially those drawn up in the United Nations. Or negotiate trade agreements of their own with other provinces and states around the globe. Such autonomy could catch on. If the foreign policy experts and bureaucrats in the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, United Nations or in Congress and the White House, knew that an unpopular treaty, trade agreement, or military adventure would be opposed by several states, they may think twice. In fact it could break the monopoly that the current establishment has upon foreign policy of this country and put a check upon the Empire.
If migration of political, cultural, ethnic, racial and religious groups is as American as apple pie, so is the autonomy and right of dissent from federal policy. It's in the same spirit and letter as that of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which opposed and forswore compliance of the Alien and Sedition Acts that Congress passed in 1798. It was these resolutions that Calhoun drew upon his philosophy for nullification written in the South Carolina Exposition of 1828 and the Fort Hill Address of 1831. Calhoun was not a secessionist and neither is the FSP advocating secession. But the both agree the right of a state and local body of government to declare itself opposed to and withdraw from compliance of policies drawn up in Washington D.C. that are ruinous to the interests of its people is what many Founding Fathers hope would be a check upon the growth of power of the federal government. And while that check may have been removed after 1860, trying to get it back certainly wouldn't be any less counterproductive for a group of activists outside the two-party oligopoly than wasting their time trying to elect a representative, senator or president, federal offices in a federal system that's already spoken for.
The FSP took shape in the middle of 2001 and progress towards their goal of 20,000 members has only reached 2,000 plus members by December of 2002. The disaster of September 11 and the wave of nationalistic feeling afterward put a severe crimp building membership. The FSP is using their website, www.freestateproject.org along with world of mouth to gin up interest. They hope to advertise in libertarian and other political and cultural publications and members are trying to recruit and put in a good world for themselves at Libertarian Party conventions across the country. Responses have fit the range from enthusiastic volunteers to people wishing to kill them.
"We've had good responses from some of the LP membership," Sorens said. "I think their are many Libertarians out there burned out with conventional politics. They're looking for something that has a chance to work. Others are just ignoring us or giving us a polite nod and looking the other way.
"There were definitely some effects from Sept. 11 to the FSP. Some people who were interested dropped out. Some people called us traitors, and we even received one death threat. The daily rate of people signing up slowed for a while after Sept. 11 but it began to pick up again in February. I think people are beginning to realize that not much in the country has changed except for the federal government's trying to violate and take away our civil liberties in the name of our protection. And yet, as 9/11 showed, it could not and did not protect us from Al Qaida and their extremists. So we are starting to pick up members again. We would like to reach 5,000 members in three years, because that would a tipping point to show to people that we're serious."
The mixed response from Libertarians has led the FSP to look outside their circle towards others who might be even more interested in their hopes and dreams for state and local autonomy. Links towards paleoconservatives and paeolibertarians, members of political and cultural autonomists and secessionists like the League of the South or to anti-federal government groups in West, or strict Constitutionalist groups like the Constitution Party, could provide fertile ground either for potential members or inspiration and ideas for their own efforts. Members who sign up will get to choose the state they will live in and agree to live there. On their website are economic and political data on states below the 1.5 million person threshold, of which their are several. They have criteria to judge those states that remain: big-government tendencies eliminated Hawaii and Rhode Island outright and cast some doubt on Vermont and Maine. Federal dependence hurts the chances of North and South Dakota. That leaves mostly western states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, eastern states like New Hampshire and Delaware, and, outside the contiguous United States, Alaska.
From talking to Sorens and from reading the website, the FSP is quite aware that simply moving 20,000 people to particular state that many have never lived in before, if not even passed through, and announcing "We're taking over!" is not going to go down very well with the local populace who have lived there all their lives. So long as the FSP talks the language of "building a local culture of liberty," "appeals to a state's particularism and rights vis-Ã ÂÂ¶is the federal government" and supporting autonomy for local groups such as Native American tribes, they're on the right track.
"We've stressed on our discussion websites how to best integrate ourselves into the community we will eventually choose. But we're not really sure how that will really work out," Sorens said. "In western states we have to make contact with ranchers, farmers and miners and talk about gun rights issues, property rights and the ownership of federal lands. In the east, we will have to take a small business approach and stress the issue of taxes. Obviously if we locate in the west and Alaska, it will be to our advantage because it's further away from the central government and that distance plays a role in issues of autonomy."
Which would leave one to believe the west would be the perfect place for FSP members to relocate. Particularly Alaska, which has a secessionist movement or at least the remnants of one, the Alaska Independence Party (AIP), already in place, which elected a governor, former Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, who served form 1990-94. But this leads to central cultural problems and challenges that are in the FSP's path. While the West might be more fertile ground politically, it's less so economically, at least as it relates to Libertarians and FSP members in general. Many work in the high-tech sectors and financial service industries, and jobs in those areas of employment are not exactly in great supply in mostly rural, mostly commodity driven Western states and Alaska. Some FSP members, according to Sorens, have made it quite clear they would not prefer to live in Alaska or Wyoming. That's why a state like Delaware, the manor lawn of the DuPont family and the home the government dependent credit card industry is still a possible FSP destination. With the interconnectedness of modern technology, having FSP members move out west to start up companies in the areas they are employed in order to give other FSP members on their way jobs to come to, is one possible solution, there are more cultural challenges waiting.
The Parti Quebecois is mentioned many times on the FSP website and is certainly the model they would like to follow as a successful autonomist political party. But the PQ had it easy. All it had to do was to rally one single, homogenous ethnic, religious and linguistic group to its cause. Herding cats might prove to be easier than trying to build a coalition of libertarians, secessionists, Constitutionalists, paleoconservatives, Greens, classical liberals, and any other groups that might have an interest in the free state cause. And then try to assimilate into a state's particular culture, make common cause and coalition with native political parties and interest groups, and finding a cultural and economic group of voters as a source for their support, would be a task that would burden even Hercules.
"Education is going to be an important part of what we do," Sorens said. "Educating ourselves on the state that we choose to live in and educating the residents there as to what we stand for. We have to focus our attention on those who don't vote or whose lives aren't taken up by politics. So much of our political debate is framed by elite opinion from pundits or experts or the media, that it's hard for regular people not to follow along, because nobody wants to be part of, or examine closely, something that polls just one percent of the population or is portrayed as being on the 'fringe.'
"That's why having so many activists in one single place, working together for what we believe in, will not only make people take a look at us, but look at us again and again. It's that second and third look that we need."
Given the announcement by President Bush of a new "Superagency" for homeland security, the transferring of so many security related bureaus of the federal government into one cabinet department modeled along the lines of NKVD or the RSHA, the Free State Project is a worthy try to accomplish the task of rolling back the state.
Sean Scallon is a reporter who lives in East Ellsworth, Wisconsin.
January 6, 2003
The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent those of Free State Project, Inc.