State Report MT 1: Montana Report
by Ben Irvin
A few days ago on one of the FSP discussion groups I mentioned that in 56 years (almost 57 years) I have lived (for sixty days or more) in 89 communities in every state between the Hundredth Meridian and the Sierra Nevada Mountains (except Nebraska and North Dakota). As a teenager I was interested in freedom and in seeking a place and way for achieving it. As early as 1962 I researched the advantages of secession. Thus, my interest in things relating to the primary goal of the Free State Project is long-standing. I have given, over the past forty years, considerable thought to the subject.
My years of contemplation and research have led me to a conclusion about which state is most amenable to the Jeffersonian concepts of independence, limited government, and liberty. That state would be Montana. Indeed, if freedom alone is the primary objective, no other state comes close.
My choice of Montana is not based so much on collected statistical data as on subjective reality (Transcendentalism Lives!). Since my childhood I have been in and out of Montana many times (living in other states). I currently - for the past two years - have lived in Idaho. One thing that I and freedom loving Montanans notice when forced to live away from Montana is the much higher level of statism, coercion (governmental and social), regulation, etc. that exists in other states. In some states the heavy hand of government is more pronounced (WA, OR, TX, KS, CA). In other states not so much (NV, ID, and WY). However, in all states the degree of liberty seems much less than in Montana. Most Montanans that move away mention this reduction of liberty ("We have to behave here; for, we're not in Montana any more, etc.). I've noticed that even my use of language seems restricted outside of Montana.
- Small Police Force
One thing that visitors notice when visiting is the unusually low number of visible police cars. Indeed it is possible to drive completely through the state (all 800+ miles) and never see a policeman. In fact, Montana does not have a state police force, but rather a highway patrol. Ten years ago I was a good friend of one of the state's few highway patrol officers. I asked him how many officers were on duty at any time. He responded that at maximum there are 108 officers and at minimum 42 officers on duty at any time. Remember, Montana is larger in square miles than Germany. County and city law enforcement numbers are also low. In Ravalli County (seventh largest in population) there are at times only three sheriff's deputies on duty. Montana Highway Patrol officers are trained to serve and protect the public and little else.
- Socio-Cultural Background
About 10% of Montana's population is American Indian. The primary tribes (those with national homelands) are: Atsina (Gros Ventre), Chippewa, Blackfeet, Crow, Cree, Dakota, Assiniboine, Northern Cheyenne, Salish, and Kutenai. All of the states tribes have declared sovereignty from Montana and are fiercely independent (they acknowledge no Montana laws and few federal). Many non-Indians prefer to live on Indian land (12% of Montana) because of this almost total lack of restrictive rules, taxes, regulation,etc. Montana also has a very large French and Metis (French-Indian) population. Most of the French population are the descendents of mountain men and fur traders from the early 19th Century. They also tend to be independent in behavior. Probably Montana's single largest ethnic group is the Irish. They first came to the state to pan for gold and later to work in the copper mines of Butte. Little needs to be said about the frontier Irish and an independent nature. All three primary ethnic groups are enculturated to individualism and liberty ... all are free spirits.
About thirty years ago there was a popular book (in Montana at least) entitled Montana: A Two Lane Highway in a Four Lane World." Many thought the book amusing in the way that it portrayed the so-called backward and country ways/manners of Montana and Montanans. What was most illuminating about the book were the ways Montanans did most things differently than the rest of America (more about that later): no speed limits or anti-prostitution law enforcement, little liquor or gambling control, active gun culture, no sales tax, no pornography regulation, no "open container" laws or anti-nudity ordinances (seldom enforced), etc. The book made the case that because of Montana's isolation, the frontier values of 1889 and before had become part and parcel of Montana's political and cultural climate. In other words, the raw individualism and spirit of liberty of the men and women that settled and tamed Montana (somewhat) are still a living entity in the Montana of 1972 (and today).
Montana's isolation has caused the state to be more self-sufficient than most. The state has its own private television network (The Montana Television Network-MTN), canning factories (Redlodge Brands, etc.), railroads (Montana Rail Link, + Butte, Anaconda and Pacific, etc.), truck farming regions, independent telephone companies (about 50), refineries and steel factories, etc. The state is set up to survive with or without the rest of America.
- Other Freedom Indicators
There are numerous other freedom indicators. One should remember that libertarian philosophy is not always an exact match with freedom as experienced by an individual. One such freedom is Montana's constitutional mandate that the state owns all water within the borders of Montana (up to the high water mark). This constitutional law is unique. In effect it allows anyone to hunt, fish, camp, target practice, live, hike, explode fire-crackers, etc. on any river, stream, creek, or brook in the state below the high water mark. Anyone that has tried to fish, hunt, etc. in say Colorado knows the value of such a law.
Montana's 1972 Constitution allows counties and local government to be creative. Both counties and cities may be easily altered or abolished. About twenty years ago, all the towns and cities in Silver Bowl County (Butte) eradicated (unincorporated) themselves. All city governments, police forces, fire departments, etc. were abolished in the county. A new Silver Bowl County government was established that saves the taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Montana makes it very difficult for rural areas to be annexed by incorporated cities/towns, for a majority of the citizens must agree to be annexed . The state makes incorporating (cities and towns) very unrewarding. Once incorporated you do not get any money from the state or county ... a town is on its own. As recently as 1992, the fourth largest urban community in the state (Billings Heights) was unincorporated. Anyone that has ever driven through either rural or urban Montana can sense the almost total lack of zoning ordinances. People build what they want, where they want, on their own property.
Members of the Free State Project should notice how the state treats it 57 Hutterite communities. Hutterites are a communal ethnic group that has frozen its social and religious culture in the rural 16th Century German-Tyrolean culture of its origin. Hutterites are a pure communist society that has a unique religion and speaks in an archaic German dialect. The culture refuses to acknowledge the state or to vote or serve in the military in any capacity. Traditionally they have refused to send any of their children to public schools. Each Hutterite community buys large land tracks and expands every 20-25 years (they have a very high birth rate). Although their social culture is frozen in time, their technical culture demands the most modern equipment available. Many consider them the most efficient farmers in the world. Because of their unusual culture and life-style, most states and provinces have legislated against them. They have been "outlawed" in North Dakota, and severe restrictions have been placed on them in South Dakota, Alberta, and elsewhere. Only Montana has made a successful accommodation with them ("The Hutterite Act" of 1956). Under the compromise, Hutterites may buy all the land they want, live communally, and live their own culture without any interference from Montana. Their only compromise was in education. All Hutterite children (from age 7-14) must attend Montana public schools. However, all schools may be at the principle church building (in a colony), and all the children (100%) may be Hutterite. In addition, the school board was allowed be all Hutterite and a third of the instruction could be whatever the Hutterite desire. The agreement allowed the colonies to select the teacher (who is not permitted to reside in the colony). The Hutterite are also exempted from serving in the Militia of Montana. Because of this agreement, almost all new colonies started since 1960 are in Montana. Because of their high birth rate, archaic Tyrolean-German has become the third most common language used by Montanans (Crow is second) under eighteen years of age.
For many years a few large corporations owned most of the private land in the state. Because of this the state has placed severe restrictions on giant corporations and has designed legislation that helps small businesses. An example of this would be the gambling laws. To keep large Las Vegas type corporations away from the state, Montana puts a limit of 25 gambling machines per private company (usually Keno or poker machines). Anyone that has a beer, wine, or hard liquor permit may establish a casino. Anyone with $250.00 can get a beer permit (no limits). A gambling permit also costs $250.00. The cost of the permit is used to pay private machine inspectors that check every thirty days to make sure the machines are paying off at the listed rate (80%). Because service stations like Conoco are individually owned, they (Conoco) have become the largest casino name in the state. At least half of all gasoline stations are casinos. It should be noted that an individual might own an unlimited amount of (limited to 25 machines per location) casinos.
The Constitution of Montana is stronger than the interpreted U.S. Constitution in regards to privacy rights. A man's home is his castle. The State Supreme Court has ruled (on several occasions) that a person's vehicle is considered one's home. Thus, probable cause or a search warrant must be used to search an automobile. A few years ago the Missoula city police thought that a new "cash cow" would be to check for drunk drivers exiting from "tail-gate parties" at University of Montana football games. This lasted for only one weekend before a state judge ruled that such police actions were in violation of the Montana Constitution. The state has no "open container" laws. Indeed, many Montanans build elaborate bars on the dash area of their vehicles.
Restrictions on freedom are not limited to government. Social-cultural limitations on lived freedom are often as severe as anything that government might impose. On paper, Utah has a high level of liberty; however, in practice, Utah is very restrictive on personal freedom. An example would be the recent news story about a suburban Utah lady who worked in her garden every day clad only in a very revealing Bikini. Local socio-cultural traditions forced the local city government to prohibit her from dressing in a Bikini.
This would never happen in Montana. Many former out-of-state people (now long-time residence of Montana) mention this freedom from conservative values that exists in Montana. Try wearing your Colt .45's when entering a saloon in Colorado (or Kansas, etc.). This is common in Montana; for, the spirit of the old West (closely related to the spirit of 1776) still lives in the "Big Sky." Try taking your children with you to a casino in Nevada. In Montana, not only are children welcomed in casinos, they can bring you your whiskey ditch to drink. Before July 1, 1993 it was legal for a ten year old to enter a hard liquor bar/casino and order and smoke a pack of cigarettes. The law was only changed because of Federal pressure (Montana was the 50th state to establish an age limit on the purchase of tobacco products). Montana law also makes it illegal for police to arrest a publicly intoxicated person unless that person's health is in immediate danger or the person is breaking the law. A famous business in Missoula (Montana's second largest city) is called "The Joint Effort." Last year the FBI and DEA tried to get the city of Missoula to deny the business a business license and close it down. The city told the Feds to back off and stop interfering with private businesses and with regulations that are solely the concern of state or local governments (thus far, the feds have done what they were told).
The state constitution is very strong in free speech/press rights. I have read several times that Montana is one of only four states (I don't know the other three) that has total freedom of speech and press. The state also prohibits local governments from interfering with freedom of speech and press. Out-of-staters that enter an adult bookstore are always shocked. Any and all sexual acts imaginable with man or beast are for purchase. A decade ago I was the head administrator for a school in northern Idaho (a much different cultural realm than Montana). The high school 4-H club had a conference to attend in southeastern Idaho. It was easiest to get to the conference by driving through western Montana. At Missoula, Montana the bus broke down and all the students had to spend a night in a local motel that just happened to be across the street from a typical Montana Adult bookstore and recreation center. Some of the students managed to sneak away from the chaperons and get into the adult center. They are still talking about this in that small community in northern Idaho. It seems, that some students saw a whole new world that was and is unimaginable in Idaho (or most of America). There were two special school board meetings called to discus the "sin" Idaho teenagers had been exposed to. However, I did notice, as time moved on, that a higher than average number of our students decided to attend colleges in Montana.
Montana is the place of choice for anti-socials to retreat. The Unabomber, the Freemen, Peter Fonda, etc. all selected the state to become hidden. Because of Montana's reputation and laws the feds usually treat Montana and Montanans with knit gloves (compared to other states). In 1996 a group of "Freemen" were surrounded in a remote area of eastern Montana. The feds, apparently either fearful of Montana's laws (it is illegal under the state constitution for any armed band of people to enter the state without the permission of the legislature or governor) or people, the FBI requested that the Montana Highway Patrol and the Governor be in charge of surrounding and arresting the Freeman. Governor Raicott agreed, but later billed the FBI 4.8 million dollars. During the siege (that went on for weeks) a federal agent was never seen on TV. Of course, the Montana Highway Patrol arrested all 24 people without a shot being fired. Compare this with Waco and the way the FBI treated Texans, Texas law, and Texas law enforcement officials. The "Gestapo" behaves in Montana.
In summary, experienced or real freedom is higher in Montana than any other state. Not only is the heavy hand of government noticed less in Montana, the heavy hand of conservative social morality is at a lower level than any other state. One can dump a broken down 1958 Studebaker in the front yard and sit on it everyday in one's underwear drinking beer, wearing a holstered .45 auto, and make obscene gestures at traffic passing by in the largest city in Montana and not get arrested (unless, of course, one throws beer bottles or shoots at the passing vehicles). If freedom is the primary objective of the Free State Project, then Montana is the best place to locate. It is the place Thomas Jefferson would live in if he were alive.
July 24, 2002
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Free State Project, its Officers, or Directors.