State Report VT 1: Vermont Report
by Jason P. Sorens
(See also Vermont Report #2.)
Vermont remains one of the smallest states in the country, despite the famed "hippie takeover" of the 1960s and 1970s. Wyoming is, in fact, the only state with less population. Vermont's economy is centered mostly around tourism and niche consumer goods, such as maple syrup, cheese, Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, Vermont Teddy Bears, and so on, with some manufacturing and high-tech industry in Burlington.
The purpose of these state research papers is to take into account "intangible factors" not taken into account by the quantitative state comparison matrix. On that spreadsheet Vermont usually ends up between #4 and #7 on the ranking. But are there factors affecting likelihood of success that the spreadsheet cannot take into account? For the purposes of this paper, factors are divided into three categories: openness of the political system to libertarian ideas and influence, availability of jobs, and quality of life.
Vermont has one of the most vigorous third-party traditions in America. Its sole representative in the U.S. House, Bernie Sanders, is a Socialist. (In most elections the Democrats decide not to field a challenger, however.) The socialist Liberty Union party had success in local elections in the 1970s. Today Burlington, the largest city of Vermont, has been turned into a "progressive" (socialist) experimenting ground. The Grassroots Party is dedicated to the legalization of marijuana. However, the rural areas of Vermont remain conservative, with a libertarian undercurrent, and the Libertarian Party has succeeded in electing quite a few candidates to local offices and occasionally even to the state house. The Ethan Allen Institute is a free-market thinktank.
Today Vermont is wracked by polarized political conflict between the dominant leftists and the conservative old stock. "Take Back Vermont" is the conservative organization dedicated to restoring Vermont's traditional political orientation. Its immediate impetus was the "civil unions" law giving legal recognition to homosexual partnerships. However, TBV has simply not had the numbers to effect political change. Vermont went solidly for Gore in 2000.
Vermont remains a strange hodgepodge of liberal and conservative elements. Down the street from the "natural health foods" store (which looks as if it used to be a farmers' market) is the guns Ã¯Â¿Â½n' ammo shop. Vermont is renowned not just for its more socialist tendencies but also for its concealed-carry law - or rather, lack of one. You don't need permission from the government to carry a concealed handgun - the only state in the Union for which this is true.
Vermont is known for having some rather tyrannical zoning and land-use restrictions: one often hears stories about store owners fined for having signs that are either too large or too small. On the other hand, some would claim that Vermont's quality of life has benefitted from some of these regulations: for example, billboards are banned on all Vermont highways. The alternative explanation for Vermont's unique lifestyle is that the state largely bypassed the industrial revolution, moving from an agricultural society into a high-tech economy.
In general, Vermont has a decentralized, "smaller is better" approach that could dovetail nicely with libertarian aims. Despite some of their more draconian laws, they are promulgated and enforced by town councils, not some Oregon-style "Metro" monstrosity. Vermont has a secessionist movement, inspired perhaps by Vermont's history of secession and independent nationhood. (It seceded from New York and remained independent until 1792.) Retired professor Thomas Naylor, who has written a good deal on the future of secessionism in America, is a member of the Vermont Independence Party (which as far as I know has not begun contesting elections yet).
If the Free State Project were to choose Vermont, we would probably have to abandon the idea of creating a "pure libertarian society." One Vermonter estimates that the number of hippies who moved to Vermont in the 1960s and 1970s was about 20,000 - that means we would face an activist base the same size as ours which would fight tooth and nail to prevent certain regulations from being repealed. We could certainly tip the balance toward a more free-market approach, but the areas where we could do the most would be: 1) personal liberties, like marijuana freedom; 2) autonomy, even independence. If we were to choose Vermont, creating a federation of autonomist forces (Vermont Independence Party, Libertarian Party, other independentists of all ideological orientations) would probably be our best course of action.
One comment one often hears about New England is that it is a bastion of socialism. This observation is used to argue that if we chose a northern New England state, our position would be precarious, because leftists could easily move in and mess up our work. However, this threat is probably overblown. The bastions of socialism are along the coast: New York city, New Haven, Providence, Boston. Western Massachusetts, upstate New York, northern Connecticut, most of New Hampshire, and most of Maine are conservative, in the rock-ribbed, "old New England" way. We wouldn't have to deal with New Yorkers except when they come for a long weekend to ski.
With regard to jobs, Vermont might be a difficult place. Most business is small-scale, meaning that the ratio of employees to employers is low. Many of us would have to start our own businesses. One source does mention that IBM, IDX, and Husky, located in Chittenden County (Burlington area), are "always looking for qualified workers." (Another source mentions that IBM has been cutting back during the recession, however.) The same source mentions, however, that Vermonters perceive "flatlanders" as coming in to take jobs from them. He mentions that many independent software programmers, graphic artists, and court reporters have successfully set up their own businesses, and that native Vermonters aren't typically interested in high-tech jobs. The jobs forecast for Vermont is quite bleak (36,000 new jobs forecast between 1998 and 2008, and that was before the recession), so that it might turn out extremely difficult to move in 20,000 people in even a five-year period. This fact just emphasizes that we will have to create our own jobs for the most part.
As far as quality of life goes, I rate northern New England very highly. If one values community and the small-town life, there is no better place in the country. The winters are long and snowy, but even a Southerner like me can handle it with enough clothes. The location of Vermont is quite attractive: living in Vermont you are but an hour or two from Montreal, a melting pot of English-Canadian and Qubecois culture, a truly European city in that it is markedly cultured, clean, and safe compared to some American cities. Boston and New York are close enough for weekend excursions, and if you like mountains (though not very high ones), the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the Adirondacks of northern New York are gorgeous, especially in fall (with the blazing colors) and winter (with the frozen streams).
On tangible factors Vermont comes out better than average, and I think intangible factors make it clearly one of the six or so states that should be considered seriously. The main problems, as mentioned, are the hardcore leftists who will almost certainly prevent us from reaching some of our goals and the lack of a good job market. If you do highly specialized work that requires an employer with a lot of capital, you might do well voting for other states, ones that have metropolitan centers.
July 27, 2002
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Free State Project, its Officers, or Directors.