The Free State Project at Ten: Part One
We are now exactly 10 years on from the original article that started the Free State Project. I wrote that article as a 24-year-old graduate student who was fed up with libertarian politics as usual, electing nobody important and having little effect on the political process. In the piece, I proposed a new movement that would recruit 20,000 pro-freedom “activists” (defined very broadly) to move to a single state of the U.S., where they would work for political change. So how far has the Project come, and where is it going? And why should most Americans care? This article is the first of two looking back over the Free State Project’s 10-year history and forward to the future.
The FSP shot out of the starting gate after that first article from July 2001. As this update posted shortly thereafter noted, over 220 people signed up for the Yahoo group in the first week, just over 1% of the 20,000 target. (People sometimes ask why the FSP chose a target of 20,000 commitments. The short answer is – I pulled it out of nowhere. The slightly fuller answer is – it was about half the historic peak Libertarian Party membership, and I thought it might, just, be attainable. I didn’t know how many activists it would really take to create a “free state.” Today that number seems far lower than 20,000.) But after September 11th, it ran into the doldrums for several months, and we even received hostility from former supporters. Some people had the mistaken idea that the FSP advocated secession, even though the update I posted shortly after the Project got underway backed away from that initial idea. Secession was never part of any official stance of the FSP or the Statement of Intent.
After Walter Williams mentioned the Project in a column in August 2002, it was off to the races again. This article from September 2002 gives a more detailed history of the first year of the FSP. In summer 2003, the FSP reached 5,000 signatures and held a vote for our chosen destination. New Hampshire beat every other candidate state in pairwise (“head to head”) majority votes. The closest was Wyoming, which lost to New Hampshire 58-42%.
After that announcement on October 1, 2003, some people started picking up and moving for New Hampshire, which we hadn’t expected, the first arriving shortly after the New Year. However, the participant signup rate slowed as the original leadership team broke up and media coverage died down. I stepped down as president due to my wife’s cancer diagnosis and pressures of a new job, and we had quite a bit of turnover over the next year. 2004 and 2005 were probably the toughest years for the FSP. But by the end of 2005, about 120 people had moved to New Hampshire, and the word had gotten out widely in the libertarian activist community. Libertarian Party U.S. Presidential candidate Michael Badnarik frequently expressed support for us. And as the people in New Hampshire started to make things happen, and the Porcupine Freedom Festival continued to grow, recruiting picked up once again. If you’re not yet familiar with it, the FSP Timeline has been updated from the beginning, though perhaps less religiously in the past three years than in the past, and provides a good overview of how the FSP has progressed.
Today, close to 800 people have moved to New Hampshire as participants in the Free State Project, and over 1,000 “Porcupines” (as Free Staters commonly call themselves) live in New Hampshire, when you count participants who lived there before the state vote and “FSP Pioneers,” people who already live there and sign up to indicate their support for the FSP’s goals. At least a dozen FSP movers have been elected to the New Hampshire state house and many more to local office. One FSP legislator tells me that there are about 70 libertarian legislators in the state house now. (There are 400 members of the state house in all.) Indeed, New Hampshire Public Radio’s state house reporter told me that he sees this legislature as the most libertarian in memory. One small indication of that may be that the overwhelmingly Republican state house easily passed a medical marijuana bill this year. (The state senate has so far sat on it.) That is only the second time a Republican-dominated chamber anywhere in the country has passed a medical marijuana bill (Vermont did it a few years ago).
These rapid changes in New Hampshire have made some activists at the other end of the political spectrum uneasy. They complain that “Free Staters have taken over the Republican Party,” ignoring the fact that some Free Staters are Democrats, including the first one ever elected to the legislature, Joel Winters. They allege that we want to “dismantle state government,” which may be true of some Free Staters but not the ones in the office. The FSP is neutral on the question of whether government should exist at all, but most of the ones who participate in the political process believe in a “strong but limited” government that protects freedom.
Why do Free Staters care so much about freedom? Shouldn’t the welfare of society matter too? Of course the welfare of society is desirable, but not at the expense of freedom. Freedom is the only political quantity of which a society can never have too much. Too much equality? Yes, that would be a problem. If you made everybody’s incomes equal, no one would have an incentive to produce, and we’d all starve. Too much social welfare? Yes, even that is possible. We could save lives if we killed random healthy people and distributed their organs to those who need them. The lives saved would more than counterbalance those lost. But to enact a program of this kind would be wrong because it takes away freedom.
You can never have too much freedom. What about the freedom to do harm to others? Wouldn’t that be too much? Ah, but to take away someone else’s rights is to take away their freedom. If I steal from someone for my own benefit, I take away that person’s legitimate freedom to dispose of her own property, which makes the “freedom to steal” not a legitimate freedom. The FSP is about one simple message – maximum freedom for all. That’s a powerful message, and it’s no wonder that political adversaries are frightened of it.
But the FSP isn’t just a political movement; it’s a community. Porcupines may live all over New Hampshire and belong to different walks of life, but they come together to help each other and society at large. They’ve started or helped to start a private school, an emergency information service (Porc411), and a scholarship fund, and in a matter of days raised over $10,000 for one of their own who suffered a severe injury. The new documentary Libertopia captures some of the social aspects of the Project, which are in the end probably the best reason of all for you to make the move yourself – if you haven’t yet.