Onward to New Hampshire!
|Title:||Onward to New Hampshire!|
Onward to New Hampshire!Austin's Free State members pledge to create a Libertarian bastion
by Mark Lisheron AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF 11/16/03
Alan Weiss, Michael Badnarik and Rick McGinnis want to experience their ideal of liberty in their lifetimes.
To secure their freedom, they have pledged to move from Austin to New Hampshire along with men and women from all over the country.
Once there, these people, members of the Free State Project, intend to set about creating a place to prosper without government interfering in how citizens live. Now, if they can only put up with the cold.
The idea for the Free State Project is not unlike that which led to the Mormon migration to Utah in the 19th century. After years of trying to effect political change in their communities, Free Staters believe that their one last hope is to gather in a state where their like-minded numbers would make a difference.
In little over a year 5,055 people nationwide, 274 of them from Texas, have joined the Free State Project. Organizers say the project can succeed if 20,000 people pledge to move to New Hampshire. Far from being political kooks, as their intellectual predecessors have sometimes been portrayed, organizers say the core of the movement is middle class, educated, high-tech savvy and entrepreneurial.
Whether the Free State Project will fail if the goal isn't reached is a matter of debate among members. Political experts doubt that the movement will succeed in New Hampshire, no matter how audacious and intriguing the idea or how many people ultimately immigrate.
But at a time when citizens debate the USA Patriot Act and the erosion of civil liberties, Free Staters believe that something dramatic must be tried.
'Fighting for an idea'
"This is very much like the Alamo," Badnarik said over a plate of crepes at a local IHOP recently. "We're fighting for an idea. The question is not whether or not this is worth it. I feel the government is so out of control that this drastic step is necessary. I'm afraid the next step would be some sort of revolution, and I don't want that."
Badnarik is one of five people running for the Libertarian Party's nomination for president of the United States. He has managed to visit 12 states on $5,000, sleeping on couches and otherwise living on the cheap.
His success campaigning at Libertarian conventions in 16 key states from January through April will determine whether he carries his party's presidential banner. The Free State Project will have to wait at least a year.
The Free State Project is a libertarian idea. Libertarian philosophy is simple in design and, for most Americans, impossible in execution.
Libertarians derive their rights and their responsibilities from the Constitution. The individual is expected to shoulder the biggest responsibility, not to interfere with the rights of other individuals.
Government's responsibility is to protect this covenant, not to protect individuals from themselves, a libertarian would say. A libertarian supports some form of national defense, for example, but does not support government-sponsored welfare or school programs.
Badnarik, 49, has twice been a Libertarian candidate for state representative, collecting nearly 17 percent of the vote in Texas' District 47 in 2000. Weiss, 44, is a Libertarian serving on the board of Municipal Utility District 41 in Austin. McGinnis, 49, is the vice-chairman of the Travis County Libertarian Party.
But though roughly half of the members of the Free State Project describe themselves as Libertarians, according to national spokesman Elizabeth McKinstry of Ann Arbor, Mich., the other half is made up of independents, conservatives and liberals, she says.
Libertarianism, as a political movement, stalled long ago. After coming out of nowhere at its inception in 1972, Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark got more than 900,000 votes, or 1 percent of the total, in the 1980 election that Ronald Reagan won. No Libertarian has amassed as many as 500,000 votes in any presidential election since.
Jason Sorens, a 26-year-old political science major at Yale University and a Libertarian Party member, critiqued the flagging fortunes of the party in an essay he submitted as part of his candidacy for a Ph.D. In July 2001, Sorens posted the essay on the Internet. It included a detailed call to all libertarian-minded people to create a free state.
McKinstry, who has a degree in philosophy and works in marketing for an environmental group, says she read the essay and immediately began discussing a move with her husband. Though he is not as libertarian as she, McKinstry's husband says, he supports a move. McKinstry is Free State Project member No. 5.
"I read the essay and thought, 'Hell, yes, this is absolutely what we ought to do,' " she said. "I told my husband that if this works, it is something I can't not be part of. This has been the most exciting two years of my life."
As membership grew, Free State Project organizers created a list of 10 states as a possible destination: Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North and South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming and New Hampshire.
Some Free State members complained of the remoteness of some states. Many complained about the climates. Organizers stuck with the list because the low populations of these states would make it possible for 20,000 Libertarian thinkers to make their biggest impact.
When the vote was announced Oct. 1, New Hampshire had received the most first-place votes, 749. North and South Dakota received the fewest, a combined 56.
'Live Free or Die'
"We'd love to have you," Craig Benson, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, told Free Staters at a Libertarian Party convention in Manchester in early November.
In an e-mail interview, Benson said that though Republicans are loath to consider some of the Free State platform -- repealing gun laws and legalizing drugs and gambling -- New Hampshire would benefit from new involvement in the political process.
"They indicated to me that they were small-business owners who believe in limited self-governance. These are ideals we share, and I welcome them as law-abiding citizens."
Benson's enthusiasm is one reason Free Staters are excited about New Hampshire. The state motto is "Live Free or Die." The state levies no income tax or sales tax. New Hampshire's gun laws, a threshold issue for Constitutionalists, are fewer and more lenient than elsewhere. Seat-belt laws and motorcycle-helmet laws do not exist.
Perhaps most important to a group seeking political change, New Hampshire might have the most localized government in the union. The state's 1.2 million people are represented by myriad boards of selectmen and city councils.
Voters elect 400 state representatives to the House, the largest legislative body in the country next to the U.S. House of Representatives. The average is one representative for every 3,500 or so voters. The stipend of $200 per legislative session curbs professional politicians.
John Babiarz, chairman of the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire, cannot believe the state's good fortune. "We're ecstatic. New Hampshire is a libertarian-leaning state. A lot of people here welcome this as a way to rejuvenate state politics," he said.
Calling Davy Crockett
What surprised Alan Weiss when he visited New Hampshire early this month was the economy's vigor and diversity, particularly in the largest cities, Manchester (population 107,006), Nashua (86,605) and the state capital, Concord (40,687).
Weiss runs two small software and hardware testing and analysis companies in Austin. One of his companies certified the vote for the selection of the Free State at no charge.
Weiss says he came to his political philosophy at 15. He fell in with free-market economic theorists at the University of California at Northridge. After a sour experience with Clark's 1980 campaign, Weiss stayed away from party politics. The Free State Project was different, a movement ready to back its ideas with action.
"This is the grand experiment of our time for a family who believes in liberty," he said. "This is the quintessential American experience. David Crockett said, 'You can go to hell; I'm going to Texas.' Well, I'm going to New Hampshire."
This is no headlong rush. Weiss' wife, Jane, has her own career, and though she has kept an open mind, she has not yet visited New Hampshire. He'd like his daughter, Robyn, to finish her senior year in high school here this year. Jane's 83-year-old mother-in-law is in a nursing home here.
Weiss says he intends to fly his family to New Hampshire in the teeth of winter before asking them to help him fulfill his commitment. The Free State Project is a pledge, not a binding contract, he says.
"I'm not moving this year," Weiss said. "Austin is my home. I love Texas. I am a Texan. But it is changing into a big government state. It isn't the state I moved to 12 years ago."
Badnarik shares the same concerns about the political shift in Texas but says he would be leaving for New Hampshire after his campaign anyway.
He says he fled the "socialist state of California" for Austin in 1997. A chemist by education and a former nuclear systems analyst, Badnarik lost his Web development training job two years ago. He used the time to create an all-day course on the Constitution that he teaches small groups for a fee.
Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election in 2004, Badnarik, who is single, intends to resume teaching the Constitution in New Hampshire.
McGinnis wants to use his Travis County Libertarian Party experience to help Free Staters get elected in New Hampshire.
McGinnis, who is also single, grew up in Dallas and made himself comfortable in real estate in California. He thoroughly enjoys Austin and will miss it, he says. But he will not be deterred, even if the Free State Project doesn't get 20,000 people to move.
"The reality is that this is a grass-roots movement; that's important to remember," McGinnis said, sipping tea at Threadgill's downtown. "If those of us who can easily do it don't move to New Hampshire, then what excuse is there?"
New Hampshire political leaders have thought of several excuses. Democrats have complained that libertarians will further frustrate efforts to raise taxes for schools. Republicans are worried about the libertarians' free-wheeling attitude on legislating morality.
But though the Free State Project sees New Hampshire as libertarian leaning, leaning does not necessarily promise libertarian voting. Although four Libertarians have served in the New Hampshire House at one time or another, none currently serves. And of the thousands of elected and appointed positions in the state, 29 of them are held by Libertarians.
New Hampshire residents have been decidedly restrained for all the attention the Free State Project has received, according to Richard Winters, a professor who has taught New Hampshire government since 1969 at Dartmouth College in Hanover.
Few people are aware of the Free State Project. And those who know of it are not convinced that 20,000 people are coming, Winters says. And even if the goal is reached, Winters says, Free Staters will be thwarted by a political system that appears from a great distance to offer an advantage.
"Precisely because elected officials represent so few people, government is controlled by two very strong parties," Winters said. "Voters are very well-informed on political issues but also the issues that pertain to their communities. These people coming in from the outside are going to be last in line on the ballot."
Free State Project founders do not agree on whether the movement can maintain the momentum to reach the 20,000-pledge goal. McKinstry is particularly worried about the next 5,000, now that the novelty of the idea has played out.
Without the necessary numbers, McKinstry says, she is afraid that nothing will change in New Hampshire. Worst of all, the Free State Project will have sent a message that nothing will change anywhere. If that happens, McKinstry says, she won't be going to New Hampshire.
"In making these grand statements, I think we bear a terrible responsibility, not only to our membership but to the ideals of libertarianism to make this work," McKinstry said. "If we fail, I think it will doom the Libertarian movement. I find the thought of it so sad and so frightening."
Badnarik couldn't disagree more. The success of the Free State Project will not rest with numbers of people, he says, but in the conviction of those who go to New Hampshire.
"There are already people moving there," he said. "As we continue to improve life and liberty in New Hampshire, other people will come."
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