Trying to Organize 'Anarchy'
|Title:||Trying to Organize 'Anarchy'|
|Michael Lorrey of Grantham, a member of the Free State Project, walks his dog, Cinni, at his home earlier this month. "Porcupines reserve their quills for those that try to mess with them," he said, a reference to the group's mascot. (Valley News Jennifer Hauck)|
Trying to Organize 'Anarchy'by Jodie Tillman Valley News Staff Writer 02/22/04
Nashua Anarchy worked just fine when everybody got free bread and didn't mind that they were all talking at the same time.
But then the entrees of steak salads and turkey wraps arrived and an authority figure emerged out of the lunchtime chaos.
"I'm taking a little executive privilege here," said Chuck Geshlider, speaking to his nine dining companions at a busy restaurant in downtown Nashua. "While the food's here, one person can talk. When the food's gone, it goes back to anarchy."
Gone for the moment was the strategy of noshing on complimentary bread and carrying on at least three or four rapid-fire conversations about the virtues of small government, the diversity of the Libertarian Party and the pathos of the Red Sox.
To get New Hampshire as free as the bread takes at least a small measure of order even for these supporters of the Free State Project, an Internet-based movement to recruit 20,000 libertarians and "classical liberals" to move to New Hampshire and work for smaller government, fewer laws and greater personal liberties.
Now that more than 5,400 people so far have committed to moving here, supporters are getting into the nuts and bolts of various strategies, hoping that a project with a quixotic premise, humble Internet beginnings and a target audience passionate about individualism and not necessarily organized movements can make the awkward, adolescent transition to ... the Granite State.
"All these arguments that have been going on internally in the Libertarian Party," said Geshlider in an interview, "all the arguing that has been going on in some air castle, has a chance to empirically prove itself in a laboratory. The argument stops."
But first they need to figure out how they're going to go about working in the laboratory, and that's no easy task. So far, the most unified efforts have focused on recruiting in such towns as Killington, Vt., where Free Staters are advertising to further entice town officials, who have threatened to secede to New Hampshire because of Vermont's property taxes.
But the movement is splintering on the question of how migrants to New Hampshire can be most effective.
Some want to get a critical mass of Free Staters in a small town where there's a good chance of getting elected to local government. Others want to locate in scattered parts of New Hampshire and be activists. Still another group wants to go to "battleground" towns such as Lebanon, where candidates elected to the state legislature won by narrow margins.
But supporters aren't worrying to reporters about the sustainability of their project and say they see the diversity of views as a good thing. Jason Sorens, a 27-year-old political science lecturer at Yale and the group's founder, figures it will all work out in the end, somehow.
"One aspect of my outlook," said Sorens, "is that things that are planned never end up quite the way I expect."
It seems appropriate that a Web-powered movement began with an essay posted on the Internet.
Sorens wrote an essay in 2001 saying that Libertarian candidates would never win political contests with Republicans and Democrats. What was crucial for small-government advocates, he said, was to promote a grass-roots movement at the state level.
It would be a movement "in which freedom-minded people of all stripes (libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, pacifists, even people who call themselves liberals or conservatives the only requirement is that you pledge that you will work to reducing government to the minimal functions of protecting life, liberty and property) establish residence in a small state and take over the state government," said the essay, which was posted on the Internet (www.freestateproject.org).
Sorens advocated slashing state and local budgets and eliminating "substantial federal interference by refusing to take highway funds and the strings attached to them." Threatening secession could be used as a bargaining tool, he said.
In a follow-up essay and in a recent interview, he cited an example of migrants from one state to another changing society: the hippie invasion of Vermont in the 1960s and '70s.
The communes didn't last, but "they were really able to affect Vermont culture," said Sorens.
After Sorens' essay was posted on the Internet, people with similar outlooks and reading lists jumped on board, starting up Internet chat rooms on the subject of a Free State. Libertarian publications and radio shows talked about the issue, a Web site went up and the movement to get a critical mass of like-minded people in one state was alive.
It even got a motto "Liberty in our Lifetime" and a mascot, a porcupine.
"Porcupines reserve their quills for those that try to mess with them," explained Michael Lorrey, a Grantham resident who is helping recruit for the project and was willing to move if another state had been selected.
If the Web-based support sounds familiar to those who follow presidential primary politics, don't take the comparison to a former Vermont governor's failed presidential campaign too far, say Free Staters.
Lorrey dismissed some observers in the media who argued that tunnel vision prevented Howard Dean's supporters from realizing the public wasn't as enthusiastic about the candidate as the campaign's Web logs ("blogs") might have suggested.
He blames Dean's fall on his media coverage. "He peaked too early," said Lorrey.
Last year, after sometimes contentious debate in chat rooms, Free State Project members selected New Hampshire no sales tax, low crime rate, small population New Hampshire as the state of choice. The state's "Live Free or Die" motto didn't hurt, and neither did Gov. Craig Benson's welcome.
(A remark from Benson is noted in the endorsement section of the Free State Project Web site: "Come on up; we'd love to have you!" Benson spokesman Wendell Packard said the governor supported some of the group's platform, but had not been involved with the project other than an initial meeting with them.)
People who pledge to move to New Hampshire sign a letter of intent saying they will move there within five years once the membership roll hits 20,000, a number project officials say is high enough to make a difference in New Hampshire.
Making a difference would mean a number of things for members of the group, from privatizing road crew services now provided by local governments to reducing the state's environmental regulatory power, from loosening gun control restrictions to ditching the statewide property tax.
On the question of plowing roads, for instance, Lorrey said he had faith that people would realize it was in their best interest to come together and pay private businesses to plow the roads. And if they did not?
"I'd take another road," he said.
People who share a singular obsession tend to be attracted to one another. Free Staters are no different.
"If you're a libertarian, and you're around other libertarians, you've always got friends," said Tim Condon, 53, a Tampa, Fla., attorney and Free State Project member who plans to move to Grafton in the next few years.
The Free State Project does not keep demographic statistics on all its members, but supporters say most of those associated with the effort are male. Most of them are educated, intellectual and computer-savvy, say supporters. Many are middle-class, although there are also some "genteel poor," said Condon.
Free State members have formed a variety of interest groups on the Internet, from FSP Brights ("supporters with a worldview free of supernatural or mystical deities") to FSP Church Planters ("for Christian believers interested in church planting in New Hampshire) to FSP Polyamory ("for Polyamorous members of the FSP").
Some members also display a self-awareness about how they worry outsiders may view them.
"It's not an exclusionary, geeky male thing," said Lorrey, a computer consultant.
Supporters say they are also well read. Condon, for instance, peppers his speech with references to economist Milton Friedman and scholar Charles Murray.
Geshlider said, "This all began with Ayn Rand."
Internet chat rooms related to the Free State Project or other libertarian causes make frequent references to Rand, a mid-20th century author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead whose protagonists were often strong-willed characters running up against the government.
Specific books and essays are important parts of many members' gradual evolution into espousing libertarian views. But those works took on greater significance depending on the context in which they were read.
Condon, for instance, describes himself as a "Goldwater conservative" who found himself becoming more frustrated with government around the time he was reading a wide variety of libertarian thinkers.
Lorrey said he was a Republican who became disheartened by the party's "drifting toward the Christian fundamentalists." He lost his computer job a few years ago, got a lower-paying job as a mechanic and could afford only a "dumpy little room" in Lebanon for $450 a month. He blames the affordable-housing shortage on the city's development regulations.
Condon complained about the city of Tampa's objection a few years ago to his picket fence, which extended into a public right of way.
"Everybody it seems is, 'You must obey; you must obey,' " said Condon, who is married to a public school teacher and expects to split time between New Hampshire and Florida. "They want to control other people."
Whether common ideas and experiences will make organizing individualistic supporters around a common strategy any easier is debatable. But some Free State advocates say they are optimistic.
"We know what we believe in," said Condon, "and we know we're in the minority."
It was the regular lunch meeting at Martha's Exchange, a Nashua brewery complete with low lighting, brass beer vats, a rotation of music including hipster duo OutKast and a young and attractive wait staff who sing Happy Birthday to customers.
A small group of Free State supporters has been meeting here for lunch every Saturday for the past few months to talk about their project.
At issue during this particular meeting of eight men and two women was an effort to focus on a single New Hampshire town and move enough people there to get elected to town offices and shrink the role and services of local government.
Grafton, Orford and Lempster are on a list of about 10 towns that stand out for various reasons, including a lack of zoning codes. Reports earlier this year that Claremont was named the destination city were premature, project officials now say.
As his companions chewed quietly, Lorrey talked about one way of accomplishing what they referred to as the Free Town Project: build affordable housing in one town and give priority to libertarians, or "liberty lovers," migrating to New Hampshire.
He had been talking to a lawyer about their preliminary plan: form a board of directors for a development company, get at least $200,000 worth of investments, buy a large expanse of land and put up condominiums or other housing. People associated with the Free State Project would buy into the company.
The town could be a "Plymouth Rock, a place where people can land," said Geshlider, who is a developer.
The rent would be $100 a week, with just the basics of heat, electricity and "definitely high-speed Internet," he said.
"We are forming the board now, so if you want to get on, get on now," Geshlider announced.
With that, he began going around the table. "You," he said, "will you commit to $1,000 over the course of six months? Will you commit to that?"
"Yes," said Rich Tomasso, a Nashua resident who served on a committee instrumental in making New Hampshire the Free State. But he added, in a serious voice, "I think you should set up a screening process."
"I've screened you," said Geshlider, moving around the table.
Andrew Templeton, a Nashua man who claims to be running a private judicial system as a protest against the New Hampshire courts, appeared startled at Geshlider's demand.
"This is only my second meeting," said Templeton, who attended because he was curious about the project. But he added, without explanation, "When my RICO (Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization) suit comes through, I'll give you a million (dollars)."
The offer was ignored, or maybe not heard, and Geshlider kept going.
Bernie Bastian, a Weare resident who was trying to find out more about the Free State Project, said he didn't like the idea of being on any kind of board of directors. It raised too many questions about taxes.
Only four of the diners had committed by the time he went around the table, and Geshlider was visibly frustrated.
"I don't want to sell this thing until we prove ourselves in one town," he said.
The question of electing board members was pushed to a future meeting, and the diners discussed a number of other issues, including their effort to get the endorsement of Ron Paul, a U.S. representative from Texas who is a Republican and a libertarian hero.
Things started to wind down after a couple of hours. The waitress came by to pick up empty plates. The diners were starting to speak out of turn again. Anarchy had returned, and the baskets of free bread were gone.
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