Taking freedom for Granite
|Title:||Taking freedom for Granite|
Taking freedom for Granite
by Adam Reilly 08/03/05
Libertarians shake it up! Or, my
weekend with the Free State Project
LANCASTER, NH Last November, Russell Kanning a big, shambling man prone to furtive whispers and gleeful giggles relocated from California to New Hampshire. He made the move under the auspices of the Free State Project, an ambitious plan to pack the Granite State with tens of thousands of libertarian activists who pledge to make it their home. Kanning no longer works as an accountant; instead, he mows lawns in Keene, which lets him get paid under the table, tax-free.
His real vocation, though, is fighting tyranny. Earlier this year, Kanning traveled to the Manchester airport and carrying only pocket-size copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence tried to board a Southwest Airlines flight to Philadelphia. There was just one catch: he refused to take off his shoes, and insisted that he not be frisked. (He also declined to provide identification.) As a result, Kanning was promptly arrested and jailed; a few days later, he pled guilty to a trespassing charge.
Why did he do it? "We're not going to be free if we keep cowering at the airport," Kanning explained as he stood outside his tent at PorcFest 2005, the Free State Project's annual shindig. "When you watch people shuffle through there with their socks and their bags dude! This is freedom?"
In most places, Kanning would be dismissed as an extremist. But here at PorcFest 2005, he was a celebrity and a hero. (The porcupine, a friendly little creature you don't want to mess with, is the project's designated mascot.)
"We need to start a revolution," Kanning told me near the end of our conversation. "In the last revolution, we had to get to the point where we said, 'No, no, I'm not paying taxes. Here's your tea.' The thing I want to do this time around is see if we can do this without shooting anybody."
A SIMPLE PLAN
If things work out the way they're supposed to, thousands of libertarians who share Kanning's outlook will be flocking to New Hampshire in the next few years. The Free State Project was the brainchild of Jason Sorens, an earnest, baby-faced Yale PhD who received a hero's welcome in Lancaster. Sorens's epiphany was simple: move a large number of libertarians to a small state, where they can go about remaking the political landscape as they see fit. Libertarians who sign the project's Statement of Intent so far, about 6600 in number aren't agreeing to live in the same community, or to work toward a specific set of goals. They are, however, agreeing to move to New Hampshire no more than five years after the total number of signers reaches 20,000. (New Hampshire got the nod after Free Staters chose it over several other states in a popular vote.) Once they've arrived, the theory goes, their libertarianism will permeate culture and politics from school boards to the state legislature leading to the advent of "liberty in our lifetime." At least, that's the idea.
The Free State Project is still in its early stages, but it's also off to a bit of a slow start. Four years in, the 20,000-signature mark looks awfully remote. And only 100-some Free Staters have already made the trek to New Hampshire from points west and south. But their faith in the project's potential seems both boundless and unshakable. Last Saturday evening, as a libertarian hard-rock outfit serenaded the 500 Free Staters gathered at Rogers Campground and Motel, I asked Amanda Phillips, the project's president, what she hoped its legacy would be in 20 years. "I would love to see New Hampshire as a beacon of liberty for the rest of the country and the rest of the world," replied Phillips, who is attending Harvard Law School this fall. "A place for the rest of the country and the rest of the world to look at and say, 'Look, this is how these libertarian ideas will work in practice.' And they're going to work well. And many of them already work well."
It's challenging to put it gently to imagine a future in which a bunch of New Hampshire libertarians tutors the rest of humanity on political fundamentals. For one thing, the Libertarian Party (LP) has never shown signs of becoming a national political force in its own right. The LP's political high point came in 1980, when the Ed Clark/David Koch presidential ticket garnered about 921,000 votes, or 1.1 percent of the national total. Since then, the party's presidential nominees have struggled to hit the half-percent mark; in 2004, Michael Badnarik topped out at just over 397,000 votes, or about a third of a percent. Part of the problem is that the libertarian umbrella covers widely disparate elements: there are anti-taxers, gun-rights advocates, civil libertarians, Ayn Randians (a/k/a "objectivists"), polyamorists ... the list goes on and on. All agree on one thing they don't want to be messed with but that may be all they agree on.
To be fair, not all small-L libertarians (or, to use the preferred Free State phrase, "freedom-loving people") identify with the Libertarian Party. Rabid tax-haters can ignore the more unsavory elements of the GOP and vote Republican; indeed, the ability to capitalize on anti-tax sentiment is a key part of the current Republican ascendancy. Conversely, libertarian types who see civil liberties as paramount, or who want to stave off any reduction of reproductive rights, can hold their noses and vote Democratic.
But while the major parties may have claimed the loyalty of salad-bar libertarians like these, they'll never have the allegiance of purists like those in the Free State Project. For these men and women, the imperial arrogance and puritanical impulses of the Bush administration are repugnant. But so is the abiding Democratic commitment to some form of welfare state and most state governments, which keep on taxing and spending and regulating education and banning smoking, are no better. (New Hampshire is a welcome exception: there's no income tax and no mandatory car insurance, and guns can be carried freely and openly.) In fact, for most Free Staters, politics in today's United States is utterly debased.
For die-hard libertarians, however, this sorry state of affairs could be a blessing in disguise. After all, the worse things get, the more likely people are to realize that libertarians have the answer. And the past few weeks which saw the US House and Senate reaffirm the Patriot Act, and the US Supreme Court deal blows to medical marijuana and private-property rights have given Free Staters plenty of new ammunition with which to make their case. "I think the real problem we have is, it's the frog in the boiling water," said Seth Cohn, an affable techie who left Oregon with his wife in 2004 and now lives in New Hampshire. "Until the water gets hot enough, nobody jumps out. And if it turns up slowly enough, nobody ever jumps out. The water's gotten pretty hot and there are some of us that will want to go ahead and say, 'No more'"
Badnarik the ex-presidential candidate, and a registered Free Stater takes this argument even further. "I think the Libertarian Party will be the primary political party," he told the Phoenix in Lancaster. "I think the existing government has stepped on its own feet publicly, and disturbed the American public so dramatically, that the cat is out of the bag."
Clad in an Air Force One-logo polo shirt, and looking like a cross between Mike Dukakis and David Copperfield, Badnarik promised to do his part for the coming libertarian renaissance in 2006, when he'll wage a soon-to-be-announced campaign that will "open the floodgates" and "shatter the rumor that Libertarians can't win." This will keep him in Texas for a few years but as a committed Free Stater, he considers New Hampshire his home-to-be. "I'm not very happy about snow, and I love Texas," Badnarik says. "But I love liberty more. And if moving to New Hampshire is going to help me create an environment where I can make my decisions, and government works for me, then I consider that a very small sacrifice to make."
FREEDOM ISN'T PRETTY
It's impossible, after hanging around PorcFest for a couple of days, not to feel genuine admiration for the men and women involved with the Free State Project. In today's United States, it's cause for celebration when half the electorate simply turns out to vote. Contrast that with the commitment shown by the Free Staters, who are literally abandoning their old lives to build new ones based on political principles they hold dear. Furthermore, while the frequent anti-tax griping in Lancaster probably wouldn't endear the project to most liberals, the ever-widening scope of the Bush administration's "War on Terror" has made libertarians' darker dystopian visions seem less far-fetched than they used to be.
Still, it's hard to imagine the Free State Project inspiring a true mass movement and though it may sound odd, the problem is largely aesthetic. At the risk of painting in too-broad strokes, and with apologies where appropriate, the Free Staters are, on the whole, a somewhat dorky bunch. They tend to look like people you'd see at a Star Wars or Dungeons and Dragons or Mensa or Linux convention; the big difference is, they're packing heat. (Hip-holstered handguns were one of the hottest accessories at PorcFest.) Maybe this is inevitable: libertarians are still a marginal subculture, and marginal subcultures tend to attract individuals who, for whatever reason, are uncomfortable in the mainstream. But if the Free State Project wants to become the national focus for current and potential libertarians, a more polished public image wouldn't hurt.
Then again, the Free Staters seem to appreciate this challenge. Another discussion at PorcFest centered on whether to sign with an advertising agency one run by a Free Stater who'd offered his services at reduced cost in order to develop a more sophisticated marketing campaign. This would risk compromising the project's DIY ethos, but it could also be a boon for recruitment. The stewardship of Phillips a smart and photogenic woman with a knack for framing libertarianism in feminist terms could help as well.
Time will tell. The sober outsider's assessment is that the Free State Project will, at best, peter out a few years from now and join the long list of failed American political and social experiments. But as long as the Free Staters press on, there's an outside chance that something truly revolutionary is happening an hour north of Boston.
Adam Reilly can be reached at email@example.com
Home page for the political experiment dedicated to creating "Liberty in our lifetime."
Still cast as a presidential site, this will soon be converted to plug Badnarik's upcoming run for federal office, a campaign Badnarik promises will foster a national libertarian renaissance.
Plenty of info on the self-styled "Party of Principle."
Grassroots organization dedicated to pro-libertarian public actions. Plus, there's plenty of merchandise here for liberty-lovers check out those T-shirts ($17.76, natch).
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