NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this
essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not
necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its
Officers, or its Participants.
Jason's Talk at the Grand Western Conference, 5/25/03
Free State Project and the West
The title I was given for my talk is "The Free State Project and the West." It's an intentionally vague title, and my remarks are actually going to be very wide-ranging.
Yesterday we heard some lions of the libertarian movement give their perspectives on a future "Free State," what it might look like and how we could get there. Today we heard able and persuasive presentations from representatives from Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming, presenting the reasons why they think their states are the best choices for the Free State Project. As I speak today, we stand at over 3,700 members and are probably about three to four months away from voting on a state. Therefore, both of these questions are critically important: Where should we go? What do we do once we get there?
The Free State Project is intentionally a decentralized, bare-bones affair. Some of the folks I've talked to in some of the states we're considering had gotten the wrong idea of the Project. They had this vision of a tightly-knit, highly disciplined cadre of activists "invading" their state and subjecting it to their will. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Any effort of that kind would be doomed to fail, as it would rightly arouse massive opposition.
We hope to get 20,000 freedom lovers to move. We may not end up getting this many, or we may get many more, but this is our goal. In none of the states we're considering will we be close to a majority. Therefore, a "takeover" will never be in the cards. What we libertarians *can* do is to finally get the ideas of limited government and robust individual liberty into the forefront of public debate. In the marketplace of ideas, I think we will ultimately be victorious - all the more so since the ideas we present are ideas that were present in the founding of this country, and ideas that still retain some power in the states that we're considering.
And so this Project is designed to maximize the appeal of the ideas of freedom in that ideological marketplace. Free Staters are a diverse bunch, with divergent backgrounds. Our Statement of Intent simply requires every member to signal a willingness to work for a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals' rights to life, liberty, and property. In other words, the government should definitely not be involved in providing for people, or in punishing their private vices. This all Free Staters believe. But there is plenty of disagreement too. What else can you expect from a movement that contains both a radical English college student and a crusty Black Hills rancher, both a New York stockbroker and a traditional Amish family? Yes, these are all real people who are members of the Free State Project. We have many different values, but we all hold the core value of freedom, because without freedom, and the absolute obligation to tolerate and respect the autonomy of others that freedom requires, all our other values are meaningless.
So I would say that the Free State Project is nothing more and nothing less than an effort to identify the best state for freedom lovers to live in, and to encourage more freedom lovers to move there and become politically active. Now what's so controversial about that?
The premise behind the Free State Project is sound - concentrating our resources is necessary if we're going to have any chance at seeing true liberty in our lifetime - but the execution will be difficult. The majority of Americans now reject our moral geography: they no longer see freedom at the center. Instead, they see government as a tool they can use to try to control their neighbors, to punish those they don't like, to impose their ideal world with all their special preferences - by force. They lack the courage to live and let live.
But let's not blame them too much. After all, this is a system in which we've all grown up. The government is there to get things done that you couldn't otherwise do, through legitimate methods. So if you think you like traditional values, you vote Republican and want the government to subsidize farms and promote Christianity. If you think you hate rich people, you vote Democrat and want the government to subsidize poverty. If you don't like drugs you want the government to fight a war on nonviolent drug users. If you don't like guns you want the government to fight a war on nonviolent gun owners. Most people don't see anything wrong with that because they separate government from the rest of society. They assume government operates by its own rules. They think, "Of course it would be wrong for *me* to break into someone's home and kidnap him at gunpoint because I thought he was smoking a joint. But if a man with a badge does it, that's The Law." I thought this way once. (Then I turned 15.) But I'm sure most of us did think this way at one time or another.
So we've got a long road ahead of us. We have the right on our side, but we still need to use effective methods to get our message across, especially considering the factors weighing against us. Special interest groups all want their piece of the pie, and they will never go away. Government bureaucracies have an in-built drive to perpetuate themselves, whatever the cost. And to ordinary people, what we are proposing may seem radical and untested. The status quo, despite all its imperfections, is comfortable for most people. The tiny minority of Americans who suffer from the random outbreaks of government brutality or simple incompetence, those who get flung aside or beaten down by the system, are still a tiny, disorganized, powerless minority.
For all these reasons, and more, when it comes to electoral politics, I am a gradualist. I would never lie about my ultimate goals for politics. However, I think we need to stress the intermediate stages of reform. Some reforms simply work better when they're implemented gradually; people often need time to adjust. Gradual reform also creates a constituency for further reform. If as a politician or political party or pressure group you can implement a few policies that work, you build trust for the next reforms you want.
If you look at the most successful national libertarian organizations out there - the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation, and the Institute for Humane Studies - they are all fully engaged in the issues of the day, whether in national politics or intellectual currents. They're not interested in building abstruse, utopian ideologies; they want to improve things now. And I hope most Free State Project members feel the same way.
Because being involved in the policy debates of the day is so important, we should look for allies wherever we can find them. Earlier in this talk I bashed Democrats and Republicans. Guess what? Many of us, perhaps most of us, will be involved with the Democrats and Republicans. At the state and local levels, the Democratic and Republican parties are open to newcomers and, to a large degree, to new ideas. You can't necessarily predict someone's viewpoint on state and local politics from their party affiliation. In Alaska recently, the Republicans tried to impose a sales tax, and the Democrats resisted. Some Republicans broke ranks and the measure was defeated. In Delaware it was Republicans who pushed through a statewide indoor smoking ban; many Democrats resisted. In New Hampshire, by contrast, Democrats proposed an income tax and were slaughtered at the polls. The new Republican governor there has appointed a card-carrying Libertarian to his Small Government Commission.
Now, we're not going to agree with mainstream Democratic and Republican politicos on everything; we'll have to work with them on an issue by issue basis. But ordinary, grassroots party members - we can really work with them. In Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, Republicans are pretty much dominant in state government. In some of these states the Republican leadership has become complacent. Their constituents want them to cut taxes and to stand up to the federal government on issues like property rights, but the leadership pays them no heed, because they figure the Democrats are worse, and no one will vote for them. Of course, Wyoming just elected a Democratic governor. Perhaps this is a sign of grassroots frustration with nowhere else to go.
We need to inject real competition into this two-party oligarchy. That's the only way we'll ever restore a constitutional republic. Now, I'm a Libertarian Party member and have done a lot of activism for that party, but I don't think a Libertarian Party majority will be possible in the Free State. The barriers are simply too high at present. A lot of (small-l) libertarians are disillusioned with the Libertarian Party, just as many conservatives and liberals are disillusioned with the two old parties. There are many reasons for this, but I think I can sum it up as follows: If the Libertarian Party wants to make a philosophical statement, too many of its candidates are not principled enough - or are simply wacky and bizarre; but if the Libertarian Party wants to win elections, its goals and methods are not gradualist and realistic enough.
I don't want to abandon the Libertarian Party at all; I think it should always be there to make that philosophical statement, to keep everyone honest. Perhaps more so, we need people not involved in partisan politics at all, who work for fundamental cultural change. But to create serious political competition in America, history demonstrates that you have to *start* within the current party arrangement. The most successful third parties in history were the Republicans and the Socialists. The Republicans were basically anti-slavery activists who joined the Whigs, used the Whigs for a while, and then jumped ship when they had gotten enough power and recognition, thus destroying the Whigs and replacing them. The Socialists labored in obscurity for a long time, and most Socialists finally joined the Democrats in the 1930s. Thereafter, the Democrats (in national government) were socialistic.
But there's another example from history, that of the non-partisan league. Many of you already know of my interest in this idea. In the early 20th century, the Non-Partisan League was a powerful force in the Dakotas and Montana. They endorsed candidates from both parties - but mostly from the Republicans, who were dominant - on the basis of their support for agricultural subsidies. The NPL governed North Dakota for various periods in the first half of the 20th century and accomplished almost all of their major aims. In the late 20th century, the Christian Right took over a party known for its comfortable Main-Street, country-club centrism, the Republicans. The Republican Party platform is essentially a Christian Right manifesto. Of course, Republican candidates generally have to run to the center on issues like school prayer and abortion, lest they make themselves a permanent minority. Nevertheless, this is a clear case of successful activism within the oligarchic system.
Personally, I will work to establish something like a non-partisan voters' league in whatever state we choose. I want to get in touch with taxpayers' groups, gun-rights groups, civil-liberties groups, and everyone else sympathetic to us in our chosen state. I want to talk to them about what *they* need, where they see a need for additional activism and resources. I want to coordinate the efforts of the *entire* freedom community so that we can exert concentrated pressure on state government. I foresee that this will require some organization that develops a parsimonious set of attainable political goals, and then endorses candidates on the basis of their support for these goals. Candidates that are in more or less full agreement with the organization's goals would additionally qualify for campaign funding. Somewhere down the line, a totally new, local political party will probably be necessary, to press our unique demands for decentralization. This should happen when we have high-profile supporters in government who are willing to go the independent route and set up this new party. Possibly by that point, we would have changed some of the institutional barriers to a multi-party system.
Due in large part to the FSP, libertarians are now thinking about what state governments can do. So we all know that state and local governments have control over zoning, utilities, most transportation, education, and a great deal of criminal law. But what can we do at the state level to pry loose the clutches of the federal government? Gary Marbut got a resolution through the Montana legislature expressing their support for requiring federal agents to operate in the state only with the consent of county sheriffs. We can go further: end cooperation with the feds, end cross-deputization of federal agents, and if necessary, arresting federal officers if they violate the state constitution. What if California were doing this right now with medical marijuana? Another issue that at first blush we could do nothing about is the Federal Reserve System. The federal government has full control over the Federal Reserve System and the dollar. But here's one idea that's been floating around: If we chose a state with a sales tax, we could pass a law stating that if you paid for your transaction with a gold or silver backed currency, you would be exempt from sales tax. That's one way to start moving toward a fully private, competitive market in currency. Now, I don't know if it would work, but it's worth looking into.
Of course, elections are just one small piece of the puzzle. We can't expect to win elections unless we win the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. We'll need thinktanks, we'll need media, and most of all... We will need to create voluntary associations and programs that take care of social problems better than government does, thereby helping make our communities stronger and demonstrating that our ideas really do work. After all, freedom is not an excuse for laziness or indifference; quite the opposite. State co-optation of voluntary, ground-up solutions is what's responsible for community deterioration and rising indifference. We have to turn that around, and it will require a lot of sweat and a good bit of hard-earned cash too.
Now, my personal goals that I've just stated are my own opinions, not necessarily those of the Free State Project. The FSP, again, is a decentralized, bare-bones operation - it's not a political action group, just a framework for a very specific task, getting freedom lovers to move to a single state. So all the opinions I've just stated are fully up for discussion, and I know there are people in the FSP who will disagree with a point or two. There are those who will stay in the LP no matter what, some who will avoid partisan politics at all costs, and many I've spoken to like the idea of a Non-Partisan League and a new party somewhere down the road. We don't need a consensus, because all those people have niches to fill and jobs to perform.
But this is precisely the point of my talk - to get a discussion going. We are close to 5,000. Pretty soon we will know our new home. Every one of us needs to start thinking now about the practicalities of this thing, and getting prepared. Most importantly, every one of us needs to get our financial houses in order - pay off debt and build savings. If we can, we need to acquire new skills, because some of us will have to make career changes; I don't think there's any way around that. In order to cast a knowledgeable ballot, we need to take a good hard look at these states and see how they measure up against each other - both in terms of possibilities for political success and personal desirability. Study the State Data page on our website, play with the state comparison spreadsheets, join our discussion groups and chat about which state is best. Then we need to think about what, concretely, we are going to do to advance the cause of liberty in our lifetime in our neighborhoods, towns, and state.
Where should we go? What should we do once we get there? People will have different opinions, but when an historic opportunity is this close at hand, I think we'll all focus, and the best solutions will rise to the top. In the history of the Free State Project, that's the way things have always worked - I think the reason for that is that we're so close to our dream of freedom that we can almost taste it. And that's the reason I'm so proud of how far all of you have taken this little idea already.
[History of Bylaws changes]
BYLAWS OF THE FREE STATE PROJECT
1. The Free State Project (FSP) shall not require dues or contributions of any kind for participation.
2. The FSP shall require all prospective participants to sign a Statement of Intent indicating:
a) that they will move to the state designated according to the rules laid out in these Bylaws,
b) that they will be bound by the Bylaws, and
c) that they will work toward a society in which the sole role of civil government is the protection of life, liberty, and property.
The Statement shall become void three years after the time of signing should the designation of the state not have occurred by that time.
3. Once 5,000 people have signed the Statement, voting shall commence on a state where all participants should move and register to vote, if they choose to vote. All sufficiently small states will be considered. The voting shall proceed according to the method of Cumulative Count.* All ballots shall be made public to avoid subterfuge; miscounted ballots shall be corrected before the outcome is officially declared.
4. Once 20,000 people have signed the Statement, participants in the FSP shall move to the state decided upon as expeditiously as possible and absolutely within five years of the crossing of the 20,000-signer threshold. Should the Project never attract 20,000 signers, the move shall be aborted. Participants shall concentrate their electoral efforts in a single political party, whose goal shall be to secure the governorship and majority control of all houses of the state legislature.
5. If these Bylaws are amended, anyone who has signed to an earlier version shall be given an opportunity to withdraw his consent.
*Cumulative Count is a method of voting by which each elector is allotted a certain number of points, say, 10. The elector may then allot these points among eligible candidates as he sees fit: for example, 5.6 to one state, 2.7 to another, 0.8 to another, and so on. The state with the most points after all electorsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ ballots have been counted is declared the victor.