Revolt of the Porcupines!

The Free State Project wants libertarians to take over New Hampshire. Is this a revolutionary plan or a pipe dream?

It's not often that libertarians are enough of a threat to anyone else's interests that they generate protests. But that is what has been happening in New Hampshire lately. In June, 200 residents showed up at a heated town meeting in tiny Grafton township to challenge a trio of libertarian activists they feared were trying to conquer their community. Less than a week later, a squad of protesters picketed a fund-raising dinner in Plymouth, featuring Republican Governor Craig Benson, sponsored by the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance.

Both protests were triggered by the Free State Project, or FSP, a recently hatched plan for libertarians to roll back the government of New Hampshire and thus create a flagship for a freer America.

The FSP is the brainchild of a 27-year-old political science instructor named Jason Sorens. The Yale lecturer's idea is both simple and grandiose: Given libertarians' eternal lack of political traction as a thinly spread minority, their most realistic chance to wield political power is to congregate in one state. Sorens figured it would be best if the state had a population below 1.5 million and a political culture already sympathetic to libertarian thinking.

Sorens introduced the idea in a 2001 essay in the webzine Libertarian Enterprise. He then sired an organization dedicated to executing it. FSP leaders and spokesmen proselytize for a freedom lovers' exodus wherever sympathetic listeners are likely to gather, encouraging their fellow libertarians to take the FSP Pledge. The pledge commits you to the proposition that, once 20,000 like-minded libertarians have also made the pledge--thereby solving what might be called the "you go first" problem--you will within five years move to New Hampshire and be an activist for increased liberty in that state.

Sorens, a married man with no children, had studied small separatist and decentralist movements such as the Mormons and the Parti Quebecois. He became fascinated by recent successes in devolved local control in Wales, Scotland, and Spain, and decided that, when it comes to effecting radical political change, smaller localities, not huge federal states, are where the action is.

Sorens identified 10 American states where he thought 20,000 libertarians could make significant strides toward such goals as lowering taxes, achieving school choice, and creating more vibrant and decentralized local authorities. In September 2003, after 5,000 people had signed up, the FSP pledgers voted on their favorite. New Hampshire, whose slogan is "Live Free or Die," won by a 10 percentage-point margin over second-place Wyoming.

That's why I spent the last weekend in February, the mellow end of a fierce Granite State winter, hanging around with a group of FSP "Porcupines" and interested parties. (FSPers have adopted the porcupine as their totem--a creature that's peaceful when left alone but capable of causing great harm in self-defense.) We lounged around talking politics in the sitting room of the Inn at Danbury, a cozy family-run bed and breakfast, checked out nearby towns such as Grafton, and enjoyed winter sports such as snowmobiling.

The people I met didn't seem to be libertarian versions of the Unabomber, desperate to live separated from the ideologically uncongenial like a modern-day Thoreau. They just think contemporary government is too expensive, too intrusive, and too active, and are eager to embrace the most effective way to change that.

As peculiar and radical as it might seem when you first hear about it, the FSP has received widespread, serious attention in the media. The New York Times ran a respectful 1,500-word piece about it last October. Playboy has given the Porcupines props, as has Reader's Digest, which seems to indicate an impressively wide appeal.

To be sure, it's a lot easier to garner favorable press reports than it is to get people to actually schlep to an often brutally cold, sparsely populated state. But whether or not the FSP ever hits its target membership goal, much less turns New Hampshire into a libertarian paradise, it retains real significance as a thought experiment. It forces people to confront the reality of how much they are willing to sacrifice for their notions about political liberty--and how much people with different grievances against government might have in common.

"My Best Friends Are Nonlibertarians"

The Free State Project is the most recent and successful face of libertarian separatism--or, as some call it, libertarian Zionism. To be sure, many involved in the search for new libertarian communities reject such terms. Roderick Long, a philosophy professor at Auburn University and the brains behind the Libertarian Nation Foundation, a group dedicated to theorizing about the possibilities for libertarian polities, tells me he doesn't like the term separatist because "the attraction is not that I don't want to live near or interact with nonlibertarians. Most of my best friends are nonlibertarians. We don't want to live by ourselves but simply want a chance to demonstrate to the world that libertarian principles actually work. We want to escape from government, not escape from ordinary decent people" who happen not to share their political philosophy.

Ever since Ayn Rand presented the self-sufficient, regulator-free paradise of Galt's Gulch in her 1957 epic Atlas Shrugged, people have periodically popped up to sell the idea that the only sure path to liberty is for libertarians to gather together in close proximity. Then no one would mooch or rob or force paper fiat money on their fellows. Freely minted gold coins would clink on the counter of brothels and, if you please, opium dens. And the weasels who in a statist world would be telling brave producers what they had to make or what they had to pay their employees would need to find new work--perhaps as toll booth operators on private roads, or tort lawyers, since lawsuits for proven harms would replace the regulatory state.

Sorens' originality lies in his common sense, seemingly feasible suggestion about how to act on this impulse. His predecessors never quite managed that.

One of the earliest postwar proposals to actualize the Galt's Gulch fantasy was one of the most outr�: the idea that libertarians, driven to the edges of the continental shelf by an ever-expanding Leviathan state, should retreat to the high seas. Libertarian uberfreak Kerry Thornley was the early apostle of this idea, in a series of articles in the seminal '60s libertarian zine Innovator. (This was before he decided he had been a CIA mind-control patsy possibly involved in the JFK assassination as a "second Oswald." See "Historia Discordia," August/September.)

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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  • CE||

    The FSP was not ever meant to be a thought experiment. The idea is to try an actual experiment of concentrating libertarian activists in one small state. Libertarians do too many thought experiments and not enough politics.

    They have 14,579 signees already, with 1,179 in New Hampshire.

  • Cloudbuster||

    I think New Hampshire was a poor choice over Wyoming. NH has too many border bedroom communities of Mass. liberals

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