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.)

A wealthy pharmaceutical company owner named Werner Stiefel was the first to try to create an ocean-based libertarian society, not just write about it. In 1968, under the name Operation Atlantis, Stiefel began recruiting eager young libertarians to move into an old motel in Saugerties, New York. From that humble base they were, according to the plan, eventually to obtain sovereignty over some island–the Prickly Pear Cays in the British West Indies were an initial target–and turn it into a fresh, uncorrupted country. Under that new nation's flag, Stiefel and his freebooters could sail ships that would build artificial platforms in the ocean, which would become the real new nation.

The Stiefelers coined their own silver money, the deca, and earned a brief mention in Esquire in September 1970. "Operation Atlantis is a real mind-blower," Esquire said. "They're not just interested in a floating community, but an honest-to-God independent country….How are they going to do it? They're going to build an island, baby, in the middle of the ocean." In 1971 the group changed the price of its newsletter from 24 U.S. cents to 32 "deca-cents."

In the early '70s Stiefel and his crew built from scratch a rebar-and-mortar boat inside a geodesic dome. They managed, with many difficulties along the way, to sail the homemade vessel from Saugerties down to the Silver Shoals area, near the Bahamas. There, according to Erwin Strauss' book How to Start Your Own Country, they eventually ran afoul of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who had designs of his own for the area where Stiefel tried to build a nation. (Sunken Spanish galleons with unclaimed treasure were thought to be in the area.) Stiefel and his crew were driven away, and no new Atlantis rose above the waves.

But the dream of an aquatic Galt's Gulch was too sweet to die. Around the same time that Stiefel ran afoul of Baby Doc, Mike Oliver, a concentration camp survivor, coin dealer, and land developer from Nevada, was inflaming libertarian minds with his 1968 book called A New Constitution for a New Country. In it he presented a model constitution for a nation whose extremely limited government could be financed voluntarily. Oliver did more than just write constitutions for sand castles in the sky and imagine ocean-bound libertarian strongholds; he actually gathered teams and money to build them. (Who would actually inhabit them always seemed a bit of an afterthought.)

In 1972, Oliver supervised the sea kingdom of Minerva, built on a South Pacific reef that was dry only at low tide. Minerva was quickly conquered, in one assault with one gunboat, by the king of Tonga. Oliver and his circle–which eventually included John Hospers, a philosopher at the University of Southern California and the Libertarian Party's first presidential candidate–a couple of years later tried to make common cause with a separatist movement on the Bahamian island of Abaco, but that effort fizzled out.

Oliver's most serious reach for libertopia came on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, part of the New Hebrides. In 1980 representatives of Oliver's Phoenix Foundation–which for a while had former Reason editor and Reason Foundation founder Robert Poole on its board of directors –supplied advice and some technical skill to Jimmy Moly Stevens, leader of a Vanuatu separatist movement. The French and British, who had a peculiar dual protectorate over the islands, were pulling out. While some questioned Stevens' libertarian bona fides, we never got a chance to find out how sincere he was.

This nascent nation also was strangled in its crib. At least this time it took more than one Tongan gunboat. Troops from both Papua New Guinea and Australia, in service of the socialist government that inherited the New Hebrides after the French and British left, suppressed Stevens' rebellion. He spent a decade in jail, and the Phoenix Foundation caught the eye of the feds, who briefly considered prosecution of the parties involved for violations of the Arms Export Control Act and the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from interfering in U.S. relations with foreign powers.

"Grab Them by the Scruff of Their Necks"

Jason Sorens' dream is off to a better start than the soggy failures of the past. Choosing dry land was probably a wise move. Another vital ingredient has been the Internet, the most useful tool for the seeding, crafting, and guiding of intentional communities ever invented.

The FSP has made effective use of the Internet's potential: At freestateproject.org, you can take the pledge, communicate on public message boards, and register your personal information, which, if you like, eventually will be available to other Free Staters. So all the Porcupines will be able to talk among themselves about moving plans and job and housing prospects, or just hash out libertarian ideas and how to actualize them. At press time, 6,103 people were pledged, and about 100 already had moved, although the pledge does not require them to do so until the target of 20,000 participants has been reached.

The Free Staters I visited in New Hampshire assure me that if and when the exodus begins, the traveling Porcupines will find many great things already awaiting them. For starters, there's Article 10 of the state constitution's Bill of Rights, which reads:

"Whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind."

As Sorens has written, New Hampshire has a history based on "settlement patterns centered around small towns occupying rills, dales, and valleys" that gave rise to a "town meeting system [that] allowed citizens to keep their government officials close enough to 'grab them by the scruff of their necks' if they overstepped their power. Essentially what developed was a kind of 'communal libertarianism' different from the individualism of the West, where one could simply escape the company of others."

That system, argues Sorens, is still largely intact, which increases the Porcupines' confidence that they can make a difference in New Hampshire. Still, it is treacherous to make assumptions about how human beings today are influenced, bound by, or carrying on attitudes prevalent among their ancestors hundreds, or even dozens, of years ago.

Beyond matters of inchoate political culture, New Hampshire has a good head start on many specific issues important to libertarians. It lacks both sales and personal income taxes–though many complain the property taxes are too high, and there is an 8.5 percent business profits tax. About two-thirds of the property taxes go to public schools, so a successful school privatization would have a huge impact on the tax burden.

The state's gun policies are relatively libertarian: Open carry is legal without a permit, and concealed carry requires a permit that is easy to get, with localities forbidden to impose tougher rules. There is no legal requirement for automotive liability insurance, though New Hampshire does have government-enforced "community rating" for health insurance. The state lacks annoying bits of nanny statism such as seat belt and helmet laws for adults.

Free Stater Keith Murphy, an urban studies graduate student at the University of Maryland, tells me that on his visit to New Hampshire to scout it out, he did something every day that would have been against the law in his home state. These exercises of freedom included driving without a seat belt, buying fireworks and shooting them, and even the humble but profound act of buying beer at a grocery store.

New Hampshire boasts a median household income of $53,910, more than 20 percent above the national median, making it fourth-ranked of all states by that measure. It also has the lowest percentage of population below the poverty line of any state. It has a healthy high-tech economy, which is important for the types of jobs that attract people who will be able to easily move to the Free State. One Porcupine, Robert Gibson, is already moving his computerized process-serving corporation, Corbadex, up to Manchester and offering jobs to fellow Free Staters.

For libertarians who crave genuine political influence, perhaps the most encouraging thing about New Hampshire is that it has the largest state legislature in the country: 400 representatives, most with constituencies smaller than 3,000. (The downside of this is that each legislator is commensurately rather powerless to get things done.) You could realistically shake hands with every single voter in your district, and probably have a cup of coffee with every voter you'd need to win. House members are paid a pittance of $100 a year, making government in New Hampshire a game for enthusiastic amateurs and the retired. And ballot fusion is legal there, so Libertarian Party types could conceivably also win major-party nominations and gain straight party votes.

At the Free State gathering in Danbury I met Henry McElroy, a charming and dedicatedly anti-state Republican state representative whose libertarianism is so radical that it's difficult to imagine him holding office anywhere else. McElroy thinks he's making some headway with a bill that would return New Hampshire to the gold standard. Other bills introduced in the New Hampshire legislature (all unlikely to become law) would nullify the 16th amendment, reduce the business profits tax by half over five years, and make jury nullification an established legal right.

Another advantage of New Hampshire–which has some sea coast, lots of mountains, lots of small rural towns, and a few sizable metropolises–is how well suited it seems to philosopher Robert Nozick's vision of a libertarian utopia as a framework for lots of different mini-utopias. There are many different ways for Free Staters to build their dreams in New Hampshire. They could live in the snowy mountains or in a big city within an hour's drive of Boston; run for state legislature or join the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; fight to loosen homeschooling requirements or to lower property taxes; live in an anarchist commune in the woods or in a downtown apartment.

New Hampshire's libertarian-leaning governor, Craig Benson, even signed on as a friend of the FSP. "Come on up," he has told the Porcupines. "We'd love to have you. You're active, you want to make the state or the towns and cities you hope to live in a better place." The chairwoman of the state Democratic Party predictably complained (even as she ticked off three good reasons to join the movement), "Why is Governor Benson supporting a group that wants to legalize prostitution, legalize drugs, and eliminate public schools?"

In mid-April, the Concord Monitor reported that "a panel authorized by the governor to find inefficiencies in the state health and transportation departments is composed almost entirely of members of the Free State Project." Gov. Benson had befriended Libertarian Party state chair John Babiarz while running against him for governor in 2002; they discovered they had some common attitudes toward the size and inefficiency of state government. Benson appointed Babiarz to a state commission seeking out government inefficiencies, and Babiarz brought on a bunch of Free Staters to assist him in that role. Babiarz tells me he has his eye on cutting state spending on transportation and child services, and has already advised the state to cut or curtail its role in running plant nurseries and prisons. Unusual as this might be on the national level, the head of the state Libertarian Party is a serious political player in New Hampshire.

Despite any head start they might have, Sorens recommends that Porcupines take things slowly upon moving to New Hampshire. He writes that "we will have to do our best to blend in, lay down roots in the community…If we come in trumpeting an 'abolish everything' platform, we will make enemies out of people who might otherwise be sympathetic to us." Some heated opposition to the FSP is already evident, provoked by a splinter group called the Free Town Project.

The Free Town Project advocates that Porcupines concentrate themselves in Babiarz's home of Grafton, which already lacks most local regulations. Radical talk on Web sites and listservs associated with the Free Town Project got some locals riled enough that one mailed an anti-FSP flier to everyone in Grafton. This was followed by the June town meeting, at which FSP representatives were asked to explain themselves. FSP organizer Tim Condon tells me he got a lynch mob feeling from many of the Graftonites. Condon came up from his Florida home to defend the project's honor against what he considered the "libertarian exhibitionism" of a few outliers who were talking up Grafton as a home for freewheeling dueling, bums fighting in the streets as low-paid entertainers, and bestiality.

Sorens' expressed wishes are less extreme but still radical. He speculates about ordering federal law enforcement agents out of localities, for example. But unlike in Grafton, which has a population of only 1,000 or so, there is little risk that the FSP will "flood" the whole state. It plans an influx of 20,000 over several years; lately, New Hampshire has been gaining about that many newcomers every year.

"I Can't Sit by and Watch It Happen Without Me"

The Free Staters earned a major bit of local media attention the weekend I was with them in February. We all gathered in a friendly Irish pub to watch the Massachusetts-based TV newsmagazine Chronicle dedicate a half-hour to the FSP. Prominently featured was FSP's current president, Amanda Phillips. Phillips is a single mother in her early 30s, a former Air Force special investigator turned accounting supervisor, currently living in Massachusetts. She is an anarchist, a matter of some controversy among Free Staters, though it didn't seem to faze the TV reporters.

The TV cameras showed Phillips curled up with David Friedman's anarcho-capitalist classic The Machinery of Freedom and spotlighted her sneakers emblazoned with the circle-A anarchy symbol. Most Porcupines were delighted with the piece, but certain touches clearly were intended to make Free Staters seem a little silly, if not bordering on lunatic and dangerous. A fair amount of screen time was given to the Dalton Gang, a group of cowboy-emulating vintage weapon enthusiasts exercising their liberty to openly carry their guns. Also featured was a Porcupine tooling down the street in his smoke-belching Unimog, a bizarre, hulking German military vehicle. Ultimately, the anchors of the show concluded that the FSP is an "interesting" development, as opposed to an alarming one.

Which is good, Phillips thinks. While she knows people like the Daltons probably seemed like comic-relief freaks to most viewers, right now her audience is not a standard TV audience. It is fellow libertarians, the ones she is trying to convince to move. And they will be aware that if people want to carry their old guns or drive German military vehicles, that's just fine.

To Condon, an ex-Marine and Florida attorney, that sort of colorful eccentricity is more than just fine. He is nostalgic about his old college days in Gainesville, Florida, remembering "all these junky trailers from the '50s and '60s, people building sheds, old junky cars–it was terrific! Pimps, whores, poets, law students, geneticists, all mixed up–great, but very poor-looking." He's hoping to find a similar dynamic mix in a Free State, unburdened by the officious "little Hitlers" who insist that other people paint their houses or maintain their yards or behave the way they want them to behave.

But Condon can't move right away. He's taking care of his elderly mother down in Florida. This sort of personal-life conflict no doubt will keep even many excited liber-tarian activists out of New Hampshire. Indeed, given all the advantages New Hampshire already has to the libertarian-minded, one wonders why the market hasn't already taken care of this problem, so to speak. Why were entrepreneurs like Sorens and Phillips needed to sell the idea of migrating to New Hampshire, if lower taxes and less government dominate libertarians' decisions about where to live?

Despite rhetoric from Porcupines about how their move is easy compared to the difficulties that early migrants to America faced crossing the oceans in search of liberty, most Americans, even most libertarians–assuming they manage not to run afoul of drug laws, eminent domain, or IRS prosecutions–just don't feel so tyrannized on a day-to-day basis that they feel an urgent need to uproot themselves.

So who are these people ready to move to New Hampshire for political reasons? The people I met and talked to in the Free State movement are varied, but not all that varied. They are overwhelmingly white and white-collar, though not very wealthy. They include chiropractors, programmers, college students in both social and medical sciences, business supervisors, financial planners, and hair stylists.

What they do not have in common is horror stories about state persecution that ruined their lives. I heard no stories of drug arrests, land grabs, regulation-driven business failures, or children snatched away by government agencies. A zoology student with a Green Party background hopes the Free State will be a more genuinely communitarian world, one where people have to cooperate to meet the social needs government now tries to meet. Tim Condon speculates New Hampshire will become not just a freewheeling social scene but also an American Hong Kong, a low-regulation mecca that will snatch away businesses and wealth from the rest of the country, shoring up the Porcupines' enclave.

While most rebel at the notion when I float it, the Free Staters' disgust with the state seems more theoretical and philosophical than experiential–though the desire to more conveniently homeschool their children and have less of their income snatched are motivations for many. Amanda Phillips sums up the FSP spirit that motivates even people who might not, to the normal American's view, seem particularly oppressed: "My gosh, I could actually have a society where I could walk around carrying a concealed weapon without having to ask permission, and keep the money I earn, and send my daughter to a private school that's reasonably priced, and live in a world where what women do with their own bodies is their own business? When I see this vision of what could be, now that there is a real chance it could happen, I can't sit by and watch it happen without me."

"Migrating for Freedom"

The major problem with the notion that the FSP will bring liberty in our times to New Hampshire is that many of America's tyrannical impositions, from the most evil to the most petty, come from the federal level. And the FSP is very vocally not a secessionist movement.

Thus, what the FSP can achieve even in a best-case scenario is limited. We have seen what the feds think of states that try to relax their drug laws. How would the No Child Left Behind president deal with an attempt to end mandatory public schooling? Or to avoid or evade the enforcement of regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, or the Federal Communications Commission–or to dodge a new military draft?

In response to the question of whether the FSP idea really can work, Sorens says that in effect it already has–just not with libertarians. Vermont has, since the 1960s, evolved from the home of rock-ribbed Yankee conservatism to the home of Ben & Jerry's, self-described socialist U.S. Congressman Bernie Sanders, and Howard Dean. This transformation has even inspired a Take Back Vermont counterrevolutionary back-lash. The hippies and the crunchies and the liberals targeted Vermont, Sorens claims, using as evidence an April 1972 Playboy article. That article, written by Richard Pollak, was based on a proposal floated in the Yale Journal of Law and Social Policy by two firebrand law school students named James F. Blumstein and James Phelan.

Blumstein and Phelan wrote, "What we advocate is the migration of large numbers of people to a single state for the express purpose of effecting the peaceful political take-over of that state through the elective process." Sound familiar? Like Sorens' original essay, their piece didn't even name a state. But in the Playboy article, Pollak fingered Vermont as the most appropriate state for "the nation's alienated young."

Blumstein, today a law professor at Vanderbilt University, is loath to credit his idea or Pollak's expansion of it with Vermont's change. He rightly notes that he has no evidence the piece was a direct influence on anyone, much less tens of thousands. By contrast, Sorens, with the FSP's database, will have a better idea of whether any change in New Hampshire's future can be attributed to his proposal.

"The whole American experience is based on migrating for freedom," Sorens rightly notes. While the corpses of many attempts at intentional communities dot the American landscape, the FSP idea is more ecumenical and less insistent on a specific central location (New Hampshire is a state, not a commune) and way of life. The example of the Mormons could cheer the Porcupines: They migrated en masse to a state and succeeded in dominating its political culture for the long haul. But when they rubbed up too hard against the feds, they abandoned one of their key practices, polygamy.

A similar fate for the Free Staters seems likely–perhaps some significant moves in tax and service cutting in New Hampshire, but a fully libertarian society stillborn under the watchful eye of federal tyranny. And this is assuming the Free Staters actually summon the 20,000.

A Porcupine get-together in the kinder month of June, one I was not able to attend, attracted 300 people, 10 times as many as showed up in February in Danbury. Yet there's been little growth in the number of FSP pledgers since New Hampshire was chosen last year. Sorens blames a downturn in press coverage; he hopes that with more funding for advertising and outreach the Free Staters can break out of the slump. But it may well be that libertarian separatism is still too eccentric to win over tens of thousands.

Still, history is not always predictable, and funny things can happen when people have something specific to rally round. The FSP experiment is opening up paths of communication to, and between, people who have not normally been likely to embrace the libertarian political message. Ryan Lazarotta, a gay man and a personal stylist, is the FSP coordinator for the Las Vegas area. He and his partner already have their New Hampshire move mapped out. Lazarotta, who had never had anything to do with libertarianism, stumbled upon the FSP on the Web and found it made sense of a lot of things.

Lazarotta had been on his own since age 14, his unpleasant experience in public schools "100 percent" responsible for his leaving home so young. Now he wants to tell his fellow gays that they don't need to be slaves on a Democratic plantation. "I want to spread the idea of freedom among my peers," he says. "As far as FSP is concerned, [gay men] should be a great target. They are mobile, often self-generate their income, don't necessarily want to have to pay to educate other people's children," and when it comes to the legal status of their intimate relationships, are faced daily with insults based on unequal legal treatment.

"I'm new to this whole frame of thought," Lazarotta says, "and through personal meetings I'm building comfort levels and trust between groups that don't necessarily encounter each other on a regular basis. As Democratic-leaning as I'd been, I wasn't comfortable, say, with gun rights people. But when we all meet at a table we realize we all can get along great and have a common denominator in what we are trying to achieve. Our special interests might be related to our personal lives, but our greater ambitions and fates have us wrapped up together."

That sort of common understanding might not be as romantic as life on a liberated oil platform, free as the sea breezes that blow. But it's a vital step toward making the many sorts of people who are disenchanted with statism realize that they already live together on an island, one that will be liberated only if they fight together.?