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Isaiah Berg: The Free State Project

Most political activism that I see from others on a regular basis consists of angry social media. This has given me an appreciation for the discussions I had during my time at Dartmouth; that level of intellectual engagement is much harder to find out in the real world. Yet it is one thing to talk about political principles and it is another to act upon them. This is what makes the Free State Project so intriguing to me.

The Free State Project (FSP) is a political migration of sorts, founded in 2001 as a movement of libertarians to New Hampshire in order to secure liberty and freedom in the Granite State. They have been collecting signatures of those who will commit to move to New Hampshire in the next few years, and if they reach their goal, they will have a politically engaged bloc that comprises approximately 1% of New Hampshire’s population, and 3-5% of the state’s electorate. The FSP is bold and imaginative in a time of stagnant political debate in this country. It is progressive in nature, yet draws from a deep American tradition of migration. As long as Americans are still willing to uproot their lives and move across the country for their principles or ambitions, one cannot despair for our future.

The Free State Project was founded by Jason Sorens, a Yale graduate and Professor of Political Science at SUNY-Buffalo. The organization is currently led by its president Carla Gericke, a political refugee from South Africa. Jason and Carla agreed to answer a few of my questions. I am pleased to share their story with Dartblog’s readers.

Where does the story of the Free State Project begin? Does the Free State Project overlap with any of your academic work or research interests?

Jason: The story of the FSP begins with my work as a graduate student. Shortly after the 2000 election, classical liberals and libertarians were growing through some soul-searching about their influence in national-level politics, which was approximately none. At the time I was working toward my PhD in political science at Yale, writing a dissertation on secessionist parties in industrialized democracies. One of the findings from my research was that most democracies are decentralizing power to their regions. The historical trend in the U.S. has been the reverse, but the U.S. still has a federal system in which state governments are responsible for many important policies, and if international trends come to the U.S., the state level will grow in importance.

With these thoughts in mind, I wrote an essay for an online journal called The Libertarian Enterprise, proposing a “Free State Project” that would gather like-minded people to a single state where they could be more effective. I also mused about the ways in which the “free state” could win more autonomy. About 200 people e-mailed me to express interest in the idea, and we gathered in an online forum to hammer out the details. It quickly became apparent that the only way the FSP would work would be to have a bare-bones structure, asking people to agree to a simple statement of common philosophy but otherwise remaining agnostic about public policies and political strategies. The metaphor that Free Staters use is that the FSP is “just the bus,” bringing people of like mind to New Hampshire but otherwise not coordinating their activities once they arrive.

I’ve always had interests in decentralization and minority rights. Since then, my academic work has looked at the causes and consequences of secessionism worldwide, solutions to ethnic discrimination and government repression of human rights, and the political and economic consequences of federalism. I published a book called Secessionism last year, and I also work on the biannual Freedom in the 50 States index of personal and economic freedoms with William Ruger, the latest edition of which has just come out.

Why New Hampshire?

Once we reached our first 5,000 signatories, in 2003, we held a vote to choose our destination state from among many possibilities. Although New Hampshire has a much higher population than many other states under consideration, we chose New Hampshire because it seemed to be the “most libertarian state” in the country, combining low taxes with a greater respect for civil liberties and personal freedoms than just about any other state. Also, the governor at the time, Craig Benson, welcomed us and signed up as a “friend” of the Project. Some people “opted out” of New Hampshire, dropping us down to about 3,500 participants right after the vote, but today we have over 14,000 people signed up to move, more than two-thirds of the way to our goal, and about 1,000 already have moved.

Where do you see the movement in twenty years?

The FSP as such might no longer exist in 20 years, or at any rate its role will be greatly diminished. Already the distinctions between people who have moved in since 2003 and those who have been in the state longer are blurring. Within the state, people who participate in the general movement for individual liberty and responsibility are simply called “Porcupines” (after the logo of the FSP). The FSP has held up New Hampshire as a beacon for the rest of the country, but whether people continue to be drawn to the state depends on what the people of New Hampshire do. After all, “Porcupines” are just a small part of the population. We can get our ideas into the public conversation, but whether they take hold in public policy depends on the other participants in that conversation. We think the ideas of liberty will win the day.

What brought you to the Free State Project?

Carla: My husband and I were both working in Silicon Valley when the tech bubble burst in 2001, and we both lost our jobs. We decided to take a couple of years off and backpacked through South East Asia and India. During this time, I did a lot of research into the causes of the tech bubble, which led me to Austrian economics, which eventually led me to the Free State Project - isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? The modern day Gutenberg press! I signed up as an FSP participant in 2003, after the vote on which state to relocate to was taken. New Hampshire was chosen. Living in Manhattan at the time, we visited NH several times, and moved in early 2008. In 2009-2010, I organized the FSP’s signature summer event, the Porcupine Freedom Festival, which attracts more than a thousand liberty lovers to a week-long festival in the White Mountains. In 2011, I became president. While we now live in Manchester, we lived in the Upper Valley for several years, and Hanover is one of my favorite NH towns.

How has seeking asylum from South Africa shaped your life and work here in the United States?

I won a green card in the Diversity Visa Lottery back in the Nineties, while I was still in law school in South Africa. After I completed my degree, I embraced this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and immigrated to San Francisco with my husband, two suitcases, and less than ten thousand dollars in cash. We started our new lives in the inner-city slum of the Tenderloin, and worked our way up to a fabulous apartment in the Castro, with Fortune 500 jobs.

Growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era made me very sensitive to the signs of an emerging police state. Post 9/11, I became aware of a marked shift in America, away from freedom and towards totalitarianism. In addition to the illegal and immoral wars, Guantanamo, government sanctioned torture, debasement of the US dollar, the bailouts, the TSA, etc. I noticed an increasing militarization of domestic police forces. In fact, one of the reasons we decided to become “FSP Early Movers” was the constant police presence in Manhattan, with cops shouldering ARs while holding back barking German Shepherds on the streets of New York, and the illegal and invasive subway station searches. It was all too hauntingly reminiscent of South Africa during its darkest days, where we were constantly told: “The terrorists are coming.” Fear is a tool of tyrants, especially when you consider you are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than at the hands of a terrorist.

I have always been a bit of a rebel, a bit anti-establishment. I was an anti-apartheid activist during college, not in the big leagues, but I did my bit. I think the time has come in America for more people to do their bit, to take a stand and reclaim the principles that made America great (Hint: the answer lies in less government, more free markets, and a rejection of crony capitalism). In the end, I concur with Edmund Burke that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I’m doing something. I hope you will too.

Do you see a need for the Free State Project to engage with Dartmouth students and other college campuses in New Hampshire?

The mission of the FSP is simply to attract 20,000 liberty lovers to New Hampshire. What individual participants do once they are here, is up to them. Some movers have started pro-liberty organizations on local campuses, like Young Americans for Liberty and Objectivist clubs. Personally, I’m a big believer in open dialogue and encourage interaction and debate between individuals. Good ideas spread, and spreading the principles of peace, liberty, free markets, and personal responsibility is a valiant endeavor.

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