Taking Liberty: Government, Political Activism, and the State of the Free State Project
Since 2001, the Free State Project has evolved from an online forum to a legitimate political movement. What have they achieved in New Hampshire, and what happens next? by Josh Eboch
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
In 2001, Dr. Jason Sorens began trying to collect enough pro-liberty voters and activists in one low-population state that their sheer critical mass would ultimately tip the scales back toward a limited, constitutional government. Or one charged solely with the protection of life, liberty, and property. Like many others in the movement, Dr. Sorens believes that most pro-liberty types share the same desires for limited government, free markets, and public choice, but are often so geographically diverse that they remain wholly unrepresented in national elections.
If physically concentrated, the theory goes, those individuals' common passion for freedom and their mutual distrust of government control could become a driving force in local and state politics. A geographic coalition of liberty-focused leaders could then form the thin edge of a powerful political wedge with which to ultimately pry the hands of the federal government from the economic and personal freedom of its citizens.
Now based in New Hampshire, the Free State Project (FSP) recruits pro-liberty individuals (regardless of political party affiliation or label) from across the country to help restore the balance of power between citizens and their government.
However, despite the project's relatively simple premise, its implementation to date has proven rather challenging. After quickly topping 5,000 participants in the first two years, New Hampshire was selected as the project's destination via online ballot in 2003, and the FSP hoped to crest its target of 20,000 members by the end of 2006. The project currently stands at just over 9,000 signers and collects an average of about twenty additional members per month. On its face, that math is not particularly encouraging, leading some in the liberty movement to proclaim Dr. Sorens' experiment failed. But for thousands of "Free Staters" (or "Porcupines") the "Second American Revolution" is just beginning.
Since its physical destination was chosen six years ago, the Free State Project has evolved from a glorified web forum into a bona fide political movement. Though initially the project called for relocation only after the target of 20,000 participants had been reached, over 700 members have now migrated to or were already living in New Hampshire. Every month, more of these "early movers," impatient for action and greater freedom, are journeying to the "Live Free or Die" state in pursuit of what they believe is the last best hope for "liberty in our lifetime."
The Gold Standard
Once the early movers arrive, the official FSP has virtually no involvement in members' day-to-day political activities. "I tell people to think of the project like a bus," said Board president, Varrin Swearingen. "We'll bring you to the border and drop you off. After that, you're on your own."
Or, more accurately, after that you are plugged in by other movers to an extensive network of savvy, enthusiastic, like-minded peers. From help with housing and employment to grassroots activist training, significant social and political infrastructure has already been built and is constantly being improved upon by successive waves of arriving Free Staters.
One major part of that system is a state-registered lobbying organization, the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance (NHLA). Formed in 2003, NHLA representative, Denis Goddard, said that the Alliance has trained numerous pro-liberty activists in the basics of coalition building and campaigning to raise public awareness of issues and candidates. Such tactics have long proven effective for pro-government organizers, but are too often ignored by the less-cohesive liberty movement. Especially valuable are mock town hall meetings, hosted by the NHLA, which offer public speaking practice and critique for citizens who wish to appear in session before the state legislature.
"It's mind-blowing when people find out that they can do this," Goddard said. "Folks who have a gift for public speaking can do more to pare back government in this state than those who are actually elected in other places."
Every day during the legislative session, volunteers from the NHLA's "liberty lobby" greet lawmakers at the door to the Statehouse with fresh copies of their signature publication, The Gold Standard. Its printed sheets of yellow paper offer a liberty grade on every bill up for a vote that day. Often, said Goddard, representatives pause to discuss and debate various points right on the spot. Those interactions provide liberty lobbyists with a unique opportunity to challenge and refine legislators' assumptions regarding their own jobs and the role of government in a free society.
To make sure they are actually learning, once a year the NHLA rates each rep individually based on his or her votes, using a scale of "A" through "F." The very worst earn a designation of "CT" or "Constitutional Threat." Of course, it usually takes more than handing out grades to get an elected official's attention. So to make sure they got the message, last year the NHLA distributed 30,000 copies of its legislative report cards in major newspapers across the state.
"There's nothing quite like a rep's constituents calling [them] and saying 'Did you know the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance considers you a threat to the Constitution?'" said Goddard. "Eventually, if they get enough harassing phone calls, they just quit," he laughed. "I love it when that happens."
Encouraged by the broad impact of the NHLA, other Free Staters have started their own lobbying organizations to focus on specific issues. One of these is the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, which was formed two years ago by a former English professor named Matt Simon. In its first year, the Coalition successfully shepherded a marijuana decriminalization bill through the New Hampshire House, only to watch it die in the Senate following a rare veto threat from Democratic governor, John Lynch. Drawing on the lessons from that bittersweet defeat, Simon shifted to medical marijuana advocacy, and this year the resulting bill has enjoyed wide support from activists and lawmakers in both houses. In April, HB 648 quickly passed the House and Senate, giving desperately ill patients hope that Gov. Lynch will sign some version of it into law during 2009.
Rejecting the temptation to be antagonistic, Simon proactively engages lobbyists, lawmakers, and local and state news outlets to offer information on the progress and particulars of marijuana policy legislation. Juxtaposed against the confrontational tactics (and limited success) of some other Free Staters pushing for outright legalization, Simon offers a more moderate alternative. Thirteen states already have resolutions legalizing the medical use of marijuana, and the difference, Simon said recently, is compassion. For many people, the drug is their only source of relief from debilitating pain or the agonizing side effects of other treatments. As Simon often tells reps, "If we're going to have a war over marijuana for another 5, 10, 20, even 30 years, we need to take [desperately ill patients] off the battlefield."
By working diligently within the system, Simon has established credibility as a reliable media source and an issue expert, enabling him to effectively disseminate and control his message. Such a strategy requires patience and dedication because it hinges on tactical persistence and gradual gains rather than the immediate pursuit of dramatic social or political change. For decades, left wing, big government activists have employed such "radical incrementalism" to consolidate political power within their own constituencies, but Simon is effectively adapting the technique to advance the very different objectives of the liberty movement.
Still, using the political process to shrink government from the inside is arduous and imperfect. According to Simon, there remains "a whole swath [of Free Staters] who don't believe in participation... at all." But, he said, "I hope that our kind of activism will demonstrate that it is effective and it is worth doing."
Allies in the Statehouse
The incremental gains are already adding up to some significant victories. In 2006, inspired by his fellow Porcupines' pivotal role in a legislative defeat of the federal Real ID program, Joel Winters ran for state representative as a "fiscally conservative" Democrat and became the first Free Stater to win elected office. Last November, in a demonstration of their growing political prowess, FSP activists helped reelect Winters and sent fellow (Republican) project members Jennifer Coffey, Carol McGuire, and Calvin Pratt to join him at the Statehouse in Concord.
Rep. Winters has noted that despite a recent wave of anti-Republican sentiment in New Hampshire, there remains significant voter enthusiasm for the philosophy of minimal government. In addition to the demonstrated success of the Free Staters' "small 'l' libertarian" platform, he said, "Being against a [statewide] sales or income tax, is [still] very popular" for any candidate.
However, Winters cautioned, "Without the other Free Staters, I wouldn't have gotten elected." And, like everything else in politics, loyalty has its price. The vigorous effort put forth by Porcupines to elect their own means that candidates who do reach office have two constituencies, he said, "Free State Project members and [their] actual district."
Winters did admit that just a few weeks into his second term he has already taken heat from some project members for occasionally voting along standard Democratic Party lines, in favor of a minimum wage increase and in support of some "environmental protections." But for the most part, he said, "[The Free Staters] are very happy with the way I vote." If it doesn't stay that way, Winters and his colleagues will likely find themselves fighting for their seats against the very same people that helped elect them in the first place.
The high proportion of representatives to residents means that the cost of challenging a seat in the New Hampshire Statehouse is relatively low, averaging just a few thousand dollars per candidate. That plays to the advantage of the well-organized and highly motivated liberty activists. As with any dedicated special interest group, it's usually cheaper for lawmakers just to heed the concerns of project members than it is to fight off a well-funded primary challenge every cycle.
And the cost of disregarding Free Staters continues to rise. During the 2008 election season, Chris Lawless, a Porcupine and Hopkinton town selectman, formed a political action committee with his friend and colleague, Jim Forsythe; himself a passionate advocate of small government, though not officially a member of the FSP. Lawless and Forsythe's PAC raised $100,000 to support the state-level campaigns of project members and others willing to use their office to further the cause of individual liberty.
Speaking at the 2009 FSP-hosted Liberty Forum in Nashua, Forsythe drew enthusiastic applause when he told a group of home schooling parents about his intention to hang one meddlesome lawmaker's "pelt on the wall" in an upcoming election. Targeting specific officials for political retribution sends a clear warning to other legislators that those who try to limit freedoms risk negative electoral consequences. "The state [Republican] Party knows what we're doing," Lawless said with a grin. "We have a hit list... If you screw us, we're gonna take you out."
Considering what their movement is up against, both in New Hampshire and at the national level, it is hard to blame the Free Staters for treating politics like a blood sport (albeit one that liberty has been losing for decades). But through the Free State Project this passion has been organized and focused, suggesting a turn in the tide. Already, Porcupine pioneers have made impressive and undeniable progress, but the gains are reversible and building on their momentum requires reinforcements. Still, when asked about the likelihood of achieving their vision, Lawless was optimistic. "Give me [just] three hundred more Ron Paul Republicans," he said, "and we will do amazing things in this state."
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The views expressed
in this article are those of Josh Eboch only and
do not represent the views of Nolan Chart, LLC or its affiliates.
Josh Eboch is solely responsible for the contents
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There is some incorrect information in the article above, with respect to the NH Liberty Alliance (NHLA).
The NHLA was formed in 2003, shortly after New Hampshire was chosen as the destination of the Free State Project. The organization was formed by New Hampshire natives, including a 4-term State Representative, Don Gorman.
Many politically active Free Staters and liberty-oriented NH natives have joined the NHLA; some of these have served on the NHLA Board of Directors.
I served one 2-year term as Director of Research¬† for the NHLA. The NHLA has no "president". The following info is from the NHLA "About us" webpage:
Note that the NHLA welcomes members from outside New Hampshire; there are many ways to get active in the organization from anywhere in the world: reviewing bills, engaging in forum conversations, and strategizing. Join us!
Posted By: Michael Garcia
Date: 2009-07-15 21:59:55
I appreciate the article that you wrote Josh. I just wanted to ask why you did not include the activism that has been happening mainly but not exclusively in the Keene region? The civil disobideience has inspired people to make the move and has resulted in quite a bit of press attention. This type of activism is what convinced my to make the move and I feel it certainly has a place of recongtion within the movement.¬†
If readers of this article are fed up and frustrated with GOING NOWHERE in local politics with their current libertarian approach, welcome to the Free State Project.¬† Join us in New Hampshire, where we are actually effecting "Liberty in Our Lifetime!"
Posted By: Jahfre Fire Eater
Date: 2009-07-17 15:34:54
¬† Thanks for the detailed update.¬† It's good to see folks using constructive means to reach their goals.¬† Very refreshing compared to the mob spectacles and slogan chanting that so many seem to believe will bring about change without doing anything at all.¬† I'm so sick of those who insist on basking in their ability to channel outrage into futility for youtube videos and to provide ammunition against those pursuing similar goals through constructive means. I just can't take seriously anyone who is spouting liberty slogans from the safety of a huge milling herd all mooing in unison.
Is the FSP for everyone? Certainly not...that would make it less credible and less effective.¬† Personally, I wouldn't give up my freedom to live where I choose inorder to defend my freedom.¬† I'll continue to defend that freedom from here where I choose but I certainly applaud those who participate in the FSP.
I wrote the preceding note many moons ago. Thought it was lost 4ever until went thru email. THX NolanChart 4 being clever. 22ndCentury is not kind 2 SquirrellyOldBroads.
Still need 2 re-read art., but these comments struck me: Mr.Garcia re "Keene region." Was dissappointed U didn't esplain same.¬† Didn't hear any news & would like 2. THX
I am w/ Mr.Eater, I stand on my feet every day & fight. Call a spade a spade & reach out & touch Folks-a Pro.Nag if you will, but set example. I won't live¬†on my knees. I also am sick of chanting Folks. Where was your *ss 25yrs ago? And NO SOLUTION IS PROFERED!
The only thing I can think of that will cut the legs off these politicrats is FairTax. Anything else is just yackin'.