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Project focuses on freedom at state level

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 29, 2001

Activism for limited government has been stalled in recent years. Educational institutes, publications and web sites dedicated to the free market and individual liberty proliferate, yet government growth continues unabated. Despite political efforts to shrink government that date at least as far back as Barry Goldwater's failed presidential campaign in 1964, election outcomes invariably coincide with government expanding its size, cost, reach and power.

Government continues to grow even when Republicans are elected. Federal spending continued to escalate and the welfare state remained largely intact under Ronald Reagan, the most fiscally conservative president since Calvin Coolidge. Even most conservatives in the Republican Party only advocate smaller growth of government, and some do not even go that far. This does not even take into consideration the moderate and liberal Republicans who are largely satisfied with the present size and scope of government. When Republicans do make even the most half-hearted efforts to limit government, such as the budget cuts introduced during Reagan's first year in office or by the 104th Congress, it produces a political backlash that benefits the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party. The government shut-downs caused by budget wrangling and the Republican effort to contain Medicare spending were used by Bill Clinton to transform himself from a weak, likely one-term president into a powerhouse who cruised to an easy reelection.

Third-party efforts fare no better. The votes for candidates who advocate purer small-government platforms simply do not appear to be there. The Libertarian Party's national vote totals peaked at some 900,000 in the 1980 presidential election, when big government was manifestly strangling the economy and the ticket consisted of somewhat politically savvy Ed Clarke (who sold libertarianism as "low-tax liberalism") and his free-spending billionaire running mate David Koch. They have been stuck under 500,000 since then, even when nominating credible candidates like Ron Paul in 1988 and Harry Browne in 1996 and 2000. Other smaller parties, like the more conservative Constitution Party, have done even worse.

Of course, the results have been somewhat better at the state and local level. Libertarians tend to poll in the 2 to 3 percent range in statewide races as opposed to their 0.3 to 0.5 percent ranges in presidential elections, and have won seats in state legislatures as well as other local offices. Ron Paul has served in Texas' delegation to the US House of Representatives (as a Republican) first from 1977 to 1985 and again since 1997. Perhaps at the state level there exists a far greater opportunity.

Jason Sorens, who is studying for his PhD. in political science at Yale, and Robert Vroman, an economics student at St. Louis University, think so. They are the two principle organizers of the Free State Project, a new approach to limiting government. Sorens is a devout Christian whose essays for publications like The Libertarian Enterprise are as respectable in tone as anything generated by the Cato Institute or published in Reason magazine. Vroman is an atheist who writes fiery articles in defense of running red lights and critical of the drug war for Jeremy Sapienza's anarcho-capitalist website anti-state.com. Yet in their opposition to big government, they are united.

Free State Project web siteWhat the Free State Project proposes to do is band together 20,000 libertarians, anti-statist conservatives, classical liberals and others who agree "the sole role of civil government is the protection of citizens' rights to life, liberty, and property" and have them move to a single, predetermined state. Once in this state, they would use the elective process to advance liberty at the state and local level and seek to promote an agenda that would seriously cut government. After they succeeded in drastically reducing taxes and spending, privatizing education, deregulating the utilities, curbing the abuse of eminent domain and eliminating current asset forfeiture practices, they would seek to opt out of as many federal programs as possible.

The criteria for selecting the appropriate state would concentrate on the ability of 20,000 activists to influence election outcomes and public policy formulation. The Free State Project's researchers have concluded this would require a state with a population of 1.5 million or less and/or spends less than $10 million over the course of any two-year election cycle. According to Sorens in a frequently asked questions segment of the project's website, "Other important criteria include: 1) coastal access (to make ourselves less dependent on the American market and by extension American policies); 2) a native culture that's already pro-liberty; 3) lack of dependence on federal funds (states that lose out on the Union will be more willing to stand up to the federal government and will hurt less from rejecting federal highway funds and other mechanisms of control); 4) a decent job market; 5) not much federally owned land (which can be an excuse for federal meddling in our affairs)."

The idea of transforming a state's political climate is not unprecedented. Vermont was once a bedrock conservative Republican state. Even now it lacks the draconian gun laws, to cite just one example, of other Northeastern states. The state did not send a Democrat to the Senate until Patrick Leahy was first elected in 1974. Since entering the Union, Vermont went Republican in every presidential election until 1964 (voting against FDR all four times) and did not go Democratic again until 1992. Since the 1970s, leftists have moved into the state at a furious pace and completely altered its political makeup. The most conservative member of the state's congressional delegation is Jim Jeffords, who recently left the Republican Party to become an independent and caucus with Senate Democrats. The other independent member of the Vermont delegation is Congressman Bernie Sanders, a socialist.

Even in an election year where the incumbent governor, Democrat Howard Dean, had signed a highly unpopular civil unions law, conservative Vermonters were able to mount only a feeble "Take Back Vermont" effort that failed to win control of the legislature or break 40 percent in the gubernatorial race. Many people are aware that Vermont has gone from being associated with Ethan Allan and the Green Mountain Boys to Ben and Jerry and Birkenstocks. But fewer recall Yale Law School hippies James Blumstein and James Phelan writing a treatise called the "Jamestown Seventy" that called for peopling Vermont with leftists. It was the subject of a 1972 Playboy article entitled "Taking Over Vermont" by Richard Pollak. While it might be fanciful to attribute the changes in Vermont entirely to an organized campaign by obscure lefties, it does illustrate 1.) the impact a relatively small number of activists can have over a single small state compared to what they could accomplish nationally and 2.) that the idea has been tried before with some success.

Where previous attempts to shrink government have failed by focusing on national results without an adequate constituency or by focusing on educational efforts to the exclusion of practical politics, the Free State Project would concentrate anti-statists' resources within a single state in which they would have the potential for some influence.

Consider one of the states under consideration by the project as a potential free state. New Hampshire has been changing politically as large numbers of people have been moving north from Massachusetts, ironically to escape high taxes and regulation. Yet they have nevertheless brought their more liberal politics and preference for government services with them, with clear results. The Democrats have made gains in the legislature and hold the governorship, even though Jean Shaheen has been more tepid in her opposition to broad-based statewide taxes than any governor in recent memory. She was even reelected over Gordon Humphrey, a former Republican US senator who left office under self-imposed term limits and was once thought to be a prime example of the Live Free or Die State's politics. Sen. Bob Smith, a Republican conservative in the tradition of the Manchester Union Leader, was barely reelected in 1996 and is seen as highly vulnerable to Gov. Shaheen, assuming he even makes it through the Republican primary. Bill Clinton carried New Hampshire in 1992 and 1996, while George W. Bush only narrowly brought it back into the GOP column- after losing the state's Republican primary to the more liberal John McCain.

If the casual movement of people can affect a state's politics like this, imagine the results a coordinated group of like-minded activists can have. Sorens told me that he first began thinking of promoting liberty at the sub-national level while researching his dissertation on secessionist movements. His thinking was jogged along by an op-ed piece syndicated columnist Walter Williams wrote shortly after the 2000 election, which argued that advocates of limited government must either succeed in restoring the Constitution or secede. Is secession, an idea outside the American political mainstream since the end of the Civil War, really what the Free State Project is all about?

Sorens pointed out that the objective of the Free State Project is not really secession at all. It is for like-minded individuals to move into a state where they can have an impact and work toward the creation of a more purely libertarian jurisdiction within the United States. This would entail a different balance between state and federal power than prevails in the remainder of the country. Participants in the Free State Project would push for the state to reject federal highway aid and other funding in order to opt out of various mandates, block grants and federal programs. The state would then bargain with the federal government to opt out of other programs, as in Canada some provinces have been able to opt out of national programs in exchange for a tax rebate. The project would also work to end state police enforcement of unconstitutional federal drug and gun laws. Eventually, they hope to even be able to opt out of Social Security and Medicare.

"Obviously, this whole agenda will take some time to complete," Sorens told me. "We'll have to move gradually but steadily toward the goal of a free society." Indeed, he said that if they could achieve a two-thirds reduction in taxes and spending within four decades it would be "a significant success." However, that does not unequivocally rule out secession. Talk of secession has been used as a bargaining tool by Scotland and Quebec in order to obtain greater self-determination; the Free State Project is willing to use similar tactics if necessary. Yet secession would only be considered if necessary and approved by a majority in the state.

"Most democratic countries do have secessionist movements now," Sorens maintained. "It's a growing worldwide phenomenon." Peaceful secessionist movements that pursue their goals through legal means within democratic countries are generally either appeased, as when Australia averted the secession of western Australia in 1933, or dealt with through a legal framework, such as the question of Quebec's status within Canada. Sorens noted that this project is nothing like militias or racist white separatists. This is a movement for minimal government and maximum personal freedom within the confines of a single state, with debatable if radical policy goals. The Free State Project is not to be confused with the Freemen or the Branch Davidians.

The Free State Project is fraught both with great opportunity and potential pitfalls. If successful, it can be a model to the rest of the country of the success of free markets and free people. It is easy to predict the state of their choice becoming a libertarian mecca and forcing taxes downward in bordering states. Capital would flow into the state, providing an abundance of jobs and economic opportunity.

This of course assumes that 20,000 trustworthy people can be committed to the project and will move into the chosen state. It also assumes that it won't become a debating society devoted to arcane theoretical ideas about the legitimacy of the state, or that it won't be marginalized by its association with people speaking openly- if only hypothetically and remotely- about secession. (If press reports began circulating about a "radical" group planning to move into your state allegedly in hopes of promoting its secession, what would you think? Perhaps more importantly, how would your centrist friends and neighbors react?) There is also the potential for internal divisions to overcome the project's membership. Some anarchist members may refuse to vote, complicating efforts aimed at using the political process to reduce government. Conservative members might promote aspects of a conservative social agenda in tandem with social conservatives already in the state that many libertarians and objectivists wouldn't support. Finally, the Free State Project could drain resources (and people) away from efforts to limit government elsewhere in the United States.

Plus, many of us love our home states despite how politically correct and hopelessly statist they might be. I would appreciate 20,000 people coming here to Massachusetts to help in the fight for liberty rather than some small state- I am not inclined to pack up and go to any number of small states under consideration even though many of them already have political climates more to my liking. Despite my reservations, the project is an interesting and ambitious proposal. Conservatives, libertarians and others who value liberty have been unsuccessful in past attempts to scale back the various levels of government in this country. The Free State Project deserves to be watched with an open mind. If this unorthodox approach really offers the promise of liberty within our lifetimes, it would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand.

If people can live in freedom in one state, then maybe others will come to see it as being possible where they live too.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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