The Free State Project

A reader asks what I think of the Free State Project. If you haven’t heard of it, here are some key points (taken from the FSP web site):

The main goal of the Free State Project is to recruit 20,000 liberty-friendly Americans to move to New Hampshire over the next several years. The purpose of this cooperative migration is to create a freer, better society through the electoral process and cultural change. Those of us who believe government in the U.S. is far too involved in our daily lives and far too removed from the control and influence of ordinary people represent a substantial minority in the U.S., but a minority nonetheless. In all our political efforts to date, we have been thwarted by powerful special interests in D.C., by the ignorance or apathy of many Americans, and by the self-interest of politicians themselves. The idea behind the Free State Project, therefore, is that by concentrating pro-freedom resources in a single, friendly state we will leverage our influence more effectively while also enjoying immediately the benefits of a freer state culture.

So much is clear. But why 20,000? What is the logic behind this number? There is certainly nothing magical about it. When the FSP started, 20,000 signatures seemed like an attainable goal, and one that would mean something. Further research showed that 20,000 people could significantly influence several states, assuming that they were all active in politics or civil society, not just passive onlookers. This essay expands on that research to consider exactly what 20,000 Free Staters could accomplish in the state we’ve chosen, New Hampshire….

…[P]urely by the numbers, well organized Free Staters could have a significant effect on state-level politics in New Hampshire even if they numbered just eight, ten, or twelve thousand. However, this purely statistical analysis also does not take into account the specific circumstances of our state. Many of the advantages of New Hampshire for freedom-seeking Americans are well known features that sold the state to thousands of FSP members, but I intend to take the well-known lists of “desirable features” to induce a more general picture of the state, a “Theory of New Hampshire” if you will.

I class New Hampshire’s advantages in two categories, cultural and institutional. Cultural aspects of New Hampshire relate to the friendliness of Granite Staters to our ideas….

…[N[o state sales or income tax, the lowest state and local tax burden in the continental U.S., no adult seatbelt law, no helmet law, very few gun laws, a governor and many state legislators who’ve been explicitly welcoming, a large percentage of political independents, extremely low dependence on federal subsidies, low government employment, and so forth….

…The town meeting system allowed citizens to keep their government officials close enough to “grab them by the scruff of their necks” if they overstepped their power….

Economically, New Hampshire has the advantage of a dynamic economy centered around knowledge-based and service industries. Such industries tend to favor the global economy and a leaner scale of government that makes rapid adaptation possible. New Hampshire’s high per capita income also means that residents pay much more to the federal government in taxes than they receive in expenditures. New Hampshire is thus quite different from neighboring Vermont and Maine, which have struggled economically….

Socially, New Hampshire has always ranked as one of the more tolerant states in the country….

New Hampshire thus combines the best of all worlds and ends up with an ideal socioeconomic and cultural mix. Most of the states that are socially tolerant and economically advanced tend to be heavily urbanized and leftist, while most of the states that are not heavily urbanized tend to be poor or too rightist. New Hampshire is the only state in the country that I can identify that is tolerant, advanced, not federally dependent, not too urbanized, and historically libertarian-oriented. If a libertarian movement were to succeed anywhere in the country, maybe in the world, it would be in New Hampshire.

As of this writing — ten years after the founding of the FSP — the movement has acquired fewer than 11,000 members, as against the goal of 20,000. In the meantime, from 2000 to 2008, a majority of New Hampshire’s new voters (young voters and in-comers) identified themselves as Democrats. New Hampshire’s swing to the left led to the election of Democrats to both of the State’s U.S. House seats in 2006. They remained in office until the nation-wide resurgence of the GOP in 2010, when New Hampshire’s voters replaced them with Republicans, while also turning the Senate seat of Judd Gregg (a retiring RINO) over to Kelly Ayotte, a  conservative Republican. None of this bodes well for the kind of libertarian sought by the Free State Project.

So this is my advice to that kind of libertarian. If you think you can make a difference in New Hampshire, don’t wait, move there now. But think long and hard before you make the move. You are unlikely to have much effect on New Hampshire’s policies, especially because that State — like all 50 of them — is bound by onerous national policies that are founded on expansive and erroneous readings of the U.S. Constitution.

As for what New Hampshire has to offer — aside from long, hard winters and short, cool summers — I give you this, from the latest edition of Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom (Mercatus Center, George Mason University, February 2009):

New Hampshire is by our count the freest state in the country. Depending on weights, however, it really shares the first, second and third slots with Colorado and South Dakota. New Hampshire does much better on economic (#2) than personal freedom (#13). Taxes and spending are among the lowest in the country, but the tax regime is highly skewed. New Hampshire has the third highest property and corporate income taxes in the United States. These should be high priorities for cutting. On the spending side, the likeliest suspect for cutting is transportation, which is higher than average once one controls for federal grants and population density (less dense states spend more on roads). Once state population is controlled for, New Hampshire is one of the most fiscally decentralized states in the country. Local governments also must raise two-thirds of what they spend with their own taxes. Gun laws are among the most liberal in the country, but the state has a weak “peaceable journey” regime (carrying a firearm in a car requires a concealed carry permit). Its alcohol regime is relatively free. Despite state control of retail distribution of wine and spirits, the effective tax rates on these products are zero, according to the Tax Foundation. Marijuana laws are middling; low-level possession could be decriminalized like Maine, while low-level cultivation could be made a misdemeanor like both Maine and Vermont. New Hampshire is the only state in the country with no seat-belt law for adults. It lacks a motorcycle helmet law but does have a bicycle helmet law and authorizes sobriety checkpoints. New Hampshire is one of three states that permit self-insurance for auto liability. Gambling is relatively controlled: Most gaming must take place under a charitable license, social gaming is prohibited, and aggravated gambling is a felony. State approval is required to open a private school. Home school laws are about average on the whole, but the standardized testing and recordkeeping requirements are more onerous than most states. Labor laws are generally market-friendly, but it is not a right-to-work state. Occupational licensing is worse than average. Both eminent domain and asset forfeiture have been thoroughly reformed. The state’s liability system is one of the best, but campaign finance regulations are quite strict. As of 2006, smoking bans allowed many exemptions, but a thoroughgoing ban has since passed (not captured by our index).

Frankly, moving to New Hampshire is probably a waste of money and energy. The real battle for liberty is a national one. In that regard, the turnaround in 2010 bodes well for true libertarianism: laissez-faire economic policies combined with a social conservatism rooted in traditional social norms (pro-life, heterosexual marriage, etc.).

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