The Free State Project Grows Up: Libertarians Are Changing the Face of New Hampshire

By Quinn, Garrett | Reason, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Free State Project Grows Up: Libertarians Are Changing the Face of New Hampshire


Quinn, Garrett, Reason


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In 2001 a Yale doctoral student named Jason Sorens published an essay in the small webzine The Libertarian Enterprise, lamenting the failure of libertarian efforts at the ballot box. "Nothing's working" he wrote, because libertarians are scattered. The only way to have a real impact, he argued, would be to concentrate thousands of libertarian activists in a state with a small population and an easily accessible government. Sorens settled on an ideal target of 20,000 people, an imaginary cluster of libertarians he christened the Free State Project.

Twelve years later, against all odds, Sorens' peculiar dream is coming true. At press time, nearly 14,000 liberty lovers had pledged to move to New Hampshire once the Free State Project reaches its goal of 20,000 signatories. More than 1,200 of them, known as "pre-staters," have already moved to Manchester, Concord, Nashua, and even the state's rural northern region to prepare the ground for the coming influx of libertarians. These activists are penetrating New Hampshire's political and judicial establishment, joining community organizations, befriending (and antagonizing) the locals, and generally making themselves at home in New England.

Free Staters in the Legislature

The first Free Stater, Jackie Casey, packed her bags in 2003, just after an online vote determined that New Hampshire would beat out Wyoming and other contenders for the Free State title. Casey had been a Wyoming partisan. "I didn't vote for New Hampshire," she told the Boston TV station WCVB in 2004. But "I moved here because I made a commitment."

One of the main reasons New Hampshire won was the state's accessible corridors of power. Town meetings are the predominant style of government in most of its municipalities, and the state legislature is the third largest in the world, with 424 seats.

Pre-staters had an easy time picking up seats right away. After the 2012 election, they held about a dozen legislative positions on both sides of the aisle. The number may actually be higher, since some elected Free Staters have been quiet about their affiliation with the movement, due to concerns about backlash at the ballot box. But since the average annual salary of a New Hampshire state legislator is just $100, the work has to be a labor of love and passion--a Free Stater specialty.

The professional breakdown of the Free Staters in the legislature is a reflection of the diversity of the movement; there are real estate brokers, lawyers, writers, EMTS, couriers, and computer programmers. Some are New Hampshire natives, while others hail from Florida, New York, Massachusetts, and libertine Nevada.

The libertarian influence already has paid some dividends in governance. In 2007 the New Hampshire legislature voted to block implementation of a national ID card system in the state. The battle against REAL ID was lead by Joel Winters, the first member of the Free State Project to win a statewide representative seat. Winters, a Democrat and Floridian, ran for office on a platform focused on civil liberties and privacy just two years after he moved to New Hampshire.

Winters, who is a building contractor by trade, notes that other Free State legislative victories are less conspicuous, because they involve stopping bad laws before they start. "There's always proposals to expand licensing requirements, and we've helped stopped those," he says, ticking off thwarted gun restrictions and seat belt regulations as examples.

Another victory for the Free Staters came in 2010, when state Rep. Jenn Coffey (R) managed to pass a bill that repealed all of New Hampshire's knife laws with astounding ease. Until Coffey's legislation passed, the state's knife restrictions were stricter in some cases than its gun laws. Stilettos, switch blades, daggers, and other collectible knives were poorly defined in the relevant statutes. Coffey's legislation passed unanimously through both chambers and was quickly signed into law. …

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