Sorens on Liberty

Professor Sorens, the rare libertarian academic.

Professor Sorens, the rare libertarian academic.

Editors Note: Jason Sorens is a Lecturer in the Department of Government, the Program Director of the Political Economy Project (PEP), and the President and Founder of Ethics and Economics Education of New England (E3NE). He is also the Founder and current Vice President of the Free State Project (FSP), a political migration movement that seeks to recruit 20,000 libertarians move to New Hampshire to gain the critical mass necessary to effect political change. Recently, The Dartmouth Review had the opportunity to speak with Professor Sorens about his work at Dartmouth and his involvement in state politics. Here is what he had to say.

 The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Could you briefly explain the premise of the Free State Project (FSP) and how it came to be?

Jason Sorens (JS): The Free State Project is an effort to attract classical liberals and libertarians to New Hampshire. We ultimately want to get 20,000 people signed up to move. It started when I was a graduate student at Yale. I wrote an essay for an online journal called the Libertarian Enterprise proposing this as a strategy that could maximize the clout of limited government activists. We could find a small state that was relatively friendly to our ideas and move there. In 2003, NH was selected by our members. Since then we’ve been trying to get people to agree to move to NH. I myself moved about a year ago.

TDR: Were you always a libertarian?

JS: No, I was raised in a strongly religious right household. So, as a teenager, I wanted to ban everything that was immoral—pornography, drugs, all of it. I became a libertarian actually through my engagement with ideas of Austrian economists like Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and political philosophy actually, studying John Locke and John Stuart Mill. I came to believe in the virtues of toleration and individual liberty across the board.

TDR: You were previously at SUNY Buffalo and then came to Dartmouth. What convinced you to once again get involved in the FSP after such a long break?

JS: Well I was on the board for a long time and supported the FSP. I visited NH usually about twice a year for our annual events—the Winter Liberty Forum and the Summer Porcupine Freedom Festival (PorcFest). So I was still very active and still planning to move, but as an academic it was very difficult for me to find a job here, so ultimately I decided to take a non-tenure track job at Dartmouth.

TDR: Is it difficult being a libertarian in academia?

JS: I think it is in subtle ways. The vast majority of academics, even though they lean left, I don’t think are hostile toward libertarians or conservatives. But it only takes a small minority to produce an effective bias in hiring and promotion decisions. Usually a hiring committee will not want to hire someone who grossly offends one of the existing faculty, even if the majority of the faculty are okay with that person. I had a job interview in which I was the only person interviewed and was the only candidate considered acceptable for this job by the search committee and the chair of the department. When I arrived on campus, there were a couple of self-proclaimed Marxists who opposed me. I was not offered that job, and I was told that it was for ideological reasons.

It also affects the kinds of questions that you’re able to write about. I work on a biannual project called Freedom in the 50 States in which we rate all 50 states based on their economic and personal freedom. We’ve always published that with think tanks. We haven’t tried to publish in academic journals because academic journals are not interested in freedom [laughs]. It would be very difficult to get that published not necessarily because other faculty want to spike it because it threatens their worldview, but because they see the question as not very interesting.

TDR: Going back to the Freedom in the 50 States, NH dropped from #1 to #4 in the most recent rankings. How is the latest version coming along, and are you worried with the direction of NH overall?

JS: One of the reasons why NH dropped to #4 from #1 was due to methodological changes in this study and not to declining freedom. If you had applied the current methodology to previous years you would have found NH’s drop would be smaller: #2 to #4. NH has made some significant changes for the better since we last looked at the states. NH has repealed its certificate of need law for new hospitals. It passed a tax credit for contributions to scholarship funds for students who leave public schools for homeschools or private schools, so it’s basically a school choice program. NH has legalized medical marijuana. All those things should increase NH’s score on the metrics of regulatory policy and personal freedom. There are also some significant budget and tax cuts so that should improve NH on the fiscal side, so I’m pretty optimistic that NH will do well in the next edition.

TDR: Some liberals seem to think that New Hampshire is trending Democratic. Do you think so?

JS: Well in 1990, based on the ‘88 and ‘84 elections, NH was a (Cook Partisan Voting Index) R+9 state. By 1998 it was R+1. By 2010 it was D+2. And by 2014 D+1. So there was a big shift over the course of the 1990s. It was driven by people moving from places like NY, NJ, and MD to NH and the dying off of the old, flinty, Yankee conservative farmers. That shift has slowed, stopped, and even reversed a little bit. NH is dead center. It’s a fully purple state and Republicans should be competitive if they have good candidates. Kelly Ayotte will win reelection easily. I’m not her biggest fan for a variety of reasons, but she is a good candidate. Scott Brown was perceived as a carpetbagger and flip-flopped on a lot of issues. The conservative base didn’t like him, and he still came within 4 points. The gubernatorial candidate was even more of a carpetbagger. He lived in Maryland and moved to NH right before the election. He also was not very appealing to the base particularly because he is associated with defense contractor that worked with the NSA. It certainly didn’t appeal to the libertarian wing of the party where all of the activist energy comes from these days.

TDR: Free Staters control approximately 20 seats in the State House of Representatives, and this number is growing. Is this mass of legislators beginning to exert meaningful influence?

JS: Most of the victories that we can attribute to Free Staters who got elected to the state house are fairly small, but are still suggestive. One of the most competent legislators we’ve had is recent years in Jenn Coffey, who wrote a bill that would eliminate all regulations on the ownership, sale, and carrying of knives. That bill passed on a voice vote and was signed by the Governor. We had a bill that was written by a homeschooling mom who moved with the FSP. She gave it to her legislator. He introduced it and it passed, deregulating homeschooling significantly. We also had a bill to legalize nanobreweries, and that passed too.

Free Staters have also been very important in changing the conversation in especially the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is much more in ideological lockstep, and they’ve even tried to campaign against their own members who are Free Staters, such as Michael Garcia.

There’s now a much larger liberty bloc within the State House and it goes beyond Free Staters to include “pre-staters,” people who have libertarian views but were already here. About 10% of the State House, 40 people, are pretty consistent libertarians. Free Staters, even when they haven’t written the bills, have played a big role in swinging votes and that’s why the hardline statists say things like “Free Staters are the biggest threat to this state. We need to take away freedom so fewer Free Staters move here.” They say things like that because it’s kind of true to their worldview [laughs].

TDR: What is the status of the FSP right now?

JS: We’re past 80% of our goal of 20,000 signatures of people willing to move. We have over 1,700 people in NH and 2,300 Friends of the FSP who were already in the state. We have thousands of supporters. I would be happy if we got to 3,000 to 4,000. That’s enough of an activist base to match anything that any of the other ideological factions in the state can muster, maybe even all of them put together.

TDR: Is organizing libertarians to effect political action difficult? They’re certainly not rank-and-file union members, and I would think that their independent-mindedness makes organizing them like herding cats.

JS: It can be. There’s a tradeoff. Say you get more independent thinking, you get more factionalization, so you get disagreements about tactics. There are those who moved with the FSP who reject electoral politics, who don’t want to lobby the legislature. All they want to do is civil disobedience and sometimes they do it in a form that’s more calculated to annoy than to persuade. So I think those people have probably done net harm to us, but it’s a very small segment of the movement, even though they tend to get news coverage. So the vast majority of us are all pulling the same direction, and that’s what matters. There are some advantages to diversity. We have lots of different people who come from lots of different walks of life. As a result, you get lots of different ideas that you can filter through and see what works, see what doesn’t. It’s the process of discovery, leading to a process of Schumpeterian creative destruction in political activism. It works.

TDR: In the same vein, do you see the extreme views held by some prominent Free Staters, such as self-declared anarchist and former Democratic State Representative Tim O’Flaherty, as being detrimental to the FSP?

JS: I don’t have a problem with anarchists. What libertarians mean by anarchism is not what the average American thinks of the term. It doesn’t mean chaos, disorder, absence of law, legalize everything. What it means is that they want a justice system that’s outside of the state. I don’t think that system would be sustainable. I disagree with them, but there would still be law, order, and peace. I don’t think it’s helpful to call yourself an anarchist. You probably alienate a lot of people who don’t understand what you mean, but I don’t think success is closed off to you in this state if you’re an anarchist. The anarchist did win office as a Democrat and only lost because of the Republican wave in 2014, so he may be back. I don’t think your views on the role of the state will hurt you, but your tactics might. If you go around yelling at meter maids and how they’re the violence inherent in the system, people aren’t going to like you. That’s what happens in Keene and that’s why those Keeniacs who have run for office have done very, very poorly. They’ve poisoned their own well, and it’s a shame because it’s a tiny, tiny portion of the FSP—at most 20 people out of 16,000 plus.

TDR: The problem with these people is that they have created the perception by which even you are portrayed as an extremist. Do you have any response to that?

JS: The Democratic Party leadership calls everyone extreme. They call Scott Brown extreme. That’s their go to epithet. Personally, if you go around calling everyone extreme, that just makes me think that you’re extreme. You must be way out of the spectrum. So I’m not worried what NH Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley or former NH Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sullivan say. We’ve been welcomed by people who are conservative or even moderate.