State of Liberty

What would a truly free society look like? I got a glimpse of the future when I attended the Free State Project’s ninth annual Liberty Forum on March 7. The Free State Project’s goal is to convince 20,000 libertarians to move to New Hampshire, and Liberty Forum was created with the expressed purpose of recruiting new participants. All it takes to become a participant is to sign a pledge that states:

I hereby state my solemn intent to move to the state of New Hampshire. Once there, I will exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property.

The convention-style conference with an academic bent also provides resources and networking opportunities for those considering the move and those already in state.

Performance artist Vermin Supreme visits Liberty Forum.

Performance artist Vermin Supreme visits Liberty Forum.

As the Free State Project has grown, so has Liberty Forum. This year, the event moved from the Crowne Plaza in Nashua to the Radisson in Manchester to account for the burgeoning attendance of approximately 600 libertarians over four days—which is huge by New Hampshire standards. In fact, the Manchester Radisson is now the only venue in the state large enough for hosting such an event. Liberty Forum is certainly large enough to be a representative microcosm of the principles and aspirations of the Project’s participants. Moreover, Liberty Forum provides a unique window into what is perhaps the world’s most ambitious and idealistic libertarian movement.

After arriving at and checking in at Liberty Forum, I was greeted with a healthy dose of culture shock. Despite often surrounding myself with libertarians and conservatives, I was still taken aback at what could best be described as the amount of freedom in the air at Liberty Forum. The most immediate manifestation of this liberty-mindedness was the fact that at least a dozen people were open carrying handguns, a behavior that I am not used to but greatly welcome. Overall, the number and concentration of freedom-minded individuals was simply stunning. And it was all the more amazing considering that these were not simply libertarians, but those passionate enough to uproot (or consider uprooting) their lives and move to New Hampshire to fight for their beliefs.

I was previously skeptical about how impactful the Free State Project could be, but this group of individuals changed my mind entirely. A relatively small group of organized and enthusiastic activists can have an outsized impact, and it seems that this is happening with the Free State Project. Nearly twenty Free Staters currently serve in the State House of Representatives, and many more are ideologically aligned. I was privileged enough to meet some of these legislators, and it was clear that their goal is to win and legislate effectively, rather than just grandstand and make a point as some libertarians on the national stage have been accused of doing. I floated the idea of running for State Representative myself on a pro-liberty platform, and I received nothing but plentiful encouragement, support, and offers of mentorship from those in the Project.

At the very least, Free Staters have managed to arrest and even reverse New Hampshire’s trajectory toward becoming another ultra-progressive New England state like Vermont. Where Free Staters are really making a difference, however, is in the private sector. An eclectic mix of pro-liberty businesses tabled at the convention, representing spirit of enterprise present in movement. There were various Bitcoin-based businesses, as expected. Porcupine Real Estate, which expressly serves the libertarian community in state, tabled as well. Beer from various libertarian nanobreweries was also present. However, one family had one of the most interesting combinations of businesses possible. They owned a farm and also manufactured high-end AR-style rifles and pistols. But this diversity of businesses is just the beginning. Free State Project founder Jason Sorens envisions a Manchester skyline filled with skyscrapers from a booming technology sector, as companies are drawn to New Hampshire for its business climate, human capital, and quality of life.

There is the trope that libertarians are selfish and do not care about the poor, but my experience at Liberty Forum simply demolishes this supposition. The general character of conference attendees struck me; they were all unfailingly friendly, generous, and kind. People reached out to me not just to say hello, but to actually get to know me. Free Staters worked to help those struggling to find firm footing in the state, helping them find housing and work. The project is a real community, where participants supported each other. Traditionally, community-based forms of insurance and support have been used instead of government welfare programs, and my experience at Liberty Forum has reaffirmed my belief in a voluntary safety net that relies on real compassion and a more virtuous people will be superior to any state program.

The Free Staters would be crazy, were it not for the fact that their plan is working. Some of people I met were eccentric, but none of them are the cranks commonly portrayed in the media. A common theme I discovered at Liberty Forum was dissatisfaction with national politics, which many Free Staters consider an exercise in futility. In this vein, the Free State Project is an effort to actually effect change by working at the state level. New Hampshire is one of the most prosperous states, with very low poverty and unemployment. Free Staters’ efforts are working to keep it that way.

Liberty Forum also featured a diversity of engaging speakers. The long list of speakers included our very own Meir Kohn, Professor of Economics, who delivered his standard talk on “How I Became a Libertarian,” detailing his fascinating conversion from communist to progressive to full-blown libertarian. Atlas Society Founder David Kelley talked about the philosophy behind libertarianism and gave pointers on how to advocate for freedom. His main piece of sage advice was to never give up the moral high ground to statists and assume that they are arguing from good faith. Another fascinating speaker, attorney Seth Hipple, provided information on how to protect one’s rights when interacting with law enforcement. Other speakers included Sorens, also a Lecturer in Government at Dartmouth, who detailed the future of a New Hampshire influenced by the Free State Project. Needless to say, the vision was one of a great bastion of liberty in progressive New England. He delivered the rosy outlook to several rounds of rousing applause from an enthusiastic audience.

Sorens also participated in a panel that also included Free State Project President Carla Gericke, discussing the relatively healthy state of the organization and the plans for the future. In addition, entrepreneur and former New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate Andrew Hemingway gave an informative presentation on blockchain, the distributed accounting ledger that powers Bitcoin. He talked about how this technology could be used to replace state functions in future and “disrupt government.” And at the end of a very long and eventful day, keynote speaker Patrick Bryne, the CEO of Overstock.com and chairman of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, delivered an impassioned yet rational plea for school choice.

The Free State Project has come a long way since its inception as a Yale Ph.D. student’s idea. Liberty Forum, which has only reaffirmed my belief in the desirability and feasibility of a free society, is wildly successful, as is the Free State Project’s other annual event, the Porcupine Freedom Festival. After the project’s goal of 20,000 participants is hit, which will likely occur in 2017, the move will be “triggered” and a concerted effort to get the participants to migrate en masse into the state will begin. But it will still be an upward battle to achieve the society envisioned by the Free Staters. This is a worthwhile fight, but politics is a ruthless game.

Special thanks to Jason Sorens and Meir Kohn for graciously providing transportation to and from Liberty Forum.