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How to Stage a Coup, American-Style

Libertarian activists are moving to a state where they'll have maximum clout.



By NATHAN THORNBURGH

Time Magazine, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2006


If Ron Helwig can join the revolution, then so can you. All you have to do is believe, as Helwig does, that the government has gone way too far in regulating your personal life, taxing your income and invading your privacy. And, of course, you have to move to New Hampshire.

That's exactly what the affable computer programmer from Minnesota did this year. He's a new member of the Free State Project, a group of like-minded libertarians from around the U.S. whose goal is to come together in the tiny New England state in sufficient numbers to create a libertarian showroom for the rest of the country.

The Free State idea was the brainchild five years ago of Jason Sorens, then a grad student in political science at Yale. Card-carrying libertarians make up just under 1% of voters around the country, a number that has made them achingly irrelevant in national politics. Sorens argued in online forums and later at political events that if 20,000 libertarians would move to the same small state, they would no longer be in the electoral wilderness. They could finally make a difference and show the rest of America what real liberty looks like--the kind where you don't have to wear seat belts or register your guns and nobody passes laws about what the neighbors can do in their bedroom.

By 2003 thousands had agreed in principle to make the move once a total of 20,000 had signed on. They settled on New Hampshire as their destination. The state's motto, after all, is LIVE FREE OR DIE, and its low taxes and high regard for minding your own damn business proved irresistible. Republican officials were delighted. "Come on up," Craig Benson, the Governor at the time, told them. "We'd love to have you."

At a recent Free State Project meet-and-greet in Deerfield thrown by Helwig and his two housemates, also Minnesotan émigrés, it was clear that 20,000 is an ambitious goal. No more than a few dozen movement members from around the state showed up for the beer and pizza. In all, fewer than 200 have moved to New Hampshire in the past three years. "Getting libertarians to do anything together is like herding cats," groused a partygoer.

It would be wrong to write off the Free Staters entirely, though. Those who have moved have been putting on a display of rambunctious, representative democracy. Some prefer civil disobedience and street demonstrations: one was recently arrested at a local IRS office handing out pamphlets that said, "Hitler had a revenue service too." Although the Free State Project doesn't endorse political candidates, some members have been making competitive runs for local office, including some staunch home-schooling advocates who have been elected to local school boards. With one state legislator for every 3,000 or so citizens (the best ratio of any state), New Hampshire has a proud tradition of hyper-representative government, but as in the rest of the country, many of its citizens are apathetic about politics. By simply showing up and speaking out at public meetings, the Free Staters are filling the participatory void. They helped block a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and joined forces with elements of the two main parties to pressure the statehouse to vote down a pilot program for a national ID card.

If the Republican establishment was expecting the movement to deliver loyal conservative voters, the libertarians--who want to lift controls on both guns and narcotics--are proving more complicated creatures. Cathleen Converse used to be a by-the-book conservative in South Carolina. But she says that the free-spending, prying Bush Administration sped up her defection from the G.O.P. and eventually brought her husband and her to the Free State Project. "As Republicans showed their true colors," she says, "we had to choose the side of liberty." She adds, "Back home, most of the people thought we were crazy. But here, when you talk about real freedom, people actually nod their heads."

Moving to New Hampshire has given Helwig a new faith in politics. "Democracy isn't really ruled by the majority," he says. "It's ruled by the vocal minority." With more Free Staters driving their U-Hauls north each month, the vocal minority may slowly be growing a little louder.