The successes – and failures – of the Free State Project

If less than 20,000 members have moved to NH by the year 2022, the Free State Project will reassess its current operations.

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A Porcupine, mascot animal of the libertarian party.

Author’s note: The FSP mentioned here should not be confused with the Freedom Socialist Party.

In July of 2001, a Ph. D. Student at Yale University named Jason Sorens wrote an article highlighting the failures of libertarian activism and what might be done to further the cause of personal human liberty. The traditional method of capturing government power and influence through elections in order to reduce such power and influence simply was not working. The Libertarian Party had been around for almost 30 years by that point, having been formed in December of 1971 in response to growing concern over the Nixon Administration, the War in Vietnam, military conscription, and a move away from an economic gold standard of currency. In those thirty years, the party largely failed to accomplish any of its goals. It had only one single electoral vote in 1972 from the presidential candidacy of John Hospers and Theodora Nathan.

Up until 2001, with the exception of Ron Paul’s candidacy in 1988, a series of political unknowns ran, gaining less than one percent of the popular presidential vote each time. To this day, the Party has not elected a single Representative or Senator to Congress. What victories the party has enjoyed, few and far between though they’ve been, have largely come in state and municipal elections. Those victories have generally not been enough to sway federal, much less state, policy on a long-term basis.

A new approach other than electoral politics had to be adopted. Rather than working as disparate voices in the wilderness talking about government overreach and political corruption, libertarians would be better served congregating together in a single state in order to form an island of small government activity in a nation going increasingly mad with unwieldy government power. Such was the idea.

The number set by Sorens was 20,000 libertarian activists moving to a single state he called a “Free State Society.” In 2003, New Hampshire was chosen as the state where libertarians would settle, with Wyoming coming in second place. Thirteen years later, Free State Project (FSP) President Carla Gericke announced that 20,000 people had signed a declaration of intent to move. The number of people who had actually moved to New Hampshire was far less than this, coming in just under 5,000.

A person who moves for the Project is called a Free Stater. Such people settle in various parts of the state. Concentrations of Free Staters can be found in Portsmouth, Keene, Manchester, Concord, and other regions. Some Free Staters choose to live in small towns; others choose to live in densely populated areas. Their stated, overt goal is to overthrow the New Hampshire state government through an election process to establish a small, libertarian government which favors the individual over the state.

Tiffany Hale, who moved in 2017, reports in the Free State Project’s Movers Stories blog that she was incredibly happy with her decision to move to Berlin. She writes, “We have been welcomed with open arms into the community (FSP and otherwise). We’re so happy to be here; making the move was definitely right for our family! It was emotional to leave family, friends, and all things familiar, but now that we’re here we couldn’t be happier!”

Elliot Axelman, who prefers to be called Alu, moved from New York. He writes, “Eight months have passed since we moved here, and I maintain that it was the best decision I’ve ever made. We have excellent jobs; we’ve made great friends inside and outside of the liberty movement; and we are living in a beautiful apartment. Unlike in NYC, it’s likely that you can afford to live in the apartment or house you desire in New Hampshire.”

Participants identifying themselves as  Robert and Carol moved together as a couple from Wisconsin. Robert writes, “The people here are wonderful. The area offers so much from outdoor adventure to excellent shopping. We are within an hour of mountains, Boston, the seacoast, and some of the country’s most beautiful, clean and breathtaking forests, trails and waterways.”

Tony Jankowski came to New Hampshire as a Free Stater and fully intends to return, but had to leave for a career move to Portland, Oregon.

“There is no better place for a person to raise their children and no better, no more a diverse community than that of Free Staters and other porcupine,” Jankowski said.

These are some of the experiences participants have had since moving to New Hampshire in search of personal human liberty.

Their guiding philosophy is the Non-Aggression Principle, also called the NAP, which states unprovoked violence against another person is wrong. Such violence is often found through state measures such as forcible confiscation of property and excessive force on the part of police officers toward average citizens. While this certainly sounds appealing in principle, in practice, things haven’t always gone smoothly.

In 2016, after arguing that 14 year olds are capable of consenting to sexual activity with adults, Ian Bernard, also known as Ian Freeman, was expelled from the Free State Project. He had been a participant for 10 years. A week later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation served a warrant at 73 Leverett Street in Keene, NH  after a months-long child pornography sting. Later that year, Bernard ran for Governor of New Hampshire as a Democrat.

Bernard had long been a part of a libertarian radio show called Free Talk Live. The show regularly featured Christopher Cantwell who was expelled from the Free State Project in 2013 for advocating violence against government agents. (He would remain bitter about it for at least another year when another post appeared on his blog highlighting what had happened). Since then, Cantwell has become infamous for being the Crying Nazi of Charlottesville. He has become an unapologetic white supremacist who argues for selective genocide based on one’s political ideology

He was also a part of a group called The Free Keene Squad who went around filming themselves harassing parking enforcement staff working for the city of Keene. While being interviewed for Comedy Central, Cantwell showed off his firearm and his proficiency with it. Whether or not he is still permitted to own firearms after beginning work as an FBI informant remains to be seen.

After seeing his friend expelled and seeing himself get expelled, Ian Bernard started a group called Shire Society, a cult-like group that requires each participant to sign a declaration similar to the Free State Project’s iinformal agreement. Thus far, the Shire Society has done little more than congratulate itself on not banning pedophiles and white supremacists. They haven’t been committing physical violence against anyone by doing so.

On his website, Bernard has even gone so far to defend Cody Wilson, an anarchist who was charged with having sexual intercourse with a 16-year-old girl he met on a website called SugarDaddyMeet. In August 2019, Wilson pled guilty to a felony charge of injury to a child. Prior to this incident, Wilson was scheduled to speak at the FSP’s yearly February event called Liberty Forum based on his knowledge of 3D-printing firearms.

Another FSP participant named  Aaron Day has gained ill repute by supporting Mike Gill, who accused certain New Hampshire residents of being “heroin dealers.” Day and Gill together lost a civil suit for defamation in which a jury awarded $274 million to the plaintiffs. Prior to this, Day would regularly run for public office in Bedford. In 2016, he ran as an independent for the U.S. Senate just to prevent incumbent Kelly Ayotte from being re-elected.

The Free State Project, meanwhile, has enjoyed a modicum of success running candidates for the  New Hampshire State House. FSP participants Mike Sylvia, Glen Aldrich, Emily Sandblade, Mark Warden, and Elizabeth Edwards have at various times been fixtures in the state’s political process. Anywhere from 10 to 20 participants can be counted on to win elections in the legislature every year. Far more Free Staters run and do not succeed in getting elected.

While not exclusively so, most Free Staters who run for office do so as Republicans based on the ideals of small government who spends its money responsibly. This, as often as not, leads to a divide among the participants between those who are conservative and those who are not. Increasingly, more conservatives (rather than libertarians) appear to be active participants, making it difficult for left-leaning participants to have an equal voice or be taken seriously by others.

The infighting which takes place usually centers around a classical definition of libertarianism as advocated in the 19th century by writers such as Benjamin Tucker which was synonymous with state-free socialism and today’s definition of libertarianism which is synonymous with anarcho-capitalism, a political ideology which arose from the works of economists Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises, among others. The anarcho-capitalist philosophy traces its roots to Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, who ironically was more politically left than those who espouse his ideas may realize. Left-libertarianism, or state-free socialism, has largely arisen from the works of Karl Marx, Peter Kropotkin, and Voltarine De Cleyre, among others.

While these two ideologies agree that centralized power is a net negative for society, left-libertarians would suggest that centralized power can be found in private organizations as well as public ones. An anarcho-capitalist would reply that all private authority depends on the consent of those who engage in it. A person who doesn’t like their private authority figures simply needs disengage from them in order to obtain personal freedom.

Because the two sides have not been able to disagree, the Free State Project has not been able to offer a united front between all kinds of libertarians in order to achieve their goal. Indeed, as Jason Sorens observed in 2001 regarding the Libertarian Party, the Free State Project has yet to achieve its goals — either of having 20,000 libertarians in the state or taking over the legislature.

Former Freestate Project President Carla Gericke, passing out signs prior to a rally questioning militarization of the MPD. Inklink File Photo

When there is police overreach or government corruption, Free Staters are often among the first to respond. This was the case in 2016 when the police department of Manchester issued a shelter-in-place order for the West Side of the town in hopes of catching a fleeing suspect. The lockdown, as it came to be known, presented concerns as to whether community members were trading liberty for security.

The Free State Project soon protested these decisions in front of City Hall by holding signs for passers-by to view in their cars. The message presented that day was unambiguous: police officers should not take their authority too far. A counter-protest by other community members followed in support of their local police department.

Protestors from the Free State Project, outside City Hall. Inklink File Photo

While shelter-in-place orders have been used since then in Manchester, they did not have nearly the frightening, terrorizing aspect of the one from 2016 in which community members of Manchester were threatened by police officers who did not know whether or not they might be shot at any given moment.

The Free State Project is also known for alerting drivers of DUI checkpoints by holding up signs in the dark of night. The checkpoints, which are suspected of being a waste of resources, have long been disputed as an unnecessary disruption of someone’s day. While it is not under dispute whether drunk driving is a hazard for the public at large — it is — the checkpoints did little to reassure people that drunk drivers were actually being taken off the road among those who failed to see Free Stater signs, or who chose to ignore them completely. In 2018, after Representative John Burt claimed fewer than 1 percent of all drivers passing through such checkpoints are found to be driving under the influence, the statehouse passed a bill banning all DUI checkpoints throughout New Hampshire. As an alternative, roving patrols were suggested where police could identify anyone suspected of driving under the influence through erratic behavior. This was an unqualified success for the Free State Project, one of many it has enjoyed since it started in 2003.

Free Staters have long been activists for marijuana legalization. Legalization for medical marijuana passed in 2012 in both the New Hampshire House and Senate, only to be vetoed by then-governor John Lynch. Medical marijuana was later legalized and expanded upon by Governor Maggie Hassan. Based on the belief that a person should be able to do with their body what they please, the New Hampshire House has regularly considered whether various amounts of marijuana should be legal, and for what purpose. As recently as 2017, possession of  ¾ of an ounce of marijuana is legal in the state of New Hampshire. Misdemeanor charges were also replaced with fines for the first three offenses; charges would only be brought after a fourth offense.

Despite their successes, the Project’s participants most often remain hamstrung by their own need for ideological purity, if not outright terrible behavior toward their fellow human beings. The successes the FSP has won, which have often been small and incremental, remain overshadowed by the imperfect human nature of others. The Free State Project’s reputation is often not the best with other New Hampshire community members.

When the move was triggered in 2016 by having 20,000 participants, a five-year window was opened during which time all interested participants from around the world could come to New Hampshire. If less than 20,000 people have moved by the year 2022, the Free State Project will reassess its current operations.

Editor’s note: The author moved to New Hampshire for the Free State Project in February of 2016 and has since withdrawn as a participant.

Winter Trabex is a freelance writer from Manchester and Inklink Community Contributor. Full disclosure: She moved to New Hampshire for the Free State Project in February of 2016 and has since withdrawn as a participant.

About this Author

Winter Trabex

Winter Trabex is a freelance writer from Manchester and regular contributor to Community Voices.