Don’t step on me; the porcupine has become the symbol of the Free State Project. Detail from a 1929 motivational poster. Photo by David Pollack/Corbis


A libertarian utopia

Libertarians are united by opposition to government, but when it comes to planning a new society they are deeply divided

by Livia Gershon + BIO

Don’t step on me; the porcupine has become the symbol of the Free State Project. Detail from a 1929 motivational poster. Photo by David Pollack/Corbis

For a country where the national flag flies from front porches and convenience stores and where children recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning at school, we’re remarkably resistant to the notion of being governed. In the fall of 2013, the Pew Research Center found that only three in ten Americans trust the federal government to do what’s right ‘most of the time’. The self-conception of most Americans, with their visions of pioneers and plucky underdogs fighting for independence, is all about freedom. The flip side of that vision, however, is all about distrusting government.

And ‘government’, in US political discourse, is ideological. The right claims that excessive government hampers the ability of companies to create jobs; the left that it protects the public from the worst excesses of businesses. The divide is patently artificial: the vast majority of government economic policy draws no fire from conservatives. Still, by setting up ‘government’ as a dirty word in their anti-Democrat campaigns, the Republicans can claim freedom as their brand.

But if you really want to talk about what it means to oppose the government, the place to start isn’t with Republicans. It’s with the one group in the US political landscape that absolutely promises to take our rhetoric about freedom seriously: libertarians. Libertarians really do believe that government is the problem, as Ronald Reagan said back in 1981, and they’ve decided to get rid of it, or at least shrink it dramatically.

Enter Liberty Forum – an annual conference organised by the Free State Project, a group of activists who are trying to get 20,000 libertarians to move to the state of New Hampshire, where I live. These are people who gladly pit themselves not just against the welfare state or the regulation of business, but against military spending, state-funded schools, federal highways and government-issued money.

The Free State Project began life in 2001 with a call-to-arms by Jason Sorens, then a political science PhD student at Yale. Sorens suggested that a few thousand activists could radically change the political balance in the small state. ‘Once we’ve taken over the state government, we can slash state and local budgets, which make up a sizeable proportion of the tax and regulatory burden we face every day,’ he wrote. ‘Furthermore, we can eliminate substantial federal interference by refusing to take highway funds and the strings attached to them.’

Sorens’ views — which focus on problems with taxes and regulations and don’t dispute the government’s role in protecting commerce and conducting foreign policy – suggest a more-Republican-than-the-Republicans sort of outlook. But some people who’ve responded to his call subscribe to an entirely different ideology: an anarchism that sees government as a tool of wealthy capitalists. The rest fall somewhere in between. Free Staters say that what brings them together is a common belief that government is the opposite of freedom.

The crowd that gathered in February for Liberty Forum 2014 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Nashua was a pretty good reflection of the US libertarian movement: mainly male, and overwhelmingly white. A few people openly carried guns, which is thoroughly legal in New Hampshire.

One of the first speakers, Aaron Day, a Republican activist and member of the Free State Project board, railed against government plans to expand Medicaid. His PowerPoint flashed images comparing President Barack Obama’s health insurance reforms to the Soviet famine of the 1930s, when Stalin shipped away Ukraine’s wheat, leaving its people to starve. Day announced he’d be running for state Republican Party chair and called for everyone in the audience to seek local office. If I was looking for the embodiment of right-wing libertarianism, here he was, a true believer in cutting the government down to size from within – starting with programmes that benefit the poor.

I meet conservatives who’ve moved towards a live-and-let-live attitude that calls for government to stay out of issues such as sex and drugs

Johnna and Cory Bartholomew, a couple from California who sat among the crowd watching Day, plan to join the influx to New Hampshire soon. Even at a glance, it’s not hard to recognise the Bartholomews as a military couple, despite the pink streaks in Johnna’s hair. Cory wears a crew cut, and both of them radiate a friendliness rooted in bedrock self-confidence. For their 20th anniversary, they visited Hawai’i. This year, for their 30th, they flew east for Liberty Forum, as a sort of final test before moving to the state.

The Bartholomews met as Mormon students at Brigham Young University in Utah. Over the years, their conservatism on social issues dropped away and they left the Church. Cory doesn’t like to call himself an atheist. As an Air Force pilot whose job revolves around technology, he prefers ‘scientist’ – a believer in the empirically provable. ‘I’m not a person of faith,’ he says, ‘I’m a person of “show me”.’ I end up hearing many such stories at Liberty Forum: conservatives who say they’ve slowly drifted from a focus on social issues towards a live-and-let-live attitude that calls for government to stay out of issues such as sex and drugs. But if Aaron Day comes across as essentially right-wing, the Bartholomews seem different. For one thing, they talk more about free speech than taxes.

‘Our kids grew up hearing us talk about politics,’ Cory told me. When they were small, he and Johnna had their three children memorise the preamble to the US Constitution, with its promise to ‘secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity’. Now in their 20s, two of their boys have taken up political activism against government overreach. They’ll protest against police cameras that photograph drivers’ licences at traffic lights, or they’ll hold up signs warning drivers about a drunk-driving checkpoint ahead.

One day in 2011, the brothers donned the Guy Fawkes masks made famous by Anonymous and held up a huge sign bearing the message ‘Taxes=Theft’ on a highway overpass. They got arrested after refusing to show their IDs to the cops. Eventually, two charges against them, relating to posting a sign on government property and wearing masks while committing a crime, were dropped. They ended up sentenced to probation for ‘delaying an officer’. To Johnna, the conviction was typical of a justice system that, despite its rhetoric, has little real respect for free speech: ‘We think “I have this little box of treasure called my rights,” but the moment you bring one of those out and try to exercise it, people are afraid.’

Their sons had already signed on for the Free State Project when the Bartholomews decided to follow their lead. Johnna says that her upbringing in the Mormon Church, founded by families who crossed a continent for their faith, inspires them and makes leaving their daughter and Johnna’s mother behind seem more manageable. ‘If you really believe in something and want to be part of something, then you leave; you leave what you’re used to and you may go somewhere you’re not so comfortable.’ This is, of course, what the Free State Project depends on – people willing to adopt a frontiering mentality so that they’ll leap cross-country to get beyond the current political landscape.

The Free State Project draws recruits with a mishmash of different philosophies, which isn’t surprising given libertarianism’s history. By some accounts, the first thinker to describe himself as libertarian was Joseph Déjacque, a mid-19th-century French anarcho-communist writer. Déjacque’s beef wasn’t just with government, but with capitalist bosses and religious hierarchies. Any kind of authority was an assault on individual autonomy. He even opposed families, with their elevation of husband above wife and parents above children. For about a century, this is what people meant when they said “libertarianism”: a far-left vision of autonomous individuals working as equals.

Then, beginning in the 1950s, a new definition of ‘libertarianism’ emerged in America, defining its love of freedom in ways that directly contradicted Déjacque. The new philosophy drew on the classical liberalism of Thomas Jefferson, filtered through an economic lens that made property rights central. This was the libertarianism of the Cato Institute think tank, formed in 1977 by economist Murray Rothbard, corporate right-wing superstar Charles Koch, and Edward Crane, a leader of the then-fledgling Libertarian Party. Here, the government was faulted not for standing with capital against the people but for getting in the way of progress by promoting socialist welfare systems.

To get a better handle on what sort of libertarianism was at play at Liberty Forum, I asked attendees what their ideal society would look like. The answer, for the most part, was that it would be completely different from the world we know. Drugs and prostitution would be legal. Education and medical care would be market commodities or gifts. In the absence of government support, individuals would be forced to help each other. Without liability protection or the ability to lobby for favours from the state, corporations as we know them would disappear in favour of smaller, more dynamic companies. The vision is so distant and theoretical that even Déjacque-style anarchists and Cato-esque reformers can work side by side in the same movement.

a good thing about working with libertarians is that no one expects to coerce you into participating in something you don’t approve of

James Davis, who plans to move his family to New Hampshire this fall, believes in a libertarianism that looks a bit like Déjacque’s: he wants to free regular people from oppressive institutions. When his first child was born, Davis and his wife got interested in parenting theories that advocate giving children as much freedom as possible. ‘We came upon these ideas of philosophical libertarianism,’ he said. ‘If people don’t trust adults, how can they trust children?’ The couple took over the management of a foundering summer camp in upstate New York and applied their ideas about freedom to it, giving campers as much leeway as possible to make their own choices. It’s the sort of vision that progressives have promoted for decades through democratic schools such as Summerhill, in Suffolk, England, and also one that many Free Staters embrace by home schooling their children and letting them help organise their own educations.

Philosophically, Davis doesn’t believe in government-funded benefits for the poor – drawn from taxation and backed up by prisons and guns. Having worked in non-profit organisations, he’s convinced that in a post-government society people will come through to help the needy without prodding. But he believes that society is a long way off. For now, he’s moving to New Hampshire to be among a community of people who want to improve the world through voluntary action. ‘I suspect it’ll be much like living anywhere,’ he said, ‘but around people who inspire me to be better.’ Davis doesn’t necessarily expect to encounter like minds everywhere, but says that a good thing about working with libertarians is that no one expects to coerce you into participating in something you don’t approve of.

The Bartholomews share Davis’s notion of building a better world outside government mechanisms. As a member of a local school board in California, Johnna recalls being faced with the question of whether to borrow money to pay for desperately needed repairs on a school. ‘I said, definitely, this school needs help, but we haven’t asked one business, we haven’t asked one person, to voluntarily give us one dollar.’

To long-time New Hampshire libertarian Jack Shimek, that focus on voluntary methods is the key to libertarianism. Shimek got interested in politics as a college student in Texas around 1969, a time when young US men worried less that the government would tax them too much than that it would ship them off to a jungle battlefield where they would die. A friend introduced him to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of radical, selfish individualism. Within a few years, he had moved to New York City and into Déjacque’s branch of libertarianism, to argue that the authoritarianism of capitalist bosses is inextricably connected to government tyranny.

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism contained a ‘fatal flaw’, says Shimek. She confused capitalism, a system that gives wealthy owners control over workers, with free markets, which depend on individual autonomy. ‘Capitalists are always in favour of keeping their piece of the pie through political power,’ Shimek told me. ‘When General Motors screws up, it has enough power to convince the government to bail it out.’ Another thing corporations can do, he says, is flood libertarian think tanks and magazines with money: ‘The libertarian movement, originally radical, was invaded by conservative reformers.’ Behind that, says Shimek, are corporate funders with an agenda: ‘They [just] want it to decrease regulation on them, they want it to lower taxes on them.’

Shimek was already living in New Hampshire when Jason Sorens’s idea of a Free State Project took hold. He was thrilled with the influx of people into the tiny libertarian community, but not with the focus on running for office and voting. ‘I said, wait a minute, we’re libertarians, we don’t believe in government.’

for libertarians, Bitcoin is a technology with the potential to circumvent a lot of what’s wrong with the world

At Liberty Forum, Shimek runs Alt Expo, an unofficial series of alternative programmes, with topics such as organic farming and local currencies. The idea is not to confront the government but to live outside it as much as possible. If the power of the state comes from coercion, creating alternatives uses a different kind of power, based in example and persuasion. Though this year’s Alt Expo was sparsely attended, Shimek said it had been a success anyway, because the official programming is now full of these kinds of ideas.

Plenty of people at Liberty Forum think electoral politics is a drag. Carla Gericke, president of the Free State Project, told me she finds politics ‘soul-numbing’. Sessions on farming and gardening – concrete methods of evading government-subsidised industrial agriculture – drew bigger audiences than the ones about lobbying or running for office. Ditto for presentations about technology, which expand the vision of voluntary action beyond government to a global scale. One session is run by two cousins with a start-up who envision a post-industrial economy where individuals trade goods, services and labour online, through portals such as Uber and Airbnb. Everyone is talking about Bitcoin. In the mainstream, the cyber currency comes up mostly as a curiosity, but at Liberty Forum it’s a technology with potential to circumvent a lot of what’s wrong with the world. At one session, panelists wax poetic about paying friends for rides, patronising local businesses, and buying clothes from Australia without taxes, credit card fees, or any contact with the global web of government and private banks.

At another tech sessions, Jeffrey Tucker draws huge crowds. He wears a suit, bow tie, and a mischievous expression, and is prone to phrases such as ‘outrunning troglodyte systems of power’. Tucker points to his smartphone as the symbol of a new society, one with frictionless information exchange, free online education and peer-to-peer lending. To Tucker’s mind, technology is transforming both corporate structures and banking, and politics simply doesn’t much matter. The goal is simply to circumvent dull and lumbering government bureaucrats. ‘We’re going to displace all the institutions of the state,’ he promises gleefully.

By the second-to-last night of the forum, Cory Bartholomew has snapped selfies with a handful of people he calls his ‘liberty heroes’. People such as Cody Wilson, who helped invent the first plastic guns that can be produced on 3D printers, and Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack, former government employees who became whistle-blowers, exposing domestic government surveillance and the illegal interrogation of terror suspects. Their stories make Cory wonder if he was naive about the military earlier in his career.

Other delegates flock to an unofficial party at the Quill, a private club and meeting space inside an unmarked storefront in Manchester, New Hampshire. Downstairs, dance music plays and colourful lights throb between the old ceiling beams. Antigone Darling, a slight, 20-something podcaster who’s the host of the party, hands out sex toys to anyone in her audience who yells loud enough: one to Amanda Billyrock, an anarchist who became a libertarian star after she met allegations of drunk driving with counter-allegations of police misconduct; another to ‘Objectivist Girl’, who wears dramatic eye make-up and makes videos explaining the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Upstairs, a late-night dinner is for sale: grass-fed beef burger with grass-fed bacon and broccoli slaw salad – technically illegal since the cook refuses to get a food service permit. A group of young men stand in a circle talking about their tech start-up, a company that facilitates the use of Bitcoin.

J J Schlessinger, the Quill’s manager, explains a plan to distribute blankets to homeless people who live near the club. He’s also interested in discouraging vandals, not by calling the cops but by keeping an eye on them, maybe asking if their mothers would approve of what they’re doing. Schlessinger uses the word love a lot. He runs the Quill out of love, and wants to help his neighbours with love. The important thing, he says, is for people to reach out to each other in person, not delegate the job to government.

It’s easy to see the Free State Project as a sort of outsize version of the government-hating right. There are issues that libertarians and the left oppose together – high defence spending, corporate subsidies – but they are hard to get at: mostly legislated at the federal level and protected by wealthy interests. It’s much easier to get elected to the local school board and slash local budgets, or to lobby the state legislature against the expansion of health benefits. Republican Party-style libertarians are thus much more visible, and they spend a lot of time trying to cut taxes and reduce spending, invoking the revolutionary spirit of 1776 as they go.

But, looking at the party at the Quill, there’s the suggestion of another American myth: the one about pioneers, often bearing wildly idealistic notions, who come together to build new institutions. Anyone with a passing knowledge of US history knows how fraught with missteps and malice the realities of that process have been, but the myth is a powerful one: if we distrust the government, then we have to trust each other. It’s a notion around which anarchists, Republicans and almost anyone else can find common ground, given sufficient optimism about building a new society.

As Liberty Forum winds down, Johnna and Cory Bartholomew are excited about moving. Johnna’s just seen a panel of volunteers who started charitable organisations to encourage self-sufficiency, and she thinks it’s something she’d like to do. This is the thing, ultimately, that seems to bring people to the Free State Project. They become libertarians because they hate taxes, or fear a police state, or distrust collusion between the state and corporate power. But they move to New Hampshire because they want, more than any of these things, to build something new together.