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
Libertarians are united by opposition to government, but when it comes to planning a new society they are deeply divided
by Livia Gershon
(Livia Gershon is a freelance reporter who writes about the intersection of economics, politics and everyday life. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly and The Progressive, among others. She lives in Nashua, New Hampshire.)
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…