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Taking freedom for Granite
Libertarians shake it up! Or, my weekend with the Free State Project

LANCASTER, NH — Last November, Russell Kanning — a big, shambling man prone to furtive whispers and gleeful giggles — relocated from California to New Hampshire. He made the move under the auspices of the Free State Project, an ambitious plan to pack the Granite State with tens of thousands of libertarian activists who pledge to make it their home. Kanning no longer works as an accountant; instead, he mows lawns in Keene, which lets him get paid under the table, tax-free.

His real vocation, though, is fighting tyranny. Earlier this year, Kanning traveled to the Manchester airport and — carrying only pocket-size copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — tried to board a Southwest Airlines flight to Philadelphia. There was just one catch: he refused to take off his shoes, and insisted that he not be frisked. (He also declined to provide identification.) As a result, Kanning was promptly arrested and jailed; a few days later, he pled guilty to a trespassing charge.

Why did he do it? "We’re not going to be free if we keep cowering at the airport," Kanning explained as he stood outside his tent at PorcFest 2005, the Free State Project’s annual shindig. "When you watch people shuffle through there with their socks and their bags — dude! This is freedom?"

In most places, Kanning would be dismissed as an extremist. But here at PorcFest 2005, he was a celebrity and a hero. (The porcupine, a friendly little creature you don’t want to mess with, is the project’s designated mascot.)

"We need to start a revolution," Kanning told me near the end of our conversation. "In the last revolution, we had to get to the point where we said, ‘No, no, I’m not paying taxes. Here’s your tea.’ The thing I want to do this time around is see if we can do this without shooting anybody."


If things work out the way they’re supposed to, thousands of libertarians who share Kanning’s outlook will be flocking to New Hampshire in the next few years. The Free State Project was the brainchild of Jason Sorens, an earnest, baby-faced Yale PhD who received a hero’s welcome in Lancaster. Sorens’s epiphany was simple: move a large number of libertarians to a small state, where they can go about remaking the political landscape as they see fit. Libertarians who sign the project’s Statement of Intent — so far, about 6600 in number — aren’t agreeing to live in the same community, or to work toward a specific set of goals. They are, however, agreeing to move to New Hampshire no more than five years after the total number of signers reaches 20,000. (New Hampshire got the nod after Free Staters chose it over several other states in a popular vote.) Once they’ve arrived, the theory goes, their libertarianism will permeate culture and politics — from school boards to the state legislature — leading to the advent of "liberty in our lifetime." At least, that’s the idea.

The Free State Project is still in its early stages, but it’s also off to a bit of a slow start. Four years in, the 20,000-signature mark looks awfully remote. And only 100-some Free Staters have already made the trek to New Hampshire from points west and south. But their faith in the project’s potential seems both boundless and unshakable. Last Saturday evening, as a libertarian hard-rock outfit serenaded the 500 Free Staters gathered at Rogers Campground and Motel, I asked Amanda Phillips, the project’s president, what she hoped its legacy would be in 20 years. "I would love to see New Hampshire as a beacon of liberty for the rest of the country and the rest of the world," replied Phillips, who is attending Harvard Law School this fall. "A place for the rest of the country and the rest of the world to look at and say, ‘Look, this is how these libertarian ideas will work in practice.’ And they’re going to work well. And many of them already work well."

It’s challenging — to put it gently — to imagine a future in which a bunch of New Hampshire libertarians tutors the rest of humanity on political fundamentals. For one thing, the Libertarian Party (LP) has never shown signs of becoming a national political force in its own right. The LP’s political high point came in 1980, when the Ed Clark/David Koch presidential ticket garnered about 921,000 votes, or 1.1 percent of the national total. Since then, the party’s presidential nominees have struggled to hit the half-percent mark; in 2004, Michael Badnarik topped out at just over 397,000 votes, or about a third of a percent. Part of the problem is that the libertarian umbrella covers widely disparate elements: there are anti-taxers, gun-rights advocates, civil libertarians, Ayn Randians (a/k/a "objectivists"), polyamorists ... the list goes on and on. All agree on one thing — they don’t want to be messed with — but that may be all they agree on.

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Issue Date: August 5 - 12, 2005
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