February 5, 2003

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culture shocked
by katharine mieszkowski

Free to be

TO EVERY LOCAL libertarian who won't stop crowing that California's bazillion-dollar budget crisis is just another symptom of how big government is crippling the state: I'm throwing down the gauntlet. Move.

If you think we'd all be better off without bothersome social services and public education, you're warmly invited to join 19,999 of your brothers and sisters in homesteading a new land of the free under the auspices of the Free State Project. –Unfortunately, I can't tell you just yet where this weenie-government utopia will be, but there are sure to be lots of people there just like you. The project currently has 2,400 or so members (a 10th of whom live in California) who have pledged to move en masse to a low-population, don't-tread-on-me state to try to peacefully form a new society with minimal government. States under consideration: Wyoming, New Hampshire, Montana, Idaho, Maine, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont – Wyoming being the group's current front-runner.

But the migration won't begin unless the project signs on a total of 20,000 members, the number of citizens the free-staters think it will take for their political beliefs to have an impact. They have no plans for violent revolution or seceding from the Union, only for subverting it from within through mass colonization.

Jason Sorens, a 26-year-old Yale University political science graduate student, started the project after publishing an essay about the idea in online journal Libertarian Enterprise (webleyweb.com/tle) in July 2001. Sorens received 200 e-mails from readers who said they wanted to try to make it happen.

"Government is far too large and needs to be downsized by about 75 percent," Sorens says. He contends that while the Republicans give lip service to reducing government, the Bush administration's agenda is "basically a big-government agenda of more war, more federal role in education, and new welfare for seniors." So far, voting for the government to tear itself apart isn't working. "The Libertarian and the Constitution Parties have both been just a blip on the radar screen," Sorens says. His solution: a consolidation of effort, in one lucky state.

Andres March, 27, a San Francisco computer programmer, joined the project out of frustration that his vote doesn't count. "Libertarians are not going to make a difference, because they're too spread out," he says. "Their votes are wasted. I cast my useless vote every election." Christie Cole, 46, another computer programmer, says she resides in "the People's Republic of San Francisco" and is ready to set out for the new frontier. She went Libertarian 25 years ago after reading Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and previously toyed with moving to Nevada or Mexico to escape the oppressive yoke of regulation. She's irked by everything from drug laws that keep antibiotics and asthma inhalers from being sold over the counter to yellow tape and safety-warning signs on sidewalk construction sites that "protect the clueless."

"California and San Francisco in particular are so paternalistic to their citizens that we are protected from hazards any legislator or lobbyist perceives, rather than being allowed to act like grown-ups," she says.

There's a rallying cry: Freedom to fall into holes in the sidewalk!

And how might the current residents of Wyoming or New Hampshire react if 20,000 Coles and Marches show up gunning to turn their home state into a political experiment "demonstrating the benefits of liberty to the rest of the nation and the world," as the project's Web site proclaims? Sorens is sensitive to the danger of coming off like some rube group of Constitution-drunk, utopia-chasing interlopers. "At the beginning I would see our goal as being primarily supportive to the freedom movement that already exists there," he says. "We would be the stamp lickers and the canvassers, taking a backseat to the people who'd already lived there for many years." Once they'd established roots in the community, the big fun would begin.

So far, the ranks of the 2,400 free-staters are largely made up of computer geeks, small-business owners, retirees, and college students, with – big surprise! – lower- and middle-income working families barely present. And of those free-staters with school-age kids, well, 90 percent of them home-school or send their kids to private school. See, who needs public education, anyway?

If the project doesn't get 20,000 signatures by 2006, Sorens says, it will likely fold. But if it does, members will have a five-year period to find work and homes in their promised land. Although Sorens recognizes that the employment prospects in a small-population state may discourage some would-be converts, he imagines that the antiregulation, low-tax policies of the Free State, whichever state it is, will help create an attractive climate capable of drawing more businesses and citizens. And if the whole thing is a big flop, producing a chaotic, unlivable nightmare? "Then we deserve to fail, and we will have learned something," he says.

So if you're tired of living under the jackboot of the state of California, paying into a broken system you don't believe in, stop grousing into your heavily taxed beer and go make your own magical place over the rainbow, already. The Free State Project would certainly welcome the converts, and I'm sure your clueless, infantalized neighbors here would give you a grateful send-off.
Visit the Free State Project online at www.freestateproject.org.
E-mail Katharine Mieszkowski at km@salon.com.