Stateline Story

Libertarian Group Eyes State Takeover

A new political movement wants 20,000 "liberty-minded individuals" to pack their bags, uproot their families and move to a lightly populated state. There they'll theoretically get jobs, form grassroots groups, elect their compatriots to office, begin slashing taxes and start dismantling the state government.

Leaders of the movement, called the Free State Project, hope to turn one state into a libertarian haven where laws regulating guns, drugs, gambling and prostitution will be eliminated and all state programs except public safety will be abolished.

"We're interested in taking things that have to do with how you raise your family, how you run your business and how you develop your property out of the hands of the government and putting it back into the hands of the individual," Free State Vice President Elizabeth McKinstry of Hillsdale, Michigan, said.

Sound far-fetched?

Well, maybe. But consider this: More than 3,100 people have joined the movement since it was launched in September 2001 by Jason Sorens, a 26-year-old Yale political science doctoral candidate. Sorens and most members of the Free State Project consider themselves libertarians, but the group is not affiliated with the National Libertarian Party.

Once the number of registered Free State supporters reaches 5,000, something Sorens expects by early next fall, members will choose one of 10 "candidate" states, which have been selected for their sparse population and "pro-liberty" culture.

The candidate states, in ascending order of population, are Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Idaho, New Hampshire and Maine. Two other small states, Rhode Island and Hawaii, were rejected for being too pro-government.

If 20,000 people join the Free State Movement by September 2006, the group's self-imposed deadline, a voluntary migration to the selected state will begin. Sorens estimates this will take five years, and by 2011, the group should be able to influence local elections and eventually take control of the state legislature.

"The numbers we hope to get are not enough to be a majority and take over any state, but we believe our ideas of freer markets, lower taxes and smaller government are capable of generating a lot of public support," Sorens said.

Sorens' group has been compiling state statistics and ranking the candidate states in categories such as voter turnout (smaller is better), potential job growth and dependence on federal aid. The top four scorers in several categories are Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire and Wyoming.

Alaska probably has the most to offer small population, plenty of land and oil and a strong Libertarian Party but most members have indicated they would not be willing to move there, Sorens said. Those who oppose relocating to Alaska include his wife, Mary.

Delaware has also been discounted by members for its mainstream politics and proximity to Washington, D.C.

Recent debate in chat groups on the Free State Project website has indicated that New Hampshire and Wyoming may be the top picks, Sorens said.

Wyoming's population of 500,000 is the smallest in the nation, and the state has the highest percentage of conservative and libertarian voters and the smallest government and lowest taxes of any Western state.

New Hampshire, with no state income or sales tax, is famously independent and well known for its motto, "Live Free or Die." Unlike landlocked Wyoming, New Hampshire has coastal access, which increases international trade and independence from the federal government, Sorens said.

The deciding factor may be economic: New Hampshire ranks second in job growth, while Wyoming is last.

A spokesperson for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) said Free State members are free to move to Wyoming or any other state.

"They're welcome to participate in the state government, but of course they'll be subject to the same state and federal laws as everyone else," press secretary Lara Azar said.

If the project picks New Hampshire, the chair of that state's Republican Party said the group would probably be very happy with the political activity in the state.

"If these individuals choose to come to New Hampshire they'll find an atmosphere that's very open to grassroots activities and very strong and independent voter participation," New Hampshire GOP Chair Jayne Millerick said.

Sorens came up with the idea of a state takeover after the Libertarian Party lost its major party status in the 2000 presidential election, failing to receive even one percent of the vote.

Frustrated by the national party's failure to ever elect a single federal official, Sorens wrote an article in an online Libertarian journal promoting the idea of libertarians moving to one state and taking control of the government.

Within weeks, several hundred people emailed him to volunteer.

National Libertarian Party spokesperson George Getz said the project seems like a long shot.

"To expect someone to uproot their family and move to another state strikes me as incredibly more difficult than staying put and cutting taxes locally," Getz said.

What are the odds of pulling this off?

Sorens gives his group a 50/50 chance.

One political scientist puts the odds at "zilch."

"It's just not a realistic idea. It's a neat idea and it's a sign of the deep frustration with third party politics in the United States, but it's probably doomed from the beginning," said Steffen Schmidt, political science professor at Iowa State University, Ames.

Schmidt said libertarians stand for individual thought and it seemed unlikely that 20,000 of them are going to "run like lemmings in the same direction."

Free State members join by signing a pledge of intent to move to the designated state and exert the "fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of civil government is the protection of life, liberty, and property."

So far, the project has attracted mostly men in their 20s and 30s as well as some retirees and small business owners. Sorens estimated a 70/30 gender split. The movement is Internet based, and a disproportionate number of members are computer geeks and hi-tech workers, he said.