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Free State Project building on its vision for NH

Last modified: 7/6/2014 11:52:43 PM
A thin haze of campfire smoke blurred the sunset over the hills of the Great North Woods and mingled with the tangy smell of marijuana.

Electronic music thumped out of the biggest of four white event tents on the front lawn of Rogers Campground in Lancaster. A man in a black pleather kilt, neon pink bondage ropes hanging from his belt loops, walked toward the sound, bopping his head to the beat.

As he walked past, a young mother tucked her toddler into his sleeping bag after a long, sunny day of running around and playing.

Welcome to PorcFest.

The music came from Buzz’s Big Gay Dance Party, held June 27, the penultimate night of an annual five-day long experiment in libertarian living courtesy of the Free State Project.

Officially called the Porcupine Freedom Festival, the event is named after the group’s unofficial mascot, an animal that minds its own business until startled or threatened.

PorcFest is many things to many people. For some, it’s a place to debate and parse particular philosophical definitions and free market strategies. For others, it’s a hedonistic adventure land of unregulated gambling, drinking, smoking and toking.

And 13 years after the Free State Project sprung forth from the head of a 24-year-old graduate student, PorcFest is one of the project’s largest advertising vehicles, too.

As the group seeks to attract 20,000 like-minded individuals to pledge to move to New Hampshire and nudge the state closer to their ideal version of liberty, what better promotion than a taste of lawless living?

Inside PorcFest

PorcFest tastes like bacon. It’s the first smell that hits a visitor heading downhill to Agora Valley, the free market paradise for event vendors. Anyone with a rented tent site and the urge to sell or barter can hawk food, clothing, ammunition, jewelry and services.

One handmade lavender-scented candle traded for two meals of Indian food. Two paleo-diet friendly tortillas cost $3, cash or BitCoin.

None of the vendors post licenses or proof of inspection or cleanliness. They built relationships with buyers based on their reputations.

But to others, PorcFest tasted like bitter disappointment. In debriefing posts last week on Facebook, organizers and volunteers lamented stolen audio-visual equipment and batteries, volunteers who didn’t show up for shifts, children left to wander unattended and vandalism in the bathrooms. A handful of organizers stayed hours after everyone left, picking up trash left behind.

Entrance cost between $45 and $100, with the higher price ticket-holders getting entrance to VIP sections and tents where liquor was served. About 1,500 attended this year, though more could have come in for a day, or for the week, without paying. That rankled some people in the post-event discussion pages, too.

“The intent of PorcFest is to showcase New Hampshire,” said Carla Gericke, the Free State Project’s president and most public cheerleader.

“The event has a predominantly education bent. There were almost 300 talks, workshops, panels and speeches this year, with a socializing and networking aspect. And yes, some partying and dances. . . . The organizers stay to clean up because Rogers Campground is understaffed, and things always stay behind when people go camping,” she said.

When asked about people who scoff at the idea that a weeklong experiment in libertarian utopia ends in litter and broken toilets, Gericke says “the term ‘utopia’ is nowadays applied to any proposal for change that people don’t like, so it has lost all meaning.

“You could argue the anti-slavery movement was utopian. . . . When I fought to end apartheid in South Africa, when I was told it was impossible for such a startling, peaceful shift in political power to occur, was I utopian? Were the migrants who originally settled in New Hampshire utopian?”

The movement’s mission

As of last month, about 15,700 people have signed a nonbinding statement of intent to move to New Hampshire if the 20,000 mark is achieved. More than 1,300 have already moved, and that number, low as it might seem, exceeds what the movement’s founder expected.

In 2001, Jason Sorens, now a 38-year-old lecturer at Dartmouth, was nursing his wounds from the Libertarian Party’s defeats in the 2000 election.

He was also working on his dissertation at Yale, studying modern secession and regional autonomy movements in Western democracies. Seeing the libertarian movement fail to build momentum nationally, he wrote an article proposing that a critical mass of liberty-minded individuals accumulate in a state, push the federal government out and set only one rule: Live and let live.

“I actually thought this wouldn’t work,” Sorens said at PorcFest. “I just thought, well this is an interesting idea. It could work. It probably won’t. It’s a better idea than anything anyone else has had. Let’s give it a try. I thought, we probably won’t get 20,000 people signed up. And even if we did, they probably won’t move. And even if they move, this is a totally untested idea whether it’s even going to influence the political process at all.

“We have had about 1,500 to 1,600 people move, and there’s been some impact on the political process. It’s done better than I expected, but maybe not quite yet lived up to my hopes, because I hoped for a lot. I hoped that we would help build a society that would be a model to the rest of the country.”

The political influence of those early movers has been subtle, Sorens said.

“What a lot of people might not get about the Free State Project is we kind of want to keep New Hampshire the same. If anything, we want to make it more like itself,” Sorens said.

He worked with Jenn Coffey, a Republican former state representative from Andover, to repeal the state’s restrictions on knife ownership and possession. Others have worked to increase latitude for parents who home school, and reduce regulations on home brewers seeking to sell their beer.

About a dozen Free State Project participants currently hold seats in the state Legislature, though several lost their bids for re-election and others may be in office without being publicly identified as members.

That could prove harder this November, as Democrats and mainstream Republicans seem committed to publicizing any link between a candidate and the project.

An informal and anonymous group of people has been meeting in a Concord office to discuss strategies for informing communities about Free Staters running for elected office. The group’s Twitter account promised late last month to post research about candidates who filed to run for office this year.

“The examples we’ve had so far are ones who flew under the radar and got elected as mainstream Republicans, and then we learned what they really were,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the state Republican Party.

“There’s more opposition research being done, and it’s not hard. They tend to leave a trail. It’s not hard to find references to them online or posts to some Ron Paul message board. Then they’re automatically on the defensive.

“I just don’t think, in a competitive district, an informed electorate is going to elect someone running on a Free State platform. . . . I don’t think they have any influence whatsoever.”

That doesn’t bother Gericke. The Free State Project isn’t looking for political influence, she said.

It “has no influence other than attracting libertarians to New Hampshire. Participants work as individuals or with other organizations or start their own once they move here,” she said.

Joining the project

Rep. Mark Warden of Goffstown, elected as a Republican in 2010, is open about having moved to the state from Nevada at least in part to join the project.

“For somebody to say, ‘All Free Staters are alike,’ that just shows their ignorance and their xenophobia. I can’t help people who are going to be that discriminatory,” he said.

Warden operates Porcupine Real Estate, marketing homes for sale to potential movers, and led a question-and-answer session at PorcFest for people interested in buying property.

People should think about hiding their political views in places like Keene, where Free State-affiliated groups’ civil disobedience protests have generated negative responses from the larger community, he told the group, in response to a question.

“I wouldn’t self-identify as a porcupine there or really anywhere that’s a college town. But if you have good credit, if your check cashes, the landlord will like you. Be a good tenant for three or four months, and then you start talking,” he told the group.

His audience included Jeanette Joy and Ned Young of California.

They were interested in the cost of property taxes, which towns don’t impose zoning regulations, and which towns would be more likely to provide access to natural gas.

They’ve talked about moving to New Hampshire for the project for several years but want to stay near their children and grandchildren.

Wearing a button-down shirt, clean khakis and a closely trimmed white beard, Young had little visible common ground with the majority of the campers. And that’s okay with him, he said.

“People here have only one thing in common. They don’t think government is a particularly good answer to any question. After that, I don’t think you could find three people here to agree on anything,” he said.

“There’s no reason to feel threatened by people like us unless you have a stake in the status quo. Less government does not equal less community, and it would seem that historically, New Hampshire has known this. We’ve learned, we are New Hampshire people. We just didn’t know it until we came to see.”

Not everyone at PorcFest was ready to pack up and move here.

A man from Michigan who would only give his name as “Tom” said he can’t imagine living so far from his family. Neither could Sarah Poe, a 21-year-old nursing student from Kentucky.

Lenny Neugarten, a 43-year-old IT worker from New Jersey, said he’d first want to line up a job and Scotty Cline, a 24-year-old student from Orlando, and owner of Scotty’s Italian Ice stand in Agora Valley, said he loves the idea but just doesn’t think he wants to live through a New England winter.

Joel Williamson, a 26-year-old organizer from Austin, Texas, said he has absolutely no plans to move.

“It’s a nice thought, but I’m serious about competing with them and having people move to Austin. I have an established community of agorists in Austin, and we are working on our own,” he said.

So while the project’s organizers predict they’ll hit the 20,000 sign-up mark by July 2016, triggering a 2021 deadline for committed members to move, Warden has his eyes on the farther horizon.

“I think what you’ll see then will look like a much better conversation about the true role of government, about choices for educating children, about how big and strong the police force should be,” he said.

“A guy can dream. Maybe it’s not 2020. Maybe it’s 2025. Maybe it’s never. Maybe it’ll be sooner.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or 
spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)


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