N.H. in 2035: For the Free State Project, it’s Live Freer or Die

Last modified: Tuesday, March 31, 2015
If the world view of a few dedicated political visionaries comes to pass, folks in New Hampshire could find themselves sitting at the local pub, playing a game of poker for profit, smoking a cigarette, or a joint, if they choose.

The lonely could hire a prostitute without fear of breaking the law.

No, it’s not the Wild West. If people just looked out the rear window of their self-driving cars, they could see the towering, high-tech skyline of Manchester – “the new Silicon Valley” – diminishing in the distance.

It’s New Hampshire in 2035, as projected by a unique political migration of libertarians intent on creating a state of unbridled liberty. Called the Free State Project, the movement’s founder, Jason Sorens, predicted at a forum this month that a small but dedicated group can punch above its weight in enacting freedom-focused changes and bringing about a destination for businesses and self-sovereignty.

Free State organizers expect in 2017 to achieve their 20,000th signature of intent to move here, triggering a five-year deadline for signers to hold up their end of the bargain. Sorens, who holds a doctorate from Yale University in political science and lectures at Dartmouth College, expects about a third of those people to follow through by 2023.

As co-author of an extensive study called “Freedom in the 50 States,” Sorens measures freedom in numbers. By examining factors like support for and donations to Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns and Libertarian Party vote share, he found “a very strong positive relationship between the number of libertarians and amount of freedom a state has” and suggested that New Hampshire is becoming more libertarian faster than the rest of the country – even with only a few hundred Free Staters contributing to the most recent data from 2011.

By 2035, Sorens said he expects New Hampshire to make the following changes: cut government debt by half and government employment by 15 percent; legalize marijuana and prostitution; abolish smoking bans and sobriety checkpoints; dramatically roll back zoning, health care, home schooling and occupational licensing regulations; realize the lowest incarceration rates and tax burden in the country; and stop making arrests for victimless crimes, among others.

Change ongoing

So far, Free Staters say they’ve secured somewhere between 12 and 16 seats in the State House with 1,650 people moved to the state to date. Sorens noted a few successes the state has had since his latest ranking: offering tax credits for scholarship donations to low- and middle-income students wishing to go to private or home schools; repealing the certificate of need law regulating new health facilities; enacting medical marijuana; and further reducing the tax burden to near the lowest in the country. Legislation introduced this session would relax restrictions on carrying a firearm concealed, decriminalize marijuana, prohibit civil asset forfeiture and characterize poker as a game of skill.

Kevin Bloom, a Free Stater and political director for the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, successfully worked to enact a new law that reduced the barrier of entry for small-scale brewers to sell their product, making New Hampshire the first state in the country with a “nanobrewery” law. Bloom’s own nanobrewery, Area 23, is expected to open in Concord next month. Bloom said other laws, like marriage equality, wouldn’t have passed if it weren’t for Free Staters.

“The gut check suggests Free Staters are having a big influence on policy in New Hampshire,” Sorens said, noting that he’s doubtful the state would have its medical marijuana law without the Free State Project and that Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, is a Free Stater.

Kirk McNeil, a Free Stater and member of the NHLA, said people willing to up and move for a political cause have already demonstrated that they’re motivated to participate in government, as opposed to the passive way most people view politics. New Hampshire, particularly in its 400-member House of Representatives, is a climate that works for “political hobbyists,” like himself.

“I see the political system in New Hampshire being one where a few people who care actually do make a difference,” he said, “but not to the point where they can just overrun a whole state and do a bunch of stuff the state doesn’t want.

“The more noise you get from the freedom crowd, the more noise you’re going to get from the people who want more laws, more governance.”

‘More noise’

An hour north of Concord, Grafton has become a hub for Free Staters. Property is inexpensive and there’s no zoning, which means if you buy some land and build a shack, no one’s going to tell you it’s not fit for occupancy.

“If somebody wants to open a business in their backyard – go for it,” said fire Chief John Babiarz, who has lived in Grafton since 1993 and run for governor four times on the Libertarian Party ticket.

Some Free Staters there have become known for proposing significant cuts to the operating budget each year at deliberative session, which at 10 hours this year was shorter than last year. A majority of voters knocked down a proposed 20 percent cut this year, but they couldn’t stop an array of petition warrant articles from hitting the ballot.

Babiarz said the flurry of petitions on this year’s ballot was “crazy.” Twenty-three articles demanded a range of changes, including setting the police department’s budget at $10,000, ordering the chief of police to stop prosecuting marijuana-related crimes, reducing the total operating budget by 10 percent over three years and directing their state representatives to attempt to repeal the licensing of dogs. Every petition article failed.

“Some of them were okay,” Babiarz said. “A lot of it was like, ‘It’s not going to fly,’ and it didn’t.”

On the other hand, every article asking for money did pass, which Babiarz said is unusual for a town with many residents making a choice between paying for property taxes, medication and food.

“People voted like money didn’t matter. I was kind of surprised at that,” he said.

Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said although the state sometimes leans in libertarian ways, residents are “a bit skeptical, if not suspicious” of people coming in with a goal to transform the political culture.

“When an outside group comes in and says we’re going to transform things as you know it, people who have been there for a while tend to resent that,” he said.

Scala said he felt libertarians could “nudge forward” policies that had broader backing – and they’ve taken leadership on issues like marijuana legalization – but “I don’t buy the idea – and I guess I never did – that this one small group could have this outside political effect.”

“If you’re a supporter, I think it’s easy to overstate its importance. And if you’re an opponent, I think it’s also easy to overstate its importance,” he said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)