The busy traffic of Brooks Street in Missoula buzzes past the Best Inn, unsuspecting. Inside, an invasion is being plotted. The hotel’s conference room hosts a group of approximately 150 people. They mull about, filling paper cups with coffee, looking for their nametags, checking the conference schedule. On another day, the hotel hallways might be filled with accountants or computer technicians. But on Memorial Day weekend, the hallways are lined with rebel Libertarians. Some greet each other with big handshakes. Others check out the merchandise tables, considering whether or not to buy a book by an author named “Boston T. Party,” an imitation Wyoming Sheriff’s badge, or altered dollar bills featuring George W. Bush’s profile underneath the words “The United States of Aggression.” There’s a unique feeling to this conference—an intriguing mixture of idealism, anger and desperation. Unlike most conference center gatherings, the common bond linking these attendees is not their profession. Rather, this is a conference for people who are tired of the government telling them what they must and must not do. What’s more, this is a conference of people who intend to do something about it.
The group spans a broad array of individuals: A gun rights leader, an anarchist, a homeschooling advocate, parents with children, a man who has skipped paying taxes for five years and turned his skin blue by overdosing on colloidal silver in preparation for Y2K, the black editor of SierraTimes.com who jokes about being accused of advocating white supremacy, a man with a swastika tattooed on his forearm, a devout Jewish couple, a closeted Wisconsin environmentalist in league with Earth First!, an angry Californian who is ready to start shooting environmentalists, secessionists from the U.S. and Alberta, a staunch constitutionalist, a man who thinks the Bill of Rights should be truncated to its first five words (“Congress shall make no law”), a guy who came to “meet chicks,” two Montana Republican legislators and somewhere, doubtless, a partridge in a pear tree. They have come together for what was billed as the Grand Western Conference, and the common link among the lot is that they are all eager to discuss the most ambitious and possibly politically savvy move that Libertarian-minded citizens have ever come up with. It’s called the Free State Project. Acknowledging that Libertarians don’t have enough numbers nationwide to create much impact on the national political scene, these staunch lovers of individual rights have gone back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan of political attack. The project’s goal is to gather 20,000 people from across the U.S. who are willing to move to one state where they can then infiltrate local and state governments in order to make the state “more free,” which, to Libertarians, means much less government. The idea is a revolution of the ballot rather than the bullet, though to be sure, most have plenty of bullets stashed away, too. So far, the Free State Project has just over 3,700 members, and once they reach 5,000, which organizers expect to do in about four months’ time, members will vote on which state should be selected for the project—Montana being one of four prominent frontrunners. Yet, as Libertarians hold the individual on high, different members have different ideas on which state should be their destination, what “more free” means in implementation, how the free state would work and just how far it would go.
Man with the plan
Jason Sorens missed his Yale graduation ceremony to speak at the Grand Western Conference. He has just earned his Ph.D. in political science, but rather than walk across the stage and pick up his diploma, he is wasting no time in putting that degree to use. This wispy twenty-six-year-old with thin, straight black hair founded the Free State Project with an essay he wrote in July of 2001 that was published in the online journal The Libertarian Enterprise. Within two weeks, Sorens received 200 e-mails from people who were interested in his idea of forming a “free state.” Two months later, he began signing people up.
“The idea is to work for a society in which the maximum role of civil government is the protection of life, liberty and property,” Sorens says. “That basically means that we think government should be in the business of protecting individuals, but should not be in the business of providing for them or punishing them for their vices…We basically think government should just be there to prevent people from doing bad things to each other.”
This philosophy is what has attracted so many Libertarians, commonly known as porcupines—the official symbol of America’s third largest political party—to sign on to the project.
The idea for the Free State Project came to Sorens after he read a column by Walter Williams, the syndicated conservative columnist who has been known to fill in for Rush Limbaugh on the radio. In the column, Williams suggested that Texas and Louisiana should band together and secede from the union.
Sorens says that the Free State Project has officially disclaimed secessionism. On the other hand, he says, “As Libertarians, we acknowledge a right to secession if people fairly and democratically decide that they want to form an independent country…but we’re not advocating that.”
One doesn’t have to go all the way back to the Civil War to find a model for the kind of movement that Sorens and his Free Staters are advocating. In the early 1970s, the Movement to Open Vermont to Experimentation (MOVE) was founded by James Blumstein and James Phelan, who, like Sorens, had just graduated from Yale. Unlike Sorens, however, their politics were closer to the left side of the political spectrum than to the right. MOVE’s goal was to transplant 225,000 counterculturalists to Vermont for a social experiment. They didn’t reach that number, but by 1976, they had attracted 125,000 newcomers—enough to significantly sway Vermont’s politics to the left, a shift that is still felt today, as evidenced by the state’s recognition of gay marriages. The success of MOVE was in its ability to draw special interest groups such as feminists, Nader environmentalists and consumer advocates, and drugged-out Yippie followers of Abbie Hoffman and the Black Panthers, to name a few. Once Vermont was “settled,” however, there was much infighting between the special interests (the Weatherman irked moderate liberals, for example, by blowing up a G.E. armament systems department). If Sorens is to accomplish his goals with the Free State Project, he will have to deal with the same issues that these earlier social experimenters found.
The Montana candidate
The Grand Western Conference was held in Missoula due largely to the work of Montana Libertarian Party Chairman Mike Fellows. Once Fellows sent out the signal, Free Staters from all over (but particularly from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho) hopped on board. Fellows is not your typical party leader. He drives a scrappy old VW bus and avoids wearing a tie as much as possible. His speech is not smooth, but often mumbled. He also indulges a level of direct eye contact that can be discomfiting. Still, he delivers a strong pitch that Montana become the home of the Free State Project.
“Everybody points out that we’re kind of more liberal on social issues,” Fellows says, pointing to the state’s open container laws, as well as loose restrictions on gun ownership and registration and the state Supreme Court’s dismissal of sexual deviant laws.
“I think we’re in the top four with Wyoming, Idaho and New Hampshire, so we’ve got a good chance,” he says.
The ten states in the running—Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware and Vermont—were chosen based on their small populations as well as their politics and culture. While Sorens won’t say which state he’s pulling for, he admits that Montana has a lot of positive draws.
“One good aspect of Montana is that it has a lot of land available, and a lot of our members are interested in that,” says Sorens. “Wyoming has less land than Montana, so Montana has an advantage in that respect. Montana’s also got a smaller government than a lot of states. Its taxes aren’t too bad. It has no sales tax, and that’s an advantage.”
Sorens also agrees with Fellows’ assessment that the state is more lenient when it comes to personal freedoms.
“Montana also has a reputation for being a little bit independent and willing to go against the grain, so a lot of people who are interested in decentralizing policies from the federal government to the state government are supportive of Montana for that kind of approach…It may be a more tolerant state than any of the other Rocky Mountain western states,” says Sorens.
Quincy OrHai, a Free State Project member from Bozeman, is more direct.
“I think Montana is going to be it,” OrHai says. “I think once people understand the level of freedom that Montana has, and the willingness of Montanans to accept newcomers, it’s a shoo-in.”
Out of all the states considered by the Free State Project, Montana has the highest per capita number of signees with approximately 50, according to Sorens. But not everyone is as enthusiastic as OrHai about a Montana home for the Free State Project. Chuck Butler, Gov. Judy Martz’ director of communications, has suggested that Sorens and his Free Staters might do better to go to Idaho. A spokesman for Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne recommended in turn that the Free State Project would be better off in Montana.
The “not in my backyard” reaction doesn’t surprise Sorens, who believes his group is more popular with political underdogs.
“Politicians who are in power may worry about losing their jobs, whereas politicians who are out of power may see us as a potential interest group that could be used.”
Fellows argues that the Martz administration’s cold shoulder is based on a lack of understanding of the Free State Project’s goals.
“I think they’ve got a misconception that if you have a Libertarian society, you’re going to have everybody shooting up and there’s gonna be prostitutes on the street and those kinds of things, and that’s not really the case.”
Of course, the only real way to see if the scenario Fellows describes would or would not be the case would be to let the experiment form and then analyze the results. Fellows believes that such an experiment will indeed materialize, though he won’t speculate on the time frame.
“I think it will happen,” he says. “It’s just a matter of to what degree. It’s hard to predict the future, but there are a lot of us who do believe that the Free State Project could actually work. If you get enough people in a locality to change things, it’s just a matter of time.”
Have cause, will travel
The whole idea of the Free State Project is something of a catch-22. On one hand, Libertarians (and like-minded sympathizers) are coming together to talk about making personal compromises—including where they will choose to live—for the collective good. On the other hand, libertarian philosophy is founded on a bedrock of individualism. So who are these Montanans that are willing to pack up their bags and head yonder en masse for the sake of unencumbered personal choice?
One is Quincy OrHai, who takes a break from tuning up his camper to talk about the Free State Project, of which both he and his wife are members. OrHai owns a ranch and an entire valley just east of Bozeman, and is, in a sense, a modern day bounty hunter. His company, Western Justice LLC, purchases and processes judicial judgements. In layman’s terms, when a “deadbeat” rents a house, trashes the place and skips town without paying, OrHai buys the court ruling against the deadbeat from the property owner for a small sum. Then he sets to tracking that deadbeat down. He does this with only two tools: a phone and the Internet. Because these are the only things OrHai needs to do business, he is a quintessentially perfect candidate for the Free State Project. He can move anywhere in the country and continue to do business.
“In the new economy, there are hundreds of new positions like what I have where people can work anywhere,” he says.
OrHai is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and an observant Jew who wears his yarmulke at all times. Along with the NRA, OrHai counts himself a member of Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership (JFPO), a group that is currently working on a documentary detailing the registration of firearms that led to the eventual confiscation of weapons from Jews by the Nazis in post-WWI Germany. OrHai and JFPO contend that WWII could have been avoided if a handful of determined Jews had not allowed themselves to be disarmed.
It is along similar lines that OrHai sees guns as an important aspect of the Free State Project. At the conference, OrHai lunches with his wife and son and Sorens at the Golden Corral on Brooks and, between bites of salad, offers several reasons as to why Montana should and will be “the place.”
Like OrHai, Robert Jacobs is able to conduct his business from anywhere, so long as he has a phone and a computer. Jacobs, a 58-year-old single man, works for D.A.J. Direct, a direct marketing firm. When you get junk mail, the list you’ve been put on may have come from D.A.J. Direct. Jacobs moved to Whitefish from California a year ago, grew his hair out and skiied frequently. When he learned about the Free State Project on the Internet, Jacobs didn’t have to think twice.
“I was raised with the concepts of libertarianism, but never figured it would work on a national level. When I moved to Montana, I was joking with friends calling it the ‘Free State of Montana,’ and then all of a sudden here was the Free State Project, so I thought, ‘Well, somebody else has got the same idea and is actually doing something, so let’s see what happens,’” he says.
Jacobs sees the Free State Project as a moderate approach to the current level of government intrusion into people’s lives.
“Whatever state is chosen, we’re still going to be part of the United States. We just happen to be trying to establish a different style of government so that people have some choice to move to a place where there’s a little less intervention and regulation, that’s all. It’s not like a big revolution.”
But the Free State Project is like a big revolution to member Rich Angell, who envisions the project as the dawning of a second American Revolution.
“If you read the Declaration of Independence, the only thing that’s different now is a few names and a few details. Instead of the king, it’s the corporates in our government and the banking cartel, the Federal Reserve,” says Angell. “You just change the names and you’ve got the same situation: taxation without representation.”
Angell is a Missoula resident. Asked what he does for a living, he describes himself as a “free spirit” and a “jack-of-all-trades master of Zen” with an amiable chuckle. Over the years, he’s had a number of jobs, from teaching English as a second language to marketing nutritional products to helping a friend run a hydrocolonics clinic to helping another friend run a yoga studio. Because he’s bounced around so much, Angell doesn’t think he’ll have a problem living wherever the Free State Project might lead him.
“Back when I was in the Marines, the motto of the company I was in was ‘Semper Gumby.’ That means ‘always flexible.’”
Angell is active in various causes. A registered Libertarian, he includes himself in the genital integrity movement, which is aimed at stopping the circumcision of infants, and the natural health movement, which advocates individuals taking their health care into their own hands.
When one signs up for the Free State Project, one is given the option to check off any of the ten finalist states that he or she is not willing to move to. Both OrHai and Jacobs have indicated that they have no intention of moving to, for example, New Hampshire. Angell also selected a few states he would be unwilling to move to.
“But you know what the truth is?” Angell asks. “I’ll go anywhere. Because this is something that I believe in, and nobody said this was going to be easy.”
Angell hopes that other members of the Free State Project will be as willing.
“If people balk at the idea because they don’t want to leave their state, my argument would be, ‘You know, it’s not convenient for everybody, but it wasn’t convenient for our founding fathers to flee religious/corporate persecution in Europe to establish a free state here. It wasn’t convenient for them to sign their own death warrant, known as the Declaration of Independence.’”
One Free Stater who’s not willing to move is Maria Folsom. Unlike the upwardly mobile work-from-anywhere contingent or the free spirit wanderer crew, she and her husband Roy represent another significant chunk of the Free State Project’s membership: the retired. The Folsoms spend their retirement years in the majesty of East Glacier, and stipulated when signing on a year ago that they would only participate if the chosen state was Montana, Idaho or Wyoming.
“Truthfully, our lifestyle and personal lives are much more important to us than any movement,” Folsom says.
At the conference, the Folsoms are full of smiles and affection, holding hands frequently. Maria’s graying hair matches the color of Roy’s beard. They feel comforted to be in a room full of liberty-minded individuals, and Maria mentions that she has never seen so many Libertarians in one place in her entire life. While she is strongly drawn to the Libertarian ideas intertwined in the Free State Project, she admits that the idea is not without its problems.
“Perhaps the biggest downside to the project would be lack of intellectual diversity. That is, if you have all Libertarians in one state, I think it would probably be a very boring place. My husband and I enjoy arguing or debating with friends in a friendly spirit and I guess, truthfully, if we were all Libertarians and surrounded by them, it would be a dull life.”
Folsom has struck on the central balancing act necessary for the Free State Project’s success—how to collaborate while maintaining the reign of the individual.
“To achieve our goal we need to get together,” Folsom says, “but I don’t want so much togetherness that we don’t have that mental diversity.”
How do I look?
Montana legislators Joe Balyeat (R-Bozeman) and Jerry O’Neill (R-Columbia Falls) hope the Free State Project will move to Montana, as it is in line with their libertarian principles. Both representatives emphasize the importance of shaping public perception of the project.
“The one problem in Montana is we have a liberal media that will probably go out of its way to focus on the most extreme members of your group,” says Balyeat. “They will probably even paint you in an extreme light with stereotypes.”
J.J. Johnson, the editor of SierraTimes.com, a politically-contentious Web site that rants on subjects such as police corruption and the war in Iraq, agrees on the importance of image.
“The biggest challenge will be how things are viewed,” Johnson says.
In this vein, Rep. O’Neill urges the members of the Free State Project to portray themselves in the light most favorable to the audience at hand.
“When I go to the veterans’ home,” says O’Neill, “I don’t say I’m here to take away your medical aid. I say I’m here to protect your gun rights.”
O’Neill’s comment draws a big laugh from the audience. Syndicated columnist, author and speaker Vin Suprynowicz tells the conference that even the particular words they choose to use will be of the utmost importance. For instance, says Suprynowicz, they should talk not about shutting down public schools, but closing “monopoly government youth propaganda camps.”
If the project is successful in attracting 20,000 members, public perception will become an even more important issue with the chosen state’s natives. Bozeman’s Quincy OrHai says that it is important that the newcomers don’t come off as invading know-it-alls.
“It would be a mistake for people to move here with the Free State Project and immediately begin to try to change things. That’s the one good way to alienate everybody. The first thing you do is you settle in and you find out what the locals do. And then, after you find out what they do, you find out why they do it. And that usually takes at least five years. And then after that, you begin to think that you could be of help changing this or that.”
Sorens takes OrHai’s idea a step further, saying that there’s no reason Free Staters have to announce to their native neighbors that they are indeed Free Staters.
“We’re just people moving in,” says Sorens. “They don’t have to know why.”
The best way to create a positive image may be to find local allies, a process that’s already begun in Montana. Gary Marbut, the president and founder of the highly-effective Montana Shooting Sports Association (MSSA), is not a member of the Free State Project, but Marbut spoke on the Montana panel during the Grand Western Conference and could clearly be a local aid to incoming porcupines.
Another ally for Free Staters in Montana may be found in activists such as John Masterson, who leads the Missoula-based chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and says that he works with anyone who will work with him.
Yet, no matter how the Free Staters craft their image, opponents will portray them in a different light. One such opponent is Brad Martin, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. Martin says that the reason Montana is in its current fiscal troubles in the first place is an overabundance of Libertarian philosophy.
“The Libertarian wing of the Montana Republican Party has been in the lead for years. They want to cut provisions that protect workers’ wages, fair pay. They’re the wing that wants to cut programs like Meals on Wheels. They’re that group of Republicans that doesn’t believe in government providing support for our neediest citizens, while at the same time advocating tax breaks that will mostly benefit the wealthy.”
Martin says that when Libertarians use the term “small government,” the words are “code” for a lack of responsibility to help citizens who cannot survive without government aid in their lives.
If it faces in-state opposition from either the media or politicians in power, the project may encounter an even larger battle looming on the horizon with the federal government. In the midst of the Patriot Act and other federal restrictions on civil liberties, Free Staters are mindful that the feds didn’t just sit back and nod while the Branch Dividians went their own way in Waco.
There is no way to know exactly how the free state would work, or if it would work at all. That’s what makes it so exciting to members and curious non-members alike: it’s an experiment, so by definition the results are uncertain. Yet it remains clear that freedoms come at a price. This is classic Libertarian dogma. If you want freedom, you’d best accept the responsibility that comes with it. As the conference draws to a close, the man who started it all steps to the podium. Jason Sorens talks to his fellow Free Staters about responsibility, tells them that things will not be easy, that the status quo is comfortable to most people. He also says that his group will never be able to reach the kind of widespread consensus that Republicans or Democrats manage. To Sorens, this is both the strength and the weakness of the Free State Project. The majority of the interested faces before him belong to white males, but when it comes to exactly how the project should function, they’re a diverse bunch. Still, Sorens points to some common links among all the conference attendees.
“We’re all just American citizens living the American dream, doing what Americans have always done, from the Pilgrims to the Mormons.”
In the end, it is the American dream that is ultimately the goal of the Free State Project: the idea that individuals should be free to fly an F-15 fighter over Montana, shooting at clouds while snorting coke and shagging a prostitute and no one can tell you “no.” Or the dream could be raising and teaching one’s kids alone in the countryside on a diet of Whitman and the Bible without worrying about child services knocking on the door to see what’s going on. It could mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people, and that’s the whole point.
But the freedom to pursue the American dream has always required money. Fortunately for them, most of the conference attendees have it, which is another common bond linking them. The conference has drawn those who own entire valleys of land, but not those who accept food stamps to feed their kids. It has drawn able-bodied travelers, but not the handicapped person in the wheelchair who counts on government to tell businesses that they must make their entrances accessible. And as diverse as the crowd is, the working poor are noticeably absent.
Well, almost absent.
After a day of discussion, several porcupines walk to a fast-food restaurant abutting Brooks Street. If any of them had struck up a conversation with the women and men behind the counter before ordering their burgers, they might have found Missoulians working two jobs for a total of seventy hours a week just to stay broke and not fall into the red. These are the people who benefit most from government aid, and who would suffer most from its withdrawal. But they can’t make it to the Grand Western Conference to argue their side of the story. They’re working weekends.