back to the Black Table
  IT TAKES A NATION OF 20,000.  

The All-American bromide goes something like this: If you don't like the way things are, than get out.

Or, if you're a member of The Free State Project, gather up 20,000 like-minded individuals and move to a single state in order to encourage political, cultural and societal change. Candidate states, all with populations under 1.5 million, include Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Delaware, Montana, Idaho, New Hampshire and Maine. Recently, Free State Project Vice President Elizabeth McKinstry spoke with The Black Table about the Project's goals, and how it hopes to accomplish them in the coming years.

BT: This whole idea seems rather tenacious.

EM: Actually, it's based on some really solid research. The project was founded by Jason Soren, who's a graduate student at Yale University, in August 2001. It's based on good number crunching. I mean, 20,000 activists can have a significant political impact in any state under 1.5 million. It's not made up; the numbers are there. In terms of 20,000 people who would be willing to move to have a better life, it's a great American tradition. People have been doing it for at least a couple of centuries in this country and a lot longer all over the world.

BT: Do you downplay connections with the Libertarian Party?

EM: There really isn't any connection. If anything, the National Libertarian Party has been less than receptive about the project. What we share with them is a philosophy, which is that people are going to lead their best lives when they're able to make decisions for themselves.

BT: So your members cover all parties?

EM: We have members who are Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians. We have lots of people who aren't affiliated with any party. I'm not involved with any party. On our board we've got a lifetime LP member, a Republican Liberty Caucus, and anarchists. We have people from all over the spectrum.

BT: Isn't it oxymoronic for an anarchist to join a political organization?

EM: It is, but for the people who believe in real anarchical capitalism, the Free State Project is, to them, a logical step along that path. Less government is still better than more government, even though it's not ideal for those people.

BT: Wouldn't this just happen naturally if people wanted it?

EM: You have to realize that of the 10 states we're looking at, they were all chosen in part because of population, but also because they already have a culture that leans this way. The reason Hawaii isn't on the list, although it meets the population criteria, is that it's not a place that has a culture of individual liberty. The other thing is, with 20,000 people you can't just go in and take over. You have to be able to persuade people. What we're looking at is opening up dialogue that isn't available now because we're too small and too spread out. Candidates from third parties don't get invited to debates, but in our state a third party candidate would get invited to a debate because they'd have enough backing. At least the kind of issues we're talking about would be brought out in public debate.

BT: Are you concerned about conflicts with the federal government? Medical marijuana was made legal in California under Proposition 215 but still remained illegal under federal law, which created all kinds of problems.

EM: We're not looking to pick a fight with the federal government. I think there will be a point in which our state laws come into conflict with federal laws. I think there are some ways to handle that. One way is that you can set it up so your local law enforcement doesn't cooperate with federal law enforcement. That's not mandatory, that's optional. If the California Drug Task Force doesn't help out the DEA, the DEA is fairly handicapped in what they can do. I also think public opinion is moving in that direction. Canada's talking about legalizing it. The more the movement progresses, the less likely the federal government is going to want to start picking fights. Everybody knows the drug war is just a big loser. Not just a loser, but a destroyer of lives and economies and all kinds of things. People are starting to recognize that. The idea of "Just Say No" is probably one of the most foolish mottos.

BT: Are you looking at the elimination of drug laws?

EM: Absolutely. Here's the thing: we're a very decentralized organization. Our mission is to get the 20,000 in one place, not to tell them what to do. We know that when they get there they're going to do the right thing. But people are going to gravitate to the issues that mean the most to them. I don't know exactly what bill is going to be first, or what law, but I can tell you that these are all things that are important to a lot of our members and so it's likely these will be issues that will be addressed. But not all at once, and not all at first. There will be things that make more sense given the state that's chosen, or recent legislation. If we were going to a state that had already been talking about medical marijuana maybe that would be one of the first things we would tackle, it would just depend.

BT: Do you feel this kind of vagueness could incite conflict within the movement?

EM: When people sign up for the project they sign a statement that says they'll work to their fullest possible effort to create a government whose maximum role is the protection of life, liberty, and property. If people go to our forum or discussion list, they'll know what we're about. You don't need to love the legalization of drugs or everybody carrying a gun on their hips, but what you need to do is be someone who's willing to accept that in order to have the liberties that are important to you, other people need the liberties that are important to them. That's the spirit that has enabled us to get as far as we've gotten. This is about, "I want to make decisions on my life and I recognize as an adult that respects you as an adult that you should have the right to make decisions about your life."

BT: Once you've chosen a state, will the citizens appreciate this kind of encroachment?

EM: I think there are some that aren't going to be really happy and some that are going to be really happy. Until there's a law in the United States saying you can't move where you want, there's not a lot they can do about it. Our goal is to communicate that we're looking at a better society for everybody, a better society for moms and dads and retired people and students and poor people and rich people, too. We want to be members of the community. We're entrepreneurial, we have lots of business owners, we're working people. We're there to make a better life for everyone. We care about what they care about. But sure, there are going to be people who are unhappy and there's not a lot we can do about that except to keep reiterating that we're peaceful. We're going to work within the government, within the political system. We want the best for everybody and we hope we can have an open dialogue about it. We're not really worried about what politicians think to be honest with you. What citizens think is important to us. We get reactions from both sides. A lot of it is going to be how we present ourselves but we aren't going to make everyone happy, and I regret that, but at the same time, it's a free country.

BT: How will the actual move be handled?

EM: It sounds like a lot of people, but if you take New Hampshire, for example, they get 20,000 new people every year. Over a five-year period, which is the window for the move, that really isn't that many. That's 4,000 people a year, roughly. Housing is going to be more or less an issue depending on what state gets chosen. In some of the western states housing might be less of an issue, in some of the eastern states it might be more of an issue. But there are people who are going to start moving as soon as the state is chosen, who aren't waiting for the 20,000. It really is going to be spread out over time. We also have members who are interested in house sharing. One of the things we're going to set up as soon as the state is chosen is a networking board where people can get together and hook up as roommates, or housemates, or buying a duplex. Lots of people have already indicated interest in that. So we're going to serve as a sort of clearing house for those kind of joint inquires. But it's up to people to make the decisions that reflect their lifestyles. Some people want to live in a house way out in the woods, some people want to live in the closest thing to a city the state has. It's up to them and what they want to do.

BT: If this fails, could it have a debilitating effect on future movements?

EM: I think that's the big risk. If we don't get this to work, it discredits the Libertarian philosophy. But I'm much more optimistic now of the Project's success than when it started two years ago, or even a year ago. The growth rate has been phenomenal. We've gotten so much press that the National Libertarian Party is having internal arguments about why we get better press than they do. I do two interviews a day with local radio stations and things like that. I think it's going to happen. Is there a risk? Yeah, but there have been plenty of places where this kind of thing has succeeded. Look at San Francisco, look at Utah, look at Vermont. These are groups of people with a particular political agenda who have all ended up in the same place and created a particular culture. It's been done before. It can be done again.