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Libertarians Seek State Takeover to Demonstrate Their Program - 2003-07-20

For decades, American Libertarians have worked for small government and minimal regulation. But the party has never achieved large-scale success. Now activists have launched a new effort to prove their ideas can work. The Free State Project hopes to recruit 20,000 Americans to move to one state and establish a libertarian system there. Four thousand people have signed up so far, and they're getting ready to choose a target state. New Hampshire Libertarians are working hard to convince the group to make the Granite State their political laboratory. Trish Anderton reports. If you're looking for a utopian setting, it's hard to beat New Hampshire's White Mountains on a summer afternoon. At the Rogers Campground in Lancaster, about 50 people have come from all over to mingle, admire the view, and listen to speeches about the Free State Project. The series of events is called "Escape to New Hampshire." Texan Michael Badnarik, who's seeking the Libertarian nomination for president in 2004, thinks it's an appropriate title.

"I think the fact we have to escape implies we have let the federal government get way out of control," he said.

Libertarians believe control belongs to the people … and that property rights and free markets can solve most of society's problems. They generally oppose drug laws and gun control. They tend to support the right to gay marriage. It's hard to get an accurate estimate of the movement's strength in the United States, since only about half the states allow voters to register as Libertarians. But at last count there were about 200,000 party members. Political observers say their vision of taking over a state is a long shot. But Virginia talk show host Gary Nolan, who's here for the Free State Project events, is optimistic. He says if libertarian principles take hold in one state, like New Hampshire, they'll spark an explosion of prosperity.

"Businesses will relocate here. Manufacturing will be here. Job opportunities will be here," he said. "For Massachusetts and Delaware and Ohio and the other states in this country to be viable economically, they'll have to follow your lead. If they follow your lead, Canada's in trouble, Europe's in trouble, the world is in trouble, because no one can keep up with Americans when they're set free."

The Free State Project was launched after the 2000 elections by Jason Sorens, who was then a graduate student at Yale. Mr. Sorens floated his idea of introducing libertarian ideals to an entire state on the World Wide Web. Within a week, 200 people had emailed him saying they were willing to move. A research committee chose ten possible targets based on their size, economy and politics. They range from tiny Delaware to large, sparsely populated Wyoming and Alaska.

At a barbecue in the campground later that evening, Free Staters get acquainted. Amanda Philips is a single mom from Massachusetts. She admits it would be difficult to rearrange her life to move for the libertarian cause. But she says it would be worth it.

"For what I'm getting out of it - liberty and a free society - I'll uproot. That's the least of my concerns," she said.

New Hampshire Libertarians are going all-out to convince Free Staters this is the place to be. They tout the lack of state sales and income taxes. And, as local Libertarian Dan Belforti points out, there's the famous state motto.

"'Live free or die.' It's part of our culture to be self-reliant and personally responsible instead of relying on government," he said.

But there are hurdles to overcome. John Barnes, chair of the New Hampshire effort, notes that some Western states are also lobbying to be chosen.

"The Westerners don't want to move East, the Easterners don't want to move West. So the trick for the Free State Project is to convince people they have to stick together and all go to whatever state is chosen. It'll be interesting to see if that ever really develops," he said.

Free Staters hope to choose their movement's destination later this summer. If they can convince 15,000 others to join them, they'll give members five years to move to their promised land and begin the process of turning it into a low-tax, small-government state.