26 February 2016

In the Land of Libertarians


“Are you a native or a mover?”

This was the question I got asked most often over the course of a weekend spent at the Liberty Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was a natural inquiry given that the conference sponsor, the Free State Project, is a grass-roots effort to get 20,000 libertarians to voluntarily move to New Hampshire.

The goal is to create a free society by increasing the number of libertarians concentrated in a single area. Free Staters want to live in a place where “the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property,” as the FSP website describes. The movement has now garnered the desired 20,000 signatories and that in turn has “triggered the move,” which is meant to lead all those who pledged to do so to move to New Hampshire sometime within the coming five years. More than 2,000 souls have already moved.

I was invited to address the Liberty Forum because the theme of this year’s gathering was Living Liberty and my upcoming book No Child Left Alone: Getting the government out of parenting (Encounter Books, August 2016) fitted in well with the theme. My book is an effort to describe how pervasive government rules, regulations and mandates from local, state and the federal government get in between parents and their kids. Indeed, it was a truly friendly audience of parents and some children who understood immediately the importance of arguing in favor of parental – not state — authority over children and child rearing.

The Free Staters I met at Liberty Forum agree that parents should be allowed to make decisions about their kids, such as choosing between various types of schools, or not choosing a traditional school at all. Indeed, many supporters of the Free State project opt to homeschool their children. Homeschooling is so much the norm community of libertarians that one mom I met told me apologetically that she had sent her kids to public school. I asked why she felt defensive about such a reasonable decision and she explained that there is great pressure to opt out of public education. The reasons vary, but principally because of the commonly held view that public schools are too regimented, too devoted to testing, and because many libertarian parents reject the idea of national standards embodied in the curriculum known as Common Core.

This conversation and others like it led me to an important observation about the Free Staters, namely the balancing act between community and individualism. On one hand you could not hope to meet with a more committed, energized and joyous community than the people who gathered together for Liberty Forum. Many of these people have either moved, are planning to move or support others who want to change their lives and move to a new state in order to form a voluntary community committed to a few core values about the importance of rights and liberties derived from a close reading of the US Constitution. On the other hand, the values these people have collectively committed to uphold are largely about the importance of individual responsibilities and individual freedoms. Their symbol is a porcupine meant to represent the ideal in citizenship, “Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.”

This dichotomy was hard to reconcile especially given the kibbutz-like atmosphere of the proceedings. There were whole families in attendance, along with some participants dressed in full top-hat and tails regalia. A man who engaged with me in conversation after my talk was openly wearing a hand gun on his belt. Perfectly legal in New Hampshire and certainly understandable amongst a group of Americans who take the right bear arms very seriously. But this leads to another interesting dichotomy. At the same time that individuals have the right to defend themselves and their property, a great many Free-Staters and libertarians have grave reservations about the US military. I had an exchange with one participant who patiently explained that there was no reasonable explanation for the US presence around the world. Talking with another gentleman, I was subject to a mild harangue for writing for the Conservative publication The Weekly Standard because of its hawkish position on foreign policy.

This dislike and distrust of the military and especially the intelligence services was vividly on display during the keynote event, which was biggest draw of the whole conference: A video interview with Edward Snowden, the former National Security Analyst turned whistle-blower, who in 2013 exposed the US surveillance program. For the 500 or so who gathered to hear him questioned by Reason Magazine editor Nick Gillespie, Snowden is a hero. They believe he has done the United States a service by exploding the counter-terror surveillance program. I don’t count myself among them.

Abby W. Schachter is the US Editor of CapX