Bearing With It

Maybe, like its bears, the Granite State was born free
Cap Off December 2020 Copy Copy

Illustration by Peter Noonan

The 2020 elections selected winners and losers, but deep questions about America and New Hampshire remain unresolved.

That said, as a new book highlights, one long-standing question about the state’s devotion to its “Live Free or Die” libertarian roots might be settled.

It has been nearly 20 years since the Free State Project began. The idea was for 20,000 libertarians move to one state, where they could influence local politics enough to gain a foothold in American politics. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.

They chose New Hampshire, which made some sense. Besides the motto, New Hampshire has real advantages for a fledgling movement. The barrier to entry into local politics is lower than in any other state. Honestly, few voters have any idea who they are electing as state representatives. In some places, a city councilor or even a school board member must earn more votes than a New Hampshire state representative. A person who is willing to run as either a Republican or Democrat to ride political waves any given cycle could be elected state representative for less than a $1,000 in campaign funds.

If the project actually took off here, libertarianism might have garnered worldwide clout: Thanks to the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, the Free State Project could have had a real impact on choosing the leader of the free world. And, as states go, New Hampshire is about as naturally libertarian as they get, with no income tax, no sales tax and no mandate for adults to wear a seat belt.

The new book “A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear” is written by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, a journalist and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize who used to write for the Valley News newspaper. Hongoltz-Hetling didn’t focus on the Free State Project, but targeted a micro-level splinter of it: the Free Town project in Grafton. There, as the title suggests, the lack of wanting to work with any government created a problem when it came to dealing with troublesome bears. Much of the book is written as if the Free State project was some kind of joke. For some Free Staters, it is kind of a joke. One ran for Keene mayor and for governor in 2020 after he legally changed his name to Nobody. He said he was inspired a by a sign that read “Vote for nobody.”

For others who rely on government services, from the 50,000 Granite Staters who count on Medicaid expansion for health insurance, to school children, to even police and firefighters, cutting essential services for an experiment isn’t funny at all. All one has to do is to drive on Grafton’s roads to know this is not the best place for commerce.

While things don’t go well in Grafton over ideology, there is a larger point here. Libertarian is not a recognized party in New Hampshire, so many of these Free Staters ran as candidates in the mainstream parties. In other states where Libertarian is a recognized party and qualifies for debates, they stand out as a distinctly different from Republicans and Democrats.

Perhaps the flaw in the Free State experiment taking place in New Hampshire is the status quo. New Hampshire’s actual free state project began 245 years ago with the state’s founding, and it continues today. 

Categories: Politics