Jason Sorens recently earned his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University, and now works at Yale as a lecturer.
In 2001, Sorens founded the Free State Project. The Project's goal: to recruit twenty thousand liberty-minded, activist-oriented individuals to move to a small state, with the intent of effecting significant political change at the local level.
In August, the Free State Project grew to over five thousand members, and selected New Hampshire as its target state. The group expects to hit twenty thousand members in 2006, at which time members will have five years to move to their new home, the "Granite State." Some members have moved already.
In this Atlasphere interview with Andrew Schwartz, Sorens speaks about the Free State Project, his political and theoretical influences, and the potential benefits of a political shift toward decentralization.
The Atlasphere: How did the idea for the Free State Project initially gel in your mind?
Jason Sorens: At the time, around 2001, there was a great deal of discussion among libertarians about the failure of libertarian electoral and political strategies up to that point. The libertarian movement had been active for at least three decades, but with only a few policy successes to show for it.
Many people were considering new strategies to increase the weight of libertarian ideas in the policy debate. And the Free State Project seemed to me to be an appropriate way of concentrating activist resources into a single geographical area where they could have a much greater impact.
Another factor that caused this idea to occur to me was my own research on autonomous movements around the world. The fact that the regional or state level is becoming more important worldwide seemed to indicate that the same trend may happen in the U.S. — that the state level may be the level at which important political action takes place in the future.
TA: Can you give some examples of the types of autonomous movements you’re talking about?
Sorens: Sure. In Great Britain, after many years of political conflict, Scotland and Wales won new elected assemblies. In Spain, there was significant decentralization to the regional level; regions like Catalonia have been able to promote regional economic interests outside the borders of the state. Belgium has taken the radical step of moving from a traditional unitary state to a federal state.
In the U.S. we’ve seen increasing centralization over time, but if other countries are any indication, the decentralization trend should come to our shores as well.
TA: With our federal government as far-reaching in scope as it is, how is it possible to make significant changes at the state level?
Simply at the state and local level, many reforms can be accomplished — everything from privatization of education, to deregulation of utilities, to ending abuses of eminent domain and asset forfeiture.
But even further than that, we can begin to rein in federal power by using the state to challenge the federal government’s authority in many areas, from pursuing tenth amendment lawsuits, to passing state laws that render federal laws somewhat ineffective, to the more extreme possibilities of outright nullification or some kind of unilateral declaration of sovereignty.
Of course, I think the more extreme options should be reserved for very serious issues that we’re not able to make progress on.
TA: Can you give some examples of laws that might render the federal government’s laws less effective?
Sorens: Sure. An interesting example is Montana. The federal government had ruled that people were not allowed to carry a handgun within a hundred feet of a school, except for law enforcement officers. So the Montana legislature simply passed a law stating that every citizen of Montana was, for the purposes of this statute, a law enforcement officer. That effectively nullified the federal law without outright challenging it.
TA: Pretty clever.
Sorens: Yeah. And in Canada, Quebec has pressed for a return of social security programs to the provincial level, and that’s another idea that we could work on. New Hampshire would certainly be much better off if it could handle its own social security, and hopefully eventually privatize it, than if social security remains within the national system.
TA: Do you think the Project has the potential to change things indirectly at the national level as well?
Sorens: I think so, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously we would have some federal representation and we may hold the balance of power on some issues.
Also, when other states see that our reforms are drawing individuals and businesses, they may be forced to pursue those same policies in order to keep their tax base intact.
And finally, I think there will certainly be a demonstration effect — that libertarian policies will create desirable outcomes, and citizens in other states will demand those same policies for their own governments.
TA: After you formulated the idea for the Free State Project, how did you get it off the ground?
Sorens: I wrote an article and asked people to e-mail me if they were interested, and about two hundred people e-mailed me the first week after the article was published. I then basically led the formation of the group with input from many different people, and we set up a web site, and eventually incorporated in Nevada.
Our growth was rather slow at first. Our first year, especially after the September 11th attack, was gradual. Then in August of 2002, Walter Williams wrote a column about the Free State Project, and about how it accorded with his own ideas for secession. Even though we are not secessionists, the possibility is certainly there for a movement of this type. And after his article came out, we got several hundred new members, and from there growth has been strong and steady.
TA: Five thousand members was the first landmark, right?
Sorens: Yes. We first reached five thousand in August of last year, and then we held a vote among ten candidate states on which was the best relocation target for liberty-minded people, and New Hampshire won that vote.
After the vote, we had to remove from the membership list people that had, prior to the vote, opted out of New Hampshire, because we had allowed people to sign up indicating states that they would opt out of. Each state had had at least twenty percent of the membership opting out of it, so we had to remove about one thousand members from the rolls after the election, and the election result was announced on October 1st, 2003.
After that, we had to recruit another thousand members to reach five thousand, and we accomplished that late last year.
TA: Why New Hampshire?
Sorens: Well, I think it ended up being the choice of a majority of our members for a number of reasons. It has the lowest state and local taxes in the country, except perhaps for Alaska, depending on how you count them. It also has friendly gun laws. It has no seat belt and helmet laws for adults, indicating a culture of personal responsibility.
It has a very large legislature, which means that local democracy is very important. Representatives are very accountable to the voting public. It also has a strong system of town government so that you can influence a great many important policies simply by participating in town meetings.
Also, job growth in New Hampshire has been very strong compared to the other states we were considering. It has a large IT sector and an educated population, so it’s well positioned for a bright economic future.
TA: What kinds of responses have you received in New Hampshire since the decision was made?
Sorens: Well, we’ve had both positive and negative responses. The positive response tends to come from ordinary residents of New Hampshire, while the Democratic Party leaders and some of the newspaper editors have had a negative response. That isn’t terribly surprising, but I think we’ve had a favorable response from I would call the “real Granite-Staters” — the real citizens of New Hampshire.
TA: You mentioned in one article that the Free State Project was being treated as a political football in New Hampshire.
Sorens: Yes. During the last local elections there, the Democratic Party tried to make it an issue and to criticize the governor for welcoming us. They weren’t able to do that very successfully, but it became a partisan issue for a while, and now the controversy seems to have died down a bit.
TA: I take it the Republicans were largely supportive?
Sorens: Certainly the governor, who is a Republican, was supportive, and many members of the New Hampshire House were supportive. Some of them even joined the Free State Project.
TA: As soon as the Free State Project accomplishes its goal of moving twenty thousand people into New Hampshire, it plans to dissolve. Is there some organization that will take its place?
Sorens: There is already at least one organization in New Hampshire working within the political realm, and it was founded by Free State Project members, although it has no formal tie to the Free State Project. That is the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance. Of course there are also existing think tanks and institutions supporting liberty in New Hampshire: the New Hampshire Center for Constitutional Studies, New Hampshire Citizens for a Sound Economy, and so forth.
TA: Are there any specific plans for activism once the move is accomplished?
Sorens: We want to let Free-Staters choose the types of activities they’re most interested in. Some people will want to work on campaigns and legislation, other people will want to work on developing policy proposals, and others will be most interested in working on developing private alternatives to government programs.
Our role is to facilitate people getting involved in those types of efforts. We’ve used the web site and our different forums and e-mail lists to hook up different FSP members into these new or existing efforts, based on their interests.
TA: What kind of people sign up for the Free State Project?
Sorens: We have a diversity within an overall unity. The unity of course is given by our statement of intent that you sign when you become a member, which states simply that you agree to move to New Hampshire, and that you believe that the maximum role of civil government should be to protect individuals’ life, liberty, and property — the Lockean formulation.
Within that overall philosophy, you do have differences. Some people tend to be more “right libertarians” — that is, they place a greater emphasis on getting rid of economic interventions. Others tend to be more “left libertarians,” in that they place more emphasis on getting rid of social restrictions. I tend to think that both are about equally important.
We also have the classic distinction between minarchists and anarchists, and obviously there’s great ethnic and religious diversity within the Free State Project as well.
TA: How confident are you that members will actually make the move when the time comes?
Sorens: Obviously that’s a critical component of this project. So far it seems that most people are very serious about making the move, and an increasing number already have. Every week I hear of some new member who has moved or has bought property or something of that nature. So from my vantage point it seems that the large majority of FSP members are serious about moving.
And as we continue to try to get our members involved in New Hampshire, to identify with the state, to give them information on jobs and housing, we think that those efforts will pay off and help people make the move by making it just a little bit easier for them.
TA: Are there any consequences for a member who doesn’t move?
Sorens: No consequences, other than perhaps social opprobrium. (Laughs.) We generally say that moving is a moral requirement for a member, not a legal requirement.
TA: There was a front-page New York Times article about the project saying that in the future, you plan to create a new political party with a broader appeal than the Libertarian Party. Was that accurate?
Sorens: Well, that’s not necessarily accurate. Again, we’re not tied to any particular political party, and in New Hampshire, there may actually be good opportunities to work within the existing parties. They have something called “fusion,” which allows you to run under multiple party nominations, and it can be very easy to get a party’s nomination for office, especially running for the House of Representatives.
So it would be possible to run as a Libertarian Republican, or a Republican Libertarian, and that may be something that many members are interested in doing. Of course you can also run as a Democratic Libertarian, or a Libertarian Democrat, and in some areas of the state that might be the wise thing to do.
I think fusion might be the ultimate strategy for success, and of course there are many lawmakers in New Hampshire who already are on our side, and I think we should support them whatever their party affiliation might be.
TA: In an article you wrote, you stated that the Free State Project will lead to a restoration of constitutional federalism. What does that mean?
I think the federal government should exist simply to prevent states from tyrannizing their own citizens and from imposing inter-state barriers to trade and commerce, as well as to conduct foreign policy.
I think that was what the framers intended with the text of the constitution, and the closer we get toward that, the better off all Americans will be.
TA: You have a politically astute mind; how did you initially become interested in politics?
Sorens: That is difficult to say. I’ve been interested in politics for as long as I can remember. I wasn’t always a libertarian — you could say I was something of a hard right conservative when I was about thirteen years old. (Chuckling.) But my own life experiences and reading changed me into a libertarian by the time I was in high school. And I was deeply interested in political issues in college, and more since then.
TA: Which thinkers and authors influenced you the most in your teen years?
Sorens: Well, this might be controversial, but I’m rather influenced by Immanuel Kant. One of the reasons for that may be that he can be interpreted in different ways. But I think his fundamental moral philosophy is actually congenial to libertarianism.
It’s often mischaracterized, I think, as a philosophy of altruism, when in fact it’s really a philosophy of, you might say, neutralism — that is, you should respect the rights of others. Pursue your own interests in the framework of respecting others’ rights. And that side-constraint view of morality is very consistent then with the forward development of libertarian philosophy by people like Rand, Rothbard and Nozick.
I would say I’m also influenced rather heavily by Rothbard and Nozick and their extensions of the idea of natural rights. John Locke, of course, coming before Kant, set forth a persuasive account of natural rights; his failure was that he believed that there was an actual social contract that limited those rights. Subsequent thinkers realized that there was no such thing as the social contract as envisioned by Locke, and that therefore individuals retained all the rights that they had in nature, and that government was acting illegitimately in trying to curb those rights.
TA: What particularly influenced you in the work of Rothbard?
Sorens: Rothbard basically shocked me with his revolutionary statement that taxation is slavery. What does that mean? Once you start to think about it, it becomes clear that taxation involves coercion — that it involves basically conscripting your labor for the service of the state.
That deconstruction of the state, I think, was something profoundly new for me when I first read him in college, and caused me for a time to go all the way with him to anarcho-capitalism. I wouldn’t say that I’m an anarcho-capitalist now, but he definitely had that influence on me at one time.
TA: And how about Nozick?
Sorens: I think his influence was particularly in the realm of showing how competing philosophies of justice fell down at one point or another. Rawls, for example, paints his philosophy as being motivated by Kantian considerations, but as Nozick showed, Rawls’s theory employs an end state principle of justice and requires continuous re-distribution and perpetual insecurity of property rights to pursue some hypothetical end state. That perspective is very much incompatible with Kant’s idea that morality consists of side constraints on behavior — it doesn’t consist of controlling the ends that people should pursue.
TA: Interesting. So how about Ayn Rand? Did she have any influence on you?
Sorens: I would say she had an influence on me earlier in high school as part of the general reading I did on economics. People like Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises also influenced me at that stage. Reading about how big business is often unjustly maligned in the U.S., and how what seems like greed can actually lead to the overall greater social good — those arguments persuaded me at the time to move toward classically liberal views on the proper role of the state on economic affairs.
Where I differed from the economists was their emphasis on utility and the overall social good, and I think Rand did avoid that pitfall. I believe you’re not necessarily able to calculate what is the overall social good, the “sum of all utilities” — and even if you were, you shouldn’t take that as the highest moral end, because it could involve sacrificing individuals to the greater collective whole, which is something I don’t believe in at all.
TA: At the same time that you hold these views, you’ve secured a position as a lecturer at Yale. Are the universities more open to divergent thinking than is often assumed?
Sorens: It’s complex. I would say that the faculty is overwhelmingly leftist, and I think that expounding libertarian, much less conservative views, in the classroom would generate an outcry.
I also think that if I had pursued normative questions of liberty versus the state in my own research, I would be probably unhireable.
My own research concentrates on positive, empirical questions of what leads a group to become autonomist or secessionist, and what causes government policies in the international economy, rather than questions about what government should do and what are individual rights.
I think the environment is still rather hostile, especially for young scholars who are trying to look at those questions in an explicit way.
That said, the student body at Yale is ideologically diverse, and there’s actually a fairly strong conservative and libertarian contingent among the students.
Another interesting factoid is that among the Yale faculty I found that libertarianism is more respected than conservatism, because it’s often thought that libertarians are at least systematic thinkers, whereas conservatives are, rightly or wrongly, perceived as going on mere instinct.
TA: In general, is there any exciting new thinking going on in political theory at the university level or elsewhere?
Sorens: I think there is. Most of what I’m familiar with is in the area of political economy. Here at Yale, much of the research focuses on the necessity of institutions for economic development. And this new emphasis holds promise for libertarians for two major reasons.
The first reason is that it explains why market reforms alone haven’t worked in places like Russia, for example. If you do not have stable institutions that create an atmosphere of confidence and stability, market reforms aren’t credible. Investors and businessmen will think that these reforms can be reversed at any moment, either de facto or de jure, and therefore will not make the same level of investment they would if these commitments were credible.
The second reason this emphasis is important for libertarians is that it buttresses many of the things libertarians have been saying about American and British constitutional and institutional development, and why separation of powers, federalism, and institutions that constrain government are necessary for long term economic development.
Research related to that idea is being done explicitly now in the political economy field — looking at how the separation of powers and federalism in particular directly influence economic outcomes.
TA: What are your own professional goals? Will you be engaged in activism in New Hampshire?
Sorens: I see university teaching and research as my primary calling. I definitely don’t see myself as a politician type, and I don’t think I would make a good campaigner. My personality tends to be more laid back, even introverted, if you will.
But certainly in New Hampshire,
I would be willing to do some low-level work in the community, even perhaps running for city council or something of that nature. But my main focus is definitely the research and teaching.
TA: Which areas of research?
Sorens: I’m interested in the intersection between economic globalization and political institutions, including partisanship in different countries.
I actually still have some work to do regarding secession and autonomy groups. I’m working on a book entitled Secession and Democracy. In that book I’m going to try to bring in some normative questions about when should we allow secession, when is it legitimate, and put forth a fairly libertarian view of those problems, in addition to trying to explain why we see so much secessionism around the world, and what the implications are for political order.
But after I’ve finished that research project, my next project is to focus on the extent to which economic globalization makes big government untenable. The evidence so far shows that big government survives even in the face of globalization. That finding was one of the things that persuaded me to start the Free State Project, because the case for libertarian optimism that had been in vogue in the mid 1990s was not supported by the facts. As free trade and capital flows increase, we’re not necessarily going to see government shriveling in order to provide a favorable environment for capital.
But there are still some outstanding problems, especially as you see more of a push for super-nationalism. In Europe, for example, you have the European Union, and the European Monetary Union, which creates a single currency for many European countries — and this new policy creates some special problems for monetary management and the ability of governments to pursue high spending policies, especially during times of recession.
I think ultimately you’re going to see a tension arise within the Euro area, particularly between small states and big states, and I think that cleavage may eventually doom these kinds of efforts at super-nationalism. If they don’t doom those efforts, they may create irresistible pressures to cut the size of government very significantly in those countries.
TA: And how do you perceive the political climate in the United States now? Do you think the time is ripe for a move toward greater liberty?
Sorens: Well, in looking at U.S. history, government seems to have grown significantly during times of crisis, or perceived crisis. And the last three years have been no exception. Following September 11th, we’ve seen a new emphasis on the military and on domestic intelligence and security services, and very little focus from the administration on reining in federal spending.
I think the future of liberty depends on the lack of crises or the ability of the American people to see through perhaps partly manufactured crises, or to think more clearly about the appropriate responses to such crises.
The American people were growing more and more anti-government, or pro-liberty to put it in a positive way, up to September 11th — or rather up to the recession, which started a little before September 11th. I would like to see that momentum regained, and I think it will be if we have several more years of relative peace and quiet, so to speak.
TA: What’s on tap for the Free State Project currently?
Sorens: We just started a new ad campaign, and we have two conferences coming up this year. Basically, we’re starting to get our recruitment drive under way again. Things slowed down during the holidays, we had some leadership turnover, and membership growth hasn’t been what we’d like it to be for about the last three months. So we’re going to try and make a big media splash on a number of occasions, and get back in the national news, and start emphasizing that members are starting to move to New Hampshire, even though they don’t have to move until we get twenty thousand signatures.
We want to emphasize that there’s a place in New Hampshire for liberty-loving people, and even make it easy for members and potential members to visit New Hampshire, to visit members’ homes and see what these people are like. I think that will be a major initiative for the next three years, really, until we get to twenty thousand.
We’re at a gearing up stage right now, trying to re-gain some momentum and move to the next level. I think we will — we’ve had to do this before when we’ve lost momentum and we’ve always gotten it back stronger than ever. Our fundraising has gone well, so I think we may do a direct mail campaign, and ultimately we’re going to hire full-time employees, and that will really allow us to expend much more energy to move in the right direction.
TA: It's definitely an exciting project, and it sounds like it has a lot of potential to make a real difference. Even if these members weren’t activists, which they are, having twenty thousand liberty-minded people move to a small state could still make a difference, since cultural changes occur in people’s living rooms.
Sorens: Yes. People talk and people donate and people buy, and all those things over time really start to shift a culture. You see that in states today where you have significant migrations — Utah would obviously be a primary example, but Vermont too: a lot of liberals migrated there in the seventies, and it has changed significantly.
Also, it’s the sort of thing where, at the very least, you could say that success and failure are objectively defined. We’re not going to engage in some long march where we keep telling people to trudge onward despite one percent vote totals. We basically have a three-year time limit on getting to the number of signatures we want to get, and then five years after that for people to move. I think that’s attractive to people who do consider giving to an organization, that it has a good plan and objective methods of evaluation.
TA: What is the most exciting and meaningful aspect of the Free State Project for you?
Sorens: The most exciting aspect I think is that the current international economic and political situation presents us a window of opportunity. Despite the fact that globalization is not causing all government to reduce in size, it is opening up the opportunity for smaller government to reap significant economic rewards, and by the word "smaller" I don’t just mean governments that do less, but governments that are smaller in scope, that is, territorial scope — governments that have smaller populations that they’re ruling over.
I see the Free State Project possibly as the beginning of a move toward an outcome that some have termed neo-medievalism. That term can be a little misleading, but the idea is that ultimately, we’re going to have a world of small, trading city-states.
I don’t think it's an inevitable outcome — far from it; I think the other possible outcome is greater super-nationalism, or continental or even world governments.
Right now I think we are at a moment when things are hanging in the balance. And if we push toward the decentralization outcome, we may well achieve that — not only for America but for the rest of the world.
For more information, visit the Free State Project web site.