Plans are underway for an invasion of New Hampshire. Or Wyoming. Or maybe Delaware, Montana or Alaska. Sparsely populated and independent in spirit, they're all attractive targets for a certain bloodless coup in the making.
Within the next several years, according to the plan, 20,000 Libertarians would move to a single state and begin infiltrating. They would get jobs, join civic groups, get elected and take a hatchet to taxes and laws. In this utopia called the Free State Project, schools would be severed from the state, gun-control laws abolished, drugs legalized, health and social services privatized, most federal aid rejected. Government's only job would be to protect against "force and fraud."
"The Libertarian movement has existed for decades and produced leading intellectuals and Nobel Prize winners, but despite all that it hasn't had much influence on a national level," says Free State Project founder Jason Sorens. "I think it's time we concentrate our resources in a place where we have a shot at actually winning."
Anyone looking for traces of nuttiness will be disappointed by this 26-year-old Yale doctoral student who speaks in understatements and appears archetypically collegiate. He recently finished his dissertation, a study of secessionist parties in several advanced democracies. When he is not working on a model society that he hopes will be imitated around the world, he is looking for a job as a political science professor.
A Libertarian since his teen-age years in Houston, Sorens floated his idea in a July 2001 article in the online journal Libertarian Enterprise. The Internet worked its magic and Libertarians across the country began pledging to move - 2,600 of them. The drill goes like this: Once the figure reaches 5,000, participants vote on their state of choice from a list of 10, selected because they have fewer than 1.5 million residents (easier to sway elections that way), a promising job market, a culture deemed "pro-liberty" and low reliance on federal aid.
Once 20,000 have signed on - Sorens expects this by about 2005 - the migration begins. By 2010, Sorens says, the group should be ready to start influencing policy, first as "foot soldiers" to the Libertarians already living in the state and then by running for local and state office. The next goal is to gain control of the state legislature. On a national level, the state's U.S. senators and representatives would sell their votes on matters of less importance for support on the ones key to the state's Libertarian cause.
Using a "beachhead strategy," Sorens told a gathering of 17 Libertarians in College Park recently, "we may be able to breathe free air in our lifetime."
Libertarian parties in New Hampshire and Maine have endorsed the movement, and both are lobbying the Free State Project to move to their states.
New Hampshire, with no state income or sales tax, a strong conservative voting base and a "Live Free or Die" motto, offers obvious appeal - along with port access, which eases international trade and diplomatic bonding with other countries.
Maine, teeming with small businesses, has a famously independent streak, says Geoffrey Keller, 40, a real estate agent in Dayton, Maine, and vice chairman of that state's Libertarian Party. "Most of the people in Maine, even though they don't know it, are Libertarian ilk," he says. "They believe in taking care of themselves."
But not all the reaction has been welcoming. Some are worried about newcomers moving in en masse, Sorens says. "One fellow from Montana threatened to get together a posse and do nasty things to us," he says.
From the left end of the ideological spectrum, Jane Scease, a Green Party steering committee member and selectman in Topsham, Maine, says a settlement of Libertarians would be good for the Greens, who often get blamed for robbing votes from Democratic candidates and thus handing the election to Republicans. Another party on the right, she says, "would even things out."
"As long as they were sensitive to the Maine people, I don't know why they wouldn't have success," she says. On the other hand, she adds, "we have some rules and government, and we kind of like it that way. And of course taxes, because you have to have money."
Other states under consideration include Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont. Of all the states, Alaska probably offers the most - plenty of land and oil and a strong Libertarian Party - but getting people to move there might be a tough sell, Sorens says.
Delaware is often noted as a logical choice because of its easy access to jobs, mushy politics and proximity to Washington. But Joseph Pika, a University of Delaware political science professor, says the state's middle-of-the-road politics and strong support for incumbents give the movement a slim chance.
"I think they're misreading Delaware politics," he says. "Libertarian candidates have not picked up significant support in any election ... I think this is a harebrained idea."
Libertarians tried to stage a migration once before. In the late 1980s, Mary Margaret Glennie tried to bring 1,000 Libertarians to Fort Collins, Colo., where she lived. When that didn't work, Glennie came up with the idea of a Libertarian space colony.
Over the years, religious sects have moved to particular communities and made them political bases, says Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, noting for example the Scientologists in Clearwater, Fla. The only migration comparable in scope to the Libertarians' current idea was the Mormon trek to the Utah territory in the 19th century, he says. "The Mormons succeeded in making Utah a quasi-independent entity under their control for several decades."
Who are the men and women of the Free State Project? Well, they are mostly men - probably a 70/30 split, Sorens says. Many are in their 20s and 30s, and a fair number are retirees. Professionally, the group is heavy into technology - lots of computer geeks, as well as small business owners. A number of foreigners have expressed interest in moving to the chosen state, and the project would welcome them, Sorens says.
"Yeah, if the government lets them," someone sneered.
Tom Desabla, 42, of Silver Spring, says he was ready to move - yesterday. The cemetery plot salesman says the federal government's chronic encroachment on the Bill of Rights has spelled disaster for the country.
He blames gun-control laws for the Sept. 11 attacks, arguing that if passengers routinely carried firearms, the hijackers wouldn't even have tried to take over the planes. He thinks the Libertarians need to move to a coastal state, or one that borders Canada, like Montana, so that opposing forces in neighboring states can't cut off their transportation system.
"This thing is not going to go down like a spoonful of sugar," he says. "But this is our last chance to save the Republic."
Nixi C. Chesnavich, 24, who works for an Internet start-up company in Pittsburgh, is ready to move anywhere, as long as she doesn't have to live her life watching the Constitution get trampled. "People can have their liberty taken away for burning a plant," she says, referring to marijuana. "I'm moving for an idea. I understand how crazy that sounds. But people moving for their ideas is what founded this country."