Ready to vote with their feet

October 01, 2003

THIS CENTURY'S first potential large-scale political experiment takes its next baby-step today. The 5,400-some folks in the Free State Project will find out which of 10 low-population U.S. states their majority picked to conquer by persuasion. If the Free Staters can swell their ranks to more than 20,000 by 2006, all have pledged to move in (but not live together) across the favored state by 2011.

The goal for this small-government-loving cadre is classically American: to get their voices heard by tipping the political scales in their favor. Active and activist members across the chosen state would support like-minded candidates for the legislature. Their candidates wouldn't win, though, without the backing of many of the natives. Their expected tactics would be less like an invasion and more like a revival meeting.

This yearning for a place of one's own is eternal. Pilgrims tried to set up their own utopia in the 17th century, as did Mormons in the 19th. Just 30 years ago, Vermont attracted scores of back-to-the-soil types.

The message, too, is classic. Free Staters base their creed - to promote "a society in which the maximum role of civil government is the protection of life, liberty and property" - on the theory and phrasing of 17th century constitutionalist John Locke.

The postmodern twist is the composition of the faithful, and how they heard the call. People leading the movement live in Connecticut, Michigan and Nevada; the best-represented states among the signatories are California and Florida. The message came to most of them via the Web musings of then-grad student Jason P. Sorens in 2000, and was debated and refined via chat rooms and e-mail - and at e-speed.

Of course, there are a boatload of ifs. Would the cerebral, chatty East Coast contingent really pack up and head to Wyoming, should it win - or could taciturn, open-sky Westerners face hunkering down in New Hampshire?

Free Staters - many of them Libertarians -want to slash government and repeal laws that punish nonthreatening behavior, but the specifics are fuzzy. The nonprofit project will not set up a political platform; the plan is to leave it to the immigrants. But if 20,000 "rugged individualists" do move in somewhere, would they really be able to agree on everything? Plus, the states on the chosen list may be "liberty-friendly," but it's not clear how persuadable the locals would be.

Still, it's heartening that those so dissatisfied with this country's politics believe they can work within the system to change it. Perhaps more will be inspired to participate in their country's business by watching these practical idealists try to seed a state.

Clarification

An editorial in Tuesday's Sun should have stated that Israel wants to retain Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

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