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Free State Project still going strong 10 years later

By MEGHAN PIERCE
Sunday News Correspondent

October 11. 2014 9:55PM

Free Staters, Emily Smith and Jodi Underwood by the piglet pen on Bardo Farm Friday afternoon. (Meghan Pierce/Union Leader Correspondent)

The Free State Project celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.

The project is a non-binding agreement among 20,000 like-minded people to move to New Hampshire in an effort to consolidate libertarian ideals in one U.S. state, and in doing so become a beacon of liberty for the nation and the world.

That's the idea, anyway.

Signatories agree to move to the Granite State within five years of the trigger point of getting 20,000 people to join the Free State movement.

At the 10-year mark, 16,086 people have signed on, still short of the magic 20,000.

But a little magic did already happen, with about 10 percent of those people having moved to New Hampshire. They didn't want to wait.

"I think some people thought there is no reason to wait. New Hampshire is already a pretty libertarian state compared to the rest of the country. And I and a lot of other people thought why not move there and take advantage of what New Hampshire has to offer," said Jason Sorens, who started the movement with an essay he wrote as a Yale graduate student in 2001.

Sorens, 37, of West Lebanon now teaches at Dartmouth College.

"I wrote the essay while I was a graduate student, and I proposed it as an idea that I thought would work, attracting libertarian activists to a single state in the country," Sorens said. "The state would become a model for the rest of the country."

After he wrote the essay, about 500 interested libertarians contacted him and the project took off.

Several states were considered. Eventually the Live Free or Die state won out as the ideal libertarian haven.

While some Free Staters have become known as activists or local politicians, most moved here quietly, buying homes, raising families and starting businesses. The movement attracted entrepreneurs as well as people who want to live off the grid and/or homeschool their children.

"There are a lot of people that move here and don't necessarily shout from the roof tops that they are Free Staters cause who wants that to be the first thing that people learn about you," Sorens said.

Bardo project

"I honestly don't ever advertise it," Jodi Underwood said. "Every Free Stater is completely different. The only thing you would know about me from it is I moved here to be near like-minded people," she said. "You don't know anything about me by knowing that. It seems like a weird label to have."

Underwood, 54, moved from a Philadelphia suburb to a 210-acre Croydon farm in 2007 with her husband Ian Underwood and another liberty-minded couple, Emily and Neil Smith.

The Smiths wanted to live off the grid, and the Underwoods wanted an adventure.

"We feel that life should be lived with principles and not by letting other people telling people what to do," Underwood said.

Underwood said she immediately knew she had found where she was meant to be.

"I always felt like a fish out of water" before she moved to New Hampshire "because I wasn't politically-correct."

Underwood works at home as a research scientist and software designer. She has also started the Bardo Project, a home and farm intern program for adults of all ages.

Bardo is a Tibetan word meaning "between lives," but on Underwood's farm it's about giving people a break between chapters in their lives so they can find new paths.

She cares about education and now heads the town school board.

She recently learned that just about everyone in Croydon was aware the couples are Free Staters. "I never knew that they knew that."

From the start, they felt welcome. It's a community where neighbors help neighbors, she said, and they fit right in.

And she isn't judged for being liberty-minded.

It's been a big learning adventure, she said.

Shire sharing

Amanda Bouldin, 29, founder of non-profit Shire Sharing, moved from Dallas to the Granite State in 2009 after becoming disenchanted with the Tea Party group she had joined.

"The reason that I moved is because I got fed up with the Tea Party in Dallas," she said, recounting the moment at a meeting, she was sitting with a group of older retired women and she voiced her support for gay marriage.

"I said something about gay marriage and they flipped their lids," Bouldin said. "I had always just assumed we had seen eye to eye about civil rights."

Libertarian minded, Bouldin also didn't fit in with Democrats either.

So she decided to join the Free State Project.

"For whatever reason I can't sit well with the Republican Party and I can't sit well with the Democratic Party, so basically, I ran for the hills," Bouldin said.

Bouldin now lives in Manchester, raising her 8-year-old daughter and working in child care.

In 2011, her father was diagnosed with cancer and within a few months he was gone. Since the time Bouldin was a child, her father would make and deliver food baskets to people in need on Thanksgiving Day.

She was saddened to think his work would not carry on in Dallas, but she decided to do what she could in her new home state.

She took on the name her father had always used, the Basket Brigade, and ended up delivering 52 baskets that first Thanksgiving.

"Every year we deliver Thanksgiving meals to people in need," she said.

A fellow Free Stater, Ian Freeman of Keene, made a comment early on that the name brigade sounded too militant, Bouldin said. Someone suggested Shire Sharing and it went from there.

Last Thanksgiving, Shire Sharing delivered 333 baskets with the help of 150 volunteers and private donations.

Organizations such as Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities connect Shire Sharing with a list of names and addresses and the baskets are tailored to the family, making considerations for family size as well as dietary or medical concerns.

Shire Sharing reflects her core beliefs, Bouldin said, and is a positive way to espouse her libertarian ideal that helping others should be voluntary and not mandated through taxation.

"I think a lot of libertarians are seen as cut-throat Darwinists, 'if you can't make it in this world too bad,'" Bouldin said.

That is not true, Bouldin said. Libertarians believe in voluntary charity - the true act of giving with no strings.

Though she doesn't support the government welfare system as it exists, she said she doesn't judge people who depend on it to survive.

"You're not going to find a libertarian that is going to support the current welfare system," Bouldin said. "Most libertarians are going to say they equate taxation with theft."

Aside from the tax issue, welfare has failed to pull people out of poverty, she said.

"Obliviously, people have a hard time getting off the welfare system once they are on it," she said.

For herself, when she hit hard times she lived on rice and beans and the charity of friends.

"I know people that are on welfare and I don't judge them for it," Bouldin said. "I would never fault anyone doing what they have to do to survive."

Free Staters are compassionate and believe in helping their neighbors, Bouldin said, but they don't think the government is the answer to problems like poverty or unemployment. Often the government has aggravated those issues by making people dependent on welfare and creating regulations that inhibit business, she said.

"A lot of people that are on welfare believe their lives will never change, will never improve," Bouldin said.

State politics

Democrat Timothy O'Flaherty, 35, of Manchester was elected a state representative in Ward 5 in 2012.

He joined the Free State Project and moved from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire in 2009, he said.

"I had a lot of frustration with national politics," O'Flaherty said. "I had no outlet. I had no way of expressing by dissent to the U.S. empire and its wars of aggression. A positive way of having an outlet was to move here."

Relator Mark Warden, 51, of Pinardville moved from Las Vegas, Nev., to New Hampshire in 2007 when the housing market in Las Vegas crashed. He is just finishing his second term as a Republican state representative.

"It was a good time to look around the country, and I thought New Hampshire with its nice climate and outdoor activities and safe environment was a good place for my new home. I checked it out and loved it here," Warden said.

From his realtor perspective, the early Free State immigrants have had a positive impact on the housing market of up to $50 million. They have been buying homes and businesses as well as building homes and businesses, he said.

Like other Free Staters, O'Flaherty and Warden said, living in New Hampshire means not being a sentinel in their beliefs.

"I think a lot of Free Staters find that they are alone, out in the wilderness in the other 49 states," Warden said.

"It has been almost therapeutic to come here. All that anger and angst I had against the U.S. I can now channel into positive action on a local level in New Hampshire," O'Flaherty said.

Both Warden and O'Flaherty are proud of sponsoring a bill that established the nano-brewery license, which allows small breweries to manufacture up to 2,000 barrels of beer or specialty beer annually.

O'Flaherty said he also sponsored a bill that passed decriminalizing adultery.

"I'm proud to say New Hampshire has one less crime on the books," he said.

O'Flaherty feels he is doing well given the dictates of government. "To a large degree I want to work within the system as much as possible to preserve liberty," he said.

Warden is a small l libertarian, meaning that while he believes in reducing the size and scope of government and expanding personal freedom and responsibility, he is not a member of the Libertarian Party.

"I think government has become too big and too unaffordable and too controlling of people lives," Warden said.

O'Flaherty said his voting record is moderate, voting with Republicans and Democrats about 50 percent of the time.

"I'm voting with Republicans mostly on bills that are fiscal related, bills that would expand taxes and then on social issues with the Democrats voting against restrictions on abortions related bills," O'Flaherty said.

"In the State House, for whatever reason, I've heard, 'uh it's the Free Stater,' mumbled under the breath. I think I am a little bit despised, especially because of my irreverence of the state government," he said.

New Hampshire is unique in how representative its state government is to its people, he said, but added, "I think it's foolish to think we couldn't do better."

O'Flaherty said he supports alternatives to governance. "We need to look toward building alternative institutions. We need to develop institutions based on volunteer cooperative means."

Right now, though, working within the system is the best way to support and expand liberty, he said.

Bitcoin brothers

Brothers and entrepreneurs Zach and Josh Harvey of Manchester founded Lamassu, Inc. after moving to New Hampshire because of the Free State Project.

Lamassu makes and sells bitcoin ATMS around the world. Bitcoin is an online currency.

"In the same way the Internet enables free access to information no matter where you are as long as you have a connection, bitcoin does that with currency," Zach Harvey said.

Harvey, 35, was born in Washington D.C., but had lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, from the age of seven on.

The Harveys were frustrated entrepreneurs in Israel, he said. There was always some fee or fine that prevented them from getting their ideas off the ground.

He and his brother moved to Manchester in 2011.

"We were looking for places that were less restrictive in terms of taxes and bureaucracies are concerned," Harvey said. "It's a breath of fresh air to arrive somewhere where there are a lot lower taxes and the government is not always in your face."

After moving they became part of a bitcoin meeting group and through discussions with other groups and other Free Staters came up with the idea for bitcoin ATMS.

"We definitely have the Free State Project to thank for kind of getting this started," Harvey said. "Being around people that support your ideas, that are kind of shooting for the same things, is extremely helpful."

Free Keene

Ian Freeman, 34, moved from his hometown of Sarasota, Fla., to Keene in 2006 because he felt the libertarian group he was a part of in Florida wasn't having enough of an impact.

He chose Keene because it already had a reputation for activism and street theater that he wanted to be a part of, he said.

"It was one of the best decisions I have made in my life," he said.

After moving to Keene he founded the blog Free Keene to create a news outlet for news about activism in Keene. He also hosts a talk show "Free Talk Live", an internationally syndicated talk show on 160-plus radio stations and the Internet.

Freeman does not object to working within the system. He has testified in Concord on the issue of legalization of marijuana and run for Keene City Council, most recently he ran as a Democratic candidate for governor in the primary against incumbent Maggie Hassan, but it is his activism in Keene that gets the news coverage, he said.

He is named with five other Keene activists in in the city lawsuit against Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The activists are accused by the city of harassing city parking enforcing officers. Robin Hooders say they try to fill empty parking meters before tickets can be issued and videotape and talk to the parking enforcers while doing so.

Freeman was also recently convicted on the charges of unsworn falsifications and prohibitions. Keene police arrested Freeman after he applied for a driver's license under his given name Ian Bernard last November. Freeman refers to the incident on Free Keene as a "paperwork snafu," for which he is facing up to two years in jail.

Freeman said he is not surprised he is being targeted by police because of his work as an activist.

"They didn't even offer me a plea deal on that," he said. "It does seem like they are trying to nail me to the wall for this one. . When you are disobedient to the state they really like to go after you with gusto."

In 2011 he served 58 days in jail for a 90-day sentence for civil disobedience. He stood in front of a police cruiser during a protest, he said. While in jail he met inmates serving less than a month for drunk driving offenses.

"The real crime in America is committing civil disobedience. They punished me harder than someone that really could have hurt someone," Freeman said. "I'd like to know what somebody who really is charged with fraud really gets and what I get next week when I'm sentenced."

In another court case, as a minister of the Shire Free Church: Monadnock, Freeman and three other ministers say they are being discriminated against because of their activism.

"I expect the targeting to happen because that's just what they do. I consider the government to be a criminal enterprise," Freeman said. "If you are an activist and you stick you head above the water they target you. Comes with the territory."

Freeman said he has his critics, but also many supporters. Robin Hooding continues to this day because of the community support, he said.

"We get people thanking the Robin Hood people. Giving us money, giving us hugs, sending us cards, sending donations, cutting checks, the response overall is very positive," Freeman said.

Not in lockstep

Not all Free Staters agree on everything.

What brings them together is the belief that the government should be limited to protecting citizens' rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Freeman said.

Freeman said he wouldn't have a problem with police if they only focused on actual criminals and not victimless crimes, such as drug use or open container violations.

"Leave peaceful people alone and go after the bad guys and then we'll have a pretty nice society," Freeman said.

Other Free Staters say it's incorrect to tie them to another Free Stater's actions.

"We all want the same thing even though we don't have the same idea of how to go about it," Bouldin said when asked about Free Keene.

"I would say Free Keene represents about one percent of the Free State Project and I disagree with some of the things they do, but I'm not going to fight with them," Sorens said. "That's Keene and that's a different kettle of fish."

Free Staters are a diverse bunch, from all walks of life, Sorens said.

From anarchists to moderate libertarians "We get the whole gamut of the people," Sorens said.

Life in the Shire

The Shire is the name of a fictional place in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" books. The Shire is an idyllic, peaceful village where the hobbits live. Bouldin had never read or seen any of "The Lord of the Rings" books so she does not fully understand the reference, she said. But said Tolkien's work does reflect something true about Free Staters, which is that most of them are nerds, more specifically computer nerds, she said.

Harvey said from what he understands, the Shire is simply short for New Hampshire. Regardless, it's what many Free Staters call their new home.

"New Hampshire was chosen because it's so great. It really is a wonderful place and the people here are a special and hearty bunch," Freeman said.

Walk down the street and people smile and say hello or strike up a conversation, Freeman said.

Lifelong New Hampshire residents might take the state for granted, Freeman said. "Considering how cold it can get here, it's awfully warm, how people treat each other."

"I really enjoy having four seasons," Bouldin said. "The colors here just blow my mind, it's just a beautiful place to live and I think living in a really beautiful place makes you happier."

The biggest blessing that came from moving to New Hampshire have been the friends she's made, Bouldin said.

New Hampshire has a small-town feel, Bouldin said. "It just seems that everybody knows everybody."

Warden said he came for the economy, but loves the outdoors.

"I looked at it as an economic opportunity. I did like the idea of the Live Free or Die spirit out here and thought it was a good place for me. I read that taxes were relatively low here and that it was a safe, healthy place to live."

He enjoys hiking and skiing so it was a natural fit.

"The quality of life is extremely high. People are very courteous and friendly and one of the things that has surprised me are the local politics and how accessible they are," Harvey said.

Citizen concerns

When the Concord Police Department applied for a Homeland Security Grant in 2012 for a Lenco BEARCAT the application said, "Groups such as the Sovereign Citizens, Free Staters and Occupy New Hampshire" as active and present daily challenges. In addition to organized groups, it cited "several homegrown clusters that are anti-government and pose problems for law enforcement agencies."

Free Staters say there are misconceptions about them, that they are violent or dangerous. But they say they espouse peace.

"Really what we do, we're good neighbors, we start businesses and participate in our communities and we aren't a danger to anyone," O'Flaherty said. "We're just ordinary people that are committed to our ideas."

Every group has their nut jobs, Bouldin said, "I don't know why people focus on the libertarian nut jobs."

People in the Free State Project are often pegged as gun nuts, Bouldin said, "In reality they are all just nerds."

Free Staters are educated and enterprising people, Warden said.

"Most people I speak to don't even know about the Free State Project," Warden said. "It's mainly the political class that knows about it. Those on the side of liberty are thrilled with people moving in and those who believe in centralized authority are not so thrilled."

"The Free State Project is just an extremely ambitious and intelligent group of people who are fun to be around," Harvey said.

Nothing new

People have been moving to New Hampshire for decades because of the level of personal liberties, the Free Staters say. This is just a more concerted effort.

Massachusetts people come for the lower taxes. A lot of New York or New Jersey residents come for the less restrictive guns laws.

"New Hampshire is a natural destination for them," Warden said.

"New Hampshire to some extent with its Live Free or Die slogan has been attracting people for decades. We're just taking that idea and doing a better job of promoting it," Freeman said. "The Free State Project exists to back-up the people in New Hampshire that love freedom."

The goal

"We are seeing more movers and I think that more people are realizing this is a sound strategy," said current Free State Project president Carla Gericke

Gericke, 42, of Manchester is originally from South Africa.

She moved from Silicon Valley to New Hampshire with her husband in 2008 after the technology bubble burst.

After living through the boom and bust, she began to study economics and learned about free market views on economics.

"More decentralization gives you more prosperity and the more centralized control, the worse off you are," she said. "I started to become curious about the business cycle and why that happened and found the Free State Project through the rabbit hole that is the Internet."

New Hampshire is a great place to raise a family, the economy is good, the taxes and unemployment are low, it has one of the lowest crime rates in the country and is considered one of the healthiest states, she said.

While Gericke said she doesn't track the reason why people sign up, she has found that most people tend to be adamantly anti-war.

"I think there is a mass disappointment, even among Democrats, now that we're in seven undeclared wars," she said.

Gericke said she is contacted regularly by groups that want the Free State Project's political support or endorsement in some way.

But the Free State Project is not a political party, group or movement. The entire point is individualism, she said.

"It's really a cultural movement, not a political movement," Warden said. "It's liberty-mind people moving into New Hampshire and keeping this state awesome."

When the goal of 20,000 signers is reached the project ends.

"My job is just to attract and find signers," Gericke said. "Once they come here, they as individuals do as they want for better or worse."

The trigger

"We're very close. The sign-up rate has increased a lot over the past two years, and we're hoping and planning to reach our 20,000 goal by the end of 2015," Soren said. "We're very happy with how things are going right now."

Does that mean all 20,000 signers will actual show up? No, Free Staters say.

"We don't expect everyone who signed up to follow through on the move, because circumstances change. I predict about 8,000 people will move, based on a program we had a few years ago called the "First 1000." One thousand people agreed to move by the end of 2008, and of those who signed up, about 400 actually did move. So I expect about 40 percent to follow-through," Sorens said.

"There's no way 20,000 will move here. Some of those folks are dead. I know that for a fact. Some of them have moved here and died and others have died before they moved," Freeman said. "Some people might have forgotten that they signed up. I would say of the 20,000, shot in the dark, 10,000 will show up."

Warden said, "I expect only a fraction of the 20,000 to move, "I think if we only had 5,000 move, it would be fabulous. It would be the best thing for New Hampshire."

The early movers have already had a huge positive impact on the state economy, Warden said.

There has been a recent influx into the movement and the demographics of the movement are shifting, attracting more women and younger people, Sorens said. "I think we are seeing a libertarian moment nationally."

This is because of the early movers, Freeman said, "It's because of the early movers having success here. We have proved that concentration of activism in one place is viable."

Maybe that wasn't the plan for the Free State Project, but it's a positive development, Harvey said.

"I do think the important part is people are actually moving now, which wasn't part of the original plan. I like the ways things are now. Things are ramping up slowly," Harvey said. "I'm personally more excited about what is happening now."

To educate people about the Free State Project and dispel misconceptions Sorens is planning a series of town hall meetings across the state.

While Free Staters hold several informal gathering throughout the year, the project has two official events, The Porcupine Freedom Festival and The Liberty Forum. The events are great ways for people interested in the project to learn more.

The Free State Project website says it is looking for "liberty-loving people" who are neighborly, productive, tolerant folks from any and all walks of life, of all ages, creeds, and colors, who agree that government exists at most to protect people's rights. "Anyone who promotes violence, racial hatred, or bigotry is not welcome."

The Free State Project is located online at freestateproject.org

mpierce@newstote.com


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