Frustrated by the Libertarian Party’s failure to make progress nationally, Jason Sorens GRD ’04 decided the best course of action would be to take over Wyoming. Or maybe Alaska.
The plan, which Sorens calls “The Free State Project,” is ambitious. It calls for moving 20,000 people — including the one additional Yalie who has signed on so far — over the next nine years to a sparsely populated state where they would take to the ballot boxes in order to repeal most drug and gun laws, eliminate the income tax, and privatize most government-run industries.
So in July 2001, he posted an essay on the project on the Internet. Within a few days, he had over 200 e-mails from people who were interested.
“The response was positively overwhelming,” he said.
Sorens said he began thinking about how to change the Libertarian Party’s progress after the 2000 presidential election.
“It became clear that national level politics weren’t going to work anymore,” he said.
Concentrating on state politics seemed the best solution, he said. Sorens then set September 2004 as a target date to have 5,000 people committed to the project. At that point, members will vote on the state, choosing between 10 states preselected by Sorens and his staff.
The top four in contention, according to the group’s Web site, are Wyoming, New Hampshire, Delaware and Alaska. In selecting states, they looked for states with populations small enough that 20,000 people could make a difference and for states with a history of pro-liberty or Libertarian leanings.
They hope to have 20,000 committed to moving by September 2006.
At that point, if everything goes as planned, participants will work to reduce government size by two-thirds or more, though specific means for achieving this have not been developed yet, he said.
“Strategies for achieving our goals will depend on the chosen state,” Sorens said.Ê”We’ll work with groups already there and fill in the gaps.ÊIf they need a think tank, we’ll create a think tank.”
But some are skeptical about the group’s potential to make reforms. Political science professor David Mayhew said he doubts any group of that size is large enough to make a difference, even in Wyoming — the nation’s smallest state, with a population of just 493,782, according to the 2000 census.
“I say good luck,” he said. “20,000 people is not that many. When 20,000 people move in and try to do something different, the 400,000 already there will blanche at it. They could get into trouble looking like interlopers.”
But Sorens said the group wants to work with the state and bring reform about gradually. Although some group members have suggested ideas as radical as secession, Sorens said the majority of group members would oppose it.
“Most people are just looking for some sort of autonomy,” he said. “Full independence is a bit outmoded in this interdependent world.”
The making of a libertarian
Sorens, who has always been interested in politics, said he came to Yale to pursue academia.
“When I came to Yale I had planned to leave all this activism behind and concentrate on ideas,” he said. “The Free State Project is certainly not something in my nature, that I was planning on.”
He attended Washington and Lee University as an undergraduate, where he said the conflict between the ultraconservative student body and the liberal faculty created a tension that influenced his politics.In response, he founded a campus libertarian group.
“We put up posters that said, ‘Democrats are Socialist. Republicans are Fascist,'” he said. “That’s not the kind of thing I’d do now, but that’s what we did.ÊThe student body was very conservative in a fairly apathetic and academic way. The staid, apolitical nature of campus encouraged me to be a little more radical.”
Graduate school made his politics more moderate, he said. As a doctoral candidate in Yale’s Political Science Department, he is currently working on his thesis on the political economy of secession.
The next move
Sorens said the Free State Project is currently focusing on reaching the goal of 5,000 people. Members are using press releases, advertising, and a Web site to attract participants, particularly college students. But after an initial peak in interest, recruitment has slowed.
“A lot of people take a long time to decide, which is good,” he said. “We only want people to sign up if they’re really committed.”
David Barnes ’03 is the sole Yale undergraduate to commit to the Free State Project so far and said he intends to move with the group in 2006.
“For college students who don’t have any specific plans, it’s a great opportunity,” said Barnes, the president of the Yale College Libertarians. “If you’re just starting out and don’t have ties to any specific place, you’d want to go somewhere where the government’s not going to interfere with your life.”
Otherwise, student reaction to the idea is mixed, he said.
“Some people thought it was kind of weird to say ‘I’m going to pick up and move to wherever just because it’s a free place to live,'” he said.Ê”Some people are worried about certain states. As nice as it would be if Alaska was the freest place in the U.S., do you really want to move to Alaska?”
For about half of the 1,500 signed up so far, the answer to that question is “no.” Participants have the option to indicate certain states to which they would be unwilling to move, and roughly half the participants have said they would not move to Alaska, Sorens said.ÊThat half, in fact, happens to include his wife.
“She doesn’t want to move to Alaska,” Sorens said. “If Alaska’s chosen, I guess I won’t be going.”