Live Free or Move
Hanging out with the young kids who want to turn New Hampshire into a libertarian paradise.
KEENE, N.H.—My first interview with the city's antigovernment activists is happening in an RV that, technically at least, is breaking the law. The RV houses the "Liberty on Tour" project and often parks in Keene, and today, as it's been for many days, it's parked next to the home of Free Keene co-founder Ian Freeman. "The city doesn't allow RVs to park like this," says Freeman. "But they require a complaining party, and no one in the neighborhood is complaining. Now, theoretically, anyone from the city could complain. They know what's going to happen if they do. We're going to make a big deal about it. We're going to go to jail."
That's not boasting. That's what Free Keene does. This city is one of the epicenters of the Free State Project, the decade-old effort to build a libertarian beachhead of 20,000 like-minded souls in New Hampshire. So far, 909 people have fulfilled the pledge and moved to the state, and around 50—Freeman thinks—currently live in Keene. (These people are serious about privacy.)
That number undersells the impact this city and these activists have on their movement. Freeman's FreeKeene.com is a catalog of arrests, protests, and inspiring interviews, most of them in Keene. This is where one activist, Pete Eyre, spent days in jail for wearing a hat in a public hearing, and another activist, Heika Courser, was arrested for displaying her breasts after an artist painted them. The magician/TV star/libertarian celebrity Penn Jillette has mused wistfully about moving to Keene, and it didn't take long for his endorsement to get printed on Free Keene's fliers, below one of the slogans:
"Is liberty dying where you live? Escape to Keene!"
It'd be asking a lot to get 909 libertarians to agree about something. Before I drove to Keene, I asked a few other Free Staters, closer to Manchester, what they thought of the little city out west.
"If you move to Manchester or Concord you're probably interested in politics," said Kirk McNeil, a Free Stater who moved from Michigan in 2009. "If you move to Keene you probably want to do some civil disobedience."
It took a while for the political press to decide what to make of the Free Staters. In 2007, when they were even smaller in number, they started to be looked at as a source of strength for Ron Paul's presidential campaign. In 2009, as the Tea Party movement got under way, reporters discovered that the FSP and its annual PorcFest (the porcupine is the mascot of the project) offered this stuff in its concentrated form. In 2011, people noticed that Free Staters had been elected to the New Hampshire legislature and were introducing bills to decriminalize marijuana and classify TSA groping as sexual assault. They soon received the ultimate honor—being attacked by progressive groups as a "radical right" and Koch-connected plot.
In Keene, the "Koch-connected"* right-wingers are mostly interested in breaking behavior laws and seeing if anyone raises a fuss about it. Freeman does not pay federal taxes and hasn't for years. He pays local property taxes, and water bills, as does the co-host of his radio show, Mark Edge.
"Those revenues," says Edge, "are a lot less likely to be used to buy weapons to kill brown people."
There's some variety in how far people here are willing to take disobedience. Eyre, for example, doesn't have a phone. "My phone was among the property stolen by individuals wearing Manchester PD badges the weekend before last," he wrote in an e-mail. Was he robbed by a bunch of thugs pretending to be police officers? No. They were cops. He just doesn't recognize their authority. Cops are "individuals." Jails are "cages." Arrest is "kidnapping." Eyre refers to the place around Keene as "the Shire," not New Hampshire. He, and a lot of the people in the movement, are not just libertarians, but "voluntaryists," an ideology with a history of its own. (They point out that Ron Paul called himself one in an interview recently.) The lexicon matters.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Keene Action Center bookshelf and Ademo Mueller and Ian Freeman by David Weigel. Photograph of New Hampshire by iStockphoto.