Give them libertarianism, and a moving van

For 4,800 people seeking a bastion of hands-off rule, the most alluring state has the motto 'Live Free or Die.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It wasn't just the cheap rent and quiet living that convinced Justin Somma to move from the suburbs of New York City to the southwestern corner of New Hampshire last month.

Equally appealing to this libertarian-minded 20-something is his new state's lack of an income tax or even a motorcycle-helmet law.

Mr. Somma's migration is just the first of many encouraged by the Free State Project (FSP), which has set out to flood New Hampshire with 20,000 people bent on shrinking government. This month, FSP members chose the "Live Free or Die" state as their destination in an online vote.

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They don't lack ambition: Not since the Mormons moved west and Utopians built communities in the 19th century has a single group attempted a migration of this scale. Their goal: Use a concentrated presence to make one of the nation's most fiscally conservative and small-government minded states even more so.

How many FSP members actually make the move - and how much influence they exert once they arrive - is far from clear. But few here are surprised that their state beat out its New England neighbors and western competitors, given New Hampshire's frugality, "live and let live" social policies and tradition of local rule.

"The appeal is almost obvious," says B. Thomas Schuman, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "New Hampshire has a tradition of low-tax, low-service politics and government, and their hatred of broad-based taxation is fairly legendary."

Birth of an idea, rise of a movement

At first glance, the other northern New England contenders might seem appealing, too. Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire share the "live and let live" attitude that puts privacy first in social policies such as gay rights or abortion, says Dartmouth College professor Richard Winters.

Yet what libertarian wouldn't prefer a state where legislators take such pride in their own thrift that they haven't raised their $100 annual salaries since 1889?

Sure, Wyoming and Idaho residents may mistrust government more than most New Englanders. But New Hampshire's small size has forced citizens since the Revolutionary War to work together.

The byproduct is perhaps the nation's most accessible government, with local rule by town meeting and a 400-person House, the largest in the country. Plus, as home to the nation's first presidential primary, New Hampshire offers greater national visibility than any prairie state.

If those criteria sound too fuzzy, the FSP conducted statistical regression analysis of each of the 10 nominees - based on factors such as tax burden, dependence on federal dollars, projected job growth, and crime rates.

That academic approach isn't surprising for a political movement born in a Yale graduate student's online journal article. The author, Jason Sorens, argued "liberty-oriented people" could have the biggest impact by concentrating in a single state. Once there, they could work to roll back gun-control laws and drug prohibitions.

His message struck a chord with 4,800 people who've signed on to relocate to New Hampshire - though only a handful have actually moved. The group hopes to recruit an additional 15,000 people by 2006, at which point members will have five years in which to relocate to the state.

Somma didn't even wait for the vote before moving to New Hampshire. New York's high taxes and cost of living had convinced him and his wife, who both work in publishing, to move. He liked what he read about New Hampshire on the FSP website and was excited about an alternative to the two-party system.

"I like seeing somebody who isn't owned by the two big names," he says. His wife was more drawn to New Hampshire's camping, hiking, and proximity to their families in New York.

Within a month, they'd settled in Keene, a college town and the rare liberal outpost in New Hampshire where a "Dennis Kucinich for President" banner hangs and a hemp-clothing store sits right off Main Street.

After migration, an action plan

In many ways, Somma is a typical New Hampshire transplant. Just as liberal migrants reinforce Maine and Vermont's political cultures, more conservative types have tended to make New Hampshire more conservative.

Observers say that pattern may make it hard for FSP members to distinguish themselves in a state where the dominant Republican Party already looks like what libertarians might advocate elsewhere.

The Democratic Party hasn't been much of a presence here since the Civil War. And an antitax platform has been a GOP staple here for half a century - a view loudly reinforced by the state's leading conservative voice, the Manchester Union Leader newspaper.

"I'm somewhat dubious about how much different this might be from what we already have," says Professor Schuman.

The New Hampshire Libertarian Party could certainly use a boost. Their candidate for governor got just 13,028 last November and the number of Libertarians in the legislature have fallen from three to zero.

Here in Keene, at Lindy's Diner, where President Bush cooked up a hamburger on a campaign stop four years ago, waitress Denise Vachon says she never even heard of the Libertarians before their gubernatorial candidate showed up last year.

Mr. Sorens stresses FSP members are not just libertarians - that the group attracts people of any - or no - ideological stripe.

The group has received a mixed reception from New Hampshire's political establishment. Republican Gov. Craig Benson welcomed the group during a June picnic and released an enthusiastic press release after they picked New Hampshire. A Concord Monitor editorial labeled them nothing more than an "amusing curiosity."

Free State Project leaders say they realize that even 20,000 newcomers can't, by themselves, take over politics in a state of 1.3 million people. Instead, FSP organizers envision participants as a core of activists and volunteers, who will join the Lions Club or push for more private-school options long before they ever run for elected office.

Somma has already sat through his first three-hour city council committee debate on Keene's parkland and is helping a fellow FSP member run for the city council.

Still, he says he has a more immediate concern than politics. The Brooklyn native is adjusting to the slower pace of life. And then there's the weather "It's getting cold," he says.

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