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Among the free-state faithful in New Hampshire: ‘We win even more’

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Holding a stuffed mascot of the Free State Project, the porcupine, Evan Nappen poses with his family Tuesday, Nov. …

There is this curious optimism among the Free Staters of New Hampshire -- "that interesting state that makes Vermont nervous," as a man who boasted of buying his used Dodge Caravan with a gold Kruggerand put it to me this week at an Iowa caucus-watching party in a Manchester bar.

Most of his comrades had by this time left the bar before the Iowa tally was final. Their man Ron Paul was down in the returns after successive strong showings in the Iowa polls, but as they got into their cars--unbuckled if they wanted to be, since New Hampshire is the only state with no mandatory seat belt law for adults, which is reason number 5 on the Free State Project's "101 Reasons to Move to New Hampshire" -- they felt very fine about the caucuses. "If Ron wins," said Edge, a fiftyish man in a black vest over a black fleece, a Free State refugee from what he saw as the big government of Rick Perry's Texas, "well, we win, of course. But if he doesn't win, we might win even more, since more people will move here."

Indeed, the Free Staters I spent the evening with were more optimistic than win-win. They'd jumped the gun, moving to New Hampshire from all over the country to begin the work of building a new society ahead of the Free State Project's "trigger" of 20,000 signatories to the Project's "Statement of Intent": "I hereby state my solemn intent to move to the state of New Hampshire. Once there, I will exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of civil government is the protection of life, liberty, and property."

The project was born in 2001, when a Yale grad student named Jason Sorens, disillusioned with libertarian electoral failures, issued a call for libertarians to choose a state small enough that an influx of 20,000 activists could effectively take over the political process. They held a vote and New Hampshire won, edging out Wyoming. Sorens predicted they'd hit the 20,000 trigger -- at which point signatories were expected to move -- by 2006. There are about 11,000 signatories today, but more than 1,000 Free Staters couldn't wait, so they came early.

Curtis Fenimore is one of the early arrivals. He's 30 years old with a rangy neck and  a boyish shock of dark hair. When he turned 30, he gave up identification, so Vinnie, a long haired "capitalist anarchist" who knew the waitress, had to vouch for him as someone old enough to order a beer.  Vinnie has been a Free Stater since 2009, when he came from Miami for the Free State Porc Fest. "Porc" is short for porcupine, the mascot the movement prefers to the menacing snake of the libertarian movement's iconic"Don't Tread on Me" flags. Curtis came in 2009, too, from North Carolina, and last year he organized the biggest Porc Fest yet,  with close to 900 campers committed, as he put it, "to the 'libertine' in 'liberty.'"

Curtis sits with his back to the TV showing the incoming Iowa results on MSNBC. Vinnie has them covered on his iPad. Everyone at the table, 10 or so porcupines, supports Paul. Curtis spent had two months in New Hampshire in 2007 campaigning for the Texas congressman. "I come from a background in door to door sales," he tells me later that evening at his apartment, "so I felt it was my duty to use my skills to help Ron Paul. I was naïve. I thought he might win! I thought, 'He inspired me, so why wouldn't he inspire other people?' And I've got this skill, so I gotta use it for good. The whole Spiderman argument."

"What kind of sales were you in?" I asked.

"Frozen meat." He smiles. He knows how that sounds. His employer gave him a small truck — "not even an F150. Like a Nissan." — in which he carted 500 lbs. of frozen meat around rural North Carolina. "I'd knock on doors and say, 'Would you be interested in some steak?'" And people bought it. Mostly, he said, "on impulse."

"Or because you have an excellent salesman," said his girlfriend, Robin. Robin, 28 and recently divorced, a maker of clothing she sells at jam band festivals, is taking advantage of New Hampshire's loose regulations on name changes to rebrand herself Robin Freiheit--German for "freedom." She was delighted when I told her it was also the name of a long-running anarchist Yiddish journal. Free Staters tend to take pleasure in esoteric details. For instance: Did you know that concrete is responsible for much of the world's CO2? Or that FDR was against government sector unions? Or that the price of gas tends to go down during election years?

Like Curtis, Robin isn't voting, even though she refers to Paul as the "gateway drug" that transformed her from a left anarchist ("I used to be like, 'I wanna Robin Hood all these mother***ers'") into a "propertarian" in the tradition of anarcho-capitalist philosopher Murray Rothbard, who argued that property — including one's body — is the basis for a free society. "It's not about who's president," Curtis said, in explaining their abstention, which they share with about half the table. "It's about winning hearts and minds. I love Ron Paul, because Ron Paul makes my job easier." Technically, Curtis is unemployed, but his job, he said, is winning new recruits for the future Free State of New Hampshire.

What would that society look like? "It's us," said Curtis, gesturing at the long tableful of anarchists and Republicans, atheists and Christians, gun enthusiasts in theory or in practice, dope dealers and pure livers, techies and off-the-gridders, "minarchists," people who accept the need for a minimal state (like the dozen state legislators elected from the Free Staters' ranks) and abolitionists,. Curtis haid he groups himself in this latter camp,--absolute anti-statists who aren't averse to a little confrontation. ("I like to troll cops," he says.)

"Santorum's ahead by 3 percent," said Vinnie. Curtis shrugged. His candidate wasn't going to win, but at least he was sitting at a free table.

"Right," I said, but what if Ron Paul did win? And what if that was just the beginning? What would New Hampshire become once all 20,000 Free Staters arrived and implemented the Project?

"Hong Kong in New England. Not necessarily with skyscrapers."

Dave Ridley, a Republican Free Stater from Texas said, "That's the realistic goal. The ideal goal is Hong Kong economically, Holland socially, and Switzerland in terms of foreign policy."

Curtis, who was wearing a green "Spring Break Kazakhstan" t-shirt, is interested in a proposal to found a new semi-autonomous region comprising New Hampshire, Vermont, New York north of the Erie Canal, Maine, and a big chunk of Canada, to be called Atlantica. "Kind of an outlandish thought," he said with a smile that can aonly be called whimsical.  "I like New Hampshire as ground zero of a voluntary society. Neighbor talking to neighbor."

Alex Krantz, a 37-year-old Free Stater from New Jersey, pulled up the Drudge Report on his iPhone. Romney and Santorum were tied at 24.

The band in the other room called it a night. "Freddy's Dead," from Superfly, played on the radio. Outside it was 15 degrees. Up north, it was 15 below zero. We began bundling up. "Statists love good weather," said Curtis. What he meant was that people who don't imagine better worlds or brood over the dead of America's wars, people who accept things as they are, the Romney-Obama-Santorum continuum, are really only talking about the weather. They like sunshine and no hard questions. Hence California. Freedom, Curtis speculated, may actually thrive in bad weather. "Ron Paul's talked about retiring to New Hampshire," he said as we headed out into the cold. "If he loses, I'll hold him to that."

Jeff Sharlet's most recent book is "Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness and the Country in Between." (W.W. Norton, 2011).


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