Thomas L. Knapp

Tom Knapp is the publisher of Rational Review.


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Contra Trinward: the secret virtue of the Hail Mary
by Thomas L. Knapp

It's no secret that the editors of Rational Review don't march in lock step with each other. I mean, hey, we're libertarians. Put two of us in the same room, give us an issue, and we'll emerge with three verdicts -- all of them mutually exclusive and all of them defended to the hilt, one by each of us and the third by both of us.

While we haven't run any twin "pro-con" pieces before, it doesn't seem like such a bad idea -- and Steve Trinward's new article, The Free State Project: good idea or libertopian fantasy?, happened to come over the transom just as I was about to suggest taking such an approach on some selected issues.

A brief summary: Steve doesn't really conclude that the Free State Project is entirely a "libertopian fantasy;" he doesn't conclude that it's a "good idea," at least as written, either. Instead, he offers specific, detailed and constructive criticisms. That's a nice approach and one that I hope will be appreciated. Nonetheless, I regard the article as overall "con" and think that it deserves a "pro" response.

I'm a Free State Project member and have done some small amount of work for FSP as a volunteer. I'd be the last person to describe FSP as "the perfect idea" or even as a likely success -- by its own criteria -- in the short term.

Let's recapitulate the FSP idea: Recruit 20,000 freedom lovers who are willing to commit to moving to one place. Get them there and create a bloc of voters and activists who can substantially affect public policy in a libertarian direction.

There are some transparent problems with this idea. Steve has mentioned some of them, but I'll point out a couple before moving on to my rebuttal of his overall argument.

First, within the freedom movement, a dedicated activist bloc of 20,000 committed individuals would be huge. Remember, we're not talking about willingness to send a check somewhere, subscribe to a magazine or make it to the polls every couple of years. We're talking about a commitment to pull up stakes and move.

In the world at large, however, 20,000 is a very small number. From a "voting bloc" standpoint, FSP's best shot is Wyoming, where 20,000 new voters would constitute a little less than 10% of the state's electoral base (possibly 20% if voter turnout trends there reflect the country at large and if the 20,000 newcomers have a near-unanimous turnout rate).

In other words, 20,000 libertarians aren't going to move to Wyoming (or anywhere else) and just assume control. Ain't gonna happen. But we'll get back to that in a moment.

Secondly, as Steve also points out, 20,000 committed libertarians does not necessarily translate to a large number of credible candidates for public office. A lot of libertarians, even if they will vote for pro-freedom candidates, won't be candidates themselves.

Steve also refers to the "backlash" problem. There's always the possibility that our 20,000 "pioneers" will make great strides -- and that the residents of the state they've "homesteaded" will then turn out in droves to undo their work at the next election.

And, finally, a problem which Steve didn't himself allude to: the "it seemed like a good idea at the time" phenomenon. If you've ever asked your brother-in-law to help you move, a month before your lease ran out, you're familiar with this one. Come moving day, he doesn't answer the phone. He's out fishing. He "forgot" -- or, more likely, woke up a week before moving day screaming "what was I thinking? I don't want to spend all day hauling his couch around town!" ... and came up with a plausible excuse for avoiding it. In any crowd of 20,000, there are going to be a substantial number who "committed" because they didn't ever expect to be called on to fulfill that commitment. Anecdotally, I'm willing to bet that the Free State Project will need an absolute minimum of 50,000 "committed movers" before it can count on having 20,000 people who will actually give their landlord notice, rent a U-Haul and pack their trash for permanent resettlement in Jackson Hole.

Okay. I've just poked a bunch of holes in FSP myself. Now I have to save the day for all that is right and good in the libertarian movement and explain why I think the Free State Project is a great idea.

The Free State Project is a great idea. Here's why:

Yes, 20,000 libertarian voters would constitute less than 10% of the electorate of any state they moved to -- possibly 20% if their turnout was much higher than the "background" turnout, but let's assume 10%.

10% is huge in electoral terms. Ask Al Gore what a 10% increase in the Democratic vote in Florida would have meant in 2000. There are elections which are decided by larger margins, but they are the exception, not the rule. 10% would constitute a voter bloc that could not be ignored. 20%, statewide, based on higher turnout in our "pioneer" population, would be decisive in any election.

There's a degree to which this covers the "what will we do for candidates" question as well. If libertarians can control the outcome of any statewide election, a lot of statewide candidates are going to start looking -- and acting -- very libertarian, regardless of party designation. A majority is not necessary to affect the political process. All that is necessary is control of the votes that decide elections.

And let's not forget elections in which district legislative representatives are chosen. Or county commissioners. Or town councils and mayors. There is probably no political subdivision in any of the states that FSP is considering in which 20,000 votes would not be decisive.

Assuming that most FSP "pioneers" would choose to move not just to a particular state, but to one of the urban or near-urban clusters in that state, libertarians would, indeed, substantially assume a dominant position in the politics of the area in which they lived. Their representatives in the state legislature would be libertarian. Their city government would be libertarian. Their county commission would be libertarian. Their U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, governor, etc., might or might not be libertarian. Probably not, although, in the absence of third party candidacies, the most pro-freedom candidates for those offices would likely be elected.

Per Stephen Wright, you can't have everything -- where would you put it? To the extent that I acknowledge the plausibility of expanding freedom by participating in electoral politics, I'd give my eye teeth to have the layers of governance nearest me overtly libertarian and to have a strong libertarian influence on the more distant layers. That incentive alone would probably be sufficient to bring me to the FSP's designated homestead state.

Next: backlash? Well, anything is possible, but let's look at this very carefully. I'm going to stick with Wyoming and assume that most FSPers would cluster in and around the Laramie and Cheyenne areas. Those areas are convenient to a major metropolitan area (I believe that Denver is about four hours -- it's been awhile since I've driven it); and they have small "urban" populations (Laramie <30,000, Cheyenne <60,000). They're safe bets.

Cultural backlash is always a possibility. A gaggle of libertarians from around the U.S. is going to be very diverse. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think that natives of Wyoming are uniformly tobbaco-chewing rodeo fans (or that a libertarian, plunked down in Laramie, might not end up taking up smokeless tobacco and bull-riding). We can probably get along, although there might be some initial rough edges.

Economic backlash? I don't think so. Most people who can afford to move to Wyoming out of a political commitment are independently wealthy, or have jobs which allow them to "telecommute," or have done their research and found out that they have a marketable skill which is in short supply. We aren't going to be robbing Bob of his job sacking groceries at the local store. As a matter of fact, he may be working overtime since business is about to get much better.

Of course, Bob may quit his job at the store and go into construction. We're gonna need houses and apartments. The entrepeneurs among us will be opening Laramie branches of their offices and hiring local staff, as well as probably absorbing some of the newcomers. Our economic effect is going to be positive for just about everyone, short-term negative effects (apartment rental rates going up due to higher demand, for example) notwithstanding.

Needless to say, we're also going to be a big political factor in Laramie, Cheyenne, or both. And this is where the rubber meets the road: if our ideas are really that good, and if we are "model citizens" otherwise -- working, buying our groceries, making our new home a better place to live -- then why would there be a political backlash -- the usual suspects aside, of course? In order for such a backlash to develop, our ideas would have to fail spectacularly and "the enemy" would have to mobilize the voters against those ideas in overwhelming numbers.

I believe our ideas are good ones. If they're not ... well, then we deserve to fail. Enough said on that.

Moreover, on most issues at least some considerable segment of the "non-libertarian" population agrees with us to one degree or another. We'll be shifting the political balance in some cases. In others, we'll just be augmenting the pre-existing trend. Doesn't it stretch credibility a bit to assume that pluralities or majorities will change their stripes overnight ... because a bunch of people who agreed with them moved into the neighborhood and helped them get what they wanted?

Overall, I think that a "frontlash" is more likely than a successful "backlash." After all, an article of faith among libertarians is that once our ideas are tried, they will prove successful and people will rally around them.

So we come, at last, to the basic problem. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Can the Free State Project really get 20,000 individuals to commit, and follow through on that commitment?

I don't know. It's a pass play with multiple receivers going long -- a Hail Mary. That's important in and of itself. The Hail Mary is generally used in do-or-die situations. Fourth down, a touchdown behind the opponent, six seconds on the clock.

The Hail Mary is a play born of necessity, and it is arguable that the American political experiment has reached a point at which such plays must be considered. Do we have another thirty years in which to turn things around, or did the sign we just passed at 70 mph read "Police State, pop. 300 million?"

The Hail Mary also possesses the secret virtue of calling upon every member of the team to pull out the stops -- to the extent that FSP represents a political Hail Mary, it represents a group of people who have, no doubt after much thought, agreed to commit. That group may eventually reach its ultimate goal, or it may not ... but future libertarian projects are likely to benefit from such a sorting process.

It may eventually even become a sort of litmus test, sort of like "when did you turn against the war in Vietnam?" became among Democrats in the 70s. Got an idea? Want to do a project together? Well, just how committed are you?

"When did you join the Free State Project?"

See Steve Trinward's opposing viewpoint, "The Free State Project: good idea or libertopian fantasy?"