Unlimited Government and the Free State Project by Jason Sorens


By Jason Sorens

Friday, October 21, 2005

[This is the text of a speech I gave to an audience of twenty students and faculty at SUNY-Fredonia on October 18. It was sponsored by the university’s College Libertarians.]

Tonight I’ll be speaking to you about the Free State Project, a growing movement of people who believe in individual freedom and limited government who have pledged to move to a single state, New Hampshire, and work to create a better society there. Let me start off with a couple of questions.

How many of you believe that if someone grows marijuana in his or her backyard and smokes it for medicinal purposes, without selling or giving it away to anyone else, the federal government has a constitutional right to throw that person in jail? [When I asked this, zero hands went up.]

How many of you believe that if a developer wants to tear down some existing homes in order to build a shopping mall or a casino or a new neighborhood, a local government has a constitutional right to force the owners of those homes to sell them and then to give their land to the developer? [No one raised a hand for this one either!]

Well, the U.S. Supreme Court this year ruled in favor of government on both of those questions. In doing so they have overturned the plain meaning of the Constitution.

Article I, section 8 of the Constitution sets forth congressional responsibilities, and I don’t see regulating the plants you can grow there. Amendments Nine and Ten make it even clearer that the people enjoy rights not specified in the Constitution, and that whatever Article I, section 8 does not delegate to Congress is reserved to the states and people. Justice Thomas dissented from the verdict here. He noted that growing a plant in your backyard has nothing to do with interstate commerce, and that if Congress can regulate this, they can regulate pot-luck suppers too, which have just about the same effect on commerce.

The Fifth Amendment says, ‘nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.’ The underlying assumption is obviously that private property may be taken only for ‘public use,’ and ‘public use’ refers to those permitted functions of government outlined in the U.S. and state constitutions: building ‘post roads’ and the like.

So we have now entered the era of ‘unlimited government.’ Constitutional restrictions on government apparently mean nothing now. There are now virtually no reserved powers for the states anymore; the Courts allow the federal government to get involved with pretty much whatever it wants.

The Democrats and Republicans at the federal level are just as bad. Shall I count the number of promises Bush has broken? It would be difficult to name them all, but I’ll just mention three big ones.

First, he promised to appoint justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas, and instead, he appointed his personal lawyer. Apparently his thinking is that Harriet Miers will endorse the Administration’s policies in favor of detaining and torturing U.S. citizens without judicial oversight. (His Attorney General has written memos defending torture.) Unlimited, unconstitutional government.

Second, he promised in the 2000 presidential debates that he would not engage in ‘nation-building.’ Well, I don’t know any other way to refer to what’s going on in Iraq right now.

Third, and this is a big one, he promised to reduce the size and scope of government, but instead, under his watch federal discretionary, non-defense spending has risen faster than at any other time since the Lyndon Johnson presidency.

The Clinton Administration may have been better on some of these things, but it was far worse on others.

The Founders knew that democracy doesn’t work to limit gov’t. Democracy – or more accurately, representative government – is a tool for administering government, but it cannot set the limits of government in the first place. The reason is that voters are politically ignorant. And this ignorance is understandable – educating yourself about politics takes time and effort, and not everyone is interested in politics, or should be. But this fact means that Americans are woefully uninformed.

Let me give a few examples. In December 1994, 57% of Americans had not heard of Newt Gingrich. In 1964, 62% of Americans believed the USSR was a member of NATO. Most Americans can’t name any of their congressmen. Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans believe simultaneously that the federal government is too large and powerful, and that spending in almost all federal programs should be increased – that’s a logical contradiction. Today, 70% do not know that a Medicare prescription drug benefit has been legislated, and 58% have heard ‘very little’ or ‘nothing’ about the USA Patriot Act. In 2000 only 57% of Americans knew that Gore was more liberal than Bush.

No, the limits on government are supposed to come from a system of checks and balances. The Founders viewed federalism as one of the most important checks on government. Whenever the federal government gets out of hand, state governments are supposed to interpose themselves between the feds and their citizens. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

The Free State Project is really about restoring constitutional federalism. Fortunately, we still have the basic outlines of a federal system in this country. States still are responsible for many policies. The concept behind the Free State Project is to gather the people who truly are informed about the issues and who will put their time and money on the line to advance individual freedom and limited government, and to leverage their efforts by concentrating them in a single state.

We realize that Washington, D.C. is lost. The special interests have taken it over, and the majority of Americans are unable to take it back – they’ve checked out of the fight. But a fervent, committed minority can put the ideas of freedom back on the table in at least one state.

It’s already happening with the Free State Project. Our goal is to bring 20,000 freedom activists to a single state. So far, 6,800 have signed up. We started out looking at ten low-population states where our activists would have a huge effect. We had a vote on which state is best, and New Hampshire won by a significant majority. There are good reasons why New Hampshire won. It has no professional political class – state representatives haven’t increased their $100 a year salary since the 1880’s. Of course, you could move up to the state senate and make $200 a year.

New Hampshire has the lowest combined state and local taxes as a percentage of income of any state, except Alaska, which relies on oil revenues. New Hampshire also respects personal freedom and responsibility. There are no seat belt laws for adults or motorcycle helmet laws or auto insurance regulations. These are all small indicators, but together they paint a picture of a state that respects people’s right to make choices for their own lives.

Some Free Staters have already moved to New Hampshire. We may have as many as 150 there already; over 120 have officially signed onto the website and let us know that they’ve moved, and more are on their way. New Hampshire freedom activists have many allies in the legislature, and the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance has won legislative victories, including stopping a red-light camera bill that got out of committee and passing homeschooling deregulation in the House. Some of our activists have used civil disobedience to get the message out. Mike Fisher moved from Vermont to New Hampshire and started a computer troubleshooting company. He decided to get arrested for giving a manicure. Why is that? Because manicuring is in New Hampshire, as in most states, a government-licensed industry. If you don’t pay a hefty fee to get your license, it’s illegal to do a manicure for money. So he called the press and the police, and outside the state Board of Cosmetology accepted one dollar in exchange for buffing a nail. He was led away in handcuffs, and the scene was splashed all over the TV news in New Hampshire. Today, there is a bill in the legislature to repeal licensing for certain professions.

So things are already happening in New Hampshire. If you are outraged about unlimited government, then do something about it! Join us in New Hampshire.


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