Free State or Bust

On Saturday I moved with my family to Lebanon, New Hampshire. I am teaching for a year in the Government Department at Dartmouth College. Although my reasons for leaving my tenure-track job at Buffalo were several, I decided last year to apply almost exclusively to jobs in New England so that I could fulfill (early) my Free State Project commitment.

Fifty-nine people greeted us when we arrived at our new home, unloaded the truck in 20 minutes, and then held a party. The welcome we got exemplifies the reasons why we decided to take the risk of leaving a tenure-track job for a future in New Hampshire. Even though our decision may very well require a career change for me in a year’s time, we do not consider it to be a “sacrifice for the cause.” Our move is fundamentally self-interested.

The things that really matter in life are family, friends, community, a sense of purpose. Financial security is secondary. In the United States today, we enjoy unparalleled wealth, access to technologies inconceivable until just a few decades ago. There is much that we can give up financially while still enjoying a decent life.

We moved from a 3,000-square-foot house in Buffalo to a 1,100-square-foot apartment in Lebanon. We gave up our TV, our stereo system, and most of our furniture. Adjusting for cost of living and benefits, my real earnings have already declined significantly. The variance in our expected future earnings has increased dramatically. But my daughter also played in a river for the first time, throwing rocks and trying to catch tadpoles. We can walk to the

The view from our living room
The view from our living room

town green. You can see the stars at night and the hills of the Upper Connecticut River Valley during the day. Most importantly of all, we’re participating in a historic effort to create a society of free and responsible individuals, which would be an impossible dream almost anywhere else.

To be sure, we also left a few good friends in Buffalo, and that was hard. I understand why libertarians with strong local family and friend connections do not move to New Hampshire. But we didn’t have such long-term connections anywhere else, apart from those few good friends.

I also understand why libertarians who are promoting the cause in their own careers would see a career change and a move to New Hampshire as a step back. But most of what I have done as an academic does not promote liberty directly, and I have come to question seriously the “trickle-down” model of social change widely adopted by libertarian organizations. The idea, following Hayek’s essay, “Socialism and the Intellectuals,” is that creating new academic research showing the benefits of liberty will filter down through journalists and other “secondhand dealers in ideas” to the general public, eventually resulting in a freer society. But academic economics has long leaned free-market, and journalists don’t seem to understand the key insights of that discipline. If anything, the general public’s views are worsening in key respects. People under 30 are more likely to favor socialism than capitalism. The enterprise of educating the public via secondhand dealers in ideas seems doomed on a national scale, but it could work on a small scale.

Eric Crampton says libertarians should move to New Zealand. If only we were all lucky enough to have employers willing to sponsor our emigration there! They won’t just let you move without a job, after all. In my view, New Zealand and Switzerland are the only places in the world with a long-term better prospect for liberty than the United States, and I understand why some libertarians might move to those places. But they aren’t realistic options for most of us.

I fully agree with Eric that libertarians need to put their money (and bodies) where their mouths are. If they view liberty as important, either as a means to the ends that one enjoys personally or as a moral imperative for society, then it should be valuable enough to move for. Is enjoying significantly greater liberty worth a smaller car, a smaller house, a less fancy phone, slightly slower Internet, no cable TV, Chinese rather than Swedish or American furniture, making dinners at home rather than going out, or all of the above? If you think that gross injustice exists, don’t you have a duty to do something that plausibly could stop it? American society falls far short in protecting the rights and dignity of all its members. We have a real opportunity to change that situation in one place, and we are changing it.

Many other libertarians may not have my family’s personal reasons for moving, and for some it may be a true act of sacrifice for the sake of pursuing a more just society. For a (very) few, there may be better ways of promoting liberty than participating in the FSP. But over the long term, we will enjoy deep friendships, countless comrades in liberty, and having our daughter grow up in a place and in a manner of which she can be proud. Many others could expect to see the same benefits over a lifetime in the Free State. You don’t have to literally accept the state motto — “Live free or die” — to see the basic truth it expresses and to act on it.

28 thoughts on “Free State or Bust

  1. Congratulations and good luck, Jason!

    I love New Hampshire and would be much more likely to move there if I didn’t think that the Free State effort is likely to be overwhelmed by the increasing influx of statist “Mass-holes”. As it is, I’m looking towards Wyoming or Montana for my Galt’s Gulch (although New Zealand does sound tempting …).

    Live free or die!

    1. Thanks! But you don’t need to worry about the statists coming to NH; former Mass. residents are among the most conservative (not necessarily libertarian, mind) Granite Staters. Ideologically, NH hasn’t budged since 2004.

    2. I left Massachusetts in 1978 in part to get away from their government and to get closer to a leaner state. It was another decade before I discovered I was a Libertarian. People who like big government generally stay in Massachusetts.

      Montana is nice, but beware of Californians who move there looking for an affordable California.

  2. Well done. My wife & I moved from CA to CO last year, which is similar in the gains for freedom, although not as much. We’re luckier in several ways: We moved closer to family, not further away; our income went up, not down; our real estate footprint went from 900 square feet to 4,200 square feet. Still, it cost us about $9K to move, and I also had to find a new job first when state-shopping. I tried for a few years to get hired by companies that would be within commute-distance of Nashua, but they weren’t hiring until after I’d already moved to CO.

    1. Yes, the job thing can really be the sticking point, as it was for me for a long time. Colorado is definitely significantly freer than California, and although having undergone a similar ideological evolution to that of New Hampshire over the last two decades, I don’t see that changing drastically in the near future.

  3. The post in which Jason Sorens puts a target on my back 😉

    Just kidding, I know you are speaking more broadly. But perhaps we – including your fellow bloggers – should all rethink our commitments in the way you did.

  4. Welcome home! +1 for Grafton County! Woot!

    That’s pretty awesome you left a tenure-track job for New Hampshire. Making more money just isn’t worth it if you have to live in cities like Buffalo. If for no other reason, knowing your daughter will be growing up in a clean, safe, country environment is worth more than all of the other reasons put together.

    As an aside, my wife and I have been doing way better financially since we left California. I’m sure once you’ve settled in fully your income will get back on track.

  5. Awesome! I’m from Buffalo myself (and a graduate from UB). I understand exactly why you would undertake a change like this. Hopefully I’ll be able to do the same in the future.

  6. Buffalo wasn’t that bad, especially if you had an academic sinecure. The cost of living is very low, and a short drive can get you into some nice natural areas. The people are generally friendly. And I don’t mind snow. But the burden of government is tangible throughout upstate NY, and even those who know that something is deeply wrong feel powerless to change anything.

  7. Hi Jason,

    “For a (very) few, there may be better ways of promoting liberty than participating in the FSP.”

    This is a strong claim. Let me challenge it: There are probably a lot of people for whom moving to NH would require giving up a lot financially. I would argue that for a large majority of these people, staying where they are and donating that extra money they make to liberty activism in NH would do more for the cause of liberty than moving to NH and not having that extra money to donate.

    Think about it: the liberty movement needs a division of labor. A key component of liberty activism is person-hours. The average mover probably works full-time and would have only a few hours a week to spend performing liberty activism at most. Meanwhile, there are many people would be happy to perform liberty activism full-time if only they could find a way to get by while doing so.

    It’s therefore probably the case for most of the “cost-prohibitive potential movers” that they could fund more liberty activism in NH by donating that extra money they make than they could by moving to NH and doing the liberty activism themselves. And to be frank about it: doing liberty activism in NH does much more for liberty than merely being someone who is pro-liberty in NH. Therefore, I conclude that there are in fact a fair number of people who can promote liberty better by not participating in the FSP (i.e. by not moving to NH). They can promote liberty better by “participating” in the FSP by financially contributing to it without moving.

    (Side note: I’ve noticed that this same phenomenon happens with volunteering. There are skilled people who make a lot of money at their day job who then go volunteer at a soup kitchen or something and do relatively-unskilled work. Of course there are selfish reasons for doing this (e.g. it makes you feel good about yourself), but the reality is that if one’s main goal is to help others then this behavior is irrational. Their efforts to help others would be more effective if instead of volunteering their time to do charitable relatively-unskilled work they did more of their skilled work for pay and then volunteered their money to hire others to do the charitable relatively-unskilled work.)

    By the way, you, Jason, are probably one of the few exceptions to my argument due to your special relationship to the FSP. You moving is different than most other “cost-prohibitive” people moving because of the effect that you moving has on other potential movers. You not moving versus moving is the difference between “The founder of the FSP isn’t even moving? Why should I?” versus “Wow, he is serious about liberty. I want to be serious too and move to NH.” I am glad you moved. Hopefully many others will follow.

    Welcome,
    William Kiely (21-year-old NH native)

    1. Hi William – Thanks for the welcome, and I accept your point in principle, which boils down to: We need to consider opportunity cost. Working at your comparative advantage and donating part of your wage can be more effective than volunteering that marginal hour.

      However, there are three considerations on the other side as well: 1. If you don’t move to NH, you don’t get to enjoy the fruits of your financial efforts, which are both political and social. 2. If NH organizations like the NH Liberty Alliance (nhliberty.org) become mostly funded by out-of-staters, that will diminish their effectiveness by giving statists a strong rhetorical tool against them. 3. Probably most of those who will not move to NH won’t actually donate the increment they’ve saved to NH efforts — which is understandable, since people are most likely to support efforts that are visible and tangible to them.

      Still, you’re right that the category of people who can do more for liberty outside NH than in it might be rather broader than the original essay implied.

  8. I’m so glad you FINALLY made the move, O, father-of-the-FSP! My husband and I made the move a few years earlier than we planned to (we’ve been here almost 6 years). We were planning, trying to save up, etc., BUT, due to a fire in our apartment building in MA, we were, for the most part, homeless (stayed with acquaintances from week to week for a month—with 2 beloved cats). City bureaucrats wouldn’t let us move back in, even though our building was deemed safe by non-government folks. We finally decided “to hell with it”, packed our furniture and belongings, and moved. Luckily, at the time, we both had decent jobs in MA, so we commuted. We’ve had good times and bad times since we’ve moved (mostly good), and we’ve never been happier in our lives!
    An anecdote: yesterday we went to McD’s to get their $1 iced tea and almost forgot there IS a *meals tax* here, since there are almost no taxes on anything else! LOL
    Love it here, and a team of NAZGUL couldn’t drag us away from NH! And it was all thanks to our discovering libertarian thought, and..your brainchild, Jason! 🙂

  9. I congratulate you on your commitment and integrity, Jason, and I sincerely wish you the best. I hope that New Hampshire will indeed become the Hong Kong of New England. As you know, I have long felt the pull of a similar commitment. It turns out, however, that my own marginal contribution to liberty and virtue can best be plied elsewhere. (More on that soon.)

    1. Jim, I would certainly put you in the category of those who can potentially do more for liberty outside NH than in it. Looking forward to what you do next.

  10. Congratulations!

    Question on New Zealand.

    Have you read “Fairness and Freedom” which looks at the settling of New Zealand and its political culture?

    Why are you more optimistic about New Zealand?

    1. I have not read it (but will look for it), but I’ve read Eric Crampton’s work on New Zealand, as well as followed what people like Roger Douglas and Maurice McTigue have written about the reforms of the ’80s. There is certainly a nationalistic, protectionist segment of NZ politics that is not libertarian at all, but they remain in a fairly good place for now, and in general smaller polities do better than bigger ones. Bigger polities tend to be able to fund more bureaucrats and politicians and have longer statutory and administrative codes. They’re also less vulnerable to interjurisdictional competition. The U.S. for most of its history was really a “small polity,” because of its decentralization and low population density. That’s no longer true today!

  11. Jason, you shouldn’t be so quick to protest that you are not showing any bravery nor committing to any sacrifice. Like Edward Snowden, you are trading a life
    great comfort (e.g., likely a guaranteed job for life) for one with increased uncertainty.”

    “Walking the walk” may sound old-fashioned or cliché but dammit, I think it’s admirable as hell. Besides you’re helping improve libertarians’ image!

    1. Haha – Thanks, D. It helps to be challenged by one’s peers. Carla, the president of the FSP, has recently quit her job to work for the FSP full time. Now that takes guts!

  12. Hi Jason
    So glad to hear u r in NH!!! We r actually in NH now on vaca and just had lunch in Lebanon! We r closing on a townhouse in 2 weeks and hope to move within the year. We have 4 children and they have really enjoyed all the outdoor activities here. We have also found an awesome private school in the area. We are looking forward to saying goodbye to Connecticut and hello to being on the front lines for Liberty!

  13. Probably the most important take away from this is that there are some things money cannot buy. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are as priceless as they are fundamental. Also, I found the sentence outlying the most important thing in life as family to be most agreeable.

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