If you listened to the Word of Mouth episode last Saturday, you might have noticed a clip played somewhere in the middle, without context, of a young woman excited to leave Rochester, NY and move to New Hampshire. She was convinced that participating in the Free State Project was the best way to improve the world. What happened to her? Well, she changed her mind.
There’s a certain kind of objection that I want to preempt, which is that I must not have been very committed to “a priori” libertarianism in the first place. Maybe that’s true; as I will explain, I think I was always a consequentialist deep down. But if you think I didn’t understand libertarian theory well enough…I read Healing Our World in an Age of Aggression and gave out many copies as gifts. I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I interned at the Cato Institute. I started College Libertarians just so I could have a platform to promote the FSP to my fellow college students! I was committed.
When I decided to run for office, I was 25 years old. I knew immediately that I wanted to run in the Democratic Party, for a few different reasons. I had observed that Republicans and small-l libertarians had formed a successful coalition around economic issues (for better or for worse) and wanted to foment a mirror coalition between Democrats and small-l libertarians on issues like harm reduction, civil liberties, and criminal justice reform. When I won my primary in September 2014, it really sunk in that I would have a small amount of decision-making power over other people’s lives. This motivated me to read about cognitive biases, probability, what it even means to “believe” something… and the effect was that my worldview was transformed.
“By the time I was sworn in I was just sort of like doubting everything. And at that point I just wanted to do the best job I could. Whatever that meant – and not particularly vote with any agenda or game in mind, even if that meant voting to make New Hampshire less free in some sense.”
I stopped lazily straddling the line between deontology and consequentialism and realized that my real ethics were consequentialist – that what ultimately matters in the world is whether or not people live happy lives with autonomy and minimal suffering. I read How to Actually Change Your Mind. I read the Non-Libertarian FAQ. I admitted to myself that libertarian responses to problems like air and water pollution had never been fully satisfying.
Maximizing for “liberty,” especially a narrow, propertarian conception of liberty, sometimes trades off against human flourishing in ways I find unacceptable. Structural inequality caused by oppression, both recent and current, became much more salient to me. I noticed how widespread the Just World Fallacy is amongst my libertarian friends… I decided that the existence of coordination problems and negative externalities can justify government action. I also became much more comfortable with uncertainty and tradeoffs, which is good, because the world is a messy place and many policy areas are thorny and complicated. Sometimes there is no clear answer.
Anyway, my original plan – to focus my efforts on policy areas where Democrats/progressives and libertarians could work together – still seemed like a pretty good plan. Mass incarceration still seemed like a worthy target. To my criteria of 1. Appeals to progressives and 2. Appeals to libertarians, I added 3. A strong evidence base.
Ultimately, the question of “Are you a Free Stater”? comes down to definitions, like so many questions. If Free Stater means somebody who associates often with Free Staters, then yes, I am; about half my local friends are Free Staters. If Free Stater means somebody who moved to NH after signing the Statement of Intent, then I’m a Free Stater. But I think the definition that best allows you to predict somebody’s voting record is whether or not they endorse the vision from the Statement of Intent, and I do not.
The Statement of Intent is very deontological (very rule-based), so I don’t endorse it. I think humans living in a society where government does more than just “protect life, liberty, and property” can be better off than humans living in a society with such a constrained government.
Another way to think about whether somebody is a “Free Stater” is whether or not they want the FSP to succeed. To the extent that I think preference utilitarianism has merit, I think it’s good when people with strong beliefs self-sort into different jurisdictions where their preferences can be satisfied, and to that extent I want the FSP to succeed.
But as I said in my interview, “If the Free State Project means that a lot of people who don’t vaccinate their kids move here and it causes…outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths, then in that sense I definitely don’t want the Free State Project to succeed.”
I want Free Staters to succeed at making New Hampshire better and fail at making New Hampshire worse.
There are lots of Free Staters who pay some attention (e.g. to my voting record) but not perfect attention (e.g. they missed my first blog post where I warned everybody that my belief system was in a state of upheaval). Some of these Free Staters think that spending too much time around Democrats turned me into a “statist” (because I voted for e.g. Medicaid expansion). One of the reasons it’s well past time for me to write this clarification down is to make it clear to those people that the Democrats did not brainwash me. The cause of my change in beliefs was doing more reading and thinking on my own. I vote with my party on bills related to the environment, voting rights, and reproductive freedom. Sometimes I think my party gets it wrong, like when they take a position against reforms to civil asset forfeiture, occupational licensing, and drug war enforcement. No brainwashing has occurred.