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Stealing Montana

by Mike Keefe-Feldman Friday, May. 30, 2003 at 11:15 AM

Vin Suprynowicz told fellow libertarians that the particular words they choose to explain their politics is of the utmost importance. For instance, they should talk not about shutting down public schools, but closing "monopoly government youth propaganda camps."

from Invasion of the Libertarians?

by Mike Keefe-Feldman, Missoula Indpendent, 5/29/2003

How do I look?


Montana legislators Joe Balyeat (R-Bozeman) and Jerry O'Neill (R-Columbia Falls) hope the Free State Project will move to Montana, as it is in line with their libertarian principles. Both representatives emphasize the importance of shaping public perception of the project. "The one problem in Montana is we have a liberal media that will probably go out of its way to focus on the most extreme members of your group," says Balyeat. "They will probably even paint you in an extreme light with stereotypes."

J.J. Johnson, the editor of, a politically-contentious Web site that rants on subjects such as police corruption and the war in Iraq, agrees on the importance of image. "The biggest challenge will be how things are viewed," Johnson says.

In this vein, Rep. O'Neill urges the members of the Free State Project to portray themselves in the light most favorable to the audience at hand. "When I go to the veterans' home," says O'Neill, "I don't say I'm here to take away your medical aid. I say I'm here to protect your gun rights."

O'Neill's comment draws a big laugh from the audience. Syndicated columnist, author and speaker Vin Suprynowicz tells the conference that even the particular words they choose to use will be of the utmost importance. For instance, says Suprynowicz, they should talk not about shutting down public schools, but closing "monopoly government youth propaganda camps."

If the project is successful in attracting 20,000 members, public perception will become an even more important issue with the chosen state's natives. Bozeman's Quincy OrHai says that it is important that the newcomers don’t come off as invading know-it-alls.

"It would be a mistake for people to move here with the Free State Project and immediately begin to try to change things. That's the one good way to alienate everybody. The first thing you do is you settle in and you find out what the locals do. And then, after you find out what they do, you find out why they do it. And that usually takes at least five years. And then after that, you begin to think that you could be of help changing this or that."

Sorens takes OrHai's idea a step further, saying that there’s no reason Free Staters have to announce to their native neighbors that they are indeed Free Staters. "We're just people moving in," says Sorens. "They don't have to know why."

The best way to create a positive image may be to find local allies, a process that’s already begun in Montana. Gary Marbut, the president and founder of the highly-effective Montana Shooting Sports Association (MSSA), is not a member of the Free State Project, but Marbut spoke on the Montana panel during the Grand Western Conference and could clearly be a local aid to incoming porcupines.

Another ally for Free Staters in Montana may be found in activists such as John Masterson, who leads the Missoula-based chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and says that he works with anyone who will work with him.

Yet, no matter how the Free Staters craft their image, opponents will portray them in a different light. One such opponent is Brad Martin, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. Martin says that the reason Montana is in its current fiscal troubles in the first place is an overabundance of Libertarian philosophy.

"The Libertarian wing of the Montana Republican Party has been in the lead for years. They want to cut provisions that protect workers' wages, fair pay. They're the wing that wants to cut programs like Meals on Wheels. They're that group of Republicans that doesn't believe in government providing support for our neediest citizens, while at the same time advocating tax breaks that will mostly benefit the wealthy."

Martin says that when Libertarians use the term "small government," the words are "code" for a lack of responsibility to help citizens who cannot survive without government aid in their lives.

If it faces in-state opposition from either the media or politicians in power, the project may encounter an even larger battle looming on the horizon with the federal government. In the midst of the Patriot Act and other federal restrictions on civil liberties, Free Staters are mindful that the feds didn't just sit back and nod while the Branch Dividians went their own way in Waco.

Approximately 150 libertarian-minded individuals gather inside the Best Inn's conference center in Missoula to plan the rise of a state where government's only job would be to protect people and property.

Freedom's pricetag


There is no way to know exactly how the free state would work, or if it would work at all. That's what makes it so exciting to members and curious non-members alike: it's an experiment, so by definition the results are uncertain. Yet it remains clear that freedoms come at a price. This is classic Libertarian dogma. If you want freedom, you'd best accept the responsibility that comes with it. As the conference draws to a close, the man who started it all steps to the podium. Jason Sorens talks to his fellow Free Staters about responsibility, tells them that things will not be easy, that the status quo is comfortable to most people. He also says that his group will never be able to reach the kind of widespread consensus that Republicans or Democrats manage. To Sorens, this is both the strength and the weakness of the Free State Project. The majority of the interested faces before him belong to white males, but when it comes to exactly how the project should function, they're a diverse bunch. Still, Sorens points to some common links among all the conference attendees.

"We're all just American citizens living the American dream, doing what Americans have always done, from the Pilgrims to the Mormons."

In the end, it is the American dream that is ultimately the goal of the Free State Project: the idea that individuals should be free to fly an F-15 fighter over Montana, shooting at clouds while snorting coke and shagging a prostitute and no one can tell you "no." Or the dream could be raising and teaching one's kids alone in the countryside on a diet of Whitman and the Bible without worrying about child services knocking on the door to see what's going on. It could mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people, and that’s the whole point.

But the freedom to pursue the American dream has always required money. Fortunately for them, most of the conference attendees have it, which is another common bond linking them. The conference has drawn those who own entire valleys of land, but not those who accept food stamps to feed their kids. It has drawn able-bodied travelers, but not the handicapped person in the wheelchair who counts on government to tell businesses that they must make their entrances accessible. And as diverse as the crowd is, the working poor are noticeably absent.

Well, almost absent.

After a day of discussion, several porcupines walk to a fast-food restaurant abutting Brooks Street. If any of them had struck up a conversation with the women and men behind the counter before ordering their burgers, they might have found Missoulians working two jobs for a total of seventy hours a week just to stay broke and not fall into the red. These are the people who benefit most from government aid, and who would suffer most from its withdrawal. But they can’t make it to the Grand Western Conference to argue their side of the story. They're working weekends.

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What do Libertarians look like? like this Friday, May. 30, 2003 at 2:18 PM
What do libertarians really believe? Jason Sorens Thursday, Jun. 05, 2003 at 7:35 AM
Help me Eric Friday, Jun. 06, 2003 at 9:25 AM

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