Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Well Is (Probably) Resilient

Reckless civil disobedience is destroying the Free State Project. Free Staters are not served at restaurants, cannot get jobs, and are overwhelmingly held in contempt— all because aggressive civil disobedience ticks people off. The FSP is racing down a short path to irrelevance and failure.

Or so you would think, after hearing the rhetoric about "well-poisoning" from some political activists. To be fair, most of its advocates are not this extreme— and the person who did make these particular statements largely recanted. However, strong statements are being made, and they deserve a disinterested evaluation.

The basic story is this: The confrontational, unprofessional civil disobedience practiced by some Free Staters— particularly those in Keene— is upsetting people, and promoting a negative image of the FSP. You can tell it's upsetting people— just look at all of those rude comments on the newspaper articles! And you can tell it's promoting this image— just talk to local politicians!

The theory has a surface plausibility. But, as all libertarians should know, there are a lot of false theories with surface plausibility. We need to account for what is not seen as well.

As it turns out, upon closer inspection, the causal path from civil disobedience to well-poisoning is far from direct. First, a New Hampshirite has to actually notice the civil disobedience. Second, he has to react negatively to it. Third, he must alter his opinion of the FSP in response. And, finally, he must be spurred by this to actively oppose the goals of Free Staters.

Not only that, but aggressive civil disobedience can have positive effects as well, such as attracting more movers. If we define "poisoning the well" as "inhibiting the creation of a libertarian society", then it's not clear that the well is being poisoned at all. Perhaps the good from extra movers outweighs the bad from annoyed New Hampshirites.

1) So how many people hear about acts of civil disobedience? This is hard to say with the data we have. Those who read the newspaper, certainly, and those who are politically involved, certainly. But outside of this? Maybe those who spend time in or around Central Square. Most college students that I talk to seem blissfully unaware, suggesting that there are significant segments of the public who just don't notice.

2) How many of these people react negatively? The (non-Free Stater) comments on Keene Sentinel articles tend to be negative. However, this information will not help us measure general reactions until we understand the selection effects involved. (Are you more likely to respond to an article about an event that you disagree with? If so, how much more likely?) We know that certain people react in certain ways, but we can't estimate a percentage. And we know that a significant portion of the public responds positively. Nursing mothers, for example, seem generally supportive of Topless Tuesdays.

3) Out of those who react negatively, how many change their views of the FSP in response? This is also a tough question. Undoubtedly, some people do, judging by Keene Sentinel comments. Many, however, are deterred from this by non-disobedient FSP friends (and sometimes disobedient friends as well). I know for a fact that I have prevented multiple people from responding this way.

Other people don't even realize the FSP exists, or don't understand the relationship between the two. And, of course, a person can't change to a negative view of the FSP if he already has a negative view.

(Although, IMO, it's impossible to get an accurate estimate of this factor, we can predict trends. As more libertarians move, the likelihood of a person having an FSP friend increases, and the probability of him responding this way drops. Other things being equal, the FSP should suffer less fallout from each act of aggressive civil disobedience as more people move.)

4) Now, out of these people who are aware of the civil disobedience, react negatively to it, and decide they don't like the FSP, how many of them are able to wield political influence in a way that frustrates the goals of the FSP? As with the other questions, this is hard to answer. On the one hand, those that are aware of the civil disobedience, and know the FSP exists, are likely to be more politically active than the average New Hampshirite. On the other hand, it can be very difficult to discriminate between Free Staters and non-Free Staters. And because of the way Free Staters tend to work closely with other groups (at least in their political capacity), it would be difficult to target a serious attack on us.

And there's still the other side to account for. Aggressive civil disobedience can excite potential movers and encourage them to get up here (pronto!). Also, as in the nursing mothers above, people may respond positively and be led to promote FSP goals. It happens.

All of these intervening steps, and the complications involved, as well as the often-overlooked positive effects, lead to me to suspect that Keene-style civil disobedience does not add much poison to the well, and probably even has a positive effect, overall. However, I admit that there is enough uncertainty involved for civil disobedience to plausibly be anything from a significant obstruction to a wild boost for the FSP.

To those who are worried about this, what we need most is more info, and a more thoughtful approach. Should we pay for a poll, or try to organize some kind of informal polling? Given that there's a snowball's chance of Keene civil disobedience ending, can we reduce the negative impact by focusing on other links in the chain? For example, could we lower the negative reactions by offering to relocate protests, or by encouraging less offensive disobedience? Or weaken the link with the FSP by having the civilly disobedient emphasize the differences among FSP movers?

Research has shown that libertarians are, on average, the most intelligent of the major political groups. Selection biases in FSP recruitment magnify the difference. Let's use this advantage.

Addendum: Some people have interpreted this essay as giving license to all poorly-considered civil disobedience. That is not at all what I intended to do. My intention was to get some people who worry too much to worry a little less. It's an undeniable fact that much of the civil disobedience in Keene could be performed in a friendlier, more community-oriented manner, and it's a real loss when this doesn't happen. I certainly don't endorse that kind of thoughtlessness.


  1. As someone who lives in NH who is labeled by FSP members as an "anarchist-socialist" (when have anarchists ever NOT been socialist?), I can say with all honesty that while I detest the FSP and everything they stand for I cannot help but think their movement is kind of a joke. I mean, what have they really done for the people who live in NH aside from take a few limits to homeschooling off the books? From what I've seen, the only things they do are mouth-off at the cops, record their arrests, and then post the footage on Youtube to show what a "police state" NH is. For the record, I've never actually encountered these people myself but I know of their activities through a friend in Nashua. I live in that region (the Merrimack Valley). The FSP isn't nearly as present here than they are in Keene or northern NH. But when I hear about them, half of me doesn't want to take them seriously, because they haven't achieved much. I guess that's the main difference between us "anarchist socialists" and right-wing so-called "libertarians"/"anarchists"; at least us lefties can point to Anarchist Catalonia to show how our ideas were able to become actions and form a beautiful society, but what can our right-wing "counterparts" use to prove what their ideas of "stateless capitalism" can achieve? I know I'm ranting and it's almost 4 in the morning but I just thought I'd comment on your post.

  2. Haha, your comment caught me off guard. Funny story. But yes, 4 in the morning, I'll get back to this later.

  3. What Free Staters have done:

    - prevent seat belt laws
    - very nearly pass medical marijuana laws
    - introduce complete knife freedom (as far as I understand it) (this took place recently)
    - HB 1373, which establishes a committee to study the effects of drug laws (took effect a few days ago)

    and I'm sure there are many other things I don't know about.

    Keep in mind, the goal is to end up with 20,000 members in NH. Right now we have less than 1,000, with about 10,000 signed up. So the accomplishments should become more ambitious with time.

    "From what I've seen, the only things they do..."

    What you see is a biased sample. The civilly disobedient portion of the Free Staters are probably in the minority. A larger number are like me, quietly getting involved in local politics, or are just going about their normal lives.

    The fact that no market anarchist society has existed in the past (this is debatable, but I won't go into it) does not imply that a market anarchist society is impossible or undesirable. Not that I consider myself a market anarchist, but it's good to keep things logical.

    And there are a number of mutualist Free Staters who would probably be happy in a Catalonia-type society.