New Hampshire culture fosters Libertarian ideals

by Parker Richards | 4/20/16 6:05pm

This article is the second in a three-part series on libertarianism and liberty in New Hampshire. The final part will be published Friday, and the full story will be available on the same day.

New Hampshire is in Henry David Thoreau’s backyard, a region north of Massachusetts’ Walden Pond where individual responsibility, community cohesion in the small valleys of the White Mountains and personal liberty have always been valued. The small, isolated towns of northern New England may contribute to Alexis de Tocqueville’s concept of “self-interest rightly understood,” the tendency of people to view aiding their communities through private action — for instance, by removing a fallen tree from a roadway without waiting for government agents to do the task for them — as a self-serving goal, helping others by helping oneself.

But today, that limited-government ethos and the “New Hampshire advantage” former Gov. Steve Merrill touted during his time in office in the 1990s may be under threat — and Merrill is not the only one who thinks so.

Darryl Perry, the secretary of the New Hampshire Libertarian Party, said that although the major parties pay “lip service” to a limited government approach, their actions could lead to the implementation of a sales tax or an income tax in the coming years.

“They don’t actually believe any of what they say,” he said.

Although major programs that spend more money are frowned upon, according to Ronald Shaiko, associate director of the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, the state is not above nickel-and-diming its residents.

“There is a willingness on the part of lawmakers here, like anywhere else in the country, to add a little charge here and a little charge there,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. “One of the things we want to point out to people is that little things add up.”

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy is a nonpartisan think tank that advocates for individual liberty and fiscal responsibility in New Hampshire. Named for the leader of the state’s congressional delegation to the Second Continental Congress — that’s the one where a group of men gathered in Philadelphia and voted to declare some self-evident truths — the organization operates with a small staff and advocates to policy leaders throughout the state.

The state’s tax policies create “an impression in people’s minds that New Hampshire people value freedom and don’t want to spend money,” Arlinghaus said. “The difficult thing is when you look at the details, it mitigates that a little. Yeah, there’s a preference for freedom, but it’s not as strong as you would hope with our motto. Yeah, we don’t like to spend money, but we’ll spend it on this and that, and slowly eke up here and there.”

New Hampshire’s libertarian credentials are hardly unassailable, and — as Arlinghaus observed — the devil is in the details.

Policy is not everything. Political attitude matters, too, and in that regard, New Hampshire is more libertarian-leaning — in spirit, at least — than most areas.

“There is an old fashioned spirit in New Hampshire, sort of an old Yankee spirit: people want to be left alone and do things themselves,” Arlinghaus said. “Because of that, there is a general notion that neighborhoods and communities should help themselves, and that leads to a more generic libertarian feeling, although that’s less than it once was.”

Nicholas Sarwark, the chairman of the Libertarian Party of the United States, agreed. Sarwark is a signatory to the Free State Project, although he said his life circumstances — including leading the third-largest political party in the U.S. — will likely keep him from moving to New Hampshire.

“I think it’s something about the culture of the Northeast, especially up in the mountain areas,” he said. “It’s just kind of, ‘Leave me alone, I’ll do my own thing, you do your own thing.’ People are a lot less interested in other people’s business.”

Government professor Jason Sorens, the Free State Project’s founder, referenced The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale, a 1990 book by Frank Bryan and John McClaughry that argued for the existence of a unique form of northeastern libertarianism.

“They argue that Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine have a distinctive form of libertarianism, which is the libertarianism of keeping government close, being close enough to your officials to grab ‘em by the neck, or by the lapels if you have to,” Sorens said. “Whereas, the libertarianism of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains is more a libertarianism of isolation, of ‘I just don’t want my neighbors near me.’”

Sorens is an avid hiker and gardener. He knows the lands of New Hampshire and New England well, although he was not raised here.

“Our geography lends itself to villages and towns nestled in valleys, people live close together, but the population is still spread out into all these smaller units, so I think that does lend itself to a distinctive set of institutions and maybe even a distinctive public policy,” he said.

New Hampshire’s system of government reflects those trends, Shaiko said. There is essentially no county government to speak of in the state, so policymaking must be done either on the near-microscopic level of town meetings in little far-flung hamlets that hold a few thousand people at most, or at the state level, where representatives vote on behalf of just 3,000 constituents, the smallest legislative constituencies found in any state.

“What’s government’s role in our daily lives? It’s not much,” Shaiko said. “Everyone is fine with not having government be that intrusive in our daily existence.”

New Hampshire was the last state in the nation to adopt mandatory kindergarten. It still does not budget a cent for its state parks, nor does it have much in the way of funding for many other government programs viewed as essential in many states.

“Pretty much, if you look at New Hampshire versus all the other states, they’ll do the bare minimum of what the federal government mandates are, and nothing more than that,” Shaiko said.

And that’s a good thing if you ask the state’s libertarian factions.

Government spending in New Hampshire is small, consistent with libertarian views. New Hampshire has 1.3 million citizens, but compared to the states around it, New Hampshire’s budget is not representative of its population. Vermont’s budget was $5.2 billion in 2014, or about $8,200 per capita. The state’s population is a little over 620,000. New Hampshire — population 1.3 million, well over twice Vermont’s — had a budget of $5.1 billion that year, spending around $3,800 per capita.

Vermont is not the only nearby state that contrasts New Hampshire. Maine spends $6,000 per capita, Massachusetts $8,400, Rhode Island $7,400. All those states have income taxes and sales taxes, unlike New Hampshire.

But there isn’t much of a debate in New Hampshire about the matter. The state’s Democratic and Republican parties are both largely opposed to implementing those taxes, Shaiko said.

“Both Democrats and Republicans say they will never create an income tax or a sales tax, so it’s not a partisan thing,” he said. “It’s not Republicans saying that or Democrats saying that, it’s both parties, and every governor has signed the pledge.”

Libertarianism is not without its critics, however. Aside from ideological critiques, the movement is frequently targeted for being young, male and pale. A 2015 CNN poll of the Republican primary field found that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — son of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul who helped galvanize libertarian voters in New Hampshire in the 2015 primary, in which he placed second and won Coös County, where PorcFest takes place — performed far better with men than with women.

Critics of the movement have accused it of being racist or sexist — or simply a fantasy, charges Sorens disputes. Rather, he said, libertarianism is a byproduct of strategic thinking that is partial to rules, systems and clear-cut ideologies.

Diversity is not libertarianism’s strong suit, Sorens acknowledged, but “that alone I don’t think is a critique of an idea,” he said, adding that today, discrimination is only a factor in distant “corners” of the movement.

And being male and pale may not be as much of an issue in New Hampshire, where 94 percent of residents are white. Max Frankel ’19, a libertarian-minded student who is a member of many right-leaning groups on campus, said New Hampshire may lend itself well to introspection necessary to defend unusual political views.

“There’s an interesting exchange of ideas that you might not get from a more traditionally liberal campus,” he said of Dartmouth.

But can the Libertarian Party make a breakthrough in New Hampshire under its own name?

Disclosure: The author participated in the organization of the 2015 Rockefeller Center State of the State Poll. He is also a descendent of Josiah Bartlett, for whom the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy is named. Bartlett died in 1795; the two have never met.