For the past ten years, libertarians have flocked to the bucolic idyll of Lancaster, a town of some three-thousand people at the state’s uppermost tip, for a week-long celebration of the virtues of limited government. While libertarianism is not a political monolith, the preservation of individual liberty and political freedom are key guiding philosophies. The libertarians who came to New England were of a certain stripe. They saw the state as an agent of coercion, and market capitalism as the arbiter of a just and free society. Holding a kind of Woodstock for economic rationalists in New Hampshire makes some ideological sense: the state does not administer a sales tax, nor does it apply taxes on your personal income.
A popular libertarian mascot is the porcupine. That the porcupine is a defensive animal that rarely attacks others unless provoked makes it an obvious symbol for the libertarian activists behind New Hampshire’s Porcupine Freedom Festival, who frame their activism around the principle of non-aggression. But the porcupine motif works on another level: it makes the group more politically palatable. Few people would feel threatened by a porcupine, but the movement’s next mascot contender—a pair of snakes—might have seemed more sinister.
Narcissism was probably the animating impulse in my decision to go to New Hampshire. A year and a half ago, Google alerted me to the work of a conservative libertarian professor called Daniel Drezner, who writes a blog for Foreign Policy magazine, In a short post titled “Idelogues to social scientists: get off our lawn”, he seized upon an article I wrote for a smallish literary publication about the economisation of everyday life. Among many other things, he called me an “ideologue”, which was jarring for someone who had considered themselves mostly removed from the cut and thrust of political debate. It made me wonder how suited I was as a journalist to understanding other people’s politics when I wasn’t fully cognisant of my own.
To get to the 10th Annual Porcfest I organised a rideshare to get me from Manchester Airport, near the Massachussetts border, to Lancaster. My ride, James, was a solidly built man in his mid-thirties from Denver. He lumbered over to greet me. Each stride appeared to place an immense imposition on his body; I pretended not to notice. About thirty minutes in to the two-and-a-half hour ride to the festival, he admitted that he hadn’t slept in nearly two days. “My body is shot,” he said, “but I’m still fresh, mentally speaking.” We stopped for a lunch break in Concord, New Hampshire’s capital. I spotted three model hobby stores, a skiwear outlet, a couple of pawn shops, a Burlington Coat Factory, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and two organic supermarkets. It seemed like a pleasant place to retire, and to retire one’s life aspirations.
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