Vermont: State of Freedom

In the 14 years before joining the original colonies in 1791, Vermont was a feisty, independent republic with allegiance only to itself and the motto “Freedom and Unity.”

Today it is the same landmass of mountains and river valleys 80 miles wide and 160 miles long with 608,000 people, fewer than those living on the East Side of Manhattan between 34th and 72nd Streets. It is viewed by some as an Eden and by others as a sylvan asylum for reclusive nutcases who tax and regulate themselves or second homeowners to extinction.

Vermont’s fragile equipoise is reflected in its motto. Unlike New Hampshire’s less subtle “Live Free or Drop Dead” motto, Vermont’s “Freedom and Unity” suggests an equilibrium of opposites — personal freedom and enterprise freedom along with attention to the commonweal. This plays out daily in the ongoing tensions between Vermont’s largely centrist political parties, environmental and development interests, arrivistes and natives, haves and have-nots, trust-funders and earners. But it’s all held together by a durable tradition of community that the steady influx of flatlanders has not yet altered for the worse. Most newcomers become converts or, worse, zealots.

What is this ephemeral and cohesive element called community? Its genesis was more practical than spiritual. It came from mutual dependency in hard times and an understanding that the individual has a compelling interest in the wellbeing of the community at large, not just in the self and immediate family. This principle survives today and is at the heart of Vermont’s self-governance, reflected both in March Town Meeting and in Montpelier’s citizen legislature. Vermont follows older, conservative principles in a narcissistic age. Yet, looking at the federation of states of which it is a part, Vermont is not doing that badly.

Vermont law requires it to spend no more than it has. Vermont maintains a rainy day fund. Last year, Moody’s gave Vermont bonds the Aaa rating — the highest one — yet again. Vermont is a small state and its communal decision-making is transparent enough to make large scale corruption impossible.

With one of the lowest percentages of medically uninsured in the nation, 14 not-for-profit community hospitals, and a world-class academic medical center, Vermonters enjoy extraordinary health care access and quality. Last year, Vermont ranked near the top as one of the healthiest places to live and among the best states in the country for preventing “premature death” in people under 75 years of age.

Vermont’s community school systems are among the most expensive in the nation, serving 97,000 students, but outcomes match the investment. In 2005 and 2006, Morgan Quitno, the publisher of monthly and annual state and city rankings, named Vermont as the nation’s smartest state.

Many entrepreneurs have started and grown businesses in Vermont that capitalize on the state’s resources and community values. They do not share the view that Vermont is unfriendly to business. In fact, most of Vermont’s 300,000 jobs come from small business and the non-profit sector — the State, higher education, health care. IBM, GE, General Dynamics and Goodrich are exceptions.

In agriculture, Vermont is migrating from commodity fluid milk production to artisan food production, creating new local markets and intrastate economic loops.  One can fish or swim in any Vermont river or lake and apart from the plague of yellow “no trespassing” signs on the recently acquired lands of flatlanders, one can hike, snowshoe, or cross country ski virtually anywhere.

So why is Vermont considered by some as the nutcase state? There are those who choose to see any bellwether as a threat to their own entrenched ideology. Vermont’s legendary law banning billboards, the Environmental Act 250, the bottle deposit law, captive insurance legislation, and civil unions all were pioneering initiatives that many other states have emulated or adopted outright.

Much of this prescient legislation was initiated by fiscally conservative Republicans who felt strongly about Vermont’s environment and maintaining a social safety net in its communities. For detractors, it’s easier to simply generalize about Vermont than it is to look closely at how Vermont communities make, amend, and live with their decisions.

Vermont faces major challenges, not the least of which is preserving its deep-rooted sense of community in the face of economic, demographic, technical, and cultural change and extrinsic economic pressures.

There is a bipartisan will within the state to constrain taxation. But the “cut spending, lower taxes” chorus, shares the stage equally with others calling for a strategic economic development plan to unleash new business development and job creation.

Politically, 40% of Vermonters call themselves independents, crisscrossing party lines and voting for individual leadership qualities and principles rather than party ideologies. In 1985, Vermonters elected Ronald Reagan as president, Democrat Madeleine Kunin as governor and Progressive Socialist Bernard Sanders as mayor of its largest city.

Vermont is a place of great beauty. It enjoys natural and man-made wealth. There are easier places to live in this world, especially in January. But ease is not a Vermonter’s only criterion for quality of life. The persistence of community and the sense that one can indeed have some control over one’s destiny if one participates makes life in Vermont worthwhile.

Appeared March 12, 2008 in The New York Sun

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