Finished reading: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling 📚

· 887 words · 5 minute read
wooden bear carving at Camp 18, Oregon
Camp 18, Elsie, Oregon

In 2004, a group of Libertarians realized the dream of the Free Town Project by moving en masse to Grafton, New Hampshire, where they intended to overwhelm the locals and reshape the town according to their Libertarian principles.

The “bear” of the title is more or less New Hampshire’s entire bear population, which found a libertarian paradise amenable for its own reasons: Unregulated living (and waste disposal) coupled with residents who just enjoyed watching the bears and fed them to come around led to an explosion in the local bear population, some attacks, and a covert bear hunt.

The bears are also not really the point, but they serve to help make it. The libertarians are also not entirely the point.

I picked this book up after listening to a few podcasts the author did on his promotional tour, and was expecting to read a narrow narrative along the lines of “Libertarians take over a town, they’re betrayed by their idealism, bears ensue,” but there’s more in here, including a tour of New Hampshire history from the colonial era to present, focusing on both the history of bear and human interactions and New Hampshire’s deeply ingrained hatred of taxes and regulation.

Libertarians maintain a pretty big tent. The earliest ones I knew were debate club nerds who happened to be 2nd Amendment absolutists and enjoyed wearing suits. Over time, I’ve come to know a few other types who range from anarchocommunist to anarchocapitalist, with a blend of cultural characteristics. Some just look like Republicans, some are hippies. The Libertarians I’ve known well are all pretty much fine people. They get intense over financial aid and have more of a propensity for “person with a SNAP card bought cigarettes and a nice steak right in front of me” stories than my other friends, but they’re like most other utopians I know, too. They think society has gotten a bit over-leveraged, and that a lot of state interventions wouldn’t be necessary if there weren’t so many state interventions. Pressed for details, most of the ones I’ve known would probably not abolish the EPA or FDA.

The Libertarians in Grafton were not all like the Libertarians I’ve known, and they sort of ruined the town during their experiment. Or at least made it worse. One thing that makes this book thought-provoking and not a simple exercise in Libertarian-punching is that it returns a few times to the fact that Grafton was already a pretty tax-averse place. Between 1940 and 1950, for instance, 20 percent of their homes burned down due to a refusal to fund fire fighters. Over the course of the book we learn that their roads began to fail, they stopped lighting street lights, their police cruiser was more often in the shop than on patrol, and for a portion of the winter roads would go unplowed because the plowing budget had been exhausted.

Hongoltz-Hetling compares all this to the nearby town of Canaan, which enjoyed much better services than Grafton:

“I assumed that, after all those years of resistance, Grafton’s tax rate would be a fraction of Canaan’s, but I learned that the difference is actually quite modest. Because it has managed to maintain larger populations over the decades, Canaan can spend much more on public goods, while keeping tax rates in check. In 2010, the tax rate in Grafton was $4.49 per $1,000 of valuation, as compared to $6.20 in Canaan. That means the owner of a $150,000 home would get an annual municipal tax bill of $673.50 in Grafton, and $930 in Canaan. In other words, Grafton taxpayers have traded away all of the advantages enjoyed by Canaan residents to keep about 70 cents a day in their pockets.”

… which pretty neatly makes the point that the issue was less the amount spent on taxes than the mere existence of taxes at all.

The book also treats its subjects respectfully. You’re left with no doubt that some of these people are dingbats, but there are some genuinely empathetic portraits within, as well.

And, you know, why spend time attacking the people when you can just report the results?

“In a move that seemed strangely reminiscent of Donald Trump’s efforts along the southern border of the United States, the anarcho-communists of Tent City decided to build a big, beautiful barrier to keep the bears at bay. They scrounged some chain-link fencing, pallets, and other scraps of building materials and got to work. Looking past the scarecrow sentries and down the embankment, I could see the fruits of their labor in the woods. The cabins at the heart of Tent City were all joined together by a stockade that could, in theory, block bears from accessing the humans inside. Sections of chain fence were topped by soda cans filled with BBs, designed to rattle loudly if the bears tried to breach the walls in the night. Here, I thought, was another irony, in that those who had come to this patch of woods seeking the ultimate freedom were instead barricading themselves into a rudimentary fortress to attain some level of security that was not being provided by the government.”

Yes, recommended.

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling 📚