Cover of A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear
Cover of A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear

In his book, A Lib­er­tar­i­an Walks into a Bear, the jour­nal­ist Matthew Hon­goltz-Het­ling details the tur­bu­lent, in some ways trag­ic his­to­ry of the ambi­tious polit­i­cal project to turn a small, New Hamp­shire town into a free mar­ket, cap­i­tal­ist par­adise. In the process, he relates how those pur­su­ing the project ran into the com­pli­ca­tions caused by nature, the peo­ple already liv­ing there, and each other.

And I don’t have enough good things to say about it.

Book cover for "A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear"
A Lib­er­tar­i­an Walks Into A Bear: The Utopi­an Plot to Lib­er­ate An Amer­i­can Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hon­goltz-Het­ling (Hard­cov­er, PublicAffairs)

From the entry point of inter­view­ing a dis­abled vet­er­an about her trou­bles get­ting the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs to cov­er the expens­es of mak­ing her rur­al home actu­al­ly acces­si­ble to her, Hon­goltz-Het­ling felt the need to delve into U.S. his­to­ry, polit­i­cal extrem­ism, envi­ron­men­tal­ism, phi­los­o­phy, gov­ern­ment, class, par­a­sitism, reli­gion, and fire safety.

Across two hun­dred and fifty-three pages that often read as much like a nov­el as a work of non­fic­tion with its intrigue and fre­quent cred­i­ble threats of gun vio­lence, he paints a series of sur­pris­ing­ly sym­pa­thet­ic por­traits of fig­ures who it’s also clear most would not will­ing­ly share a com­mu­ni­ty with giv­en their strong polit­i­cal opin­ions on what oblig­a­tions, but most­ly lack there­of, mem­bers of a com­mu­ni­ty actu­al­ly owe one another.

Start­ing in 2004, sev­er­al hun­dred peo­ple from around the Unit­ed States—largely white, large­ly male but exceed­ing­ly diverse in their eccentricities—moved to the about 1,100-person city of Grafton, N.H., as part of the “Free Town Project.”

A small core had picked it specif­i­cal­ly think­ing the peo­ple there were already pre­dis­posed to “lib­er­ty” and anti-gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ment and would wel­come the changes brought by this unan­nounced influx.

Large­ly, this was not exist­ing res­i­dents’ feel­ings toward the new arrivals.

If you’re a read­er of the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, there won’t be a sur­prise in Hon­goltz-Het­ling’s descrip­tions chap­ter by chap­ter, per­son by per­son, of the cor­ro­sive, com­pound­ing effect had on soci­ety through a con­cert­ed effort to “keep tax­es low” by avoid­ing invest­ment in any pub­lic resources or services.

Even the roads wors­ened, but the town also refused to take own­er­ship of any new pub­lic spaces, such as an old church offered by the pre­vi­ous con­gre­ga­tion for free. They fre­quent­ly vot­ed down fund­ing for such needs as the vol­un­teer fire depart­ment, and there­fore reg­u­lar­ly had need of the resources of the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties which did fund their own depart­ments sufficiently.

One of the major points of divi­sion between local Lib­er­tar­i­ans was over fires.

One of the exist­ing res­i­dents —and, by most stan­dards, fringe polit­i­cal fig­ures —John Babi­arz had helped kick off every­thing by invit­ing out­side Lib­er­tar­i­ans to come take over the town, but he also was the Grafton Vol­un­teer Fire Chief and took fire safe­ty quite seriously.

This makes sense to the rest of us as fires are not a threat that can be pri­va­tized; actions on one’s own sov­er­eign prop­er­ty affects every­one around them as well. But this is also dan­ger­ous log­ic if nat­u­ral­ly extend­ed to, well, any oth­er sub­ject, so Babi­arz found him­self on the outs when he came to put out dan­ger­ous camp­fires dur­ing dry sea­sons, there­by rep­re­sent­ing the repres­sive gov­ern­ment jack­boot he claimed to oppose, or at least this is what he rep­re­sent­ed to even more extreme mem­bers of the community.

The book, sub­ti­tled, “The Utopi­an Plot To Lib­er­ate An Amer­i­can Town (And Some Bears)” does keep com­ing back to that prob­lem of over­ly famil­iar to the point of aggres­sive bears show­ing no real fear of peo­ple and even will­ing to invade iso­lat­ed peo­ple’s homes.

Like with fires — like with many things— the fun­da­men­tal assump­tion of those in the com­mu­ni­ty that “what I do with my prop­er­ty is my busi­ness” does not hold up against the real­i­ty that some peo­ple liv­ing in unzoned camps and no garbage col­lec­tion ser­vice will pro­vide a lot of food for bears; some peo­ple cov­er­ing their trash in cayenne pep­per to try to keep bears away; some string­ing up elec­tric fences; some shoot­ing at them; and at least one woman going out of her way to buy dough­nuts because she thought they looked awful­ly thin, is very con­fus­ing for the bears! The con­di­tions a per­son cre­ates on one “sov­er­eign” prop­er­ty does not stop mag­i­cal­ly at the bound­ary line of sovereignty.

All sorts of utopi­an projects run into chal­lenges, and per­haps it’s not fair to blame these Lib­er­tar­i­ans for not hav­ing fore­seen the trou­ble­some effects of incon­sis­tent bear poli­cies when they chose a location.

But if the last year of pan­dem­ic has taught us any­thing, it’s that this sort of polit­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion isn’t some­thing that’s just a weird quirk or harm­less bit of polite, abstract disagreement.

The phi­los­o­phy boils down to, “If I have the pow­er to do some­thing, I have the right to do it, and not only the right to do it, it is good for me to do so and an increase in lib­er­ty, regard­less of what impact there is on any­one else.”

It is a real danger.

We see it has a real cost, social­ly, pub­licly, uni­ver­sal­ly. The tyran­ny of this sort of “lib­er­ty” has meant many of us with what would be called “under­ly­ing con­di­tions” on our death cer­tifi­cates have in our homes for com­ing up on a year.

“You can’t tell me I have to wear a mask”, or close my busi­ness, or not trav­el, or get vac­ci­nat­ed. Or tell me not to bring my gun any­way I want to defend myself with it, even when I’m insti­gat­ing con­fronta­tions and tak­ing umbrage at per­ceived slights.

Mul­ti­ple times, the author relates how he is implic­it­ly and explic­it­ly threat­ened by the peo­ple he’s inter­view­ing, usu­al­ly for just being a jour­nal­ist, ask­ing ques­tions. Yeah, strict con­sti­tu­tion­al­ists respect the First Amend­ment, but what does it say in the Sec­ond about the right to bear arms…

In a piv­otal chap­ter, just before he tells the sto­ry of how, in 2012 after many threat­en­ing could-have-beens, a bear actu­al­ly came to attack a mid­dle-aged, sin­gle woman inside her own rur­al home, near­ly killing her among that would-be Lib­er­tar­i­an utopia, Hon­goltz-Het­ling includes this short pas­sage from the Bible:

While Elisha was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, say­ing, “Go up, you bald­head! Go up, you bald­head!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.

2 Kings 2:23–24

This sto­ry is one of the most infa­mous pas­sages in the entire­ty of the Hebrew and Chris­t­ian scrip­tures, and deserved­ly so.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, Jew­ish com­menters have char­ac­ter­ized the prophet Elisha’s behav­ior in neg­a­tive terms, drunk with his new­found pow­er, left alone after his mas­ter Eli­jah went up to heav­en in a char­i­ot but new­ly blessed with a dou­ble por­tion of Eli­jah’s spir­it. For ear­ly rab­bis, the debate was not over whether it was OK to use mirac­u­lous pow­ers to mur­der dozens of young lads (it was not); the debate was over how many mir­a­cles were includ­ed as described; was it just the bears or the appear­ance of a for­est, too? The relat­ed phrase “nei­ther bears nor for­est” (lo dubim ve lo ya’ar) even became idiomat­ic for some­thing that nev­er happened.

For some Chris­tians, par­tic­u­lar­ly white evan­gel­i­cals, the take­away from the sto­ry is quite dif­fer­ent. They tend to tie them­selves into knots to explain how actu­al­ly, the 42 dead lads might have been young men as old and as thirty.

And actu­al­ly,“bald­head” was a ter­ri­ble sort of insult, and mean­ing they were insult­ing Eli­jah and God, not Elisha. And any­way, they should­n’t have jeered a man as pow­er­ful as a prophet of God, so actu­al­ly,​ they had it coming.

Right-wing Lib­er­tar­i­ans are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Protes­tant, but even when athe­ist or oth­er­wise reli­gious­ly unaf­fil­i­at­ed, cul­tur­al Protes­tantism predominates—Calvinism with­out any gods but Mam­mon superseding.

Fol­low­ing the attack, a gang of the Lib­er­tar­i­ans in Grafton even­tu­al­ly expressed their under­stand­ing of free­dom by ambush­ing mul­ti­ple hiber­nat­ing bears and blow­ing them away in a hail of gun­fire as they slept in their dens.

This was good, in their minds, because it was­n’t the gov­ern­ment, and they and their guns had the pow­er to do so. In the long run, it end­ed up not solv­ing the prob­lem but just hurt­ing a lot of peo­ple and ani­mals under the max­i­mal pur­suit of nar­row self­ish­ness, but whatever.

That’s the price of freedom.

Adjacent posts

One reply on “Book Review: When “A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear”, nobody wins (except the reader)”

  1. This book has been debunked as anti-Lib­er­tar­i­an lit­er­a­ture. He inter­viewed none of the exact­ly three for­mal large‑L Lib­er­tar­i­an homes, but a vari­ety of most­ly left and fringe char­ac­ters who have no idea what Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is.

    The Lib­er­tar­i­an Inter­na­tion­al Orga­ni­za­tion has spe­cif­ic guide­lines on Lib­er­tar­i­an-based com­mu­ni­ties, none of which were fol­lowed by the left and oth­ers there. 

    The poll cit­ed is incor­rect, delib­er­ate­ly con­fus­ing infor­mal lib­er­tar­i­an fans, lib­er­tar­i­an vot­ers, and for­mal L/libertarians. Lib­er­tar­i­ans are in every coun­try, and claim­ing they’re half Protes­tants is ridiculous.

Comments are closed.