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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

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

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.

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