RogerBW's Blog

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling 12 January 2021

2020 non-fiction. In 2004, Libertarians started moving to Grafton, New Hampshire, in an effort to "free the town". The bears soon followed.

That's not completely fair, and the author tries to make more of a connection than may be justified. On the one hand, yes, it's definitely the case that the Libertarian attitude ("you can't tell me to pick up my trash", "you can't tell me not to feed the bears") contributed to the problem. On the other hand, a series of very dry summers that removed the bears' usual food sources definitely made things worse, and the state's fish-and-game department seems to have spent more effort on trying to blame the victims of bear attacks ("she was cooking a pot roast!") than on doing anything about them. Not that it had the budget to do much anyway.

Of course there are all the standard Libertarian problems too. Yeah, we'll live out in the woods… in a tent city with no sewerage, and eventually we'll have to imprison ourselves behind an anti-bear wall. Yeah, I'll get this "church" I'm running exempted from taxes… except I have an ideological objection to dealing with the IRS in the first place. (And my neighbours are strangely unsympathetic, given that my exemption will increase their taxes.)

Like many Free Towners, Babiarz implied that it was grossly unfair for people to judge the Free Town Project by the views expressed on the Free Town Project website.

More generally, the effect of the Libertarians moving in seems very much like that of any failed government, except it's achieved deliberately. They get their people onto the committees, they vote down anything that involves spending money, they tie up money and time in frivolous lawsuits, and soon enough the roads wash out, buildings fall down, the streetlights are turned off, the library is open for three hours on a Wednesday morning, and the fire department is one part-timer with minimal equipment. (Building codes to prevent fires are of course unjustifiable government interference with FREEDOM.) They spend down the capital established by people before them, then (because they didn't realise they were doing it) get surprised when it runs out.

In other words what happened here isn't just the basic problem of Libertarianism that people don't have equal amounts of power and therefore can't necessarily enter into contracts on equal terms; it's that when you have a bunch of people whose guiding principle is that they want to be left alone, you don't have a community, and the place starts to reflect that.

And of course there's always That Guy, the one who in any discussion jumps immediately to why consensual cannibalism or incest shouldn't be illegal, or wants to stage hobo fights, or "had a long-standing belief that minors could consent to sexual relationships with adults", or

advocated loudly for the rights of women, though he never seemed to get beyond a very narrow zone of empowerment that largely concerned itself with the right to go without bras and underwear and the right to sell sex.

Some of their fellow Libertarians thought some of these people might be federal agents provocateur, but I've met That Guy. He grows on any fringe political movement, left or right, like mould. Spray frequently.

The main problem with the book is that Hongoltz-Hetling is writing for people with very little attention span. Each new chapter, and they're quite short, may jump back into the town's history (which is of some relevance in that Grafton has attracted people who didn't want to pay no taxes since before the Constitution was signed), or to a different person in the modern day; some of them have no dates, some are just shuffled out of order. I'd much rather have read either a chronological recounting of events or each individual person's story one after the other.

And there isn't really a conclusion to the story; most of the Libertarians have gradually drifted away as the project collapsed and the idea of taking over New Hampshire's state government got more appealing, but Grafton still has no actual businesses in town (it only had one when the Libertarians moved in), and the buildings are still falling down – while its neighbouring settlements, in much the same situation except with higher taxes, are places that have actual facilities and growing populations. Until the bears move in there too.

(Edit: Many of the best bits of this book are given in the review at [The New Republic]( bear-book-review-free-town-project).)

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 10:23am on 13 January 2021

    Er... I can't help thinking that maybe there are resource allocation board games/computer games/RPGs that these people should be forced to play! :-)

    W. Michael Gear's novel Outpost is about a Libertarian colony with no money and only personal contracts. They are forced to introduce a currency when the next wave of colonists includes a guy whose preferred social system is 'crime lord' rather than libertarian.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:48am on 13 January 2021

    Ah, but the game rules were obviously written by statists (the standard Libertarian insult, deployed in everything from arguments over fire precautions to personal breakups).

    While my natural tendencies are anarchic, I do quite like having things like reliable electricity, drinkable water, the ability to get my money back if a thing I bought doesn't work, and so on, without having to negotiate them personally. I have yet to see a convincing Libertarian refutation of the idea that, if it were actually unshackled from outside law, their model society wouldn't turn into bands of warlords fighting each other over whatever was scarce.

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