BOOK REVIEW: When “A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear”, nobody wins except the reader

black and white etching of Elisha calling she-bears to maul boys mocking Elisha

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.

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 253 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 had to stay isolated 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 where 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 30. 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.