A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear

Fair warning: I feel like I should get this out of the way right off the bat: I really can’t stand Libertarianism as a concept or ideology nor can I put up with Libertarians in general so I fully admit that I was hoping for some schadenfreude while reading this book.  While my beliefs about libertarianism didn’t change, this book was nothing like I thought it would be and I found myself moved by several of the townspeople’s stories and left with a feeling of sadness about the world that I didn’t expect.  The story told in this book is also humorous, irreverent, and timely in a way that I don’t think Hongoltz-Hetling could have imagined when he began to write it.  I would recommend this book for both political and non-political book fans.

From Goodreads:  A tiny American town’s plans for radical self-government overlooked one hairy detail: no one told the bears. Once upon a time, a group of libertarians got together and hatched the Free Town Project, a plan to take over an American town and completely eliminate its government. In 2004, they set their sights on Grafton, NH, a barely populated settlement with one paved road. When they descended on Grafton, public funding for pretty much everything shrank: the fire department, the library, the schoolhouse. State and federal laws became meek suggestions, scarcely heard in the town’s thick wilderness. The anything-goes atmosphere soon caught the attention of Grafton’s neighbors: the bears. Freedom-loving citizens ignored hunting laws and regulations on food disposal. They built a tent city in an effort to get off the grid. The bears smelled food and opportunity.

I remember hearing about the Free Town project from an NPR article I read a few years ago.  I was amused at the time but quickly forgot about it until this book came out.  There is A LOT to like about this book and Hongoltz-Hetling does a fantastic job of introducing readers to the unsuspecting townspeople who get invaded by the Libertarians and the Libertarians themselves, while not criticizing anyone (unless they invite that upon themselves) and not making fun of them (within reason).  From the history of the town, to the arrival of the bears, we find out that this is an area perfect for people who value freedom and personal liberty over taxes and government rule.  Hongoltz-Hetling is a journalist so he spends considerable time in the town, interviewing people several times over a period of years so we get to see what happens to them and if they are better or worse off with no rules.  For me, this is where the book shines.  The Libertarians, for the most part, are miserable and self-defeating and can’t seem to figure out that if they were to pay even a small amount of taxes their lives would improve exponentially. The townspeople are almost quirky to the point of unbelievable, from the woman who feeds the bears doughnuts every day (and sees nothing wrong with this!) to the ex-Moonie whose kittens get eaten by the bears.  

This book is not without its faults however.  I particularly had a hard time with the way Hongoltz-Hetling seemed to gloss over the many Libertarians he mentions in this book who are pedophiles or don’t believe in consent laws. This comes up a few times and each time it left me wishing he would have talked a bit more about how this is a major issue in the Libertarian party.  There is also a section in the book where he talks about diseases in bears that could have been cut completely as it did nothing to further the story and in fact dragged it down. I didn’t see the point in those chapters.  Despite these minor issues, I felt this was a fascinating look at why Libertarianism would never work as a political system, let alone a major political party. This small town devolves into a wasteland of anarchy, crime, and poverty in a few short years because people refuse to take care of each other and don’t see the value of social services. This may be a light-hearted look at a small town, but it is still a cautionary tale.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I thought it was very well-written and I could tell Hongoltz-Hetling really took the time to get to know the citizens of Grafton and the members of the Free Town Project and treated them with respect. This book won’t change anyone’s mind about Libertarianism, and in fact, reinforces the most ardent criticisms about it. However, this book is humorous and fun and at times absolutely bonkers so I would recommend it.

Favorite Quote: “It’s not clear whether, at this point, the Babiarzes fully understood that the libertarians were operating under vampire rules—the invitation to enter, once offered, could not be rescinded.”

Author: Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Published: September 15, 2020

Rating: 3.5 Stars

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