OCTOBER 21, 2020
BEARS HAVE RECENTLY been enjoying a vacation from usual human activity. Wildlife conservationists have noted impressive ursine comebacks during the pandemic. Some of them have wandered down Main Streets. My own town in New Hampshire just threatened $500 fines on anyone who dares to not properly discard trash. “We have learned that we must be tough to manage our trash attractants and to ensure that local bears and residents can safely co-exist,” noted a stern email.
But just down the road from me in the small town of Grafton, principles like this are anathema to a gun-toting collection of libertarians who try to handle their bear problems a bit differently, as journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling chronicles in the closely reported book A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear.
Grafton made national news in 2003 when libertarians associated with an initiative called the Free State Project began flocking there with the goal of weaning the small New Hampshire town from its already tiny government and proving the merit of their idea that people should live under no government at all. Having extreme political views in America is no rarity, but the actual implementation of a controlled social experiment is rare. Suffice to say, it didn’t end well.
Hongoltz-Hetling got interested in Grafton after he heard stories of local bears acting strangely. He follows the situation as it gets weirder, and the book delivers an extended punch line to its joke title, becoming more gruesome even as it gets more humorous.
After the the libertarians did away with Grafton’s public funds and most rules, bears also wandered in for lunch because of the lack of trash regulations, even as fires ravaged the town in the absence of a properly funded fire department. A surprisingly protective llama named Hurricane launches its own counter-attack on a bear who comes too close to Dianne Burrington’s sheep farm, and survivalists living in a tent city nearby put up a hapless sign that reads No Bears Allowed. John Babiarz, a volunteer firefighter who is one of the central figures in the book, is convinced that the bears are “watching him,” as gullible residents feed bears their uneaten donuts.
Politics lead to policy and policy to consequences. The government-hating residents take bear management into their own hands, which involves “cayenne pepper, electrified fencing, motion sensors, booby traps, and radios that constantly blasted out disembodied voices.” While some are hell-bent on going to war on the bears, others take to feeding the them as “they sat, like rotund and feral wood-gods demanding tribute.” The result is as much a fiasco as one would expect, and in 2012, the town experienced New Hampshire’s first bear attack in living memory.
Grafton was not an illogical choice for a libertarian takeover. It had been tax-averse since its 1761 founding and even once briefly seceded from New Hampshire. Located in a remote part of the “Live Free or Die” state, it seemed like the perfect place for an every-person-for-themselves tryout. But in spite of the preexisting taxphobic tendencies, many locals were adamantly opposed to the libertarian homesteaders from the beginning. One accused the newcomers of “trying to cram freedom down our throats.” And the situation evolves from there into what the author calls “an unmitigated disaster” as the bear behavior becomes more bizarre and rambunctious. “[S]omething unusual seemed to be plaguing Grafton, something with the power to pit neighbor against neighbor, freedoms against security, man against beast.”
This quirky book about bears is timely and now carries an urgent global message. Conversations around personal freedoms are intensifying with real implications for public health. Viruses, like bears, spread in the absence of a competent collective response, and the vulnerable are the hardest hit by the liberties taken by others. In Grafton, it’s not the “liberators” who are attacked by bears, but “marginalized women living on fixed means in remote towns” who are forced to contend with the repercussions of decisions not their own.
Hongoltz-Hetling takes the time to render the real people of Grafton on the page. The account is stronger throughout because of the fair treatment given to the people whose lives inform the story, a reminder that any political story is necessarily a human one. We learn how beliefs have been shaped by life circumstances, whether they’re a libertarian like John Babiarz with a fear of authoritarian government or a “Vietnam-era vet who became an acolyte of the controversial Reverend Sun Myung” in the case of Jessica Soule.
The author lets individuals have their version of the story before citing factors excluded by their worldview that make the reality more complicated. The libertarians are never presented as a simplified group, but as individuals with their own backstories. They have reasons for arriving at their political leanings. Some of the best scenes involve the infighting among the Free State settlers. It starts off so early that one of the founders of the Free State Project, Larry Pendarvis, doesn’t even make it to Grafton because his difficult-to-defend views like the right to traffic in human organs or organize “bum fights” stirs up so much controversy among libertarians and locals alike. The state’s Libertarian Party even accuses him of turning Grafton against libertarian causes, and tells him to stay away from New Hampshire. Pendarvis doesn’t give up his views, but he does give up on Grafton.
Hongoltz-Hetling doesn’t condemn individuals for their beliefs, but he condemns actions like the killing of 13 bears in hibernation. By turning to the archives in addition to the contemporary reportage, he builds a case that libertarian ideas have little carryover to the real world when it comes to the value of unprofitable public services like wildlife management or firefighting. But he turns his critique to the Fish and Game department, too, for scolding individuals for improper trash disposal, conveniently diverting responsibility from the state. They’re as much a part of the problem as the libertarians are.
The book is less forthcoming when it comes to suggesting fixes. Both the Grafton project and the book itself peter out to their endings when the Free State Project pulls the “trigger” on the libertarian plan to host a statewide takeover of New Hampshire. In this scheme, Grafton is just another town, and libertarians moving to the state often end up, ironically, in larger towns with more government-funded amenities. Meanwhile, wildlife attacks continue in the backwoods of New Hampshire (bobcats this time, not bears).
Life continues, or ends. Hurricane the llama dies of old age, and longtime Grafton resident Jessica Soule moves to Arizona. While this may be a disappointment to some, it is the story of a real and messy world in which neat resolutions are rarely realistic. Tying a bow on it would do a disservice to the complex and ongoing nature of this story, both in terms of the wildlife issue and the political angle.
The central observation of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear is the insight that there is, in fact, a deep connection between strange bear behavior and the “the boldest social experiment in modern American history.” By zeroing in on bears as a subject, the book makes a compelling case that even those who believe in freedom above every other virtue are not free of the ecosystem in which they live.
Grafton was a concentrated case study in the philosophy that an individual’s actions are solely their own business. The bear attacks were one symbol of the dire consequences that can follow. We are currently seeing the implications of this type of thinking on a national scale, when personal freedom is used to justify shirking public health recommendations around mask wearing, physical distancing, or limitations on gatherings. At a time when we are all being asked to think more about the ways our actions affect others, the “personal freedom” is getting put to the test in our country as it did in Grafton. For now, the bears are winning.