Thoughts on A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I’ve finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, a seriocomic take on the Libertarian Free State Movement by illustrating what happened when the “Free Town Movement” came to Grafton, New Hampshire.

In short, it’s a funny book if you like black humor. (I do.) I am also amused that a couple years ago, I was seriously considering writing a novel that would be a spiritual successor to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The question central to the novel would be, “What happens to Galt Gulch if it was based on other libertarian attempts to create a utopia?” I planned for it to be a horror novel. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear is, essentially, what I was going to write, except funny, and with bears.

Hongoltz-Hetling has a good sense of the absurd when it comes to writing about Libertarians (and libertarians who share a libertarian ideology but don’t belong to the Libertarian Party.) From the way they’re constantly interjecting the specter of violence into peaceful situations, or how they’ll bring up Nazi genocide of Jews to equate it with town ordinances, or noting how Libertarians think it’s unfair for people to base their opinions of Libertarians on information created by Libertarians on Libertarian websites and message boards.

It helps that where they set up shop, Grafton was having bear problems. Because, well, bears are the perfect libertarians. (Clearly, not Libertarians, unless the party allows bear membership.) The bears are the ultimate foils to the human libertarians – they live precisely the way that libertarians imagine they want to live.

Except, of course, they don’t.

Both in the research for my novel (which didn’t get written, as I’ve written damned little in the past couple of years) and in every conversation I’ve ever had with a Libertarian (or libertarian), I suffer intense frustration. Because. Libertarianism. Is. Stupid.

Libertarians imagine that if you divert a river on your property, depriving thousands or millions of people downstream of the water upon which their community and lives depend, an argument based on their version of “reason” will stop thirsty people from tearing down the dam. Likewise, they imagine if they poison that same water, the same arguments will stop those people downstream from stopping them.

It’s insane.

Even more insane is their great love of property rights. Take New Hampshire, for instance.

New Hampshire, when “discovered” by Europeans, was simply land. It was turned into property in 1606 when the British monarchy under James I created two joint-stock companies to divvy up what would be called New England. That the land was already inhabited was irrelevant to the government of England, but the property rights of modern New Hampshire descend directly from the English monarchy. In time, the charter of the joint-stock companies would be divvied up by other charters and legal actions (and wars to rid the territory of its pesky original inhabitants) to form the Province of New Hampshire in 1629. In 1776 it became an independent republic, eventually joining the United States by ratifying the Articles of Confederation in 1778.

This might sound bland, but it demonstrates the mechanisms through which land is turned into property. Somewhere, a government (in this case, the English government of James I) decides that a patch of ground somewhere belongs to them. In most cases, as it was in New Hampshire, the land is already occupied, but that rarely bothers the governments making these declarations. Then the government starts selling the land – say, to joint-stock companies – which in turn sell the land to yet other people in a stately progression of bureaucracy. If the land’s original inhabitants need clearing out, the government employs the soldiers and weapons to do this or allows colonists to handle it on their own, or some combination of the two.

The very property rights the libertarians love so much arise from the statist violence they claim to deplore. I find it the heights of hypocrisy that people who so much love the government doling out the property they created by legal fiat retain the right to tax that property through another use of legal fiat. And to do so while ignoring the mass slaughter of the original inhabitants of the land makes their hypocrisy gross.

The rallying cry of New Hampshire libertarians should be “give the land back to the Abenaki.”

(The patron saint of libertarianism, Ayn Rand, had settled this question in a bit of mental gymnastics that anyone familiar with libertarian “reason” is acquainted. She argued that it was laudable to murder the First Nations and steal their land because those First Nations tribes were insufficiently productive. Of course, this reasoning doesn’t apply to modern libertarians, to whom it would seem intolerable statist violence. Apparently, the libertarian love of “reason” does not include the study of poetic justice or irony.)

Which is more about what triggers me than the quality of the book!

Overall, the book is another study of a libertarian community gone awry. You’d think if libertarians were good at this, they’d succeed at some point. There are a couple of million libertarians in America. Much smaller groups of people with far fewer resources than US libertarians have succeeded in creating intentional communities that have lasted much longer. Heck, religions find it pretty easy to do. There are monasteries worldwide, some of which have existed for centuries, almost totally outside of society, living lives the rest of us consider downright weird.

Furthermore, one of these supposedly reason-loving libertarians’ favorite sayings is that when a person’s ideology conflicts with reality, reality wins. So, despite there being a couple of million libertarians in the US and many more millions all over the world, their inability to create a community (much less a country) with libertarian values could be seen as a sign that, perhaps, their sense of reason is in conflict with, well, y’ know, reality. I mean, even their arch-nemesis, the USSR, lasted for eighty years. They can’t get anywhere to adopt their principles, much less a run the USSR’s duration and severity.

(In every instance, they claim that the problem is always “not enough freedom.” But, dudes, you’ve tried to make this work on isolated islands and shit. If your ideology is such a hot-house flower that it can bloom nowhere, I think it’s time to either revise your ideology or get a new one. Stick with it, without serious modification, is kinna like being a Stalinist. It doesn’t work, buddy, and it’s time to do some rethinking.)

Again, I was triggered! Grr! Libertarians!

The book is not without flaws. Probably because it’s humorous in tone, it lacks depth. It’s one thing to talk about those whacky Libertarians in Grafton and how they gutted the few services in that poor, rural community.

More significantly, while New Hampshire has become the de facto center of libertarianism in the US, it is a national movement with profound repercussions for the nation. To some extent, we are all Grafton because long before some libertarians decided to go to Grafton, they went to Washington, DC. Whether in the form of Alan Greenspan (a personal friend and devotee of Ayn Rand), Betsy DeVos, or Rand Paul (another open devotee of Ayn Rand), libertarians are in the highest echelons of power.

The problems described in Grafton by Hongoltz-Hetling are being played out on a national scale. Underfunded libraries, collapsing roads, budget cuts to public education, all done in the name of reduced taxation. And the cries of freedom are ringing from coast-to-coast in the form of people ignoring public hygiene during a pandemic – causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Or the defense of carnage in schools, which Americans have forgotten since the pandemic has mostly shut them down, was nearly a daily occurrence (and will likely be, again, when covid-19 has run its course). Its defense was the same calls of “freedom” of the libertarians.

The truth is that libertarianism is mainstream. While members of the Libertarian Party are an extreme form of it, the rough outlines are accepted by many Americans: that personal freedom is the only kind of freedom the government should enforce (particularly the right to bear arms and exercise their use in all manner of situations, as the country’s numerous castle doctrine laws permit), that the private sector can do everything better than the government, and that taxes are a plague to be eradicated at all costs.

Should any seemingly negative consequences appear from all these guns, corporate power, or slashed taxes, the solution is also very libertarian – the problem of guns is solved with more guns, the problems with corporate power is more corporate power, and the problem of low taxes is lower taxes.

I wouldn’t have minded a more frank discussion on the role of libertarian ideology in the US overall. It seems relevant.

Still, the book is amusing. You should go read it.

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