Review- Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear”

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)” (2020) (narrated by Kevin Stilwell) – Why did I let you fucking jabronis talk me into beach reading? This fucking sucked. Jia Tolentino better be better or there’s gonna be hell to pay!

In all seriousness: if there’s a group of people who deserve to be spoken of (and to) smugly, it’s libertarian ideologues. I don’t mean guys who just like being left alone to enjoy drugs, guns, and fireworks, and haven’t developed a class analysis. I’m sympathetic to that position (but consider developing a class analysis, guys). I mean the people who really think they’ve figured something out when they decide “government” is the problem and “free” markets are the solution. Especially at this late date, as most of the smarter libertarians become liberals and the meaner ones becomes Nazis, there’s such an unconsidered, Panglossian quality to the whole thing, such a satisfaction with received ideas whilst spinning their wheels frantically to convince themselves they’re free-thinkers, that it’s hard to avoid smugness. Hell, they’re hardly strangers to smugness themselves.

But smugness doesn’t make for a readable work of extended prose. There might be a few prose masters who can pull it off, but it’s a hard sell, and Hongoltz-Hetling is no master. To be fair, he doesn’t seem like he’d claim to be one. He seems like an affable, agreeable sort, a New Hampshire-based journalist. His writing style would be totally appropriate to crafting articles on quirky local stories with some poignant, lightly humorous sentiment at the end. The problem is, he wrote a book that is basically that article-ending sentiment, and a more pressing problem is, I listened to the whole thing.

“A Libertarian Walked Into A Bear” is the story of the little town of Grafton, New Hampshire, primarily in the first two decades of the twenty-first century but ranging to the town’s founding near the time of the American Revolution and the decades in between as well. Grafton is way the hell out there in the woods, at least as far as the east coast of the US is concerned. There are bears. At first, the white settlers hunted the bears and sold their pelts, clearing land so as to farm the rocky bullshit soil of New England. When it turned out that northern New England was in fact a blind alley in continental settler expansion, Grafton began a long slow decline in population and wealth. Bears came back. There weren’t and aren’t resources to do anything about it, or about the town’s other problems. It sucks pretty hardcore for Grafton.

Exacerbating the issues and forming the center of this book was the Free Town Project, an effort by Internet-borne libertarians to settle in Grafton and make it a model libertarian burg. I don’t recall if Hongoltz-Hetling made the numbers clear, but somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred libertarians answered the call in those halcyon Bush years, when libertarianism could pose as a viable path forward, before the financial meltdown and Black Lives Matter. Predictably, a great many pedants all moving to an isolated rural town didn’t make friends right away, despite newcomers and old hands agreeing that taxes suck (Grafton always hated taxes, as the author takes pains to point out, while smugly dissing the eighteenth century pioneer tax resistors’ bad spelling). As it turns out, New Hampshirites aren’t the native libertarians, just waiting for a spark from outside to ignore a bonfire of liberty. They’re mostly flinty Yankees who chose to live out of the way because they like living with people they always lived with and don’t like outsiders or change. Even when change means fewer taxes, a lot of people were resistant, especially when it was suggested by outsiders with a lot of other funny ideas.

Among other problems with this book, Hongoltz-Hetling does that annoying liberal thing where he accepts the libertarian “government versus liberty” framework, and expects to win the day by pointing out that “government” does good things and absence of it often causes problems. This is, in certain respects, “why don’t you move to Somalia if you hate government so much?” the book. It’s not like I like libertarians. I just hate shitty arguments, that don’t even have any juice to them anymore — I’ve never seen that line hurt a libertarian’s feelings — and especially hate them when they’re presented in a smug, “get a load of these freaks who hate the government!” tone.

There’s two related issues that compound these basic problems above and beyond the basic mediocrity of liberal political journalism. The first is that these freaks really aren’t that freaky. Hongoltz-Hetling puts a lot of weight on one founder of the project who turned out to be a pedophile… who was thrown out of the project before it really got underway (though more for optics reasons than anything else). The rest of the libertarians involved seem like fairly normal, if often pedantic and sometimes pretty gormless, white New Englanders of their generation. Some of them, like a guy who tries to create a church/free space but gets tripped up by taxes (and his refusal to apply for an IRS religious exemption), are even pretty sympathetic. Hongoltz-Hetling seems to be a canny enough writer to get that that guy and a few others are sympathetic, especially after church guy literally dies in a fire in said church. But that doesn’t change the fact that Hongoltz-Hetling looks down his nose at them, and expects us to do the same, from the extraordinarily short horse of contemporary liberalism.

The other problem is this- he does not make the case that libertarianism did that much to accelerate Grafton’s decline or exacerbate its bear problems. Grafton was declining when the libertarians got there. As the author took pains to point out, the locals always resisted the sort of taxation that might have made possible more public amenities that might induce people to move and/or remain there. The root problem really doesn’t seem to be ideology. The root problem seems to be economic marginality. The global economy doesn’t need anything Grafton produces, other than, perhaps, rural isolation for weirdos. Maybe if they had their shit together, the Graftonites could have plugged themselves better into an information/service economy, but that’s not entirely their fault. In their situation, considering what state and federal government generally does — tax their already poor farms, send their sons to war, and send money to develop towns on the opposite end of the country, like the booming Southwest (or research dollars to Dartmouth in nearby Hanover, NH) — you probably wouldn’t like government either. You don’t need to be a libertarian ideologue or servile to the rich to feel that way. The joke about libertarians moving to Somalia isn’t funny (to the extent it ever was) when you realize how badly imperialism and the Cold War screwed over that country, making the sort of “good government” American liberals take for granted impossible.

Of course, that’s not to say people can’t make bad situations worse. The closest thing to a real smoking gun Hongoltz-Hetling puts in the hands of the Free Town Project people (beside from insinuating that the church guy didn’t follow fire codes, without proving it) is that the libertarians encouraged a laissez-faire attitude towards trash disposal and the feeding of wild animals, thereby encouraging bears to become bolder. He lingers on the case of “Donut Lady,” a lady who fed bears donuts every day. The problem is, Donut Lady is a local, not a libertarian settler. Bears were already escalating, attacking pets, before the libertarians came. Moreover, the state, as Hongoltz-Hetling points out, does a shitty job of managing bears anyway, bound by muddled romantic notions of what wildlife “should be,” bureaucratic inertia, and funding issues. When locals take matters into their own hands and cull the bear population, Hongoltz-Hetling treats it like a war crime, when in other parts of the books he acts as though human-acclimated bears are in fact are war with us, and the Graftonite’s inability to do something about it shows their lack of civic virtue!

On top of that, Hongoltz-Hetling speculates that brain parasites from living around animals, especially cats (some prominent Graftonites in the book have cats), might be driving the madness he sees around him (but never conveys as being really mad- more just sad). I’ve literally heard altright guys make the same arguments about liberals and feminists (the trope of the crazy feminist cat lady). I’ve always said, frustrate a liberal long enough and he’ll break out the calipers and start doing biological determinism, but I’ve never seen them do it in response to a tiny group of hapless libertarians before. See something new every day, I guess.

Basically, this is some Daily Show-style profoundly inconsistent and incoherent slop, except not funny. “But the bears!” I can hear you say. “What about the bears, can’t they save the book?!” Well, reader, I give the book an extra half star, less for bear content — the author sees no or few bears and only intermittently passes on bear stories from his informants in a compelling fashion — than for llama content. He does tell one bravura anecdote about a woman’s pet llama rinsing a bear who wanders into her yard. That was cool. But otherwise, this was a shot at one of the fattest targets conceivable that lands flat on its face. **

Review- Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear”

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