Blog Post

The Things We Believe In: Thoughts on Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling's "A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear"

A picture of an American brown bear by Janko Ferlič

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s 2020 book A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear: The Utopian Plot To Liberate An American Town (And Some Bears) offers a glimpse at the socio-political equivalent of a train crash. The author’s excavation of the history of Grafton, New Hampshire, and his interviews with its residents etch humorous, yet haunting portrayals of a utopia project that never came together and thus fell apart.

This is not a book that tries to disprove libertarianism and its core tenants of personal liberty, anti-government sentiment, tax avoidance, and dog-eat-dog economics. Hongoltz-Hetling’s recounting of the Free Town Project—the 2003 effort by libertarians to overtake Grafton’s government by simply moving en mass and voting themselves in—instead illustrates how fractious and divisive a belief system based on “following logic chains into whatever dark places they lead, regardless of social mores” can be (Hongoltz-Hetling, 28). The Project was successful in dismantling much of the public infrastructure the municipal government had held in place as roads grew muddied and fire-fighting equipment (and volunteers) became scarce, but it accomplished little else. If anything, the town’s utter failure to replicate Atlas Shrugged‘s Galt’s Gulch drove prospective libertarian settlers to towns like Keene that had “triple Grafton’s property tax rate” and used those funds for public amenities like “a baseball team, tennis and basketball courts, a village green with a musical bandstand, playgrounds, the restored historic Colonial Theater, manicured parks, and a bustling downtown strip” (231-232). If libertarians themselves would rather pay taxes and complain about it than live tax-free without the very things said taxes pay for, then what exactly do libertarians believe in? It is this question that this book wants to explore. Libertarianism is compared to cults via the Unification Church (which also set up shop in Grafton for a time) and to evangelical Christianity’s aspirations of finding personal truth in scripture.

And, perhaps most directly, Hongoltz-Hetling points to the many contradictory things we believe about bears. Some people believe that the best action when confronted by a charging bear is to play dead (to disastrous consequences, as the story of Cynthia Dusel-Bacon proves) (51). One woman in Grafton thought that she could befriend them by feeding them doughnuts only for the bears to expand their feeding enterprise to her neighbors’ garbage cans (121, 236). Bears are simultaneously too dangerous to live among humans yet also kept as pets by those brave enough (or reckless enough) to do so. When a bear and her cubs began raiding the wealthier town of Hanover for its garbage, its residents opted to spend thousands of tax dollars to relocate the bears; in contrast, a resident of Grafton was attacked by a bear and got a “half-hearted effort to capture it” by the state (229). When the safety of bears (and the comfort of middle-class housing) is prioritized over the protection of those who cannot afford to distance themselves from the hunting grounds of wild animals, cognitive dissonance reigns supreme.

There is sometimes no logical reason for the things we believe in. A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear showcases what happens when a group of people with just the sheer entertainment of an idea of a belief get the opportunity to exercise that belief to the best of their ability. My mind continuously drifts back to this book, especially so considering the past year-and-a-half. In January of 2021, a group of citizens not much larger than the Free Town Project’s settler caravan attempted to effectively overturn the US presidential election because they thought that they could. Whether they knew how they could do it or what they would do once they did doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they believed that it was not just possible but their God-given right to do so. Over the nearly nine months since then, experts are baffled that people will not take any COVID-19 vaccine, despite attempts by state governments to incentivize the recalcitrant with free guns or lottery tickets. Instead, anti-vaxxers would rather believe that the vaccine acts as a sort of pseudo-virus shedding protein particles that will infect other people with the vaccine or that there are hidden microchips that will act as the Mark of the Beast, denying them access to Heaven in the Coming Days. And yet, at the same time, they will believe that hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin will cure COVID. The same people that do not trust pharmaceutical companies or government-sponsored health initiatives simultaneously believe in the medical institutions that created these medicines, even if they’re using them incorrectly.

The Free Town Project, the Anti-Vax Movement, the January 6th Insurrection are all rooted in the stories that we tell about what our lives are or should be. In other words, they are all examples of worldmaking in progress. Granted, no amount of belief will make a mountain leap from the ground, and just because a group of libertarians believed that if they all congregated in one town, they could form the perfect society. But their beliefs and their actions directly affected the lives of everyone in the town of Grafton.  If that energy were channeled towards solving climate change or redistributing the illicit gains of mega-corporations like Google and Amazon, the world would no doubt change drastically. Sadly, there are still plenty of people who don't believe that these problems even exist. Worse still, there are people who do.

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This is my first post on HASTAC after lurking for quite a while. I hope that this little essay can help spark a discussion on worldmaking practices, the narratives that underpin our worldviews, and perhaps some reflections on humanity's bear conservation efforts (or lack thereof). I look forward to reading the responses!

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