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How a New Hampshire libertarian utopia was foiled by bears


Black bear “Honey” from Malta in Osnabrück Zoo
Friso Gentsch/picture alliance via Getty Images

Seriously, this happened. You should absolutely read about it.

Every ideology produces its own brand of fanatics, but there’s something special about libertarianism.

I don’t mean that as an insult, either. I love libertarians! For the most part, they’re fun and interesting people. But they also tend to be cocksure about core principles in a way most people aren’t. If you’ve ever encountered a freshly minted Ayn Rand enthusiast, you know what I mean.

And yet one of the things that makes political philosophy so amusing is that it’s mostly abstract. You can’t really prove anything — it’s just a never-ending argument about values. Every now and again, though, reality intervenes in a way that illustrates the absurdity of particular ideas.

Something like this happened in the mid-2000s in a small New Hampshire town called Grafton. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, author of a new book titled A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, says it’s the “boldest social experiment in modern American history.” I don’t know if it’s the “boldest,” but it’s definitely one of the strangest.

The experiment was called the “Free Town Project” (it later became the “Free State Project”), and the goal was simple: take over Grafton’s local government and turn it into a libertarian utopia. The movement was cooked up by a small group of ragtag libertarian activists who saw in Grafton a unique opportunity to realize their dreams of a perfectly logical and perfectly market-based community. Needless to say, utopia never arrived, but the bears did! (I promise I’ll explain below.)

I reached out to Hongoltz-Hetling to talk about his book. I wanted to know what happened in New Hampshire, why the experiment failed, and what the whole saga can teach us not just about libertarianism but about the dangers of loving theory more than reality.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

How would you describe the “Free Town Project” to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I’d put it like this: There’s a national community of libertarians that has developed over the last 40 or 50 years, and they’ve never really had a place to call their own. They’ve never been in charge of a nation, or a state, or even a city. And they’ve always really wanted to create a community that would showcase what would happen if they implemented their principles on a broad scale.

So in 2004, a group of them decided that they wanted to take some action on this deficiency, and they decided to launch what they called the Free Town Project. They sent out a call to a bunch of loosely affiliated national libertarians and told everyone to move to this one spot and found this utopian community that would then serve as a shining jewel for the world to see that libertarian philosophies worked not only in theory but in practice. And they chose a town in rural New Hampshire called Grafton that already had fewer than 1,000 people in it. And they just showed up and started working to take over the town government and get rid of every rule and regulation and tax expense that they could.

Sean Illing

Of all the towns in all the world, why Grafton?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

They didn’t choose it in a vacuum. They actually conducted a very careful and thorough search. They zeroed in on the state of New Hampshire fairly quickly because that’s the “Live Free or Die” state. They knew that it would align well with their philosophy of individualism and personal responsibility. But once they decided on New Hampshire, they actually visited dozens of small towns, looking for that perfect mix of factors that would enable them to take over.

What they needed was a town that was small enough that they could come up and elbow the existing citizenry, someplace where land was cheap, where they could come in and buy up a bunch of land and kind of host their incoming colonists. And they wanted a place that had no zoning, because they wanted to be able to live in nontraditional housing situations and not have to go through the rigamarole of building or buying expensive homes or preexisting homes.

Sean Illing

Wait, what do you mean by “nontraditional housing”?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

As the people of Grafton soon found out, a nontraditional housing situation meant a camp in the woods or a bunch of shipping containers or whatever. They brought in yurts and mobile homes and formed little clusters of cabins and tents. There was one location called “Tent City,” where a bunch of people just lived in tents from day to day. They all united under this broad umbrella principle of “personal freedom,” but as you’d expect, there was a lot of variation in how they exercised it.

Sean Illing

What did the demographics of the group look like? Are we talking mostly about white guys or Ayn Rand bros who found each other on the internet?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Well, we’re talking about hundreds of people, though the numbers aren’t all that clear. They definitely skewed male. They definitely skewed white. Some of them had a lot of money, which gave them the freedom to be able to pick up roots and move to a small town in New Hampshire. A lot of them had very little money and nothing keeping them in their places. So they were able to pick up and come in. But most of them just didn’t have those family situations or those 9-to-5 jobs, and that was really what characterized them more than anything else.

Sean Illing

And how did they take over the local government? Did they meet much resistance?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

When they first showed up, they hadn’t told anyone that they were doing this, with the exception of a couple of sympathetic libertarians within the community. And so all of a sudden the people in Grafton woke up to the fact that their town was in the process of being invaded by a bunch of idealistic libertarians. And they were pissed. They had a big town meeting. It was a very shouty, very angry town meeting, during which they told the Free Towners who dared to come that they didn’t want them there and they didn’t appreciate being treated as if their community was an experimental playpen for libertarians to come in and try to prove something.

But the libertarians, even though they never outnumbered the existing Grafton residents, what they found was that they could come in, and they could find like-minded people, traditional conservatives or just very liberty-oriented individuals, who agreed with them on enough issues that, despite that angry opposition, they were able to start to work their will on the levers of government.

They couldn’t pass some of the initiatives they wanted. They tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the school district and to completely discontinue paying for road repairs, or to declare Grafton a United Nations free zone, some of the outlandish things like that. But they did find that a lot of existing Grafton residents would be happy to cut town services to the bone. And so they successfully put a stranglehold on things like police services, things like road services and fire services and even the public library. All of these things were cut to the bone.

Sean Illing

Then what happened over the next few years or so?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

By pretty much any measure you can look at to gauge a town’s success, Grafton got worse. Recycling rates went down. Neighbor complaints went up. The town’s legal costs went up because they were constantly defending themselves from lawsuits from Free Towners. The number of sex offenders living in the town went up. The number of recorded crimes went up. The town had never had a murder in living memory, and it had its first two, a double homicide, over a roommate dispute.

So there were all sorts of negative consequences that started to crop up. And meanwhile, the town that would ordinarily want to address these things, say with a robust police force, instead found that it was hamstrung. So the town only had one full-time police officer, a single police chief, and he had to stand up at town meeting and tell people that he couldn’t put his cruiser on the road for a period of weeks because he didn’t have money to repair it and make it a safe vehicle.

Basically, Grafton became a Wild West, frontier-type town.

Sean Illing

When did the bears show up?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

It turns out that if you have a bunch of people living in the woods in nontraditional living situations, each of which is managing food in their own way and their waste streams in their own way, then you’re essentially teaching the bears in the region that every human habitation is like a puzzle that has to be solved in order to unlock its caloric payload. And so the bears in the area started to take notice of the fact that there were calories available in houses.

One thing that the Free Towners did that encouraged the bears was unintentional, in that they just threw their waste out how they wanted. They didn’t want the government to tell them how to manage their potential bear attractants. The other way was intentional, in that some people just started feeding the bears just for the joy and pleasure of watching them eat.

As you can imagine, things got messy and there was no way for the town to deal with it. Some people were shooting the bears. Some people were feeding the bears. Some people were setting booby traps on their properties in an effort to deter the bears through pain. Others were throwing firecrackers at them. Others were putting cayenne pepper on their garbage so that when the bears sniffed their garbage, they would get a snout full of pepper.

It was an absolute mess.

Sean Illing

We’re talking about black bears specifically. For the non-bear experts out there, black bears are not known to be aggressive toward humans. But the bears in Grafton were … different.

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Bears are very smart problem-solving animals. They can really think their way through problems. And that was what made them aggressive in Grafton. In this case, a reasonable bear would understand that there was food to be had, that it was going to be rewarded for being bolder. So they started aggressively raiding food and became less likely to run away when a human showed up.

There are lots of great examples in the book of bears acting in bold, unusually aggressive manners, but it culminated in 2012, when there was a black bear attack in the town of Grafton. That might not seem that unusual, but, in fact, New Hampshire had not had a black bear attack for at least 100 years leading up to that. So the whole state had never seen a single bear attack, and now here in Grafton, a woman was attacked in her home by a black bear.

And then, a few years after that, a second woman was attacked, not in Grafton but in a neighboring town. And since the book was written and published, there’s actually been a third bear attack, also in the same little cluster and the same little region of New Hampshire. And I think it’s very clear that, unless something changes, more bear attacks will come.

Luckily, no one’s been killed, but people have been pretty badly injured.

“It’s very easy to fall into this trap of believing that if only everybody followed this or that principle, then society would become this perfect system”

Sean Illing

You’re fair, even sympathetic, to the libertarians you profile in this book, but I do wonder if you came to see them increasingly as fanatics.

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

You know, “libertarian” is such a weird umbrella term for a very diverse group of people. Some libertarians are built around the idea of white supremacy and racism. That was not the case with these libertarians. Most of the libertarians that I met were kind, decent people who would be generous with a neighbor in any given moment. But in the abstract, when they’re at a town meeting, they will vote to hurt that neighbor by cutting off, say, support for road plowing.

So I guess what I noticed is a strange disconnect between their personalities or their day-to-day interactions and the broader implications of their philosophies and their political movement. Not sure I’d use the word “fanatic,” but definitely a weird disconnect.

Sean Illing

There’s a lesson in this for anyone interested in seeing it, which is that if you try to make the world fit neatly into an ideological box, you’ll have to distort or ignore reality to do it — usually with terrible consequences.

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Yeah, I think that’s true for libertarianism and really all philosophies of life. It’s very easy to fall into this trap of believing that if only everybody followed this or that principle, then society would become this perfect system.

Sean Illing

Did any of the characters in this story come to doubt their libertarianism as a result of what happened in Grafton? Or was it mostly a belief that libertarianism can’t fail, it can only be failed?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

One of the central characters in the book is a firefighter named John Babiarz. And John had the distinction of running for the governor of New Hampshire on the libertarian platform, and did better than any other gubernatorial libertarian candidate has ever done in America. And he invited the libertarians to come in and begin the Free Town Project. He was their local connection.

But by the end of the project [sometime in 2016], he had really drawn some distinctions between himself and many of the extremist libertarians who came to town. He still considers himself to be a libertarian, and a very devout one at that, but by the end of the project he was at odds with most of the other libertarians. And it shows that until you actually have a libertarian-run community, it’s very hard to say what it is or what it will look like.

Sean Illing

In the end, do you think these people bumped up against the limits of libertarianism, or is this more about the particular follies of a particular group of people in a particular place?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I think they bumped up against the follies of libertarianism. I really do think that there is a hard wall of reality that exists that’s going to foil any effort to implement libertarianism on a broad scale. And I think if you gave a libertarian the magic wand and allowed them to transform society the way that they wanted to, it wouldn’t work the way they imagined, and I think it would break down just as Grafton did.

Maybe that’s the lesson.

Source: How a New Hampshire libertarian utopia was foiled by bears

What do you think?

Written by Sean Illing

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