Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Town That Went Feral

quote [ When a group of libertarians set about scrapping their local government, chaos descended. And then the bears moved in. ]

Ah, libertarianism. When actually put into practice, it works about as well as any sane adult would expect. With bears.

Full article in extended.


In its public education campaigns, the U.S. National Park Service stresses an important distinction: If you find yourself being attacked by a brown or grizzly bear, YES, DO PLAY DEAD. Spread your arms and legs and cling to the ground with all your might, facing downward; after a few attempts to flip you over (no one said this would be easy), the bear will, most likely, leave. By contrast, if you find yourself being attacked by a black bear, NO, DO NOT PLAY DEAD. You must either flee or, if that’s not an option, fight it off, curved claws and 700 psi-jaws and all.

But don’t worry—it almost never comes to this. As one park service PSA noted this summer, bears “usually just want to be left alone. Don’t we all?” In other words, if you encounter a black bear, try to look big, back slowly away, and trust in the creature’s inner libertarian. Unless, that is, the bear in question hails from certain wilds of western New Hampshire. Because, as Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s new book suggests, that unfortunate animal may have a far more aggressive disposition, and relate to libertarianism first and foremost as a flavor of human cuisine.

Hongoltz-Hetling is an accomplished journalist based in Vermont, a Pulitzer nominee and George Polk Award winner. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears) sees him traversing rural New England as he reconstructs a remarkable, and remarkably strange, episode in recent history. This is the so-called Free Town Project, a venture wherein a group of libertarian activists attempted to take over a tiny New Hampshire town, Grafton, and transform it into a haven for libertarian ideals—part social experiment, part beacon to the faithful, Galt’s Gulch meets the New Jerusalem. These people had found one another largely over the internet, posting manifestos and engaging in utopian daydreaming on online message boards. While their various platforms and bugbears were inevitably idiosyncratic, certain beliefs united them: that the radical freedom of markets and the marketplace of ideas was an unalloyed good; that “statism” in the form of government interference (above all, taxes) was irredeemably bad. Left alone, they believed, free individuals would thrive and self-regulate, thanks to the sheer force of “logic,” “reason,” and efficiency. For inspirations, they drew upon precedents from fiction (Ayn Rand loomed large) as well as from real life, most notably a series of micro-nation projects ventured in the Pacific and Caribbean during the 1970s and 1980s.

None of those micro-nations, it should be observed, panned out, and things in New Hampshire don’t bode well either—especially when the humans collide with a newly brazen population of bears, themselves just “working to create their own utopia,” property lines and market logic be damned. The resulting narrative is simultaneously hilarious, poignant, and deeply unsettling. Sigmund Freud once described the value of civilization, with all its “discontents,” as a compromise product, the best that can be expected from mitigating human vulnerability to “indifferent nature” on one hand and our vulnerability to one another on the other. Hongoltz-Hetling presents, in microcosm, a case study in how a politics that fetishizes the pursuit of “freedom,” both individual and economic, is in fact a recipe for impoverishment and supercharged vulnerability on both fronts at once. In a United States wracked by virus, mounting climate change, and ruthless corporate pillaging and governmental deregulation, the lessons from one tiny New Hampshire town are stark indeed.


“In a country known for fussy states with streaks of independence,” Hongoltz-Hetling observes, “New Hampshire is among the fussiest and the streakiest.” New Hampshire is, after all, the Live Free or Die state, imposing neither an income nor a sales tax, and boasting, among other things, the highest per capita rate of machine gun ownership. In the case of Grafton, the history of Living Free—so to speak—has deep roots. The town’s Colonial-era settlers started out by ignoring “centuries of traditional Abenaki law by purchasing land from founding father John Hancock and other speculators.” Next, they ran off Royalist law enforcement, come to collect lumber for the king, and soon discovered their most enduring pursuit: the avoidance of taxes. As early as 1777, Grafton’s citizens were asking their government to be spared taxes and, when they were not, just stopped paying them.

Nearly two and a half centuries later, Grafton has become something of a magnet for seekers and quirky types, from adherents of the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon to hippie burnouts and more. Particularly important for the story is one John Babiarz, a software designer with a Krusty the Klown laugh, who decamped from Big-Government-Friendly Connecticut in the 1990s to homestead in New Hampshire with his equally freedom-loving wife, Rosalie. Entering a sylvan world that was, Hongoltz-Hetling writes, “almost as if they had driven through a time warp and into New England’s revolutionary days, when freedom outweighed fealty and trees outnumbered taxes,” the two built a new life for themselves, with John eventually coming to head Grafton’s volunteer fire department (which he describes as a “mutual aid” venture) and running for governor on the libertarian ticket.

Although John’s bids for high office failed, his ambitions remained undimmed, and in 2004 he and Rosalie connected with a small group of libertarian activists. Might not Grafton, with its lack of zoning laws and low levels of civic participation, be the perfect place to create an intentional community based on Logic and Free Market Principles? After all, in a town with fewer than 800 registered voters, and plenty of property for sale, it would not take much for a committed group of transplants to establish a foothold, and then win dominance of municipal governance. And so the Free Town Project began. The libertarians expected to be greeted as liberators, but from the first town meeting, they faced the inconvenient reality that many of Grafton’s presumably freedom-loving citizens saw them as outsiders first, and compatriots second—if at all. Tensions flared further when a little Googling revealed what “freedom” entailed for some of the new colonists. One of the original masterminds of the plan, a certain Larry Pendarvis, had written of his intention to create a space honoring the freedom to “traffic organs, the right to hold duels, and the God-given, underappreciated right to organize so-called bum fights.” He had also bemoaned the persecution of the “victimless crime” that is “consensual cannibalism.” (“Logic is a strange thing,” observes Hongoltz-Hetling.)

While Pendarvis eventually had to take his mail-order Filipina bride business and dreams of municipal takeovers elsewhere (read: Texas), his comrades in the Free Town Project remained undeterred. Soon, they convinced themselves that, evidence and reactions to Pendarvis notwithstanding, the Project must actually enjoy the support of a silent majority of freedom-loving Graftonites. How could it not? This was Freedom, after all. And so the libertarians keep coming, even as Babiarz himself soon came to rue the fact that “the libertarians were operating under vampire rules—the invitation to enter, once offered, could not be rescinded.” The precise numbers are hard to pin down, but ultimately the town’s population of a little more than 1,100 swelled with 200 new residents, overwhelmingly men, with very strong opinions and plenty of guns.

Hongoltz-Hetling profiles many newcomers, all of them larger-than-life, yet quite real. The people who joined the Free Town Project in its first five years were, as he describes, “free radicals”—men with “either too much money or not enough,” with either capital to burn or nothing to lose. There’s John Connell of Massachusetts, who arrived on a mission from God, liquidated his savings, and bought the historic Grafton Center Meetinghouse, transforming it into the “Peaceful Assembly Church,” an endeavor that mixed garish folk art, strange rants from its new pastor (Connell himself), and a quixotic quest to secure tax exemption while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the IRS to grant it. There’s Adam Franz, a self-described anti-capitalist who set up a tent city to serve as “a planned community of survivalists,” even though no one who joined it had any real bushcraft skills. There’s Richard Angell, an anti-circumcision activist known as “Dick Angel.” And so on. As Hongoltz-Hetling makes clear, libertarianism can indeed have a certain big-tent character, especially when the scene is a new landscape of freedom-lovers making “homes out of yurts and RVs, trailers and tents, geodesic domes and shipping containers.”

If the Libertarian vision of Freedom can take many shapes and sizes, one thing is bedrock: “Busybodies” and “statists” need to stay out of the way. And so the Free Towners spent years pursuing an aggressive program of governmental takeover and delegitimation, their appetite for litigation matched only by their enthusiasm for cutting public services. They slashed the town’s already tiny yearly budget of $1 million by 30 percent, obliged the town to fight legal test case after test case, and staged absurd, standoffish encounters with the sheriff to rack up YouTube hits. Grafton was a poor town to begin with, but with tax revenue dropping even as its population expanded, things got steadily worse. Potholes multiplied, domestic disputes proliferated, violent crime spiked, and town workers started going without heat. “Despite several promising efforts,” Hongoltz-Hetling dryly notes, “a robust Randian private sector failed to emerge to replace public services.” Instead, Grafton, “a haven for miserable people,” became a town gone “feral.” Enter the bears, stage right.


Black bears, it should be stressed, are generally a pretty chill bunch. The woods of North America are home to some three-quarters of a million of them; on average, there is at most one human fatality from a black bear attack per year, even as bears and humans increasingly come into contact in expanding suburbs and on hiking trails. But tracking headlines on human-bear encounters in New England in his capacity as a regional journalist in the 2000s, Hongoltz-Hetling noticed something distressing: The black bears in Grafton were not like other black bears. Singularly “bold,” they started hanging out in yards and on patios in broad daylight. Most bears avoid loud noises; these casually ignored the efforts of Graftonites to run them off. Chickens and sheep began to disappear at alarming rates. Household pets went missing, too. One Graftonite was playing with her kittens on her lawn when a bear bounded out of the woods, grabbed two of them, and scarfed them down. Soon enough, the bears were hanging out on porches and trying to enter homes.

Combining wry description with evocative bits of scientific fact, Hongoltz-Hetling’s portrayal of the bears moves from comical if foreboding to downright terrifying. These are animals that can scent food seven times farther than a trained bloodhound, that can flip 300-pound stones with ease, and that can, when necessary, run in bursts of speed rivaling a deer’s. When the bears finally start mauling humans—attacking two women in their homes—Hongoltz-Hetling’s relation of the scenes is nightmarish. “If you look at their eyes, you understand,” one survivor tells him, “that they are completely alien to us.”

What was the deal with Grafton’s bears? Hongoltz-Hetling investigates the question at length, probing numerous hypotheses for why the creatures have become so uncharacteristically aggressive, indifferent, intelligent, and unafraid. Is it the lack of zoning, the resulting incursion into bear habitats, and the reluctance of Graftonites to pay for, let alone mandate, bear-proof garbage bins? Might the bears be deranged somehow, perhaps even disinhibited and emboldened by toxoplasmosis infections, picked up from eating trash and pet waste from said unsecured bins? There can be no definitive answer to these questions, but one thing is clear: The libertarian social experiment underway in Grafton was uniquely incapable of dealing with the problem. “Free Towners were finding that the situations that had been so easy to problem-solve in the abstract medium of message boards were difficult to resolve in person.”

Grappling with what to do about the bears, the Graftonites also wrestled with the arguments of certain libertarians who questioned whether they should do anything at all—especially since several of the town residents had taken to feeding the bears, more or less just because they could. One woman, who prudently chose to remain anonymous save for the sobriquet “Doughnut Lady,” revealed to Hongoltz-Hetling that she had taken to welcoming bears on her property for regular feasts of grain topped with sugared doughnuts. If those same bears showed up on someone else’s lawn expecting similar treatment, that wasn’t her problem. The bears, for their part, were left to navigate the mixed messages sent by humans who alternately threw firecrackers and pastries at them. Such are the paradoxes of Freedom. Some people just “don’t get the responsibility side of being libertarians,” Rosalie Babiarz tells Hongoltz-Hetling, which is certainly one way of framing the problem.

Pressed by bears from without and internecine conflicts from within, the Free Town Project began to come apart. Caught up in “pitched battles over who was living free, but free in the right way,” the libertarians descended into accusing one another of statism, leaving individuals and groups to do the best (or worst) they could. Some kept feeding the bears, some built traps, others holed up in their homes, and still others went everywhere toting increasingly larger-caliber handguns. After one particularly vicious attack, a shadowy posse formed and shot more than a dozen bears in their dens. This effort, which was thoroughly illegal, merely put a dent in the population; soon enough, the bears were back in force.

Meanwhile, the dreams of numerous libertarians came to ends variously dramatic and quiet. A real estate development venture known as Grafton Gulch, in homage to the dissident enclave in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, went belly-up. After losing a last-ditch effort to secure tax exemption, a financially ruined Connell found himself unable to keep the heat on at the Meetinghouse; in the midst of a brutal winter, he waxed apocalyptic and then died in a fire. Franz quit his survivalist commune, which soon walled itself off into a prisonlike compound, the better to enjoy freedom. And John Babiarz, the erstwhile inaugurator of the Project, became the target of relentless vilification by his former ideological cohorts, who did not appreciate his refusal to let them enjoy unsecured blazes on high-wildfire–risk afternoons. When another, higher-profile libertarian social engineering enterprise, the Free State Project, received national attention by promoting a mass influx to New Hampshire in general (as opposed to just Grafton), the Free Town Project’s fate was sealed. Grafton became “just another town in a state with many options,” options that did not have the same problem with bears.


Or at least—not yet. Statewide, a perverse synergy between conservationist and austerity impulses in New Hampshire governance has translated into an approach to “bear management” policy that could accurately be described as laissez-faire. When Graftonites sought help from New Hampshire Fish and Game officials, they received little more than reminders that killing bears without a license is illegal, and plenty of highly dubious victim-blaming to boot. Had not the woman savaged by a bear been cooking a pot roast at the time? No? Well, nevertheless. Even when the state has tried to rein in the population with culls, it has been too late. Between 1998 and 2013, the number of bears doubled in the wildlife management region that includes Grafton. “Something’s Bruin in New Hampshire—Learn to Live with Bears,” the state’s literature advises.

[SFW] [politics] [+7 Funny]
[by hellboy@7:20pmGMT]


hellboy said @ 7:21pm GMT on 13th Oct [Score:1 Funny]
Bear Warning Sign
mechanical contrivance said @ 2:15am GMT on 14th Oct [Score:2 Funsightful]
Fort Steele Campground
C18H27NO3 said[1] @ 4:06pm GMT on 15th Oct [Score:1 Insightful]
You have no issues if you are female. Or any other gender other than male.
cb361 said @ 7:29pm GMT on 13th Oct
The hidden hand of the forest will sort it out.

I haven't actually read the article yet, so I'm going out on a limb with this joke.
donnie said[2] @ 8:31pm GMT on 13th Oct
I don't think libertarianism is any different from democracy - it's an ethos that fits a certain society. The difference is that, at present, democracy fits our society and libertarianism does not.

Democracy itself failed numerous times over the centuries, and certainly if you went back to ancient Babylon and tried to institute democracy it would fail terribly. Democracy didn't really take its modern form until quite recently, and as a political philosophy it works well, in particular, when a significant portion of the voting public is both literate and reasonably informed. Without these prerequisites it is doomed to fail terribly (and we see it failing in the US right now as political literacy is dangerously eroding in the voting public).

Likewise, libertarianism isn't a form of government you can just flip a switch and "try out" - of course it will fail in such a circumstance, and doubly so in a microscopic enclave of a democratic superpower. The whole philosophy is based on a few underlying principles that are exceedingly difficult to guarantee in a real society. For it to work would require an extensive socio-political infrastructure that currently does not exist.

Just like democracy didn't have a continuous, unbroken legacy from early settlers to the present, it's unrealistic to think that you can just introduce a new political system out of the blue and have it work, or even require that it be able to support itself through a full societal evolution. We evolved into democracy from other forms of government that left its infrastructure behind. It needed something else to get it started.

Personally, I think libertarianism is probably a political philosophy for the future, if anything. It's something we (humans) will probably gravitate towards naturally as society grows and evolves. Just like monarchy was a good fit for a while, but was something we eventually had to grow out of to progress, so too will democracy, in its current form, eventually be grown out of and superseded by something else. If libertarianism is ever going to work, I think any reasonable observer would probably agree that it's something that would need to be approached progressively.

Radical change rarely comes without collateral damage.
mechavolt said @ 3:20am GMT on 14th Oct [Score:2]
One common trait between almost any -ism is that greedy assholes ruin everything. I'm immediately suspicious of any -ism that is explicitly based on letting those greedy assholes do whatever they want, though.
donnie said @ 11:38am GMT on 14th Oct
That's not an -ism, that's human nature. One common trait of humans is that, no matter how you try to organize society, greedy assholes will try to ruin everything. The global international community is effectively a libertarian collective, for example, so in a way humans already live in some form of libertarian superstructure already. None of that precludes the need for cooperative humans to continue to be vigilant against those who would use theft and violence to undermine society.

Naturally, a society of uncontrolled rogues isn't going to work. It's foolish to even consider.
mechavolt said @ 4:50pm GMT on 14th Oct
I'm confused. You just said the same thing I said, but with more words.
donnie said @ 8:26pm GMT on 14th Oct [Score:1 Funny]
No, I didn't. I think you're making assumptions.
mechavolt said @ 2:37am GMT on 15th Oct
Self-aware wolves, my friend. You're so very close.
cb361 said @ 9:22pm GMT on 13th Oct [Score:1 Insightful]
If you like.

I tend to see Human progress according to the acceptance or rejection of innate human tribalism. When you think in tribal terms, anything or anyone outside your race, your country, your town, etc is nothing but a threat. That can't be anything other than destructive, to different degrees.

Libertarianism seems to be tribalism to the extreme - my tribe as me. I don't see how anything good can come of that.
mechanical contrivance said @ 9:34pm GMT on 13th Oct
No taxes.
cb361 said @ 10:11pm GMT on 13th Oct
And bears. Bears in Taxis.
donnie said @ 11:12pm GMT on 13th Oct
Tribalism is human nature - that's what we have now. People in countries, in provinces, in cities, in towns... members of tribes. The particular form of government has never changed that, and it's really beside the point.
gma said @ 4:57am GMT on 14th Oct [Score:1 Underrated]
Democracy and Libertarianism both rely on people acting in their own interest. People in power are increasingly good at getting average folks to act against their own interest. I don't know what the political philosophy of the future is, but if it is Libertarianism, that will work out really well for the rich and powerful and really badly for everyone else.
avid said @ 11:07pm GMT on 13th Oct
Libertarianism is the graphene of the social sciences. Wonderful stuff in theory that fails in all practical application.
donnie said[2] @ 11:15pm GMT on 13th Oct
Gunpowder spent two centuries on a shelf as medicine before someone found something creative to do with it. Libertarianism really just requires humanity to grow up a bit. I'd probably not recommend trying it for at least a few thousand years.
zarathustra said @ 3:12am GMT on 15th Oct [Score:1 Funsightful]
You sound like me when I was 16.
endopol said @ 10:13pm GMT on 13th Oct
No luck googling for "Consensual Cannibalism is a Victimless Crime" t-shirts :(
cb361 said @ 10:41pm GMT on 13th Oct
How about Tasty Victimless Crime?
Almostz said @ 2:06am GMT on 16th Oct
Doughnut lady was a type of druid.

Busted ass type, but whatever

Post a comment
[note: if you are replying to a specific comment, then click the reply link on that comment instead]

You must be logged in to comment on posts.

Posts of Import
If you got logged out, log back in.
4 More Years!
SE v2 Closed BETA
First Post
Subscriptions and Things
AskSE: What do you look like?

Karma Rankings