Libertarians, Bears, Local Government and Capacity

The fist book I finished in 2021 was Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear. It’s an account of two seemingly disparate issues — the dream of the Free Town Project to turn one town into a libertarian utopia and the management and control of the bear population of New Hampshire — and how they both came together in Grafton, New Hampshire.

The Free Town Project spun off from the much more ambitious Free State Project, but had the same aim: move enough libertarians to an area to create a voting bloc that would be large enough to dismantle almost all regulations and thus create a truly libertarian space. Hongoltz-Hetling explains how they came to choose Grafton over other communities and why the history of Grafton made it a good choice for this sort of experiment. New Hampshire (the “Live Free Or Die” state) has a tradition of anti-government and anti-tax sentiment, and Grafton was particularly ornery in both regards, reluctant to commit to anything but the barest minimum of spending. At one point Hongoltz-Hetling sets out a history of the town’s reluctance to support firefighting which is eyebrow-raising in its repeated account of how getting even the most basic infrastructure required extensive pressure.

The book provides a series of stories from Grafton over the past decade and half as existing residents and new libertarian incomers clash over what seem like minor annoyances to some but key elements of libertarian principle to others. Even though it was ideologically driven, the Free Town Project suffered from the same heterogeneity of opinion common to any movement, as people discover their ideas of liberty don’t coincide or reconcile, especially when faced with large marauding predators intent on making use of their own liberty.

The bears that live in and around Grafton represent both a physical and philosophical challenge to libertarian ideals. There are many actions that can be taken to control bear populations and their interactions with humans but the most effective of them require communal effort such as ensuring that they don’t see human settlements as sources of convenient food from waste bins, rubbish heaps etc, and collective action like that will often need government to co-ordinate and enforce it. When there’s no will to allow a government to carry out that role, it falls to individuals and a protection that only becomes as strong as its weakest link. When one person decides they want to feed the bears regularly and invite them on to their property, everyone else has to deal with the consequences of bears no longer feeling the need to keep their business in the woods.

This would have been an interesting book at any time, but it has a particular relevance in our current time of pandemic, where we’re discovering how much we need government and the wider community to be effective in establishing mutual defence against threat. A coronavirus might not have too much in common with a bear, but both of them rely on the consequences of human action without consideration for or understanding of whatever ideology might have caused those actions. Both are also treats that are much dealt with through prevention before they become a serious issue rather than trying to remove them once they become endemic.

They key point Hongoltz-Hetling makes in the book is that the problems Grafton faced during the Free Town Project may have stemmed from a sudden dismantling of rules, but they were also the consequence of decades of failure to put in place proper infrastructure with the capacity to respond to problems. Grafton was chosen because it was already fertile ground for removing government as it had so little in place, especially compared with its near neighbours. However, what that meant was that its capacity to respond to an event, be it a pothole, a fire, or a bear attacking a person, was already limited. Physical infrastructure wasn’t present, but social infrastructure had faded alongside it because there wasn’t anything there to support and nurture it.

Grafton is an extreme example, but it’s an illustration of what’s been happening to governments and particularly local governments across the world as systems and infrastructure are hollowed out in the name of efficiency and low taxation. Spare capacity and extended resilience — the sort of things you might not need every year, but will need when an event like a pandemic come along — have been allowed to wither away, or weren’t even present to begin with. We’ve built an economy that relies on just-in-time manufacturing and delivery and sought to copy the lessons from that over to wider society without realising that you can’t supply things like social infrastructure, resilience and capacity on a just-in-time basis. Protecting a community from bears, viruses or anything else is not just about rushing things into place, it’s about people having knowledge and understanding of what’s expected of them and how they can help. If there’s excess capacity in a system it can be used to nurture and protect this knowledge and understanding outside of crisis periods and lay the ground for when it’s needed, but when it goes, the knowledge often withers away without anyone there to support it.

It would be easy to read this book as “ha ha, aren’t libertarians silly?” and imagine it has no lessons beyond that, but the problems it highlights are merely an extreme edge of something all of us are experiencing now, and should be prompting us to think about what we need to be building back to be ready for the next crisis, whatever shape it might take.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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