Book Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I have some strong libertarian leanings, mostly on economics and size/scope of government stuff, and am a big fan of localism so I Was intrigued when I saw A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling on NetGalley.

I mean, it sounds like a pretty interesting story, right?

Once upon a time, a group of libertarians got together and hatched the Free Town Project, a plan to take over an American town and completely eliminate its government. In 2004, they set their sights on Grafton, NH, a barely populated settlement with one paved road.

When they descended on Grafton, public funding for pretty much everything shrank: the fire department, the library, the schoolhouse. State and federal laws became meek suggestions, scarcely heard in the town’s thick wilderness.

The anything-goes atmosphere soon caught the attention of Grafton’s neighbors: the bears. Freedom-loving citizens ignored hunting laws and regulations on food disposal. They built a tent city in an effort to get off the grid. The bears smelled food and opportunity.

It turned out to be another book I would give 3.5 stars. The kind of book that makes you pause of a moment when you are reviewing it on Goodreads. You know, did you “enjoy it” or “really enjoy it?” I was somewhere in between I guess.

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear is a somewhat rambling portrait of small town New Hampshire through the lens of a group of libertarians seeking very limited government/interference and the habits of bears. In the style of narrative nonfiction, the author seeks to give the reader the feel of the people and communities while offering insight through history, science and even literature. It doesn’t take sides per se and offers a rather balanced perspective; letting the people and events speak for themselves for the most part. Although, he clearly prefers the bears…

Perhaps, this just reinforced my own perspective but I was struck how useful libertarian thought is at the federal level and how unhelpful it is the lower you move down. Local communities need infrastructure and services to be livable. Few people actually enjoy living with few rules and very little support. But, as Hongoltz-Hetling admits, that could be driven not by the structure of government but by the people involved and the choices they make.

The other theme that runs throughout the book is the question of what you would do if you were faced with the specter of interaction with bears. Would you feed them? Shoot them? Ignore them? If you were in charge of managing bears what approach would you recommend? There are few easy answers as nature seeks to reclaim what was lost and adapts to humans.

It is well written and full of interesting characters but I think there was just too much going on. You have the libertarian and bear threads but then you have multiple sub threads.  The history of tax revolts in New England, literary quotes about bears, a thread about churches, a thread about virus, etc.  A much tighter narrative would have made the story better.

FWIW, I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I had read it in a couple of days instead of spread out over weeks. I was juggling a handful of review copies and this kept getting pushed to the back because of the publication date. So make of that what you will.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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