A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

What do you get when you cross a group of libertarians intent on eliminating government, a small New Hampshire town with seemingly plenty of space for new residents, a steadily increasing bear population, and doughnuts? One of the best books of the year.

Quirky characters. Furry animals. A woodsy backdrop. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear would have all the making of a fictional bestseller if it wasn’t all true … and just plain bizarre. Journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling explores the fascinating story of the Free Town Project, a political experiment hatched by a group of libertarians with the idea of taking over a town and installing a system of self-government. In 2004, with some support from residents, they came for Grafton, New Hampshire with a simple formula: lower taxes and less overreach would surely equal more freedom. Like many political groups, there were multiple factions of belief. But in general terms: don’t want to wear a seat belt while driving? Don’t. Want to hunt without a permit? Fine. Wanna traffic organs? Knock yourself out.

They just didn’t count on all the bears.

New Hampshire’s bear history is as rich as its political history, though, and Hongoltz-Hetling has found a way to combine both of these into a compelling narrative. Crafting an ethnography, mixed with political analysis, mixed with journalistic observation can’t be easy, and yet he makes it seem effortless. Maybe it’s because his writing is light and welcoming, with a keen understanding of how to respectfully explain the people and situations he’s discussing. Maybe it’s because he’s wickedly funny, mining every absurd moment with a wink and nudge. Or maybe he just tapped into a story that’s that good. Probably all three.

Hongoltz-Hetling often spirals into various tangents. One second, he’s exploring how a man bought a local church and installed himself as pastor in order to stop paying taxes. The next, he’s off considering an unprecedented bear attack that resulted in a severe hand injury for one woman. At first glance, this bouncing style almost reads as chaotic. And yet, everything does somehow feel connected. While Grafton slid into tumult marred by no money and even fewer rules, a similar shift was occurring in the wilderness. Though stemming more from coincidence than solely political actions, both town and country were changing from a lack of control.

Fascinating, funny, and as wild as a hungry bear spotting a doughnut, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear offers up a unique look at what happens when ideology and nature collide.


Title: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)
Author: Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Publication Date: September 15, 2020
Classification: Nonfiction, Politics

Hongoltz-Hetling’s Website | Publisher’s Page | Goodreads


Note: I received a free ARC of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.

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