The Rise and Fall of the Libertarian Experiment in Grafton: A Bear Invasion and its Fallout

2023-10-02 04:19:00
Grafton, the American town where they wanted to test libertarian ideas and ended with a bear invasion. (AP)

Many decades ago, in Chile, some founding fathers of libertarianism such as Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman (the creator of the “miracle of Chile”, as the economic plan of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was called) had the opportunity to impose their ideas in favor of of the free market against a good part of the democratic will of the “consumers”, as the purest libertarian theory calls citizens. But just a few years ago, in Grafton, an American town lost in the forests of the state of New Hampshire, libertarian ideas managed to be tested against reality, for the first time, freely and voluntarily.

This experience of libertarian reality, which was born in 2004 under the name of the Free City Project and lasted agonizingly until its collapse in 2016, turned out to be a foreseeable political, economic, social, cultural and even ecological catastrophe. But according to journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, author of the investigation A Libertarian Meets a Bear, at least it was a catastrophe in accordance with the historical and demographic conditions of the place. Located in the heart of the first state to declare its independence in 1774, Grafton is a town with more than 97% of the population white, with no African Americans, and with just 560 houses, the vast majority inhabited by men.

That last detail perhaps adds a precise flavor to the “libertarian utopia.” By 2009, when the Free City Project gathered from different libertarian internet forums began to assemble its ideological fantasies, 608 men and 488 women lived in Grafton. In other words, although the dream of a stateless social existence subject to market rules had attracted some families, the majority of enthusiastic libertarian colonizers were single, childless men.

Grafton thus became one of the few places in the United States where more men than women lived, a demographic imbalance that became even more notable among young people. To give you an idea, in 2009 there were only 39 women in their twenties living there, compared to the 105 men who, in defense of their self-determination, called themselves by nicknames such as “Redman”, “Chan”, “Chan”. Mad Russian” or “Dick Angel”.

But eccentricities were not so new in that place. Already in 1777, after the United States declared its independence, the town of Grafton had asked the New Hampshire authorities for exemption from a series of taxes. In that document, the Graftonians of the 18th century wrote phrases such as “New Hamsheir”, to refer to their own state, or alluded to the honorability of the authorities to whom they made their demand as “the honorables”. “A glorious request in its semi-literacy, even by the grammatical parameters of the time,” notes Hongoltz-Hetling.

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Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, three of the great thinkers of libertarianism. (Getty Images)

The first real (but non-fatal) attack by a black bear on a human occurred in 2012. Before that, in 1999, the closest thing had been the sudden disappearance of many of the local domestic cats, which the bears preyed on. Discreet as an aperitif. Starting in 2012, however, the presence of black bears on the streets of Grafton, attracted by the aromas of garbage that neither the municipality nor the residents processed properly, began to give the friendly libertarian utopia a different tone.

To the specific problem of how to finance and manage the order and infrastructure of a community whose members opposed the existence of the State and the collection of taxes, was also added the rapid multiplication of firearms everywhere. But in the case of a territory under the principles of absolute individual freedom and unrestricted respect for private property, what happened to those who did want and even invited the bears to their gardens to feed them?

The libertarian reality thus encountered a profound philosophical dilemma. Black bears, for some libertarians, were a threat, while for other libertarians, they were entertainment. So how could Grafton residents be asked to kill bears in the name of collective safety? Wasn’t that a typical imposition of “socialism” and “statism” that stifle freedom? And if those who wanted to defend themselves against bears, on the other hand, did not know how and could not do so, would the infamous collection of a new municipal tax be necessary for professional hunters to take care of it?

Far from being left in the hands of sophisticated libertarian intellectuals like Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand, the problem fell to the real makers of libertarianism, who in Grafton proved to be something very different than willful theoretical interpreters of the market. The Graftonian libertarians of flesh and blood, for the most part, were people with little formal education but with multiple criminal records, or hustlers of the most diverse kinds, conspiracyists, flat earthers or active digital polemicists around questions such as whether consensual cannibalism, for For example, it should be legal.

In this way, libertarians discovered that it was not easy to protect individual or property rights, even in a tiny fragment of libertarian civilization among the trees like Grafton. Was that why the Free City Project had emerged, where in the name of the promises of entrepreneurship there were still no hairdressers, cinemas, concerts, cell phone services or jobs, beyond self-managed tasks?

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While the black bears roamed around them, what was surprising was that libertarian proposals to eliminate compulsory public education or legalize organ trafficking, dueling, and drugs were still afoot.

Between 2006 and 2010, reports of sexual offenses in Grafton tripled, and state authorities arrested three men accused of manufacturing methamphetamines in a laboratory.

Faced with inaction, the bears continued their advance on the town at all hours. And with good reasons. Following the elimination and large cuts in municipal taxes, the public lighting service began to disappear and the neglect of roads and public buildings became increasingly noticeable. However, far from promoting a private initiative worthy of these needs, the decline only spread disease, dirt and the total destruction of streets and bridges.

Before long, decrepitude invaded Grafton and, although a free market of local agricultural producers operated for a time, the discrepancies between what was and was not possible in a market made up of semi-literate men armed with automatic pistols and machine guns. made it last too long.

In the end, the recurring libertarian fantasy of personal responsibility in the management of minimal community affairs led to the most varied forms of apathy. From improvised camps in unsanitary conditions in the forests to the spontaneous multiplication of all types of garbage dumps, reality showed that, without a planned and well-financed bureaucratic organization, individual existence became complicated and oppressive, while violent conflicts between neighbors only they increased.

In this context, between 2006 and 2010, complaints of sexual offenses in Grafton tripled and state authorities arrested three men accused of manufacturing methamphetamines in a laboratory. In 2011, the first double homicide in the town’s history occurred. And later, in 2013, a wave of armed robberies began. In each case, Grafton police, like the fire and ambulance service, were increasingly less equipped to respond. Of course, it was a logical consequence of the tax reduction.

With humans trapped in their own ideological bubbles, black bears confidently moved toward homes and farms, garbage cans, and any kind of public or private space where they could find something to eat. In the process, the bears changed part of their natural habits and in some cases even stopped hibernating, since access to processed carbohydrates allowed them to skip this natural energy-saving stage. At the same time, Hongoltz-Hetling says, libertarian debates focused on whether it was possible to name Grafton as a “United Nations Free Zone.”

In the vicinity of Grafton, bears changed some of their natural habits and in some cases even stopped hibernating. (Pixabay)

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In Grafton, where many believe that the gigantic virgin forest around it is inhabited by Lovecraftian monsters, mythological animals, aliens or Bigfoot (entities that, in their own way, have also avoided, like libertarians, the terrible clutches of government oppression), killing bears was not a simple matter. Even so, the first line of defense against the invasion was weapons: big weapons, always within reach and, if possible, in sight. But by what criteria should they be used? And to what extent?

It was no surprise that the defense against black bears hit its first hurdle in the libertarian management of social life. Without a public budget, there was no way to gather and analyze information about the number of bears in the first place beyond individual reports of encounters or the abundant remains of garbage scattered everywhere. For the same reason, there was also no sanitation program to manage the waste that attracted bears to the town. With robbery and drug trafficking rates on the rise, on the other hand, it was not even clear that the presence of bears was a priority. Many libertarians, meanwhile, continued to feed them.

When this chaotic situation became public, New Hampshire state authorities offered their help. But Grafton refused to let a government authority take on the problem. The only option, for libertarians, would be for every man and woman to defend themselves from the bears as best they could. This provoked a new libertarian conflict between the bear killers and their protectors, which in turn implied a new collective confrontation between people armed to the teeth and with little regard for any need other than their own.

Between 2013 and 2015, New Hampshire state authorities killed a total of six bears that had exhibited strange behavior, including one that had entered a home. But after the crisis in Grafton and the way in which libertarian policies had disrupted its ecosystem and its habits, between 2016 and 2018 the same authorities killed twenty-seven bears, including fourteen that had entered homes.

From that moment on, it became inevitable for libertarians that both governmental law and order would be reestablished. At least, in what had to do with the prohibitions regarding feeding bears in any space or the adequate treatment of waste capable of attracting them to urban spaces. This marked the end of the Free City Project, which lost momentum until the few libertarians who did not leave agreed to restore several of the taxes that made community existence viable.

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