October 14, 2020

I DON'T NEED TO BE FASTER THAN THE BEAR, JUST FASTER THAN THE LIBERTARIAN:

The Town That Went Feral: When a group of libertarians set about scrapping their local government, chaos descended. And then the bears moved in. (Patrick Blanchfield, October 13, 2020, New Republic)

"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.

The town's population 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.

Hampshiremen rooted for the bears.

Posted by at October 14, 2020 12:46 PM

  

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