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Books to help make sense of a chaotic year

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December 23, 2020

We’ve heard a lot about freedom in 2020 — from both politicians taking it away and protestors riled by the loss of it. The former are trying to manage a deadly pandemic, the latter arguing that we need more personal responsibility, rather than coercion. So as the year draws slowly to a close and we (hopefully) begin to emerge from this nightmare, my pick for essential reading is also, indirectly, about freedom. Mostly, though, it’s about bears.

Published in October, A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear is subtitled The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears). In it, Matthew Hongolz-Hetling describes the real-life story of a group of libertarians who plotted to take over the town of Grafton in New Hampshire. They put their idea into action by moving there en masse, in 2004, and campaigning (in some ways successfully) to liberate the community from statism, taxes, intrusive regulation and all constraints on individual freedom.

Full-bore libertarians are more an American than an English thing; the English national temperament is perhaps better-suited to libertarianism’s more understated cousin, ‘classical liberalism’. But America’s talent for being extra, for super-sizing everything from burgers to limousines, shouldn’t blind us to the overlap between our individualistic, freedom-loving Anglo cultures.

Hongolz-Hetling’s characters, and their adventures, take many forms: the cultist, the gun-toting granny, the advocate of bum fighting, the bear-hunting gubernatorial candidate, the inaudible hilltop preacher, even an unexpectedly aggressive llama. The chapter on the compulsive goat-collector alone is a gothic masterpiece:

Police, following a trail of dead goats that spanned four states, finally caught up with Goat Man in West Virginia. When he was arrested, he had sixteen goats in his possession (including one in the freezer).

But along with being a joyous romp through American weirdness, the book is also about the flipside of the West’s individualism: virtue and common values. Both tend to be overlooked nowadays, in our freedom-loving cultures either side of the pond; and yet both have were increasingly bandied about this year, as Covid-19 cases ascended to crisis levels.

The Founding Fathers drew a direct line between virtue and the healthy functioning of a nation as the guarantor of freedom. As James Madison put it in 1788:

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

That is, in order for government to support a free and flourishing society, everyone needs to share at least a general idea of what a good person looks like. For as the English political theorist Edmund Burke pointed out around the same time: “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” That is, the less virtue you have, the more official rules you’ll need.

In 2018, Matt Hancock was calling for everyone to take more personal responsibility for managing their own health; in 2020, the health secretary has been forced to view coronavirus case numbers as the state’s problem. And in pivoting from promoting controls within to those without, in the form of compulsory lockdown, Hancock tacitly conceded the moral vacuum at the heart of the modern Conservative Party.

That is, the Tory Party may pay lip service to freedom and personal responsibility. But when it came to a crisis where collective action was needed at speed, that same party has proved (probably rightly) unwilling to gamble on the British public’s commitment to doing the right thing.

Hancock ought to read A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear. It would help him to justify his policies — if only to himself. Take the story of John Babiarz, one of the first libertarians to settle in Grafton and subsequently its one-man volunteer fire service. After extinguishing a fire on someone else’s property, Babiarz is ostracised by other libertarians for ‘statism’ — which is to say, taking any sort of coercive action in the public interest. But these obsessive opponents of state authority seem unable to address the question of how to protect the public interest if no ‘statism’ is allowed. They have no framework for considering those consequences of individual actions that ricochet far beyond one individual.

And for the Graftonites, the chief spanner in the works of self-organising freedom wasn’t even the risk of wildfires. It was another force of nature, one hungry not for flammable matter but garbage: bears. One Grafton resident wishes to feed doughnuts to the neighbourhood’s bears, but her next-door neighbour is terrified of being attacked by them. Should they both be left to do their thing? The instinctive libertarian answer to this is ‘yes’.

The libertarians apply their anti-statist principles to the growing problem of bears raiding bins, loitering around houses and eating cats, resisting any gesture at public bear management, because such things imply taxes. And their conception of liberty goes further still: they resist even socially-enforced bear management efforts such as rules about bear-proof rubbish bins. The consequences become increasingly, er, grisly as the book goes on.

In effect, then, they dream of a society that needs no ‘controlling power on will and appetite’, as Burke put it, either within or without. Albeit in slightly more constrained form, this was also the Cameron-era Tory stance: economic liberalism plus an aversion to giving people moral lectures of any kind.

But for Grafton at least, it transpires that the outcome of this maximal freedom is not a flourishing community of self-organising individuals. Instead, it’s one in which neighbour disputes triple over the six years following the libertarians’ arrival, while public infrastructure crumbles and bears grow bolder and more numerous. Anyone who has lived in the increasingly shabby and rancorous UK over recent years may be seeing certain resonances by now.

2020 has raised some pointed questions for us, about the political scope within our individualistic culture for coordinated public response to a force of nature. For us this has taken place on a scale more horrifying even than a plague of bears. But in one respect our dilemma echoes Grafton’s: one ‘side’ calls for ‘personal responsibility’, ignoring the fact that in the absence of strong shared values this will not produce enough cooperation to rein infections in. The other ‘side’ calls for more stringent top-down controls, raising alarms about whether basic freedoms we took for granted only a few months ago will ever find their way back.

If we’ve had enough of state micromanagement, but it also turns out that, in the absence of shared values, ‘personal responsibility’ is just code for ‘I’m alright Jack’, then it may be time to reflect on the piece that’s missing for us as much as it was for Grafton’s libertarians: civic virtue. As the vaccine is rolled out into 2021, we might consider the question Hongolz-Hetling leaves hanging: is it even possible to rebuild a shared moral framework?

If we don’t, we could continue along the road toward the total state we lived under in lockdown. Such a state would follow the Chinese template, assuming maximal responsibility not just for infrastructure, security, healthcare, law and justice but also our wellbeing, moral choices, even our happiness — and therefore claim the intrusive powers necessary to execute those duties.

Inasmuch as this vision is resisted, it tends to be by ‘classical liberals’ or libertarians who are less keen to make positive pronouncements on the nature and obligations of the good life than they are to defend our freedom to pursue it. But this isn’t enough. For Grafton’s church serves as metaphor for what will happen if we claw our way out of the Covid-era’s maximalist state, toward a polity with scope for personal autonomy, only to slump back into the indifferent embrace of an individualism without virtue.

Already declining due to the fading of Christian belief, Grafton’s church was in disrepair before the libertarians arrived. Purchased by a libertarian and subsequently the focus of a years-long dispute over its tax status, the building grows more dilapidated before catching fire. Because the fire service in Grafton is by then so underfunded, the fire cannot be extinguished. What was originally built as architectural expression of the community’s shared religious views declines first to white elephant, then political football, then death-trap. At last it’s left a charred and collapsing hulk, emptied of use as gathering-point for anything larger than nesting birds.