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'A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear': A town goes wild without government

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling's "A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear"

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling's "A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear" tells the true story of a town that tried to operate without government. Credit: TNS/Public Affairs

A LIBERTARIAN WALKS INTO A BEAR by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (Public Affairs, 288 pp., $28)

Midway through Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling's first book, "A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears)," a thought is likely to hit you: This has got to become a Coen brothers movie. It's the bizarre and fascinating true story of a group of libertarians who decided to create the libertarian ideal — a town without government — in Grafton, New Hampshire, a spread-out wilderness with one paved road, in 2004.

It was a grand social experiment. The town had a long tradition of being libertarian-friendly, but nothing like this. Libertarians moved there from around the nation. Public funding for everything disappeared while a tent city sprang up in the woods. Tempers flared between true-believer no-government types and longtime residents.

What appeared on online chat forums to be the founding of a libertarian utopia ended in a governmentless debacle that nearly destroyed the small town. Though it turns out that in New Hampshire, where the government has a critical role in containing the bear population, bears adored the newfound freedoms that libertarianism afforded them. The bear population blossomed, and began to maraud the locals — at times with terrifying results.

Hongoltz-Hetling is a master of the turn of phrase and his characters are unlike any you've ever come across. There's the libertarian who purchases an old church as his home and then, to avoid paying taxes, starts his own libertarian church, and the Doughnut Lady who fed boxes of doughnuts to the friendly neighborhood bears.

Needless to say, the experiment that was the Free Town Project did not work. But the only-in-America tale makes for a great read, and someday, hopefully, an even better Coen brothers film.

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