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The Auctioneer by Joan Samson

December 17, 2010

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[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "The Auctioneer"]

The Auctioneer

Joan Samson was a Depression baby, born in 1937. She died of cancer in 1976, when she was still in her 30s. In 1975, the year before her death, she published her only novel, The Auctioneer. This seems to be just about the sum total of what is publicly known regarding Joan Samson — and that, I'm here to tell you, is a damn shame, because that one novel of hers, The Auctioneer, is a real humdinger. And it would be nice to be able to tell you a bit more about its author before I go on to build the rest of my article around the novel itself.

The novel is set in and around the small town of Harlowe, in central New Hampshire, sometime in the early 1970s. The main characters are a farmer, John Moore, who seems to be in his late 40s and is just beginning to look a bit worn down by the hard life he's lived; his wife, Mim (short for Miriam), maybe ten years younger, still bursting with energy and utterly devoted to her husband, their four-year-old daughter Hildie, and their rural lifestyle, for all its austerities and deprivations; and John's mother, variously known as "Mrs. Moore" and as "Ma," who can no longer walk or even stand for very long without the aid of a pair of canes, and who spends her life on the living room couch watching TV and minding Hildie, while her son and daughter-in-law do the work of both household and farm.

One day the Moores have a visitor, Bob Gore, the local chief of police — or perhaps it would be more accurate to call him the entire one-man local police force. Gore is not taken quite as seriously by his neighbors in and around Harlowe as he would probably like to be — at least, if Mrs. Moore's comments may be relied upon as typical of the common view in those parts. "Anything said by a Gore," Ma tells her daughter-in-law at one point, "you can put right out of your head. That was ever a topsy-turvy household. Weren't no one in it ever cared two whoops in thunder for the truth." Of course, she also tells her daughter-in-law, in a different conversation on a different day, that "for all his talk, Bobby got the share of sense for the whole nineteen of them Gore kids. And if he'd a lit out of Harlowe like the rest, we'd have old Toby [Gore's elderly father] on the dole sure."

But she tells Gore himself to his face that "you ain't got no more sense than the rest of the Gores." And she ought to know. She's been acquainted with Bob Gore and his 18 brothers and sisters since they were students in her Sunday school class 30 or 40 years before. Nor does her son John think very highly of Bob Gore's prowess as a cop. "All these seven years," John Moore says, "he's been dreamin' of havin' a real honest-to-gosh crime to solve. And now he's got a whopper — a stranglin' — not to mention the break-in and the holdup. And poor old Bobby ain't scared up so much as a suspect."

That strangling Moore refers to is, as he himself notes, the "only murder Harlowe's had in a hundred years." And he believes it was committed "by an outsider for sure. So's that other stuff [the break-in, the holdup], most like."

But, as it turns out, Gore has paid them a visit on this Thursday afternoon in the early spring hoping to convince them to donate something for an upcoming police-benefit auction intended to raise the money to hire a deputy or two to assist the chief in his duties. John Moore is skeptical. "If everybody in town was a deputy, there'd still be trouble," he grumbles. But he and Mim agree to contribute some rummage from the vast space underneath the barn that they've filled up with such stuff — stuff that could still be useful with a bit of mending, but they'll probably never get around to mending it.

Joan Samson (1937-1976)

A week later to the day, Thursday afternoon, Gore reappears. He reports that the auction was a great success, and because "if one's good, two's better," they've decided to have another one the very next weekend. Might John and Mim have any more rummage out under the barn they'd like to see hauled away? They do; Gore loads it up and hauls it off, and a week later he's back for more. It turns out the sparkplug, the energy, behind this sudden enthusiasm for police-benefit auctions is the town's newest resident, Perly Dunsmore, a professional auctioneer in his 50s who recently bought the old Fawkes mansion on the town square — the house where the strangling took place, the strangling that made the house available for purchase by an outsider like Perly Dunsmore.

Each successive auction is deemed a great success for the safety of Harlowe and vicinity. It isn't long before Bob Gore has five armed deputies and a couple of new cruisers for his department. It isn't long before the auctions become regular weekly events, as do the Thursday afternoon visits to pick up donations. And it isn't long before the Moores have completely emptied out the space under their barn where they used to store the rummage that wouldn't fit in the attic.

Once they've emptied out their attic, too, they explain to the deputies that they have nothing more to give. For the weekly Thursday afternoon pickups are now being made by armed deputies, deputies who also pass along local news and gossip while they wait to carry this week's donation out to their truck. That's how the Moores learn about what happened to Caleb Tuttle, for example — Caleb Tuttle, who cut the auctioneer off earlier than any of the other locals, Caleb Tuttle, who, the Moores hear, "ain't allowed [Perly Dunsmore] so much as a broken chair for a month" and "meets them with a shotgun now" if Perly or any of the deputies he seems to have handpicked for Bob Gore to hire so much as show up on Tuttle land. What a great pity it was when "a heart attack got [Caleb Tuttle] just as he was headin' into the barn to do the milkin'. Something must have startled him."

Then there was Emily Carroll, whose husband took a job as a deputy but then quit and afterward refused to contribute to any further auctions: the steering on Emily's car suddenly and mysteriously went out as she was driving on a curving rural road, leaving her paralyzed. And there was Tad Oakes, who owned a couple of commercial greenhouses near the town square, in which he grew geraniums. He stopped donating to the auctions, and then, mysteriously, a dead elm tree fell across "his two greenhouses and smashed them up pretty good," one of the deputies tells John Moore on a Thursday afternoon. "They was lucky, you ask me. Whole damn family was up to Concord at the time." To the surprise of some of the townsfolk and nearby farmers like John Moore, Oakes sold his place immediately and moved to Manchester. "Dunsmore gave him cash on the barrelhead," the deputy tells Moore.

These items of gossip about local people who opted out of the weekly auctions sound all the more ominous because of the folks passing them along. For the deputies who now do the collecting for the auctions and otherwise seem to spend their time running errands and doing odd jobs as needed for Perly Dunsmore are a pretty troubling lot — local thugs and hooligans, most of them. When Bob Gore rattles off the names of his first five new deputies early in the novel, John Moore frowns and comments, "Tough lot." His mother is more emphatic about one of the five, the one that ends up replacing Bob Gore as chief of police. This deputy Ma describes as "the rottenest egg this town's turned out since I was big enough to hear tell."

So the people in and around Harlowe, including the Moores, allow themselves to be intimidated. They keep on donating to the auctions even after they've already got rid of all the old junk they really don't mind giving away. Gradually, they "donate" almost everything they own. They find themselves, after all, in their own particular version of a situation confronted sooner or later by every victim of the protection racket. They can see no alternative to their present course. It seems to them that they must either flee Harlowe under cover of darkness or stay and continue donating to the weekly police-benefit auctions. It seems to them that there is no other way to ensure that an "accident" won't befall them, that they won't end up like Caleb Tuttle, Emily Carroll, or Tad Oakes.

Ultimately, the Moores are left sleeping on the floor on bare mattresses, all their furniture gone, their tractor gone, their family heirlooms (as John later learns) now on display in Perly Dunsmore's fancy house on the town square. They're left — the Moores — without the wherewithal to run either their household or their farm.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the emergence of the state in a community that previously had only government.

Not that Harlowe was any kind of libertarian paradise before Perly Dunsmore appeared on the scene — but Albert Jay Nock, whose usage I am following in this discussion, didn't maintain that government was always libertarian. He maintained that it should be, but the chief thing he maintained was that, in contrast to the state, government originated "in the common understanding and common agreement of society" and served to "implement the common desire of society." And that sounds to me like a fair description of Harlowe and vicinity in the pre-Dunsmore era.

The people of this area had, of course, grown up in a society in which it was assumed and never really questioned that certain functions that could just as easily have been handled by private companies belonged properly to government, not to private enterprise — grading and repairing the local roads, for example, and plowing those same roads when they got clogged with snow in the winter. The people who lived in and around Harlowe had grown up in a society in which it was assumed and never really questioned that such services should be financed by taxes — that is, by forcible seizure of the assets of local residents.

But the town government as depicted in the pages of The Auctioneer would probably pass muster with any but the pickiest of minarchist libertarians. Apart from its modest tax collecting and its maintenance of the local infrastructure — and, of course, its maintenance of Bob Gore's rather useless but obviously harmless one-man police department — the government of Harlowe is extremely unintrusive. It makes few interventions of any kind into the lives of the individuals who make their homes in its territory. And it utterly lacks the one characteristic that, in Nock's mind, would qualify it as a state: it is manifestly not set up to administer what he calls "the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another … the stratification of society into an owning and exploiting class, and a propertyless dependent class."

But this is manifestly the purpose of the new order of things in Harlowe and vicinity, the order introduced and maintained by Perly Dunsmore and his corps of loyal deputies. Perly and his deputies have brought a genuine state to Harlowe. Like most modern states, it lulls its victims into acquiescence and acceptance by kicking back to them an insignificant percentage of what it stole from them in the first place, thereby painting itself, in the eyes of its victims, as some sort of benefactor. But, like most statesmen historically, the ones running Perly Dunsmore's state are quite willing to squeeze their victims until they are extinguished. As Yale political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott notes in his recent book The Art of Not Being Governed,

given a choice between patterns of subsistence that are relatively unfavorable to the [citizen] but which yield a greater return in manpower or [revenue] to the state and those patterns that benefit the [citizen] but deprive the state, the ruler will choose the former every time. The ruler, then, maximizes the state-accessible product, if necessary, at the expense of the overall wealth of the realm and its subjects.

In the case of Harlowe, it soon becomes clear that Dunsmore plans to bleed the existing population until it flees for its life; then he plans to take the houses and farms those people used to own and sell them to new people, whom, presumably, he can bleed in turn — exploit to his profit. Does he bring it off? Or do the residents of Harlowe and vicinity finally rise up against the state that has grown, uninvited, in their midst? Read The Auctioneer by Joan Samson for yourself and find out.


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