Mt. McKinley Controversy Illustrates the Absurdity of the Centralized American State

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Mt. McKinley Controversy Illustrates the Absurdity of the Centralized American State

September 1, 2015

The controversy over the name of a mountain in Alaska helps to illustrate just how absurd rule from DC can be, and exhibits for all to see the fundamental problem that arises when people think it is the business of a centralized government to decide even the tiniest local matters thousands of miles away.

Here's the basic story: About 100 years ago, some people started calling Denali mountain in Alaska “Mount McKinley.” Eventually they managed to convince the federal government to make “McKinley” the official name. In 1975, however, the government of Alaska petitioned the federal government to change the name back to “Denali.” To this day, Alaskans routinely refer to the mountain as “Denali” in spite of the fact that the Federal government, seated 4,000 miles away in Washington, DC, had not respected their request. Then, during a recent trip to Alaska, Barack Obama decided that the federal bureaucracy is going to start using the name “Denali” for the mountain.

Reading this, the whole thing should strike any sane person as immediately absurd. Why do people in Alaska have to ask a bunch of non-Alaskans thousands of miles away to call their name by the locally preferred name? If the Alaskan government, not to mention most of the locals, call a mountain “Denali,” then the mountain is obviously named “Denali.”

But that's not how it works in the land of the free. Here in America, apparently, people from Ohio (McKinley's home state), 3,000 miles from the mountain in question, get to veto Alaskan petitions. In this article in the Washington Post, a writer from Ohio makes the case (with a straight face, no less) that it's mean and nasty of the federal government to defer to the Alaskans about the names of Alaskan  mountains. For the Ohioans, it seems, it is of monumental importance that the United States Congress, composed of 533 non-Alaskans, and three actual Alaskans, decide what that mountain should be called.

Some have attempted to make the issue into a matter of Constitutionality, and claim the President has overstepped his authority by renaming the mountain. Of course, most of the people making this argument claim to be for “limited government,” but how convenient it is that the result of their call for limited government just happens to result in the the mountain being named “McKinley” again. In other words, they propose to limit government power by passing new laws whereby Congress shall dictate to Alaska what their mountains shall be named. If this is somebody's definition of limiting government, all I can say is: “you're doing it wrong.” 

Were reining in the federal government an actual goal of the McKinleyites, their only proposed solution would be to pass a law stating that Congress shall defer to states, counties, or municipalities in deciding what mountains within their jurisdiction shall be called. The idea that this is a matter for Congress to decide should be a source of comedy for anyone with common sense. 

Meanwhile, the matter has become fodder to people who want to be the elected ruler over Ohio, Alaska, and everywhere else. Donald Trump jumped into the fray saying:  “President Obama wants to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali after more than 100 years. Great insult to Ohio. I will change back!”

This is what the headlines in Anchorage should read tomorrow: “Trump to Alaska: Drop Dead.” For Trump, the renaming is apparently an “insult” to Ohio. So the solution is to insult Alaska.  Is this just the usual posturing from Trump? Maybe, but maybe Trump can do math, and realized that Alaska has only three electoral votes. If so: well played, Don. 

It does illustrate the central problem of central governments, however. American political ideology presumes that Ohio gets a say over a purely internal matter in Alaska. Thus, the federal government must jump in to decide the matter. Why, without the federal government, who would decide important matters like these? Should we be expected to just sit back and let the Alaskans call their mountains whatever they want? No way, says Ohio. That would be a recipe for chaos.

But I can hear some libertarians now. “But Ryan, that mountain should only be named by the private owner of the mountain!” Yes, I get it, but let's face it: Denali National Park is not going to be private property any time soon, so the least we can do is let the people who live near it name it (and then hand all federal lands in Alaska over to Alaska). The Alaska legislature is made up of 100% Alaskans and are elected by Alaskans. The live in Alaska and rely on other Alaskans for their economic well being. Does it not make just slightly more sense that the elected representatives in Alaska might be slightly more qualified to name mountains in Alaska than some guys in Ohio or DC? The fact that this question is even being debated at the national level strikes me as bizarre. 

It's swell that some Ohioans have really strong opinions about what mountains should be called in Alaska, even though a tiny percentage of Ohioans have ever set foot in Alaska, let alone been within 100 miles of Denali, but any sane country would simply shrug and say “just call the mountain what the Alaskans want.” On the plus side, I suspect that most Americans will do exactly that.


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