There is a perception both here in Alaska and elsewhere in the united states and the rest of the world that this state is some sort of last frontier, peopled by independent sorts who prefer to fend for themselves and live in a less encumbered relationship with nature, the land, and each other. The local press refers to the rest of the country as the “Outside,” as though conditions here are somehow uniquely different from those in the lower 48. This impression is largely inaccurate, a romantic myth not unlike others which enable americans in general to see themselves as different from, and better than, people elsewhere in the world. Just as it is mistaken to portray the united states as a land of freedom populated by rugged individualists, Alaska is no model of free and unmediated interaction with the natural world and the people and other creatures within it.
While the eskimo, aleut, and indian societies that existed before the arrival of the russian and other european explorers, traders, and settlers were more egalitarian in many ways than those of the newer arrivals, alaska was never any sort of libertarian paradise. These earlier communities were all more or less authoritarian and riddled with social and work roles based on a person’s sex, and violence between different groups was not uncommon. The first human occupants of alaska may well have done without a state, but they were certainly not lacking in arbitrary, inequitable, and sometimes brutal social relationships.
The later settlers from europe and the united states introduced the institutions of the political state to the “Great Land.” These various governments, with their laws and the weapons to enforce them, protected the newer arrivals in their economic exploitation and abuse of the residents and resources of the area, granted titles to land to those they favored, and arrogated to themselves the power to regulate the affairs of those they claimed to represent. The story of modern alaska is the story of ever-growing, ever more powerful governmental institutions ordering people around and protecting the interests of the political and economic elites.
Alaska takes up around 365,500,000 acres, 235,100,000 of which are owned by the federal government and 90,300,000 by the state. Of the 40,100,000 acres in the “private” sector, 37,400,000 are owned by corporations to whom this land was granted by the federal government in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Just like all the other corporations in the state which own or lease land or other property through the good graces of various government agencies, these businesses would not exist without government largesse and protection, and serve primarily the interests of those who own them at the expense of those who work for them. All other non-governmental lands taken together make up merely 2,700,000 acres, or just over 7% of the total area of alaska.
Much of this government-owned real estate is considered “public” land, but average people are not really free to use and enjoy it as they wish. One cannot enter a federal building, including the social security offices and the public lands building, without producing identification and passing through a metal detector. People are hemmed in by regulations when they want to camp, hunt, fish, or otherwise utilize the various “wilderness” areas around the state. Representatives of a plethora of government agencies patrol and police these “public” lands, telling people how, when, and where they may go about their business when traveling or staying in these areas. And when they wish to spend their money elsewhere, those who run these parks simply close them to the “public” who are the purported owners. Despite the abysmal record of government “management” of wilderness and wildlife, most recently demonstrated by this year’s devastating fires in the southwest, as well as one costing $3,000,000 that was set by state biologists in alaska, the bureaucrats and politicians persist in monopolizing the ownership and running of vast areas of land here and elsewhere.
Besides possessing most of the land in this state, governments also presume to dictate how we behave even when we are not on “their” property. Like their counterparts elsewhere, government officials, regulatory bodies, and police interfere constantly in the lives and business of us all, regulating our conduct in matters from the most important to the most trivial. Bureaucrats dictate how many fish can be caught in the open ocean and to whom fishers can sell them; whether art galleries can serve wine at openings; who can and can’t cut and style your hair; how and where you can build a home; what drugs, whether therapeutic or recreational, you can consume; and who can provide you with health care. The Division of Family and Youth Services steals people’s children, while police, like cops everywhere, routinely abuse peaceable people and invade their homes in their prosecution of the drug war, and are free to lock people up to coerce them into cooperating with the courts. In addition, people whose buildings are on land owned by the state risk being forced to vacate and burn their property at the whim of bureaucrats. Alaska is hardly a land where people can live and let live.
Unfortunately, this situation does not trouble many individual alaskans, who, like others all over the united states, are more than willing to use the government as their private bully when they want to push other people around or protect their own privileges. Whether it is those who want to prevent others from living in their neighborhood by claiming bogus public health hazards from new construction, busybodies who wish to keep others from purchasing sex or drugs, newly-arrived suburbanites who want to drive out a long-standing rural drug rehab center, or coastal property owners who want to maintain their monopoly over access to the Cook Inlet shoreline, residents of this state are just as likely to call on the government to back them up in disputes with their neighbors as people anywhere.
Naturally, all this intervention, supervision, and policing is paid for precisely by the people who are victimized by the rules, regulations, and laws enacted by various levels of government. While alaska has no income tax, there are local sales taxes and various other “tourist” taxes which state residents end up paying as well. There are also taxes on phone service and utilities such as water, sewer, gas, and electricity, as well as garbage collection. The state also taxes corporations, but these taxes are ultimately a tax on the people who work for these companies and the people who buy their products, since this is where these business’ wealth comes from. And all these taxes are in addition to those levied by the federal government which alaskans, like all other americans, are compelled to pay.
Government is alive and well in alaska, where the state spends more money per capita than any other in the united states, and government is a major, and sometimes the biggest, employer in many communities. While there are a lot of wonderful things about living here, like the mountains, rivers, wildlife, and coastlines, government institutions do their best to ruin the experience. The authorities, from Anchorage, to Juneau, to Washington, all think they know better than us how we should lead our lives and arrange our affairs, and have made it their business to force us to conform to their vision of how the world should operate. Only when enough people come to oppose this state of affairs and refuse to obey and cooperate any longer, will we have any chance of living in a really great land, a land free of government and the social and economic servitude it breeds.