How Living In Alaska Has Made Me Understand Conservative Politics
DENALI, ALASKA- For me, the difference between liberalism and conservativism has always boiled down to how much you support government intervention. Yet these distinctions are largely impractical when applied to the daily rigors of city life. Someone who leans to the right and wants government out of their lives will still expect the city to plow the streets after a snow storm, and a supporter of decreased governmental regulation will still call the police during a neighborly dispute that has gotten out of hand. For the most part, those who support “small government” are in favor of the government staying out of their business only when it is in their personal self-interest. Viewed on a broad political spectrum, they still expect the government to act when it serves their benefit.
Alaska is a different world from the lower 48. It is a vast land filled with a boundless expanse of harsh terrain that can quickly turn against you—indeed, something like 99% of the state is public land that cannot be bought, sold, or developed. Anyone familiar with the story of Into the Wild has some insight into what it’s like to spend some time in Alaska, and how unpredictable the conditions can be. The majority of Alaskans do not set up camp in an abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere with little to no preparation, but there is an imperative to living life here that is severely understated elsewhere: to survive, you must be self-sufficient. There is very little in the way of government intervention, and one must be self-sufficient without the structured support from traditional society that so many of us rely upon.
There are fewer people living in Alaska, and that means there is less need for the rampant regulation of everyday life you might see in New York. In theory it is a very obvious thing that we all know and experience, but in practice there is a meaningful difference in the way everyday life is lived. Think about a single day in New York, and how many people you run into that work for the government: police officers, bus drivers, sanitation workers, firefighters, bureaucrats, postal workers—they are all over the place. In a city where everyone lives close together, you begin to rely on these individuals not as members of your community, but as an impersonal, amorphous blob of professionals paid to serve you at will. You see your bus driver as just that—a bus driver, not a member of your community that drives a bus to put bread on the table. In a regulated society, everyone plays a role and we come to rely on him or her to play that role, but lost in this is a sense of community—of relying on one another as individuals for help. We rely on individuals as instruments of a government apparatus.
There are very few visible government officials in Denali Borough. Trash collection—private. State troopers—two. Medical clinic—open 8 hours a day, private. In a city, we expect all of these things to be at our disposal 24 hours a day, and we are incensed when they are not. If the subway isn’t running at night, we are pissed. We expect the subway to run at night, because that is what subways do, regardless of what time it is. That isn’t the case in Denali. State services are minimal, partly because there are not enough individuals to warrant their widespread use, but also because that is the way people want to live. They don’t want someone telling them what to do and when—and not in an anarchic, get-off-my-property way…just in the sense that that’s the way they’d rather live life, without regulation or interference from someone else. When it comes down to it, they are self-sufficient and will care for themselves. They don’t expect the government to come and save them when something goes wrong; they expect to deal with it within their community. This is a revelatory lesson for me in what small government actually means: more than supporting tax cuts for businesses, conservative values represent people who would rather get by on their own.
State government in Alaska does provide the large-scale services—fighting forest fires, investigating homicides, and collecting taxes. It's not a completely lawless place. But it’s the little things—the small day-to-day regulations that we come to rely upon that are lacking here in Alaska. This has made the distinction between “right wing” politics and “left wing” politics much more apparent. Living in a place with a dense population, we all rely on the government for something—we just never think about it. You might be pro small-government on the NYC spectrum, but you still expect government to provide services that Alaskans wouldn't think twice about doing themselves.
In Alaska, you don’t involve the authorities unless you have to. You live in a community that cares for its members, self-polices, and in general gets by without relying on others. "Conservatives" in the lower 48 would quickly realize just how much government intervention they really are in support of if they had to fend for themselves in the 49th State. It's refreshing to see the volatile political spectrum we're so familiar with in America recast when living amongst people that are in support of the smallest of governments.