What Can Be Named after Whom?

There's no easy, logical answer

There is an ongoing controversy at Princeton over whether it should still be called the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy. Wilson was a notorious racist and segregationist, bad even by the standards of his time, plus he was a terrible President to boot. At Yale there are murmurings about a house named after John Calhoun.

Of course there is a slippery slope. There are plenty of American institutions named after slaveholders, and, for that matter, was Amerigo Vespucci such a great guy? For one thing, he helped Columbus commit genocide by provisioning one of his voyages.

Should George Washington stay on the dollar bill? If you’ve decided that no university or other positive-sum institution should be named the “Simon LeGree Satan School,” it seems hard to draw a line in a meaningful, non-arbitrary manner. Most famous people, especially in politics, have some pretty significant blemishes. Yet we cannot open every can of worms in this regard, or so it seems.

No one seems to mind that the Nazi Party is called…the Nazi Party. No one says “we can’t call the party that, those Nazis were the people who killed the Jews. Can’t name anything after them. Not even their own party.” In fact calling them Nazis is designed to remind people of what they did, appropriately I would add.

I don’t mind if an institution names itself after a person of mixed moral quality, or allows such a name to persist, provided the institution, in both its framing of the name and its pursuit of its broader mission, is self-conscious about that person’s drawbacks and invests resources toward that self-consciousness beyond the usual rhetorical statements. That said, others may mind more than I do, so it would be nice if we had a graceful way out of a slightly complicated situation.

I also would not be disturbed if they had kept the city names at Leningrad and Stalingrad. Lenin and Stalin were evil guys, but it seems appropriate to remind people what a big role they played in the histories of those cities. (At least for another hundred years, probably not forever.) Of course, if the citizens of the cities don’t want those names, I would not force the matter.

Perhaps in the longer run everything, including the Woodrow Wilson School, will be named after donors.

Why do we name things after people at all?

When I look at countries which are periodically renaming buildings, cities, and institutions, I get a little uncomfortable. The renaming probably isn’t causing their bad or unstable qualities, but pushing for a world of constant renaming does not strike me as a useful goal. It is not governed by a desirable feedback process, too much voice and not enough exit and competitive constraints.

There should be some kind of intermediate process where institutions can indicate that they take very seriously the moral failings of their namesakes, and publicize that message. And then over time they can try to raise enough money so as to have a convenient excuse to rename the Wilson School after a wealthy donor, taking constructive action but not ending up in an endless game of renaming.

A simple concrete step would be to cut the price of the naming rights on the Wilson School by fifty percent. That also could prove an efficient form of price discrimination, by selling the naming rights to one school for less, yet with a special circumstance so donors do not feel that every naming right now should sell for less.

This post first appeared at Marginal Revolution.