Since Grover Norquist has announced his intention to attend Burning Man, there has been an increasing amount of moral outrage coming out of the progressive church. One VICE writer has gone so far off the deep end that he wrote an article sweeping all conservatives in with Grover entitled, “Here’s Why Republicans Shouldn’t Go to Burning Man.” The author, Tom Berman, not only mischaracterizes and misunderstands his opponents, he also purposefully deceives the reader about the nature of Burning Man.
The author defines Grover’s ideology quite vaguely, identifying him as a Republican. However, political parties are just coalitions made up of people who hold many different ideologies. Grover Norquist is libertarian (small ‘l’, meaning ideologically libertarian), as am I. As a libertarian burner about to embark on my third burn, I have found the citizens of Black Rock City much more tolerant of my ideology than the typical progressive. The impression you’d get reading Berman’s article is that Burning Man is full of people holding up Obama signs screaming “Yes, we can!” That is quite far from the truth.
Black Rock City has a large degree of moral and political pluralism. According to the Black Rock City Census of the population sampled in 2012, 36 percent identify as Democratic, 34 percent as Independent, 25 percent as Republican, and 6 percent as other. Thus, Berman’s article outrageously suggests that one in four Black Rock citizens in 2012 should not have attended the burn. Given the ideological variety included in the term “Independent,” I’d be curious to know how many more people would fail Berman’s litmus test.
Not only is Burning Man made up of a variety political affiliations, it is also strongly compatible with libertarian ideology. Berman claims that the Burning Man Organization (BMO), which is an LLC owned by a nonprofit, serves as a government and even collects taxes, thus making it an event hostile to free market types. This is outright ridiculous, not just to libertarians, but by progressive standards as well. A private organization is providing public goods that are voluntarily funded through user fees. This structure of governance sounds a lot less like Woodrow Wilson and a lot more like the radical libertarian ideology of anarcho-capitalism. Essentially, Burning Man is run by a private organization whose rules are decided through a consumer and producer relationship.
What about the gift economy, doesn’t this go against laissez-faire capitalism? Not at all. The gift economy is part of Burning Man’s social contract that is negotiated at the point of ticket sale. Unlike progressivism, libertarianism is a fairly tolerant political ideology. There is nothing at odds with libertarianism and voluntary communes, as long as they’re consensual. The gift economy, the 10 principles, and the other guidelines set up by BMO are voluntarily and contractually agreed upon rules.
The gift economy also exists within a larger framework of property rights. Just because the voluntary community of Black Rock City bans monetary exchange doesn’t mean that property rights cease to exist. The essence of the gift economy is that it is a voluntary giving of one person’s property to another. In addition, this economy and 10 principles only work because the community shames freeriders and has costly barriers to entry. The harsh reality of living for a week in the desert, the monetary costs associated with attending, and the limit on the number of tickets all select for people who are likely to contribute to the larger economy of Black Rock City and keeps out those who won’t. The gift economy is not a display of the practicality of communism, but a display of how we can temporarily overcome commons problems with the right incentives.
Further, Berman reveals his fundamental ignorance of political economy when he claims that user fees are akin to taxation. Is taxation a voluntary transaction? No. If BMO spends more money than it takes in, can it retroactively demand more from its customers? No. If BMO feels that too many resources are concentrated in the hands of wealthier citizens, can they charge them more halfway through the event? No. By the author’s definition, we should consider the voluntary purchase of amusement park tickets a form of taxation.
Grover Norquist, on the other hand, has correctly characterized Burning Man as an expression largely of the absence of government. To suggest otherwise is to undermine what really makes Burning Man such a unique experience — the community. Burning Man is a shining example of the spontaneous order that Austrian economist F. A. Hayek is famous for describing. It takes very few rules that are agreed upon in a social contract and, from the complex interplay of free peoples, arises a city that is the result of human action, not human design.
The orderly chaos of emergent order is what makes Burning Man such a complex and unique event. We’ve all struggled to put the essence of Burning Man into words because the social order is far too complex for an individual mind to consciously design. Burning Man stands in opposition to the rationalism of central planning. Grover understands this aspect of Black Rock City before even setting foot on the Playa. Because he shares this unique insight, and in the spirit of radical inclusion, I’m excited to welcome him into our voluntary community.
Kyle Hartz is the Director of Organizational Measurement at Students For Liberty.