A Libertopia?


A reader writes:

Grover Norquist’s story from Burning Man is great, and while it seems silly to have a political argument, I do feel compelled to take one teaching moment regarding Denver Nicks’ argument that Burning Man isn’t libertarian:

And the government is everywhere at Burning Man, since the whole time you’re dancing or body painting or riding an enormous flame-spitting octopus or whatever in a landscape protected from spoilage by the Bureau of Land Management. And Black Rock City actually has lots of really important rules, like not dumping water on the ground and not driving. There aren’t persnickety rent-a-cops running around staking out potential litter bugs, but rules are enforced by Burning Man Rangers and more directly by the community itself through feelings like shame, withholding participation in taco night at camp or giving you a terrible “playa name” like Moophole or something.

The landscape is protected by the Bureau of Land Management, but it could just as easily be private property, like, say, Woodstock. But the main point is the fact that it has “rules” does not make it unlibertarian – libertarian does not equal anarchy.  This is what gets me when people make lazy characterizations of libertarianism.

The truth is, a libertarian utopia and a communal utopia would actually look pretty similar. Indeed, some of the most libertarian societies you can imagine are not things like Somalia (gangs of armed thugs trying to rob everyone of life, liberty and property), which is the liberals favorite gotchya, but rather things like the Amish, the Internet, and hippy co-ops.

It’s not the existence of rules that separates out libertarian from non-libertarian, it’s when there are agents of enforcement with a monopoly of force pointing a gun at your head demanding you adhere to the rules whether you agreed to them or not. That’s the great thing about Burning Man, and that’s what makes it libertarian.  Precisely as Nicks says, there are not rent-a-cops enforcing community standards – rather, there is the community.  And if you don’t like it, or are appropriately shamed, you can always GTFO.

Libertarianism, despite the popular misconception, does not mean anybody anywhere is free to be an asshole without consequence.  It’s the nature of the consequences that separate it.  A person who runs afoul of community standards finds themselves a pariah. If you act like an asshole, people won’t want to hang out with you, and so they won’t.  A product that is bad doesn’t make money.  A company operating practices that offend sensibilities loses customers and goes broke.  Speech that is unpopular is not sanctioned, but not banned; it’s just unpopular.  A governing body that doesn’t represent its constituents gets voted out of office.  A group of people can set up their own festival and tell whomever they like to take a damn hike for whatever reason they like (and those people can then go set up their own festival).  You can associate with, or not associate with, whomever you chose, and as long as you aren’t hurting anybody can do whatever you like – albeit paying whatever societal consequences are in play in that situation (i.e. talking loud in a movie theater gets you kicked out, being jerky at a dinner party gets you disinvited from other ones, carrying a gun to a place that doesn’t allow it bars you entry, throwing shit around Burning Man gets you run off).

A Burner shares his experience:

I just read your short account about Burning Man and I was actually touched by it, and by the paragraph before last I had tears in my eyes, as Burning Man caused big changes in me.

There were many incredible moments. One in particular is still very fresh in my mind. I visited the Temple of Grace several times. One time I went by myself and I was caught in this amazing and a bit scary white out sandstorm. As I trudged through the storm on my bike, I reached the temple and went inside into this calm and relaxing safe haven. There were many people solemnly and quietly seating and/or standing around. I went around observing and admiring the temple and I reflected on what I wanted to do at the temple. I left several messages on the walls and nooks and crannies of the edifice.

When I walked in the temple I noticed this beautiful woman kneeling near the center of the temple. She was clearly reflecting on a painful aspect or person in her life, as she seemed to meditate and would quietly cry and draw on a pad. After almost an hour that felt like 5 minutes, this lady started singing a very soul wrenching song. She had the sweetest voice and so much feeling and sentiment pouring out with the words and melody. Everyone else was quiet and all you could hear was this angelic voice. When she finished the song she got up and left the temple, she was done and you could see the peace on her face. I felt renewed.

Black Rock City and the Playa definitely felt like home. It did change me profoundly and thoroughly. I will definitely go back. I am a Burner now.

Welcome back to the default world. As I understand it from my veteran Burner friends, it will take some time for full decompression.

(Photo by BLM Nevada)