Last month, I emailed my TOL editors to let them know I’d be completely off the grid for two weeks—the last week of August and the first week of September. I can’t get you an article for either of those weeks, I said, because I’ll be at Burning Man.
“What IS Burning Man?” Gina asked me in response. I was leaving the next day, so I left her question hanging to ponder while I drove into the dust.
Burning Man is a week-long event in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada. It was attended by over 65,000 people this year, and mainstream interest in it continues to increase. There are celebrity attendees, references in popular culture and a whole lot of videos on YouTube to engage the curious and uninitiated.
If you ask a room of ten Burners what Burning Man is, you’ll get at least 11 different answers. I find it has that in common with libertarianism, and for good reason. A love of liberty begets diverse ideas because they aren’t constrained.
If you read VICE, you’ll learn that Burning Man is apparently absolutely not a libertarian paradise because there are rules and fees. Meanwhile, Grover Norquist told the National Journal that he was looking forward to attending this year, to participate in this “example of spontaneous order”. His follow-up piece after the event was glowing:
A community that comes together with a minimum of “rules” demands self-reliance – that everyone clean up after themselves and help thy neighbor. Some day, I want to live 52 weeks a year in a state or city that acts like this. I want to attend a national political convention that advocates the wisdom of Burning Man.
I couldn’t agree more, Grover.
Some people will tell you that Burning Man is filled with copious drug use, is a giant orgy and teeming with unwashed hippies. Others will say it’s dominated by the 1% with a significant tech industry presence. Many people note that Burners are partying in a desert that is doing its best to kill us; it is not for the faint of heart.
This is all true. There’s also no reason to put these different cultures at odds. Articles and census data have already established that Burners come from many different political affiliations and walks of life. Half the people I talk to think the gifting economy is proof that Burning Man is a commie paradise, whereas others see radical self-reliance as an obviously libertarian reference. Regardless of other differences, you’ll find that Burners hold their 10 Principles as a self-evident celebration, at least while out there on the Playa.
Burning Man is a community, a city. It’s an art festival and a drug rave. It’s Mad Max. It’s sexy, dusty, and apocalyptic. It’s beautiful, hard, stressful and expensive. It’s musical, loud, and fun. It’ll make you laugh and cry. It’ll change you, maybe just in some small way. It’ll challenge your boundaries and confound your expectations. It’s an adventure. Even if you remember everything on your supply list, you might be stuck in traffic for 30 hours on the drive in like I was this year. You might make new friends or find the closeness stressful and fight with those you love. You can spend your days doing acroyoga, or dancing until dawn.
You can make your Burn about spiritual enlightenment, or partying, or music or art. You can chemically alter yourself or you can be sober. The point is that there are more than 65,000 people there and at least that many ways to experience it. You don’t have to like what I like, I don’t have to like what you like—we just have to let each other be, so we can make whatever we want out of the experience.
I spend a lot of time online trying to explain to people that their lives and their values don’t have to apply to others. If I choose to do drugs or have an abortion, I’m not suggesting anybody else has to. I actually choose to stay celibate at Burning Man every year, but I’m definitely not suggesting everybody else has to.
My perspective on libertarianism is very similar to my perspective on Burning Man. There are a limited number of principles we need to share—such as mutual respect, non-aggression, self-reliance—and the rest is whatever we make it. We can form our relationships, communities and experiences based on whatever we choose, and there’s more room for all of us with minimal rules, minimal central planning and embracing the fact that each of us being true to ourselves is a radical and beautiful act of freedom.
Burning Man is exactly that—whatever you make it.