Monday, September 5, 2011

The Capitalist Values of Burning Man

Burners: I promise this post will really not pick on Burning Man or social progressive values in general. Based on the kind of writing that begins this way, I can't blame you if that's your expectation. I'm a one-time Burning Man attendee (2000, eons ago) and would go again if I had the time. I highly recommend it. I have only experienced culture shock once in my life, and it was on returning to "normalcy" after Burning Man. (If I'm a one-hit-wonder I don't think I should call myself a "Burner".) Lots of people I know are repeat customers; lots of people I know are on their way back from it at this very moment.

Open-mindedness is valuable, as are critiques of factions who self-identify as such. The reason that criticism is so important in this case is that when open-mindedness is institutionalized as a moral value - as it actually can and should be - there is a tendency to use self-perceived open-mindedness to insulate one's faction and one's own opinions from self-criticism with the following narrative: "My group/city/party/etc. pride ourselves on being open-minded and inclusive. Therefore, if an opinion differs from the prevailing wisdom in my group, it can only be the result of ignorance and close-mindedness. I'm right, you're wrong, shut up." Confirmation bias is like electricity; it finds the path of least resistance. That usually means straight through our most cherished values.

Maybe I've thought about this because I'm a very proud and patriotic (albeit currently exiled) San Francisco immigrant who also frequently finds myself in the role of apologist. I love that damn city, but the aforementioned "open-mindedness necessarily produces opinions that happen to agree with mine" reflex is all-too-often the subject of justified complaints. And one of the reasons I find Burning Man so interesting is observing the emergence of a common set of non-neutral values - "non-neutral" meaning judging some other values as mutually exclusive and rejecting them - which is something that it seems many Burning Man attendees and San Franciscans would deny they do, at least in the abstract. (But mention specific values and of course, if those values are not the right ones you'll quickly discover that indeed some values are rejected, leading in turn to an uncomfortable denial that they're rejecting values, or just to a statement that you're being unreasonable.)

So what's the connection between San Francisco and Burning Man? I will fully claim Burning Man as a cultural product that could only have come from that place, and a huge portion of its attendees every year hail from there. You're welcome, rest of world. (If you disagree with that, it's because you're ignorant and close-minded.)

The art was the main surprise for me. In innovation from just one year was easily the equal or superior of any museum I've ever been to anywhere in the world. From Rhino Beats.

But there's a counter-reflex toward the self-identified open-minded types, and this counter-reflex comes from people who love to stir things up - here I'm looking in the direction of otherwise smart and a little bit too self-satisfied young fiscal conservatives and libertarians. That counter-reflex is to smugly point out the existence of certain dogmatic, non-neutral values among self-described open-minded progressive types; or inconsistencies in their worldviews; or that they're more capitalist/carnivorous/consumerist/etc. than they will care to admit, ha ha ha! (Insert "We are not so different, you and I!" villain line here.) And as an aside to my fellow libertarians, these kinds of gotchas don't help the discussion, especially if we want to convince a group of very smart people that maybe rational agents acting individually to optimize their material self-interest is actually a good way to organize society. It's more of a terminology problem. "Material self-determination? Sign me up!", versus "Capitalism? No thanks!"

Hence it was with some dread that I clicked on a Big Government blog article about Burning Man. (H/T Patricia Iniguez of San Diego Skeptics in the Pub). While not completely without its whiffs of condescension and erstwhile-villainy, it's mostly devoid of this trouble-stirring nonsense and instead points out the free market underpinnings of Burning Man. Which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. In point of fact, Burning Man is what turned me from a somewhat vanilla social moderate Northeast Republican into a full-on libertarian. It was the revelation that here were thousands of people, who'd taken the trouble to go many miles from anywhere to use recreational drugs together where they weren't bothering anybody, and there were still law enforcement arrests in the camp. That's right: not only are our tax dollars still being spent on arresting them, but people get arrested for making choices about what to do with their own bodies. What a waste, what a misprioritization and a distortion of justice in a free society! If the state doesn't let you own yourself, then what can you own? This frightened me in a way it's hard to verbalize, and probably contributed to my culture shock, on leaving Burning Man and going back to the real world, upon seeing people who showed no sign of appreciating the flimsiness of this shared hallucination we call culture and civilization, standing in orderly lines at the airport as I was about to fly to Pittsburgh on business. But here's the kicker: what I didn't appreciate at the time is how much I was placing people in a binary opposition with myself in the more "open-minded" slot; and how normal people look once they wash the playa dust off and go back to the rest of their lives, to positively influence the rest of the world in gradual ways as a result of experiences like Burning Man. No doubt after I showered and changed, other Burning Man attendees saw me standing in line and had the same thoughts about me.

Adam Smith made clear that capitalism was a form of meta-selection: it's the system to find the best system. You need the most degrees of freedom possible to do that effectively. Burning Man, and the people who attend it, are living up to this promise, and it seems from this article that many of us understand this.

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