Funny that Burning Man would Be Anti-Socialist

Let me first say that I’ve never been to Burning Man, but am seriously thinking of attending this next year. I’m sure that a lot of great people attend and that the spirit of kindness towards others probably promoted at the event, as it tends to be at these kinds of festivals, is great to experience. I’m sure that all of the art displays are interesting to see and the experience of creating a city in an empty expanse of desert for a week is really exciting. Really it is probably the kind of thing that is great to experience at least once in your life.

In doing some research, however, I was a bit surprised that the festival requires self-reliance. You need to bring in your own water, food, shelter, etc…. Everything that you need to survive while you’re there. You also need to be prepared for the weather, which includes things like sand storms that black everything out for hours at a time. The reason that I’m surprised is that, given that this is probably mostly attended by far left activists coming from places like San Francisco (it got its start on one of the frigid beaches in San Francisco) one would think that it would be promoting socialism and communism, which are anything but self-reliant economic strategies. In both of these systems the individual is supposed to give what he/she produces to the system and then let the system dole things out to people as needed. Self-reliance is what free-enterprisers and libertarians preach, not hard-core communists who want universal healthcare and daycare. Interesting.

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Why Burning Man probably requires self-reliance

Probably the reason Burning Man requires self-reliance is that it is the only system that would work. It would take a great deal of effort to provide for 70,000 people out in the middle of the desert. Think of the logistic involved in getting all of the needed supplies, especially since everyone seems to have special needs today when it comes to food. There are omnivores, vegetarians, fruitarians, vegans, and other diets. There are many who have chosen to go lactose-free, gluten-free, who have nut allergies, or who require everything be certified organic. How difficult would it be to get everything together for this crowd when it simply comes to food. You couldn’t just order pin in an order for a thousand dozen pizzas or cook up some huge kettles of soup and expect everyone to be happy. The organizers probably also don’t want to go through all of the work that it would take to do so.

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So instead they require that everyone bring everything that they need for the time in which they are there. You need to bring in your own food, water, shelter, fuel, light, cooking implements, firewood, and toilets/sanitation. The only things the festival really provides is a spot in the city and a giant statue, representing “The Man,” to burn at the end of the week. Show up without food, sorry. Come without a tent, tough luck. Forget -your TP? Good luck – there aren’t even leaves to use. You need to be totally self-reliant.

And as long as everyone attending knows this, it probably works out well for the most part. I’m sure that people are willing to share to a degree. If you forgot your lighter or your can opener I’m sure that you could borrow from others. You probably couldn’t expect to bring nothing and have everything you needed provided, but you could probably get a little help here and there. As long as it was not too big a burden, and as long as everyone were mostly self-reliant, it wouldn’t be that hard to help people out a little since there is plenty of surplus.

But what if all of Skid Row came?

What would happen if people who were not self-reliant came out? If you brought ten people out with nothing and dumped them in the festival grounds, I’m sure that they could find shelter, food, water, and other necessities through the generosity of others in a city of 70,000. The city could take up a collection, asking people who could to provide some of their food, maybe having different people share a portion of their meal each day. I’m sure some people would have an extra tent here and there, an extra sleeping bag, and an extra water bottle. The city could absorb a few extra people. They would also probably be given instructions in what they needed to bring and how to gather it all together. If the same people came again the next year after spending some time learning from others who attend regularly that many of them would probably come better prepared and ready to be self-reliant themselves. Maybe they would even be able to help others who were not prepared themselves.

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But what would happen to the festival if you were to take buses down to Skid Row in Los Angeles and through the Castro District of San Francisco and load people up to drop off at the festival? You just started unloading people in the festival grounds to join the self-reliant city and live in the same manner as they are doing in the cities where they now call home? Burning Man attendees could probably support 100, or maybe 1000. But what about 10,000, or 20,000, or 60,000?

At some point the regular attendees would not be contributing enough voluntarily. Because you’d have people starving and dying from exposure, someone may decide that a tax was needed, where everyone attending would need to provide some extra food and provisions to leave for the “shelter-less” now attending the festival. Maybe those who had more resources would be expected to provide more. People who showed up with extra tents and food would be required to provide anything considered beyond what they needed. Those who didn’t have trucks full of provisions would just be expected to give an extra can of spam or a gallon of water.

One of the first things to happen is that there would be people who would decide to game the system. Knowing that they really didn’t need to bring everything, and knowing if they brought extra that they would just have it taken away, many people would bring less. Some would decide that they’d rather bring an extra bag of weed than spend their money on food. Others might decide to show up with nothing and see if they could just make it through the week bumming off of others. Virtually no one would bring a car load of stuff since they would know that it would just be taken away. Many of the people who liked to bring a lot would probably just stop going, saying that it was just no fun anymore.

Expecting self-reliance where possible makes it work

Burning Man works because people are expected to be self-reliant. Everyone is expected to provide everything for themselves, unless some major unfortunate event happens to them where they need the assistance of others. This means that there is plenty for everyone since most people have all that they need. There is even a bit extra to take care of those who have bad luck. If the society chooses, they can also allow a few people to survive through the event even though they chose not to provide for themselves, perhaps with a dose of shaming and the admonition to come better prepared next year.

The same is true with real, permanent cities and countries. If most people are expected to be self-reliant, most people will have everything that they need. For the few that are truly unfortunate, those who see some sort of disaster, medical condition, or just random bad luck, there will be plenty left over for the rest of society to take care of them if most people are providing for themselves. Stop expecting this, instead pooling money together and then doling it out to others based on “need” and it becomes a game of seeing how much you can get with the least effort. Those who work hard to provide for themselves are seen as losers, while those who do nothing and get everything provided are winners. Those who produce a lot and get everything taken away are seen as even bigger losers, so they eventually will choose not to play the game. this is why socialism fails everywhere that it is tried.

Making Burning Man even better

Self-reliance works to an extent, but there is actually a better way. Because different people are better at different things, and because those who concentrate in a certain area can buy better tools and get bulk-discounts, it would be better to allow different people to provide different things and then have the participants trade among themselves. Maybe some people would bring out truckloads of tents and set them up for others to use. Some of those others who are farmers might bring out fresh vegetables and other food to trade for their shelter. Still others could buy water trailers and bring out hundreds of gallons of water, bring out portoilets and provide sanitary services, or bring out stoves and cook up the food for the people. Trading allows everyone to concentrate on a particular area and improve efficiency.

Of course, not everyone would want to go through the trouble to buy the needed equipment. In addition, not everyone would want to take the risk that they would bring out something that would not be especially desired or that many others were also bringing. They could trade their labor to others who were willing to go through the trouble and take the risk. But then they would be helping out “the man” that they were burning at the end of the festival.

Is the Burning Man mindset actually selfish?

I’ve got no doubt that most Burning Man attendees are kind people who worry about the welfare of others. But the self-reliant mindset is the same one that many of them probably see as selfish when they are back in the regular world at their regular jobs. While they are expecting that everyone bring what is needed to make it through the festival, but they call those selfish back in the “real world” those who are not willing to pay high taxes and give to others regardless of whether or not the others could do what is needed to take care of themselves but simply choose not to do so. But which is more selfish, to take care of yourself and only provide for others if you have excess or to expect others to take care of you while you choose to do things you’d rather do?

And socialism, while seen by some as generous, is actually very selfish in its nature. It causes people to always be thinking about what is in it for them and how they can get something for as little as possible. You win by thinking of yourself.

By contract, free-enterprise causes people to try to figure out what others need most and to provide it. It causes others to leave their homes and spend time in the workplace doing for others rather than for themselves. And the truth is that The Man provides a relatively easy way to find others you can help and only takes a small percentage in return for doing a lot of the hard work. A cook at a fast food restaurant doesn’t need to worry about rent, hiring, payroll, advertising, and how to provide great service so that the customers keep coming. He just needs to wear his uniform and show up on time. In exchange, he gets paid far more than he could make with the same amount of effort without The Man.

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