Barter at the Burning Man Festival

Until I read this piece, I didn’t know that the only products one can buy at the Burning Man Festival are coffee and ice.  What about earth, wind and fire?   Adam Smith might not recognize this economy .  It takes some serious effort to identify trading partners if money is not exchanged and one relies on the coincidence of wants.   After reading through the “Ten Principles of Burning Man”, I now realize that I should remain in Westwood.   Of the Big Ten, I can only live up to; radical inclusion, radical self expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, and participation.  I can’t do Gifting, Radical Self-Reliance, and especially not Decommodification.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

9 thoughts on “Barter at the Burning Man Festival”

  1. I may be reading you wrong, but I don’t think those principles are necessarily meant to be applied to everyday life. Rather, they would be meant to be explored within the context of the Burning Man festival. Or not. I always felt it a bit too expensive and/or wanky for my taste. I like the idea in theory, though. 🙂

  2. DonBoy: I think the “Immediacy” principle is really at conflict with the very idea of making a list of principles in the first place, and since Burning Man apparently advocates against crafting coherent ideas, I doubt that the folks who run it would recognize such an obvious contradiction.

  3. I’ve not been but know a lot of people who really like it, and thousands consider it a huge success every year. If you think you wouldn’t like it, then your plan of action seems clear. I’m having trouble spotting the problem here.

  4. But Brian, some people are failing to live their lives 24/7 in accordance with the guidance of Econ textbooks! “Huge success” is unpossible under those circumstances. That’s the problem.

  5. Wow, are you angling for a job at the Washington Post? Because this is some decent hippie-punching you’re showing off here.

  6. Burning Man viewed from the outside: a grand rorschach test.
    Burning Man viewed from the inside: also a rorschach test.

    It’s really not that hard to understand if you strip away all the hype (which mostly comes from people who aren’t going and are trying to understand). A bunch of people who find some subset of societal norms constrictive go out into the middle of nowhere for a week and behave in ways that would be constrained in regular society. In a nod to practicality there are some rules, which tend towards a hippie-liberal ideal largely because hippie liberal ideals are a great way to provide for a necessary minimum of social order while getting out of people’s way. There’s an anti-corporate feeling to it all because, for most people, corporations are the primary source of behavioral restrictions in their lives.

    The somewhat ugly vices Burning Man is known for are just the human urges people most commonly suppress in their effort to get along: sexual promiscuity, drug use, general physicality and nakedness, loud music, dirtiness, not giving a fuck, naive notions of universal love, in-jokes, pranksterism, and tribalism. Some people (including a few dear friends of mine) are artists in the sense that they like building things because it’s fun and they like seeing people enjoy the resulting objects. They keep going even after deciding they’re ready to be done with Burning Man because it’s such a great way to scratch their itch for building things.

    If you have a desire that is difficult to fulfill in the normal world that is practical for Burning Man you’ll go, get fulfilled, get a buzz off all the other people who are getting their needs fulfilled, and go home hung over and a bit disappointed it’s all over for the year. If your personal needs are met as well or better in your normal world you’ll just see how silly it all is. In truth it is pretty silly because people’s suppressed desires are pretty silly. If your desire is to make 50,000 sweaty dusty partiers seem like a serious social movement then you’re silly too.

    For me the only non silly thing to come of my participation in Burning Man is the recognition that silly things have their place in life too.

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