His first morning at Burning Man, Grover Norquist and his wife Samah made a beeline for the seasteaders.
At our invitation, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who famously shocked an audience of NPR listeners by saying, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” arrived at our camp bearing gifts.
And by gifts we mean contraband.
To demonstrate that voluntary exchange among adults is good, Grover presented us with Cuban cigars. To demonstrate that even auto manufacturers like Randolph Hencken can be trusted, Grover climbed aboard The Pollinator, our art car designed to look like a bee.
[From left to right: Jim O’Neill (Institute Board Member, Mithril Capital, Thiel Foundation), Randolph Hencken (The Seasteading Institute Executive Director), Mark Lutter (George Mason University, PhD Candidate), Joe Quirk (Seavangelist), Grover Norquist and Samah Alrayyes Norquist ride in The Pollinator. Burning Man makes for strange beefellows.]
To demonstrate that safety codes for construction can emerge voluntarily, Grover scaled a sixty-foot wooden pyramid assembled without a single nail. Sitting Buddha-like astride a single plank, feet dangling fifty feet over the desert, Grover engaged Randolph and seasteading friend Mark Lutter in a long conversation about the marvel of the city of rules without a monopoly of rulers.
[Left to right: Norquist, Hencken, Lutter. Burners probably didn’t expect policy wonk Grover Norquist to be a structure-scaling Burning Man badass.]
Sitting below with Joe Quirk, Samah, former director of the Islamic Free Market Institute, said the heat and sand storms reminded her of her childhood home in Kuwait. She was thoroughly impressed that the Burning Man trash policy is self-policing. With no public trash bins, radical self-reliance requires 66,000 burners to pick up all MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) and, according to the local ethos, “Leave No Trace.” We all avowed that Burning Man was cleaner than our home cities in “the default world.” Who would think such a decentralized system of trash cleanup would satisfy the federal Bureau of Land Management?
It’s difficult to tour Burning Man without re-thinking common assumptions about how and why societies work. Who would predict that a festival designed as a trade economy would evolve into a gift economy? So many burners give away such a variety of goods — from lip balm to ice cream distributed from a truck to advice from a professional psychiatrist dressed up as Lucy van Pelt from Peanuts — a saying has developed, “the playa provides.” So why isn’t Burning Man ruined by parasites who take advantage of all the generosity when there’s no way to force people to contribute?
A glance at political headlines would lead us to believe that humans are driven by desire for material gain. Contrarily, Burning Man suggests that people are driven by a desire to belong and to participate. Anonymous strangers invest tremendous labor and money into creating something spectacular for anonymous strangers. Burning Man is a real-world demonstration of how voluntary actions and decentralized consensus can create a city so compelling that it has grown from hundreds of people to tens of thousands in less than a generation.
As Grover enthused to New York Magazine, “talk about Hayekian spontaneous order — this is, like, exhibit A.”
Patri Friedman, co-founder of The Seasteading Institute, was walking around Burning Man years ago, observing that cultural mores that evolve among societies cannot be predicted from their initial parameters. The way attendees switch among camps every year, driving evolution in camp innovation, made him think of his father David’s quip that if houses were on wheels, we could all switch to the governments we want and compel governments to compete to please us. The fact that such a small number of explicit rules that everybody understands, and such a large number of unspoken rules that no one can express, allows for so much cooperation and creativity made Patri think of his grandfather Milton’s lesson that choice among individuals is more powerful than voice in states.
Patri imagined if such a dynamic could be created not on sand but at sea. What would we discover about human interaction if we could create lots of start-up cities — thousands?
[Not many people realize a Burning Man logo inspired The Seasteading Institute logo.]
We frequently cite Hong Kong, the Isle of Mann, Mauritius, and Singapore as diversely successful island nations and precedents to seasteading, but the art festival of Burning Man is our key example of an experimental community discovering remarkable possibilities in human nature.
Take, for example, Grover Norquist’s speech to close a Burning Man symposium about psychedelic drugs. Amid much buzz, the policy wonk and his wife walked into a crowd without a bodyguard to be greeted by a young lady who held a sign over his head that said “Tax the Rich.” Joe Quirk quickly drafted a sign about her that said, “Rich enough to attend Burning Man.”
Grover took the stage to make his case that taxes should be reduced, except in the case of marijuana, which should be made legal. A few burners demanded to know why Grover hates the government and loves rich people. Grover challenged them to ask why they hate individual choice and love the state. A long discussion ensued about the difference between voluntary governance and government by force.
Face-to-face with your opponents, its hard to demonize them. The more people spoke, the more people listened. The more people listened, the more they nodded. Spend enough time talking to your political enemies, you discover that people seem to hate only when something they love is threatened. Grover loves voluntary cooperation, and so do burners.
Grover stayed so long answering questions, by the time he was ready to head home, it was dark. Burners glanced at his attire and gasped. His first night on the playa, and he had already broken a cardinal Burning Man rule! At night, you should wear lights! Did Grover want to be run over by a bike or an art car? No police are authorized to fine him, nor vendors available to sell him lights — some might call it anarchy.
In a moment of spontaneous ardor, Burning Man freaks stripped off a portion of their gear and festooned Grover and Samah with lights. The couple walked across the dark playa like Christmas trees. Soon they blended in with all the other crazy constellations racing around on bikes, art cars, and on foot, chasing interactions that suited them, driving camps to compete to attract them. We’re not the first to observe that, at night on the open playa, people moving about look like ships at sea.
Contrary to Grover’s famous quip, we don’t think empires can be drowned in a bathtub. But we do think they can be outcompeted at sea. If better examples for governance can be demonstrated in a desert, glorious bluetopias can created at sea.
From your Burning Man friends at The Seasteading Institute,
Joe Quirk and Randolph Hencken