25 September 2012

Burning Man 2013: Spontaneous order

Last week, I worried that the changing economics of Burning Man threatened to turn it from an amazing experience in human cooperation into a class-based society where money buys access and tourists spectate instead of participating.

Although my worries many never be realized, there are still ways for the Burning Man organization to turn the world upside down, to help us appreciate what community and cooperation really mean.

To this end, I suggest that they use "spontaneous order" the theme of Burning Man 2013.

This expression is borrowed from Hayek (and predecessors), and it refers to the way that people can use prices to coordinate and cooperate in the creation of goods and services of value. Also note that spontaneous order is compatible with non-priced goods and services that can be gifted instead of commodified, in ways that reflect the relationship between giver and receiver.

Here's how it could work at Burning Man:
  • Camps would be placed according to their bids for space ($/square meter). Bids would be ranked from highest to lowest. Higher bidders would get "prime" locations, but their money would go to lower-then-median bidders who would then have more money to spruce up their camps in the "ghetto."
  • Everyone would be encouraged to bring whatever they want to sell on the playa. These "suppliers" would then need to set or negotiate prices with "buyers" -- whether it was for food, massages, or entrance to a dance event. Bacon is considered the most important food in the desert, but anyone can make bacon. What about ice cream? On the flip-side, low prices for bad poetry or shitty drinks would reflect community values.
  • Everyone should bring cash, but barter or exchange is also allowed (why not?). Very few people understand how to set prices according to supply or demand (most of us are "price takers" in the market for food, jobs, cars, etc.) Such a process will require many face-to -face interactions and a real discusion of what's worth what.
Some people may scoff at this theme, for its obvious embrace of commodification, but remember that most human societies, and most of human history, has been dominated by exchange. Also note that exchange is the foundation for cooperation among humans [pdf]. Then think of the mission of Burning Man: "You're here to build a community that needs you and relies on you." If they need your goods and services (at the right price), then they need you. If they do not, then you need to find a way to be useful to your fellow humans. Burners are always going on about how they want to export their experience to the default world. That will not happen for as long as Burning Man values cannot mesh in the default economic system. This experiment makes that process easier.

Bottom Line: The best way to enlighten humans to the importance of their fellows is to highlight our interdependecies. "You didn't build that" is not the message. "You built that" with the help of customers, employees and a social infrastructure is the message. Learn it.

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