An economist considers Burning Man

I spent last week at Burning Man. It was one of the best experiences of my life. However, as much ink has been spilled on the experience of Burning Man, I will direct my attention to where I have a comparative advantage, understanding the social organization of Burning Man.

Burning Man is a city which exists for a week. In 2014 the city had 70,000 inhabitants. Creating a social order of 70,000 people is hard enough. However, what makes Burning Man so interesting is that they not only create a city, but they also operate under social norms that are alien to the outside world.

The two most important norms are that of a gifting economy and removing all trash. Monetary transactions are unacceptable. All matter brought into Burning Man must be brought out. The difficulty in enforcing both norms is that Burning Man is big enough to be anonymous. If I wanted to dump my trash during the night I might be yelled at, but it is easy enough to disappear into the dark with no further social repercussions.

Economists have long distinguished between familiar and anonymous social interactions.  The rules we use when interacting with family and friends are different from the rules we use when interacting with strangers.  This is because social pressure is sufficient to ensure cooperation among individuals who have long term repeated interaction. However, one shot interaction with strangers requires different rules to ensure cooperation. These rules range from reputation used by Ebay and Uber to formal contracts used in the business world.

What make Burning Man so impressive is that they have been able to sustain rules that primarily exist in small groups in a city of 70,000 people. Burning Man proves social pressure is scalable far beyond what is normally assumed. Further, such social pressure works even though each year 40% of Burners are new residents. These new residents, by and large, successfully are integrated into the wider social order.

This is where the tension between new and old Burners come in. For almost every event, there are people who complain that it has changed for the worse as time progressed. The new attendees don’t understand the culture, and have morphed the event into something unrecognizable. The dynamic exists in Burning Man too, probably to a greater extent than other events. However, while I tired of hearing people complain about the good old days, it is clear that such conversation fulfills an important social function. It pressures new attendees, such as myself, to learn and conform to the norms that have made Burning Man what it is.

(Image credit Neil Girling)

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