Author: marklutter

Refugee cities

I wrote a piece for Medium arguing that refugee cities could help solve the European refugee crisis. Long story short, more immigration would be best, but is politically impossible. Next best solution, build new cities on uninhabited Greek island. There is already funding. All Greece needs to do is get out of the way. Here’s a sample.

With that in mind, innovative solutions are required. Accepting more refugees is appealing on humanitarian grounds but objectionable to traditionalists in many countries throughout Europe, and to workers who have seen no wage growth and few new employment opportunities since the financial crisis of 2008. One pioneering solution, which several groups and individuals are advocating, is to create a semi-autonomous city in the Mediterranean for refugees. Importantly, the refugees would be allowed to work and own property and businesses, producing value and thus ensuring the city did not become a giant refugee camp. At the same time, refugees would be prevented from entering the rest of Europe, making the city politically acceptable.

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The limits of private governance

I was invited to respond to Ed Stringham’s new book and lead essay on Cato Unbound. Here is a snippet.

The success of private governance depends on whether the previous actions of participants are easily identifiable. If so, cheaters will be avoided and cooperators will be interacted with again. However, there are a class of people for whom their previous actions are not easily identifiable.

Imagine you are an entrepreneur in the third world. You have started a business, but cannot grow it because you are capital constrained. Banks are unwilling to lend you money because the government cannot be trusted to recover capital if you are late during repayment. Because you are a new entrepreneur there is not enough information about your ability and willingness to repay loans for the bank to simply trust you.

If we ignore the government failure of enforcing the banking contract, it is also apparent that a private governance mechanism cannot solve this need. And a recent paper by David McKenzie suggests it is stronger than usually recognized.

McKenzie examines the results of a business competition in Nigeria where a randomized selection of 729 firms were given an average of $50,000. After three years he found, “Surveys tracking applicants over three years show that winning the business plan competition leads to greater firm entry, higher survival of existing businesses, higher profits and sales, and higher employment, including increases of over 20 percentage points in the likelihood of a firm having 10 or more workers. These effects appear to occur largely through the grants enabling firms to purchase more capital and hire more labor.”

The conversation will continue and I will likely add additional commentary here. After the conversation has ended I plan to summarize it here.

Why private cities?

I have been interested in the creation of private cities for some time. A recent email exchange with Paul Romer (who I want to say was kind and clearly communicated with me which I very much appreciate as I have been critical of his work and he is a person whose time is very valuable) has led me to realize that I should write up a 15-minute pitch explaining my beliefs.

First, why care about laws at all? Romer’s TED talk is still probably the best introduction. Basically, rich countries are rich because they have good governments, poor countries are poor because they have predatory governments. A good government is one that allows private property, contract, exchange, rule of law, and organization. A bad government is one that prevents those things. With private property, contract, exchange, rule of law, and organization people learn to produce wealth, trade and have a higher standard of living. This is not just my opinion, it has become close to a consensus among economists who study the issue (see here for the best introduction, here, here, and here for econometrics, and here for a more advanced “why” analysis).

So basically, laws, or institutions, which can be thought of as the power structures which determine laws, determine the wealth or poverty of nations. So, why care about institutionally autonomous cities, institutional autonomy meaning having substantively different laws from the rest of the country? Basically, institutional change is very hard. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been known to quip that “the hardest part about building rule of law is the first 500 years.” In other words, getting the institutions right is very difficult.

The fall of the Soviet Union offers a useful example. A lot of well-intentioned economists tried to “fix” the former Soviet Republics. There are some success stories, Poland for example, but overall most of the countries failed to perform as anticipated. The economists were more focused on getting the prices right, than ensuring the courts were free and fair and the bureaucracy wasn’t corrupt. Another example is both Iraq and Afghanistan. The US poured hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives into both, and the result is less evil governments than before, but hardly a substantive change in living standards for most of the population.

Institutional change is difficult because it first requires asking the institutions, to admit they do not function well, and second, to reform. These problems are only necessary because the institutions do not function in the first place. If a government was capable of doing so they would likely have already done it. In some sense, it is like asking coal to squeeze itself into a diamond.

Institutionally autonomous cities offer a way around this difficulty. By being built in rural land with no strong interest groups, they do not disrupt the status quo. Second, by being opt in, the acquire more legitimacy. They are not an outside body imposing new laws on an unwilling populace, but rather a new option for people trying to make a better life for themselves. Simply put, because they are regional instead of national, institutionally autonomous cities offer an easier path to institutional change.

So, I have focused my studies and energies on institutionally autonomous cities because I believe they offer the best option for institutional change, economic development, and improving the lives of the least well off humans.

Of course, there are different visions for the ideal institutionally autonomous cities. The visions can be distinguished by the governance body for the cities.

The best known advocate for institutionally autonomous cities is Paul Romer. His vision is Charter Cities. The governance body in a Charter City would be a first world country, Denmark for example. In that sense it would directly import first world institutions to third world countries. Instead of Indians or Zimbabweans needing to move to Denmark, Danish law and the opportunities and economic growth that comes with it could be brought to this country.

However, Charter Cities are not the only option. I think private institutionally autonomous cities, administered by Google for example, could produce better results more quickly than Charter Cities. However, before I discuss why I would like to say I pretty much entirely agree with the Charter Cities project. I think building a Charter City would likely be an enormous success. It would generate a great deal of wealth and improve the lives of people in the host country. In this sense, my quibbles are relatively minor. A Charter City would be a huge leap forward from the existing world, and a private autonomous city could be a small step beyond a Charter City.

So, why do I prefer a private city. The primary reason is adaptability. Building a new city is a megaproject. Private companies would be more responsive to changing conditions, new information, and unforeseen challenges.  However, before going into more depth, I would like to take a second to explain how a private autonomous city would function.

A private autonomous city would begin by buying a large area of relatively uninhabited land. They would also negotiate for institutional autonomy, basically a special economic zone. For this essay I will assume a private city state, for complete autonomy, but the arguments I make will also apply to a private city with more limited autonomy.

The business model would be similar to that of a mall. The proprietor of the land would pay for improvements, then rent out the space at a higher value because of those improvements. In this scenario, the improvements would be traditional public goods, roads, lights, water, sewage, electricity, as well as non-traditional public goods, police and courts.

The general argument is that the land proprietor would have a long term interest in the economic success of the city because such success would increase the value of the land and therefore the rents of the proprietor.

For this essay I will focus on the non-traditional public goods, police and courts, and conclude with my argument that private autonomous cities would be more adaptable. Traditional public goods are often supplied by private contractors to governments, suggesting it would be easy for a private city to contract with similar companies, if not do it themselves. Further, to the best of my knowledge, no one has argued against private cities on the grounds of higher utility costs.

The strongest argument against a private criminal and civil justice system is that it would favor the powerful. A private city, especially a small one, would likely have a small number of large employers. Several big companies would pay a disproportionate share of the city’s budget, and the city would be somewhat beholden to them. Combined with the more direct link between rent and profit this could lead to a criminal and civil justice system that favors the powerful. Especially because residents in a private city would not have the same sense of ownership as they might in a democratic city. Rather than citizens, they would be more akin to customers, which could embolden the city to favor the powerful and delegitimize the voice of the residents.

This argument applies to civil justice, police, and criminal justice. I will discuss them in that order. However, first I will make several general arguments which apply to all three.

First, all cities will have some companies which pay a disproportionate amount of taxes. The specific claim against private cities, is that private cities will be more likely to favor the powerful than other types of city governance. It is not obvious that private cities will necessarily be worse in this regard. Reputation will be very important to a private city hoping to convince residents and companies to locate there. A perception of injustice, either in the civil system, police, or criminal system, could hurt them in the long run.

As an example, many companies, Amazon, MasterCard, Geico, and Ebay for example, likely have a small number of sellers which account for a disproportionate amount of revenue. However, there companies are generally perceived as fair in their dispute resolutions. Few people are going to buy car insurance from a company that favors large clients, or use the credit cards of a company that has unfair dispute resolution mechanisms.

Second, such critiques of private autonomous cities often underestimate how bad civil justice, police, and criminal justice is in undeveloped countries. For a quick sense skim the World Justice Project’s report on the Rule of Law. For example, 21%, 23%, and 24% of Nigerians believe that police, follow the law, respect the basic rights of suspects, and are punished for breaking the law respectively. As a personal anecdote, several Honduran friends have told me they fear the police more than they do the gangs, even though Honduras is the murder capital of the world. More generally, it is common knowledge that justice systems in the undeveloped world rarely deliver justice. Unfortunately, that knowledge is often forgotten or ignored when considering the possibility of a private replacement.

There is strong evidence that private civil justice mechanisms can perform as well, if not better than public civil justice mechanisms. The best book on this is “Private Governance”, by Edward Stringham. One particularly telling example is the emergence of the Dutch stock exchange. Not only was short selling not enforced, it the Dutch government actually banned it. Nevertheless, people continued to write short contracts and they continued to be paid. Those who refused to pay contracts, even ones that were technically illegal, were simply banned from future participation in the stock market.

In a more modern example, international trade is often “lawless.” Companies frequently specify that contracts be settled under private adjudication for both speed and accuracy, as government courts sometimes fail to keep up with complex commercial contracts. The prevalence of international arbitration is reflected in detailed guides to drafting contracts, exemplified here, and here. Such contracts show private dispute resolution is often better equipped to handle complex contracts.

To some extent, international arbitration clauses can be said to exist in the shadow of the state. The New York Convention ensures participating governments enforce private arbitration agreements and rulings made in other countries. However, Peter Leeson found that state enforcement only accounted for 15-38% of international trade, a substantial amount, but not nearly enough to suggest private mechanisms were not working.

There is less evidence that private police can perform as well as public police. This is not to suggest there is suggesting private police would be worse than public police, merely that there is relatively little evidence regarding private police at all.

Edward Stringham has an article about private police in San Francisco. When people and businesses who hired the private police force were asked why they did not use the free public one, responses ranged from, “they take too long to arrive” to “they scare me”. The best response was “that’s a joke right? I have little confidence in SFDP”.

The best argument for private police is the general untrustworthiness of public police in the undeveloped world. I think most honest well-traveled people would admit they trust security guards at restaurants or hotels more than the local police. Unfortunately, improving on public police in the undeveloped world is not a very high bar.

The last, most controversial point, and the one with the least evidence to support privatization is criminal courts. This would be an extreme example, as it is highly unlikely that a private city would gain sovereignty. If a private city did manage to gain some autonomy, the criminal courts would likely be the last thing a host country would abdicate control over. While there is very little evidence on this point, I would like to make several overarching statement.

First, there are lots of examples of private actors acting badly in criminal justice, honor killings, feuds etc. However, I think these examples have as much bearing on a private city as the Saudi Arabia beheading teenagers has on arguments for social democracy. While they are in some ways the same, private criminal justice, and the actions of a state, they strip out the context that makes them different. Saudi Arabia is still a primitive state and honor killings are a primitive form of private justice. If Google were to build a city it is hard to believe it would try to build the honor killing, teenager beheading, primitive criminal justice system.

Second, a private city could remove sovereign immunity. Wrongful actions taken against citizens, including in the criminal justice sphere, would penalize the city.

Of course, that private cities could provide better civil justice, police, and criminal justice than undeveloped countries does not mean they would do a better job than a Charter City, merely that they would be better than the status quo. A Charter City, assuming it is implemented well, would provide civil justice, police, and criminal justice, at a level consistent with the Charter country. In other words, a Charter City would have low variance of its justice system.

A private city on the other hand, would have high variance. It could outperform a Charter City, but it could also greatly underperform a Charter City. Compared to a Charter City, a private city would have a slightly higher ceiling, but a much lower floor.

So, given the expected value of a private city based on civil justice, police, and criminal justice, is lower than a Charter City, why prefer a private city? The answer is adaptability, the ability to respond quickly to rapidly changing on the ground circumstances.

Cities, especially institutionally autonomous cities, are complex. The problems they have at 10,000 people are not the same problems they face at 1,000,000. Difficulties faced by the developer will not scale linearly. This requires a decision making body that is equipped to respond rapidly and effectively to such problems. Simply put, that body is not government.

One illustration of the difficulty of complex systems is massive multiplayer online games. Some of the more popular online games have millions of players trading with each other. While companies can test the games with thousands, even tens of thousands, of players before release, the dynamics will fundamentally change with millions of players. Often times the initial release is followed by several months of trying to rapidly respond to consumer feedback about the game. For comparison, take the difficulty state governments have had in establishing Obamacare exchanges online. Hawaii spent $205 million dollars developing a website far simpler than most big budget modern games, and it doesn’t even work.

Another example is the refugee crisis in Europe. Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian Billionaire, is actively trying to buy a Greek island to house refugees. The EU, which has the resources, as well as the political clout to create a refugee city on a Greek island is standing on the sidelines.

For another thought experiment, think of a major institution of the US government that can respond quickly and effectively to new problems, the FDA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy? The Department of Homeland Security is the newest cabinet level department created in the US. It’s most visible program, TSA, is widely considered a failure. It was recently revealed that they had a 95% failure rate in a test, failing to detect 67 out of 70 people trying to sneak fake bombs and guns on a plane. Is the political body that created the TSA really going to create an organization capable of building a Charter City, especially as the problem faced by the TSA is far simpler than problems faced by a Charter City. In this sense it is possible for a Charter City to end up a large boondoggle, a new Brasilia built but mismanaged to the point of vastly underperforming expectations.

In a Charter City there is the added problem that the decision making body would not necessarily be close to conditions on the ground. If Denmark, for example, is the Charter Country, would we expect all the Danish workers to move to sub-Saharan Africa? Requiring them to move would likely eliminate many married or elderly workers. If they are not required to move, they will be out of tune with the local conditions.

That being said, there are historical examples of public cities rapidly growing, Shenzhen being the most prominent example. However, these cities had different institutional arrangements than what is likely to arise in a Charter City.

To conclude I’d like to reiterate my main points. Institutionally autonomous cities are currently one of the best ways to improve the lives of the world’s poorest. The two competing visions of institutionally autonomous cities are Charter Cities and private cities. The primary advantage of Charter Cities is low variance and better provision of justice systems. The disadvantage is adaptability. The advantage of private cities is adaptability. The disadvantage is the low floor for the justice systems (though even a low floor would likely be an improvement in many undeveloped countries).

Ultimately, the success of a Charter City or a private city will depend on the organization with decision making authority. It is certainly possible, though unlikely, that business, growth oriented organization can emerge from negotiations between two governments to build a Charter City. Similarly, it is possible that a business with few ethical scruples can take advantage of a country granting institutional autonomy, preying on those who move there. The potential success of either project will depend the governing body, and those of us interested in such a project should do what we can to ensure the process for choosing the governing body is fair, open, and transparent.

Autonomous cities can solve the refugee crisis

The Freeman was kind enough to publish my piece on autonomous cities having the ability to solve the refugee crisis. I try to gently poke those discussing the idea, namely Jason Buzi and his Refugee Nation, and more importantly, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris and his attempt to buy a Greek island, to consider the governance of the city. Most of the discussion has focused on engineering and political difficulties. However, ultimately the success of such a project, namely, not simply being a giant refugee camp but a vibrant city, will depend on the legal system under which the city operates. I make this point more forcefully in the article.

When determining the success of a new country or city, the most important three things are laws, laws, and laws (with location being a distant fourth). Acquiring land, setting up tents, and giving away food and water will only create a giant refugee camp — not a city. To create a sustainable, livable city, where refugees want to move, there must be jobs, and for there to be jobs, there must be enterprise, and for there to be enterprise, the law must encourage it.

In practice what this means is that a refugee city must have economic freedom. Entrants must be free to own property, trade with each other, start businesses, and become productive citizens.

Paul Romer makes a similar point in a recent blog post of his, he writes.

To see what a real solution would look like, you need only remember three things:

1. It takes only a few cities, on very little land, to accommodate tens or hundreds of millions of people.

2. Building cities does not take charity. A city is worth far more than it costs to build.

3. To build a city, do not copy Field of Dreams. (“Build it and they will come.”) Copy Burning Man. (“Let them come, and they will build it.”)

How do we know that cities are worth more than they cost to build? Just look at the value of the land they sit on. Building a city on top converts land that used to be worth very little into land that is extremely valuable. The increase in the value of the land is the sign of the gains that can finance the cost of offering people a government that can create the conditions that offer residents safety, dignity, opportunity, hope.

Creating these conditions does require a local government; even at Burning Man, there is no libertarian free-for-all about where you can set up camp and where the public space will be. The local governing entity determines this before anyone shows up.

Unfortunately he stops short of directly advocating for Charter Cities to be used to stop the refugee crisis, though Alex Tabarrok did tweet at both him and Naguib Sawiris, so if I am feeling optimistic I will assume they are collaborating. I was also pleasantly surprised about his favorable reference to Burning Man, it seems Burner culture has permeated even high academia. Lastly, I feel a need to correct his use of libertarian. Libertarians are not against rules and institutions, they merely favor a specific kind of rules and institutions. Burning Man is libertarian to the extent it is an opt in culture with clearly defined rules that are agreed ex ante by participants.

Overall, I am pleased about the recent and new advocates for refugee cities. It shows the idea of free cities is gaining traction in unrelated circles, perhaps it is an idea whose time has come. That being said, I do hope they take seriously the problems of governance. I fear if they don’t, they risk setting up failure on a massive scale that would both have a high immediate human cost, the refugees, as well as a high future cost by reducing the likelihood of the initiation of similar projects.

One thing I did not discuss in The Freeman piece was the structure of governance. This is a little more difficult than what the laws should actually be (namely British Common Law). Should a refugee city be a democracy, private city, or some hybrid. The question is tricky because democracies have citizens. A refugee city, at least in its early years, wouldn’t have citizens in the same sense America does today, long time residents with a vested interest in the success of the city itself. What would the requirements to vote be, live there for 6 months, 1 year? Who would make the initial investments in a port and other basic public goods, would those investments be recouped, and if so, how?

My bias would be toward a private city, which would solve most of these questions, though in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner. Decision making authority would be clearly delineated, and a person like Naguib Sawiris does seem to have the best intentions of the refugees at heart and enough resources to invest in such a venture. But I doubt he would be willing to spend tens of millions of dollars on such a project as charity. The downside to a private city would be the potential for exploitation of those most in need of refuge. The primary advantage would be a much faster reaction time.

The other alternative would be the EU sponsoring such a city. Raising a few hundred million dollars to stem the refugee crisis would likely not be difficult. Further, they would be in a better position to bargain for economic freedom for the new city. The drawback is such an effort would probably be bogged down by politics and take several years to get off the ground when the worst of the crisis is over.

As usual, I would support both these efforts, though I lean toward the private city. Luckily, there are plenty of refugees for both approaches and the downside is relatively low. Hopefully these attempts can provide some alleviation of suffering and even hope for those who have been forced from their homes by war.

Applying the ten principles of Burning Man

This year, like every year, there is a discussion in burner circles about plug and play camps at Burning Man, camps where rich people pay over ten thousand dollars to have their camp set up, meals prepared, costumes designed, even sometimes a “sherpa” to help guide them around. These plug and play camps go against several of the principles of Burning Man, most notably, radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, and participation. Though I am a second year burner, I have tried to abide by the ten principles. Here is my attempt to clarify what they might mean in practical terms.

Like all rules, there is difficulty in interpreting the principles. Radical inclusion, for example, if taken literally, could mean no private property. This year dozens of people tried to wander into our camp on Friday night (our neighbors were having a big party and we experienced some overflow). Some lovely members of our camp spent the night directing the wanderers to the party next door and out of our camp. This was sometimes met with questioning, “aren’t all camps open?” The perhaps unfortunate answer is no. Most camps pack only enough food and booze for themselves. If there are leftovers to dinner they might share them with passers by, but most campsites are private property of the campers themselves. In this sense we can differentiate between private and public spheres in Burning Man. Public spheres, them camps and art cars should be radically inclusive, limiting people for mainly for safety reasons. Private spaces include sleeping areas, shade areas, and kitchens which are constructed solely for the use of people in the camp. Of course, these private spaces should be welcoming to outsiders, but outsiders should not feel entitled to use them.

More specifically, what constitutes a plug and play camp. Paying a camp mate for buying groceries does not make a plug and play camp. What about paying someone to use their generator, paying someone for a shade structure. Again, these do not seem to define plug and play camps. Simply by the nature of large camps, a small group of people will keep and maintain important playa gear, shade structures, cooking equipment, art cars etc. Paying for the maintenance and storage seems in line with Burning Man principles.

Let us have another scenario. Suppose you do not live within a day’s drive of Black Rock City. However, you have several friends in the Bay area. They camp together every year and are fairly well organized. One year you join their camp. They buy the food and bring it to Black Rock City as usual, as well as bringing shade structures and kitchen supplies, however, you are un-involved in the process except for an email chain simply because you live in a different area. You pay them at cost for the food and the shade structure. This seems to be getting closer to plug and play, but it is not quite there yet. What if you arrive on Tuesday after they have set up the communal shade structures and leave on Sunday before they take them down. How radically self-reliant are you?

I ask these questions, because, like most things, hard lines are difficult to draw. What then, separates someone of modest means of joining a camp of well-organized burners and paying a few hundred bucks for storing, maintaining and bringing the shade structure and kitchen to camp, as well as food and electricity, from a wealthy burner paying ten thousand dollars for something similar? In the above scenario, the only substantive distinction would be the quality of food/shade/alcohol/etc.

Larry Page, for example, attended Burning Man before 2002, far earlier than me. Who am I to judge him if he wants to organize a camp with all his rich friends? He likely contributes a lot more to the art projects than I do.

That being said, there are substantive differences between the plug and play camps and friends getting together and splitting costs. I will outline them below, but I think the primary aspects are, paid employees, wristbands, and setting up your own tent/yurt/etc.

Paid employees at Burning Man clearly go against radical self-reliance in a strong way. I think having a camp cook is a strong dividing line between chipping in when someone buys groceries and a plug and play camp. If Larry Page wants to eat caviar all week, that’s his prerogative, however, he or his friends should prepare it themselves.

Wristbands are another indicator of a pay to play camp. Human experience puts a natural limit on the number of people who can share a space/food with no formal exclusion. For example, my camp this year had 43 people and I had trouble remembering all of them. This seems around the natural limit for a camp which shares a kitchen. Our camp was small enough that we could identify most of our camp mates. On the other hand, wristbands mean that a camp is so big that facial recognition alone isn’t enough. The wristbands then act as a formal method of exclusion of outsiders from the food and drink. While not as clear of a giveaway of a plug and play camp as paid employees, wristbands still suggest something is running counter to the ethos of burning man.

Lastly, setting up your own sleeping structure. It is better if everyone helps set up the whole camp, but that is not always possible. This year there were a limited number of early arrival passes in my camp so the kitchen and the shade were mostly constructed by the time I arrived. However, people should at least set up their own sleeping structure. Of course, they can ask for help, and some people might be unable to do it. However, if you arrive at camp and everyone had their sleeping structure set up by someone else, it might be plug and play.

These are some of my recommendations on how to differentiate plug and play camps from regular camps. I purposefully left them fairly loose. I think radical inclusion means we should welcome everyone except those who repeatedly and intentionally violate the ten principles. In this context that means only defining plug and play camps as an extreme.

The next question is how to deal with these camps. This year, Larry Harvey said he would visit plug and play camps to see how he was received. This seems like a poor idea. I would be somewhat skeptical of a 50 year old man I did no know entering my camp. I would offer him beer, water, or a snack, but try to guide him out, as I would feel obligated to stay with him to ensure he did not take anything. I imagine female campers would be extra cautious for obvious reasons.

As for how to reduce the number of plug and play camps, I would recommend banning those who advertise for paid positions from Burning Man, and perhaps creating a public registry of them for humiliation. Even if they did not publicly advertise for the positions, word would likely escape it would be relatively easy to set up a mechanism for determining whether or not a camp had paid staff.

In conclusion, I am appreciative toward rich people at Burning Man. They allow me to see beautiful art that I would never be able to fund myself. However, they also have created some camps which violate the spirit and the principles of Burning Man. Banning paid employees at Burning Man (of course this excludes essential staff, police, doctors, EMTs, DPW, etc), would help restore some of those principles.

Black Rock Rangers: A case study of private police

One of the primary critiques of private cities is how private police would act. Would police be responsive to powerful interests or would they act in favor of justice and dispute resolution. The Black Rock Rangers at Burning Man offer a glimpse as to how police might act in a private city.

Black Rock City is the name for the temporary city of 70,000 people in the Black Rock desert which houses Burning Man, an art festival, for lack of a better descriptor, for a week. Having recently returned from the event and having had numerous interactions with Rangers I realized they are a model for policing with lessons that can be applied more broadly.

First it is necessary to clarify what the Rangers do. They are closer to security guards than police (Edit Rangers prefer the term “non-confrontational community mediators”). They have no arresting power, in fact, the most power they have is to turn off the sound systems of noisy camps. A full list of their duties is here. In my experience, most of their time is spent helping to mediate disputes between neighboring camps and ensuring intoxicated people get home safely.

There are several reasons why working at Burning Man would be more stressful than other locations. First, many norms of interaction are different at Burning Man than the default world. There is a great deal of nudity, sexual expression (I was camped near the orgy dome), and hugging. As such, boundaries are different from the default world. This is a potentially risky situation as people can overstep boundaries that aren’t clearly established. For example, the numerous “Nudity is not consent” signs around Black Rock City suggest some people come to Burning Man believing that nudity is consent.

Burning Man also has a lot of drug and alcohol use. I would guess that per capita drug and alcohol use at Burning Man is comparable, if not greater, than Mardi Gras in New Orleans or St. Patrick’s day in Boston. The ubiquitous drug use means people are in a strange environment, with unusual rules for interactions, with many of them intoxicated. This could easily be a recipe for a great deal of conflict.

The Rangers are at least partially responsible for ensuring there is a minimal level of conflict.

Comparing the perceptions of the Rangers and police officers at Burning Man shows how, at least in limited circumstances, private police can be more responsive and helpful to community needs than traditional law enforcement.

Law enforcement at Burning Man consists of two groups, officers from the Bureau of Land Management, and officers from nearby towns. The perception of them is similar. They are seen as intruders in the city who primarily try to bust people for using illegal drugs. Visiting popular forums prior to Burning Man there are often guides on how to deal with police and reports on how aggressive they are pulling cars over. In fact, positive interactions with police are so rare than some people post their positive interactions just to counter the prevailing sentiment of negativity towards them.

Rangers, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly viewed in a positive light. During my first interaction with a Ranger, she clarified that she was not a cop and did not care if you were “tripping balls.” She stressed that Rangers were there to help and facilitate, not get people in trouble. Another rather intense interaction involved the leader of a camp and some Rangers. The leader of the camp had been placed next to a very loud sound stage, loud enough to shake the trailers in his camp. At around 3 in the morning the leader was very irate and implied to the Rangers that if they had been doing their jobs correctly they would have shut down the sound camp. The Rangers handled it very professionally, articulating the process by which a sound camp gets shut down. Given that it was loud, early in the morning, and everyone was tired, it is easy to imagine an escalation. However, the exchange ended with a hug and the leader saying he loved Rangers.

Ultimately it is hard to generalize from the Black Rock Rangers. Burning Man is a unique event, the Rangers are all volunteers for example. However, at the very least it shows that private security can be more responsive to local needs and form strong community bonds.

Edit: Former Ranger in the comments below pointed out two things that warrant mentioning. First, Rangers come from the community so they understand and respect community traditions. This is very important in formal policing as well. Second, Rangers do not like to be called security guards. I apologize for that. However, in my defense, like the rest of Burning Man, Rangers are difficult to classify in traditional terms as there are few comparable examples in the default world.