Amid the ravers, art freaks, and dust-covered Earth mothers of Burning Man 2014, one man likely stood out from the rest: Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and all-around conservative icon, who made his first trip to the playa this year.
Norquist remembers the experience fondly in an essay published at The Guardian today. Unsurprisingly he views the festival's famous free-for-all atmosphere as a kind of cosmic libertarian ideal, calling the spectacle "greater than [he] ever imagined":
A community that comes together with a minimum of "rules" demands self-reliance – that everyone clean up after themselves and help thy neighbor. Some day, I want to live 52 weeks a year in a state or city that acts like this. I want to attend a national political convention that advocates the wisdom of Burning Man.
The demand for self-reliance at Burning Man toughens everyone up. There are few fools, and no malingerers. People give of themselves – small gifts like lip balm or tiny flashlights. I brought Cuban cigars. Edgy, but not as exciting as some "gifts" that would have interested the federal authorities.
Norquist elaborated in an interview with New York's Kevin Roose, who also attended. (Roose's account, which opens with a burner asking Norquist if he'd like his taint washed, is worth reading in full.)
But Norquist insists that his ideals aren't incompatible with Burning Man's ethos — that, in fact, Burning Man is a natural place for free-market libertarians. And he's got a point. After all, Black Rock City is largely a lawless setting, and while the festival does have its own infrastructure, including a ranger force and makeshift hospital, its supervision is hardly hands-on. Norquist became famous for suggesting that government be made small enough to be drowned in a bathtub; Burning Man's free-for-all model is about as close to drain-size as it gets.
"Burning Man is a bunch of people who think the government doesn't need to be here," he says. "Nobody told anybody to do this stuff. I mean, talk about Hayekian spontaneous order — this is, like, exhibit A."
A society in which everyone hangs out naked, doing drugs and stuff, helping each other and sharing all their possessions without any meddling government telling them they have to. It does sound nice. But that such an ideal might be a little easier to attain for a week in the desert than it is in real life should be obvious. State-free living works at Burning Man because at Burning Man everyone already has money, and everyone is on vacation. The actual world, with its pesky jobs and poor people, is much more complicated than that, and that's where Norquist's dreaded taxes come in.
More interesting than the small-government schtick is the wide-eyed way in which Norquist takes in the revelers:
Some self-professed "progressives" whined at the thought of my attending what they believed was a ghetto for liberal hippies. Yes, there was a gentleman who skateboarded without elbow or kneepads – or any knickers whatsover. Yes, I rode in cars dressed-up as cats, bees and spiders; I watched trucks carrying pirate ships and 30 dancers. I drank absinthe. But anyone complaining about a Washington wonk like me at Burning Man is not a Burner himself: The first principle of Burning Man is "radical inclusiveness", which pretty much rules out the nobody-here-but-us liberals "gated community" nonsense.
Absinthe! Skateboarders...without any knickers whatsoever! As The Wire points out, he even got his nails painted.
— Grover Norquist (@GroverNorquist) September 2, 2014
Now, however, the nail polish is off, the fantasy is over, and Grover and the rest of the thinkfluencers of Black Rock City are back in DC and New York and San Francisco, waiting for next year.
Um, don’t tell my wife about the nail polish tweet. She made me remove them before I met today w/ Tennesse state legislators. Not sure why.
— Grover Norquist (@GroverNorquist) September 3, 2014